Every teenager who gets their first paycheck remembers the feeling when they realized that all their hard-earned money doesn’t appear in their bank account.
The federal government takes a cut for taxes, and so do most states. Sometimes, even local taxes get subtracted.
Then there is FICA, also known as Social Security and Medicare. As an employee, you might get to choose some extra pretax deductions for retirement, health insurance and other items.
You get used to the idea that the funds that end up in your bank account is smaller than your annual salary divided by 12 (or 26 or 52, depending on how often you get paid). But, if you’ve decided to take the plunge into freelance work, or even if you’re just dipping your toe in the shallow end, you may be surprised when you see a check with nothing at all taken out.
Getting paid everything up front can be great! You have your money in the bank. But’s it’s also something to be careful of.
The IRS still wants its cut, and if you’ve spent it already, you’ll be up a creek when tax time rolls around.
Let’s talk a little freelance money management.
Open a business bank account, and when you get paid, deposit that check into it. This helps with record-keeping, because you can see all your income in one place, completely separate from your personal account.
Next, transfer 70 percent or less from there into your personal account. If you’re pulling in more than $10,000 per month, good for you! But it also means you should transfer 60 percent or less to your personal account.
You’re going to owe about 15 percent of what you earn as self-employment tax. That’s Medicare and Social Security, but as an employee you only pay half that (about 7.5%) and your employer pays the other half. As a free agent, you get to pay both. Lucky you!
On top of that 15 percent, you will owe some amount of federal and state income tax unless you live in one of seven states with no income tax (Alaska, Florida, Nevada, South Dakota, Texas, Washington and Wyoming, in case you were wondering). This typically runs you another 5 percent for state taxes, and anywhere from nothing to a whole lot — depending on how much you earn — for federal taxes.
One thing to remember is that you pay taxes on net income, not gross income. If you’re consulting, or doing any kind of work that involves little or no expenses, you’re better off estimating based on gross, and then being pleasantly surprised that you’ve estimated more than you needed to pay.
But, if your work involves high costs, you can factor these in. This is another reason having a business bank account is important. Pay those business expenses out of that account, and leave a higher percentage of each check in so you can see all your business revenue and costs in one place.
Taxes get paid on a quarterly basis. For 2019, these dates are April 15, June 17, September 16 and January 15.
As a general rule of thumb, putting aside 30 percent of every check you receive should give you enough in the bank to pay your taxes, as long as you make under $100,000 annually. If you’re making more than that, it’s a good idea to visit a CPA to get a more specific estimate.
Some people love surprises, but there’s nothing fun about being surprised that you owe taxes when you’ve already spent all the money you’ve earned.