What Is the Self-Employment Tax?

Working for yourself, either as a part-time side hustle or a full-time endeavor, can be very exciting and financially rewarding. But one downside to self-employment is that you're responsible for following special tax rules. Missing tax deadlines or paying the wrong amount can lead to expensive penalties.

Let's talk about what the self-employment or SE tax is and how it compares to payroll taxes for employees. You’ll learn who must pay the SE tax, how to pay it, and tips to stay compliant when you work for yourself.

What is the self-employment (SE) tax?

In addition to federal and applicable state income taxes, everyone must pay Social Security and Medicare taxes. These two social programs provide you with retirement benefits, disability benefits, survivor benefits, and Medicare health insurance benefits.

Many people don’t realize that when you’re a W-2 employee, your employer must pick up the tab for a portion of your taxes. Thanks to the Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA), employers are generally required to withhold Social Security and Medicare taxes from your paycheck and match the tax amounts you owe.

In other words, your employer pays half of your Social Security and Medicare taxes, and you pay the remaining half. Employees pay 100% of federal and state income taxes, which also get withheld from your wages and sent to the government.

When you have your own business, you’re typically responsible for paying the full amount of income taxes, including 100% of your Social Security and Medicare taxes.

But when you have your own business, you’re typically responsible for paying the full amount of income taxes, including 100% of your Social Security and Medicare taxes.

Who must pay the self-employment tax?

All business owners with "pass-through" income must pay the SE tax. That typically includes every business entity except C corporations (or LLCs that elect to get taxed as a corporation).

When you have a C corp or get taxed as a corporation, you work as an employee of your business. You're required to withhold all employment taxes (federal, state, Social Security, and Medicare) from your salary or wages. Other business entities allow income to pass directly to the owner(s), so it gets included in their personal tax returns.

You must pay the SE tax no matter if you call yourself a solopreneur, independent contractor, or freelancer—even if you're already receiving Social Security or Medicare benefits.

You must pay the SE tax no matter if you call yourself a solopreneur, independent contractor, or freelancer—even if you're already receiving Social Security or Medicare benefits.

How much is the self-employment tax?

For 2020, the SE tax rate is 15.3% of earnings from your business. That's a combined Social Security tax rate of 12.4 % and a Medicare tax rate of 2.9%.

For Social Security tax, you pay it on up to a maximum wage base of $137,700. You don't have to pay Social Security tax on any additional income above this threshold. However, this threshold has been increasing and is likely to continue creeping up in future years.

However, for Medicare, there is no wage base. All your income is subject to the 2.9% Medicare tax.

So, if you're self-employed with net income less than $137,700, you'd pay SE tax of 15.3% (12.4% Social Security plus 2.9% Medicare tax), plus ordinary income tax.

Remember that your future Social Security benefits get reduced if you don't claim all of your self-employment income.

What is the additional Medicare tax?

If you have a high income, you must pay an extra tax of 0.9%, known as the additional Medicare tax. This surtax went into effect in 2013 with the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). It applies to wages and self-employment income over these amounts by tax filing status for 2020:

  • Single: $200,000 
  • Married filing jointly: $250,000 
  • Married filing separately: $125,000 
  • Head of household: $200,000 
  • Qualifying widow(er): $200,000

What are estimated taxes?

As I mentioned, when you’re an employee, your employer withholds money for various taxes from your paychecks and sends it to the government on your behalf. This pay-as-you-go system was created to make sure you pay all taxes owed by the end of the year.

You must make quarterly estimated tax payments if you expect to owe at least $1,000 in taxes, including the SE tax.

When you’re self-employed, you also have to keep up with taxes throughout the year. You must make quarterly estimated tax payments if you expect to owe at least $1,000 in taxes, including the SE tax.

Each payment should be one-fourth of the total you expect to owe. Estimated payments are generally due on:

  • April 15 (for the first quarter) 
  • June 15 (for the second quarter) 
  • September 15 (for the third quarter) 
  • January 15 (for the fourth quarter) of the following year

But when the due date falls on a weekend or holiday, it shifts to the next business day. Your state may also require estimated tax payments and may have different deadlines.

How to calculate estimated taxes

Figuring estimated payments can be extremely confusing when you’re self-employed because many entrepreneurs don’t have the faintest idea how much they’ll make from one week to the next, much less how much tax they can expect to pay. Nonetheless, you must make your best guesstimate.

If you earn more than you estimated, you can pay more on any remaining quarterly tax payments. If you earn less, you can reduce them or apply any overpayments to next year’s estimated payments.

