Preparing to File Taxes as a Freelancer

By Timothy Moore · February 14, 2024 · 10 minute read

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Preparing to File Taxes as a Freelancer

For some people, freelancing is the way they earn their living, relishing the freedom and flexibility of this type of work. For others, it’s a smart way to bring in some income in addition to a salary. Regardless of whether you’re managing your freelance business as a full-time endeavor or a side hustle, one fact is true: You’ve got to pay taxes on your earnings.

In this guide, you’ll learn about the steps to take in your situation, including:

•   How do you pay taxes as a freelancer?

•   Why are freelance taxes higher?

•   What are some ways to reduce taxable income?

•   What deductions should freelancers take?

•   What should freelancers know about tax refunds?

How Taxes for Freelancers Are Different

The first thing to note is that taxes for freelancers are notably different in two major ways: Freelancers pay a larger percentage of their income (because of self-employment tax), and they’ve got to make estimated tax payments every quarter.

What Is Self-Employment Tax?

For the 2023 tax year, self-employment tax is 15.3%. That’s 12.4% for Social Security and 2.9% for Medicare.

That doesn’t mean that’s all that freelancers pay. Self-employment tax is what freelancers pay on top of regular income taxes. The percentage you pay in income taxes depends on what tax bracket you’re in but can range from 10% to 37%.

Why do freelancers pay a self-employment tax? When you’re an employee for a business who receives a W-2 form, your company pays some taxes for you.

But if you’re a freelancer — whether a writer, photographer, dog walker, or consultant — your clients don’t pay any taxes for you, so you’ve got to pick up the slack.

And don’t forget: You may also have to pay state and local taxes, depending on where you live.

What Are Quarterly Taxes?

Most people think of April 15 as the dreaded Tax Day for all Americans, when they have to pay their taxes. But taxes aren’t actually due on April 15: They’re due when you earn the money.

That’s why employers withhold taxes from every paycheck. Tax season is just that special time where the IRS wants you to go over the numbers and make sure the right amount was withheld — and pay up if you actually owe more. (Or, if you overpaid, file your return to claim a refund.)

But since taxes aren’t withheld when freelancers earn revenue from clients, the government expects freelancers to make quarterly tax payments throughout the year.

Freelancers have two options:

1.    Pay 100% of the taxes they owed the prior year, split over four payments.

2.    Pay 90% of the taxes they’ll owe for the current year, split over four payments.

Note that these percentages may be different if you’re a farmer, fisherman, or high-income earner.

Estimated taxes are among the most complicated parts of being a freelancer, and you can face underpayment penalties if you don’t send Uncle Sam your fair share throughout the years.

You can check out the IRS’s guidelines for estimated taxes , but a tax professional may be worth the cost if you’re confused.

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Paying Taxes as a Freelancer

Now that you understand that freelancers must pay more in taxes and that they need to keep track of more tax deadlines, consider the actual process for freelancer tax filing.

Here’s how to pay freelance taxes in five steps.

1. Determine If You Have to Pay Freelancer Income Tax

First and foremost, it’s a good idea to make sure you actually have to pay freelancer taxes. If you fit the bill of the IRS’s definition of an independent contractor, you’ll have to file as a freelancer and will be subject to self-employment taxes.

The IRS says you’re an independent contractor “if the payer has the right to control or direct only the result of the work and not what will be done and how it will be done.”

It’s a rather broad designation and might fit traditional freelance gigs like writers and graphic designers, but it can also apply to app-based workers, like drivers for Uber and Lyft, and even doctors, lawyers, and veterinarians.

Even if you receive a W-2 from an employer but made other revenue on the side, you’re still subject to freelancer income taxes — and must make estimated payments on that income.

2. Calculate How Much You Earned

As a freelancer, you may receive 1099-NECs from clients for the work you do, detailing just how much money you made from them (as long as you made $600 or more).

Even if you don’t receive a 1099, you still have to report any income you made on your tax return. This means paying taxes if you are paid on Venmo or another platform versus by check or a direct deposit.

If you don’t declare the income, you’re committing tax fraud — and the IRS can find out during an audit.

You may want to use a tax preparation checklist to help you organize these materials. You might start by compiling all your 1099-NECs and any other income forms, including 1099-INTs, 1099-Ks, 1099-MISCs, and W-2s, and then input them on your tax return or into your tax software. If you have additional income not represented by any forms, you’ll be able to report that as well.

3. Compile Your Business Expenses

As a freelancer, you can deduct genuine business expenses from your taxable income. The more expenses you have, the lower your adjusted gross income — and the less you have to pay in taxes.

These are called tax deductions. Many tax filers choose to take the standard deduction: $13,850 for single people or married individuals filing separately and $27,700 for married couples filing jointly. However, freelancers with a lot of business expenses might earn a larger deduction by itemizing all their business expense deductions.