If you (or your spouse, if you file taxes jointly) have a W-2 job in addition to self-employment income, you can increase your tax withholding from earnings at your job instead of making estimated payments. To do this, you or your spouse must file an updated Form W-4 with your employer.

The IRS has a Tax Withholding Estimator to help you calculate the right amount to withhold from your pay for your individual or joint taxes.

How to pay estimated taxes

To figure and pay your estimated taxes, use Form 1040-ES, Estimated Tax for Individuals, or Form 1120-W, Estimated Tax for Corporations. These forms contain blank vouchers you can use to mail in your payments, or you can submit funds electronically.

When you have a complicated situation, including having business income, one of your new best friends should be a tax accountant.

For much more information about running a small business successfully, check out my newest book, Money-Smart Solopreneur: A Personal Finance System for Freelancers, Entrepreneurs, and Side-Hustlers. Part four, Understanding Business Taxes, covers everything you need to know to comply and stay out of trouble.

From personal experience, I can tell you that when you have a complicated situation, including having business income, one of your new best friends should be a tax accountant. Find one who listens well and seems to understand the kind of work you're doing.

A good accountant will help you calculate your estimated quarterly taxes, claim tax deductions, and save you money by helping you take advantage of every tax benefit that's allowed when you're self-employed. In Money-Smart Solopreneur, I recommend various software, online services, and apps to help you track expenses, deductions, and tax deadlines that will keep your business running smoothly.

Continue reading

5 Things to Know About the Home Office Tax Deduction and Coronavirus

Since the coronavirus quarantine began, many people have been forced to work from home. If you didn’t have a home office before the pandemic, you might have had a few expenses to set one up. I’ve received several questions about what benefits are allowed for home offices during the COVID-19 crisis.

One question came in on the QDT coronavirus question page. Money Girl reader Ian said:

"I have a question about next year's taxes and working from home. For the past 13 weeks, I have been forced to work from a home office. (I am a regular W-2 employee, not self-employed.) I have had some expenses come up that were brought about by working from home: a computer upgrade so I can better connect to Wi-Fi, a new router, and even a desk chair so I am comfortable while I work. Should I be keeping track of those expenses? Will they be deductible? My employer is not going to reimburse them. Thank you for your help!"

Another question came from Miki, who used my contact page at Lauradadams.com to reach me. She said:

"Hi, Laura, and thank you for a wonderful podcast! I've been listening for years and have always thought that you'd have a show for any question I could ever think of. But this new situation with COVID-19 has made me think of something that I'm sure many of us are dealing with right now.

"To start working from home, I had to spend quite a bit of money to get my home office on par with my actual office. I know you've done episodes on claiming home office expenses on taxes before, but could you do an episode on whether we can claim home office expenses on our taxes next year? And if we can, things we should start thinking about now (aside from saving the receipts)?"

Thanks for your kind words and thoughtful questions! I'll explain who qualifies for a home office tax deduction and serve up some tips for claiming it.

5 things to know about the home office tax deduction during coronavirus

Here's the detail on five things you should know about qualifying for the home office tax deduction in 2020.

1. COVID-19 has not changed the home office tax law

The CARES Act changed many personal finance rules—including specific tax deadlines, retirement distributions, and federal student loan payments—but the home office tax deduction is not one of them. In a previous post and podcast, Your Guide to Claiming a Legit Home Office Tax Deduction, I covered the fact that the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) of 2017 drastically changed who can claim this valuable deduction.

Before the TCJA, you could claim a home office deduction whether you worked for yourself or for an employer either full- or part-time. Unfortunately, W-2 employees can no longer take advantage of this tax benefit. Now, you must have self-employment income to qualify. My guess is that the IRS was concerned that it was too easy to abuse this benefit and reined it in.

Before the TCJA, you could claim a home office deduction whether you worked for yourself or for an employer either full- or part-time. Unfortunately, W-2 employees can no longer take advantage of this tax benefit.

The best option for an employee is to request expense reimbursement from your current or future employer even though they're not obligated to pay you. If you get pushback, make a list of all your home office expenses so it's clear how much you spent on their behalf. They might consider it for your next cost of living raise or bonus.

Unless Miki or Ian have a side business that they started or will start, before the end of 2020, they won't get deductions to help offset their home office setup costs.

 

2. The self-employed can claim a home office tax deduction

Let’s say you use a space in a home that you rent or own for business purposes in 2020. There are two pretty straightforward qualifications to qualify for the home office deduction:

  • Your home office space must be used regularly and exclusively for business
  • Your home office must be the principal place used for business

You could use a spare bedroom or a hallway nook to run your business. You don’t need walls to separate your office, but the space should be distinct—unless you qualify for an exemption, such as running a daycare. It’s permissible to use a separate structure, such as a garage or studio, as your home office if you use it regularly for business.

You must use your home as the primary place you conduct business—even if it’s just for administrative work, such as scheduling and bookkeeping. However, your home doesn’t have to be the only place you work in. For instance, you might work at a coffee shop or meet clients there from time to time and still be eligible for a home office tax deduction.

3. Your business can be full- or part-time to qualify for a home office tax deduction

If you work for yourself in any trade or business, either full- or part-time, and your primary office location is your home, you have a home business. No matter what you call yourself or your business, if you have self-employment income and do any portion of the work at home, you probably have an eligible home office. You might sell goods and services as a small business, freelancer, consultant, independent contractor, or gig worker.

If you work for yourself in any trade or business, either full- or part-time, and your primary office location is your home, you have a home business.

As I previously mentioned, the work you do at home could just be administrative tasks for your business, such as communication, scheduling, invoicing, and recordkeeping. Many types of solopreneurs and trades do most of their work away from home and still qualify for a legitimate home office deduction. These may include gig economy workers, sales reps, and those in the construction industry.

4. You can deduct direct home office expenses for your business

If you run a business from home, your direct home office expenses qualify for a tax deduction. These are costs to set up and maintain your office, such as furnishings, installing a phone line, or painting the walls. These costs are 100% deductible, no matter the size of the office.  

5. You can deduct indirect home office expenses for your business

Additionally, you’ll have costs that are related to your office that affect your entire home. For instance, if you’re a renter, the cost of rent, renters insurance, and utilities are examples of indirect expenses. You’d have these expenses even if you didn’t have a home office.

If you own your home, potential indirect expenses typically include mortgage interest, property taxes, home insurance, utilities, and maintenance. You can't deduct the principal portion of your mortgage payment, which is the amount borrowed for the home. Instead, you’re allowed to recover a part of the cost each year through depreciation deductions, using formulas created by the IRS.

Allowable indirect expenses actually turn some of your personal costs into home office business deductions, which is fantastic! They’re partially deductible based on the size of your office as a percentage of your home—unless you use a simplified calculation, which I’ll cover next.

How to calculate your home office tax deduction

If you qualify for the home office deduction, there are two ways you can calculate it: the standard method or the simplified method.

The standard method requires you to keep good records and calculate the percentage of your home used for business. For example, if your home office is 12 feet by 10 feet, that’s 120 square feet. If your entire home is 1,200 square feet, then diving 120 by 1,200 gives you a home office space that’s 10% of your home.

In this example, 10% of your qualifying expenses could be attributed to business use, and the remaining 90% would be for personal use. If your monthly power bill is $100 and 10% of your home qualifies for business use, you can consider $10 of the bill a business expense.

To claim the standard deduction, use Form 8829, Expenses for Business Use of Your Home, to figure out the expenses you can deduct and then file it with Schedule C, Profit or Loss From Business.

The simplified method doesn’t require you to keep any records, which makes it incredibly easy to claim. You can claim $5 per square foot of your office area, up to a maximum of 300 square feet. So, that caps your deduction at $1,500 (300 square feet x $5) per year.

The simplified method requires you to measure your office space and include it on Schedule C. It works best for small home offices, while the standard approach is better when your office is bigger than 300 square feet. You can choose the method that gives you the largest tax break for any year.

No matter which method you choose to calculate a home office tax deduction, you can't deduct more than your business's net profit. However, you can carry them forward into future tax years.

Also note that business expenses that are unrelated to your home office—such as marketing, equipment, software, office supplies, and business insurance—are fully deductible no matter where you run your business.

If you have any questions about qualifying business expenses, home office expenses, or taxes, consult with a qualified tax accountant to maximize every possible deduction and save money. The cost of working with a trusted financial advisor or tax pro is worth every penny.

Continue reading

3 Tax Scams You Need to Watch Out For

According to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), there was a 400% increase in phishing and malware incidents during the 2016 tax season. And tax scams extend far beyond email and malware to include phone scams, identity theft and more.  While the April 15 filing deadline still feels far away, as Yogi Berra said, “It ain’t… Read More

The post 3 Tax Scams You Need to Watch Out For appeared first on Credit.com.

Continue reading

Should You Pay Down PMI or High-Interest Debt First?

Money Girl listener Danielle M. says:

I’ve been listening to your podcast for about five years now since I graduated from college. I greatly appreciate the tips and guidance you give to the community as a whole. Thank you for giving me the confidence and knowledge to build a solid financial foundation.