Common Tax Deductions for Freelancers

Business expenses can vary significantly depending on the kind of work you do, but you may be able to to use some of these freelancer tax deductions, like:

•   A portion of your rent or mortgage (your home office deduction)

•   Phone and internet bills

•   Any computer and software expenses

•   Automotive expenses, including miles on your car when used for business (and only for business)

•   Office supplies

•   Travel expenses

•   Marketing and advertising expenses

•   Continuing education

Freelancers may also be able to take the qualified business income deduction and self-employment tax deduction.

Other Tax Deductions and Tax Credits

Business expenses may apply to freelancers specifically, but independent contractors can take advantage of other common tax deductions and credits.

Other common tax deductions include mortgage interest payments, charitable contributions, student loan interest payments, and the state and local tax deduction.

Tax credits are also a useful tax tool and can greatly reduce your tax bill as a freelancer. Some popular tax credits include the child tax credit, Earned Income Tax Credit, and electric vehicle tax credit.

Recommended: Fastest Ways to Get Your Tax Refund

4. Account for Estimated Payments

If you made estimated tax payments the previous year, don’t forget to apply those to your tax form when filing. After all, if you’ve handed over a chunk of change to the IRS already, you’ll want credit for it.

You’ll add your total payments to line 26 on Form 1040 if filling out the form yourself, but most tax software and accountants should prompt you for this information.

5. File and Calculate Estimated Payments

The last step in how to pay freelance taxes: You’re now ready to complete your forms, and send in your tax return and any payments that you owe. And it’s not necessarily just federal taxes that are needed for freelancer tax filing: Depending on where you live, you may owe state, local, and school district income taxes as well.

After filing, surprise: You’re not done yet. You’ll also need to estimate taxes for the current year. Your first quarterly payment is due on Tax Day in April.

If you’re working with an accountant, they can help you calculate how much you’ll likely owe and print out vouchers for you to mail in with your payments. If you wind up making significantly more or less throughout the year, you can adjust your estimated payments to match. That’s part of learning how to budget on a fluctuating income.

Freelancer Tax-Filing Tips

Freelancing and taxes can seem complicated. Here are tips to help you save money and hit all your deadlines.

Plan for Retirement as a Freelancer

Reducing your taxable income is helpful when you have to pay significantly more in taxes on your earnings. One way to do this — and prepare for your future — is to open a retirement account and make pre-tax contributions.

You can contribute to a traditional IRA, but there are also retirement plans designed for self-employed individuals, including a SEP IRA and a solo 401(k). It’s worth educating yourself about how these work and contribution limits so you can find the best option for your financial situation and aspirations.

Research Deductions

You may be tempted to take the standard deduction when filing, but if you have a lot of business expenses, you may earn a larger tax break by itemizing. Tax software and accountants generally know all the different types of taxes and guidelines. They can help you find all the tax deductions you qualify for, but it never hurts to do some research on your own.

Stay Organized

Organization is crucial when running your own business — and that holds true at tax time. By organizing your bills and tracking your income throughout the year (even on a daily basis), you should have good records of all your revenue and expenses.

Find record- and receipt-keeping systems that work for you. You may also want to set calendar reminders so you never miss a quarterly tax payment deadline.

Work with a Tax Professional

Freelancer income taxes can be challenging and confusing. If you’re overwhelmed and worried about making a mistake, it may be worth the money to hire an accountant or tax preparer.

Plus, the tax-filing fee may count as a deductible business expense for next year.

Understand Tax Refunds for Freelancers

Know that it is unlikely that you’ll get a tax refund as a freelancer. What often triggers a tax refund is that a full-time employee had too much money withheld for taxes from each paycheck and their overpayment comes back to them. (They can adjust their W-4 employee withholding tax form to avoid this situation in the future.)

But as a freelancer, it is unlikely you are overpaying your taxes, especially if you are tracking your income and paying the appropriate amount of quarterly taxes.

Recommended: Maximizing Your Time and Money

The Takeaway

Taxes can get more complicated if you’re a freelancer. You likely will pay more in taxes (thanks to the self-employment tax), and you’ll probably need to make quarterly estimated payments. It’s wise to regularly track and review your earnings and expenses so you can stay on top of how you are doing. For many freelancers, working with a tax professional is the best path forward.

Also worth noting: As a freelancer, you need several tools to stay organized and run your business, including a bank account.

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Why is freelance tax so high?

Freelance taxes are higher because they include self-employment tax. This additional 15.3% is what employers traditionally pay on behalf of their employees. In the case of freelancers, they’re both the employer and the employee so they have to cover that amount.

Do I need to declare freelance income?

Yes, you must declare all freelance income. Even if you didn’t make enough to trigger a 1099 from a client — or that client forgot to send you a 1099 — you must report any and all income to the IRS.

What happens if you don’t file freelance taxes?

If you don’t make quarterly tax payments as a freelancer, you could be subject to underpayment penalties when you go to file. If you don’t pay at all, you’ll be subject to Failure to File and Failure to Pay penalties. You’ll owe interest on top of the fines — and eventually could face jail time if you don’t pay.

Can freelancers pay taxes annually?

While freelancers must file taxes annually like everybody else, they are usually required to make quarterly estimated taxes since no taxes are being withheld from their payments throughout the year.

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