I recently purchased a home, which includes a PMI payment. I also have student loans and a small car loan. We have extra money every month to put toward our loans. I understand it’s best to pay down debt in order of the highest interest rate first. I’m wondering how to evaluate my mortgage since the interest rate doesn’t include PMI payments. Should I pay down my mortgage until the PMI is gone, or is it better to focus on my higher-rate student loans first?

Thanks for your great question, Danielle! Understanding where to put your extra money each month is incredibly important. In this post, I’ll explain what PMI is, the rules for eliminating it, and how to know when it should be your top financial priority.

What is Private Mortgage Insurance (PMI)?

If you take out a mortgage to buy a home or refinance an existing home loan, the last thing you want to hear is that you have to pay an additional charge, called private mortgage insurance or PMI. You might feel even worse when you find out that this insurance protects the lender, not you!

Borrowers have to shell out for PMI when they get a conventional mortgage but can’t put at least 20% down. The amount you borrow to buy a home is called the loan-to-value (LTV) ratio. For example, if you borrow $180,000 to buy a home valued at $200,000, you have a 90% LTV ($180,000 / $200,000 = 0.90)

Borrowers have to shell out for PMI when they get a conventional mortgage but can’t put at least 20% down.

When your LTV on a home mortgage is higher than 80%, lenders consider you to be a bigger risk than if you borrowed less. The lender mitigates that risk by requiring you to purchase PMI. The policy would cover a portion of their loss if you didn’t pay your mortgage and foreclosure proceeds don’t cover your outstanding loan balance.

However, there's a bright side to paying PMI. It makes it possible for many borrowers who can’t afford to put 20% down to buy a home. And it can be eliminated at certain LTV thresholds, which we’ll cover.  

What’s the cost of PMI?

The cost of PMI varies depending on many factors. These include the type of mortgage you get, how much you put down, where the property is located, your credit, your loan term, and how lenders structure your PMI fee. In general, there are three ways lenders charge PMI:

  1. Monthly payments – which get added to your monthly mortgage payments. The premium could range from 0.2% to 1.5% of the balance on your loan each year. The annual cost is typically divided into 12 premiums and added to your monthly payments.
     
  2. Lump-sum payment – is a one-time premium that you pay upfront at closing. You may also pay both upfront and monthly premiums.
     
  3. Higher interest rate – a lender may charge a higher interest rate instead of itemizing separate PMI charges.

Monthly payments are the most common way that borrowers pay for PMI. Let’s say you get a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage for $180,000 to buy a home valued at $200,000. With a 90% LTV and good credit, your PMI could cost about $100 per month.

Paying monthly PMI gives you the most transparency about the charge. It gets itemized on your mortgage statement, so you know exactly how much you're paying. And more importantly, you can see when it finally gets eliminated, which we'll cover next.

If your lender offers more than one way to pay PMI, ask for a detailed pricing comparison so you can weigh the pros and cons.

If you make a lump-sum PMI payment, it could turn out to cost more or less than the other options, depending on whether you choose to pay off your mortgage ahead of schedule. If you sell your home after just a few years or pay off your mortgage early, you don't get a return of any PMI premium.

Since mortgage interest is tax-deductible, the option to pay a higher interest rate instead of separate PMI payments could cost less on an after-tax basis. Also, PMI is currently a tax-deductible expense, although there have been periods when it wasn’t. At the end of the year, lenders send out Form 1098, which lists how much PMI and mortgage interest you paid during the year so that you can claim it on your tax return.

However, you can only claim these deductions if you itemize them using Schedule A. When your total itemized deductions are less than the standard deduction for your tax filing status, you'll save money claiming the standard deduction instead.

As you can see, knowing which option is best for paying PMI can be a bit complicated. If your lender offers more than one way to pay it, ask for a detailed pricing comparison so you can weigh the pros and cons and consider which option may cost less.

Rules for eliminating Private Mortgage Insurance

Now that you understand why and how lenders charge PMI, let’s review the rules for getting rid of it. That will help you know how high a priority it should be.

You should receive an annual notice from your mortgage lender that reminds you about your options to have PMI eliminated under certain conditions. Here are the ways you can get rid of monthly PMI payments.

When your mortgage balance reaches 78% of the original value of the property, PMI must automatically be canceled.

Request cancelation. After you pay down your mortgage balance to 80% of the original value of your home, you can ask for PMI to be canceled. Your original value can be either the price you paid for your home or its appraised value when you bought it (or refinanced it), whichever is less.

Your lender will require you to pay for a property appraisal to verify that your home’s value is the same or higher than when you purchased it. The appraisal fee could range from $300 to $1,000, depending on the size and location of your home.

Automatic termination. When your mortgage balance reaches 78% of the original value of the property, PMI must automatically be canceled. In this case, you don’t have to request it or pay for an appraisal.

Midpoint termination. When your mortgage balance reaches its midpoint, PMI must be automatically canceled. For example, if you have a 30-year mortgage, your lender must cancel your PMI after 15 years.

But keep an eye out for situations that might allow you to cancel PMI early, like when your home value appreciates due to market conditions. When your home value goes up, it lowers your LTV. Likewise, if you make additional mortgage payments that reduce your principal loan balance, it lowers your LTV. The faster you get to the 78% threshold, the sooner you can request a PMI cancellation.

Keep an eye out for situations that might allow you to cancel PMI early, like when your home value appreciates due to market conditions.

However, be aware that your lender can deny your request for PMI cancelation in certain situations, such as if you’ve made late payments. You must get current on any outstanding payments to have PMI canceled either as a request or automatically. Also, don’t forget that taking out a home equity loan or line of credit increases your LTV.

When should eliminating PMI be a financial priority?

Now that you understand when you must pay PMI and when you can eliminate it, let’s turn to Danielle’s question. She's considering whether to send extra money to her mortgage and get closer to canceling PMI or if it's better to pay off her student loan or car loan faster.

First, I’d recommend that Danielle zoom out and look at any other top financial priorities. She didn’t mention if she’s regularly contributing to a retirement account or has emergency savings. If she doesn’t have a healthy emergency fund, or she isn’t investing a minimum of 10% to 15% of her gross income for retirement, that’s where her extra money should go first.

We know that Danielle doesn’t have any dangerous debts, such as accounts in collections, credit cards with sky-high interest rates, or expensive payday loans. If she did, those would need attention before addressing any other type of debt. As she mentioned in her question, it’s generally best to pay off debt in order of highest to lowest interest rate.

So, assuming that Danielle’s finances are in good shape, how does paying PMI compare with a student loan and a small auto loan balance? While ongoing PMI payments aren’t an interest expense, you can pretend that they are as a technique for understanding their place in your financial life.

Let’s say you borrowed $180,000 for a $200,000 home, giving you a 90% LTV. As I previously mentioned, you need a 78% LTV to request PMI cancellation. So, you’d have to pay down your mortgage to $156,000 to get there. If you’re at the beginning of a loan term, you’d need to shell out $24,000 ($180,000 – $156,000 = $24,000).

If you were paying $100 a month or $1,200 a year for PMI, you could calculate it as a proxy for annual interest on a $24,000 loan. That comes out to an effective interest rate of 5% ($1,200 / $24,000 = 0.05). That’s an amount you’re paying on top of your mortgage interest rate. So, if your mortgage costs 4% in this example, you’d really be paying more like 9% during the years that you pay PMI.

The benefits of accelerating mortgage payments to get rid of PMI decrease if you’re able to deduct mortgage interest and PMI on your taxes.

However, this is an imperfect calculation because it’s doesn’t account for many factors. These include how much extra you pay toward your principal mortgage balance, how quickly equity builds as you prepay it, and any home appreciation.

Also, the benefits of accelerating mortgage payments to get rid of PMI decrease if you’re able to deduct mortgage interest and PMI on your taxes. A fixed-rate mortgage that costs 4% may only cost you 3% on an after-tax basis, depending on your effective income tax rate.

In general, prepaying a mortgage to eliminate PMI ahead of schedule may not help you as much as paying down other types of debt. Depending on where you live, factors such as real estate appreciation and general inflation are likely to work in your favor, making you eligible for PMI cancellation sooner than you may think.

A super simple way to evaluate the interest rate you’re paying for a mortgage with PMI is to tack on a percentage point or two. For instance, if your pre-tax mortgage rate is 4%, consider it actually costing you 5% to 6% tops. Or if you deduct interest and PMI, don’t factor in the tax implications and just consider the mortgage costing you the same as its stated interest rate, or 4% in my example.

If your other debts cost more than these very rough mortgage interest calculations, I’d be aggressive about getting rid of them first. Again, go in order of highest interest rate to lowest.

However, if you have a small outstanding balance that you just want to wipe out, there’s nothing wrong with that. Even if it costs you slightly less in interest, sometimes it just feels good to get rid of a small debt that’s been weighing you down.

What’s most important is that you understand how much you owe, the interest rates you’re paying, and that you have a plan for eliminating debt. Even if you don’t have extra money to pay off debt ahead of schedule, tacking them in the right order helps you save the most interest so you can eliminate debt as quickly as possible.

Continue reading