The Internal Revenue Service has recently added a page to its Web site for the self-employed. I sure could’ve used that when I was a freelance writer, even though there was no Internet then.
The Self-Employed Individuals Tax Center is billed as a starting point for small businesses and self-employed taxpayers who file Schedule C with their Form 1040. The page provides links to information on common issues, and is “part of the IRS's campaign to help educate new self-employed small-business owners about their federal tax responsibilities.”
If my marshy career is any indication, SEs can use all the help they can get. As I said, there was no Internet in 1988, and an editor and friend named Mitchell launched a campaign to help educate me about my federal tax responsibilities.
“You can deduct up to a third of what you make,” Mitchell said. “Keep receipts for everything. Meals, movies if you write for movie magazines. Every time you get a haircut it’s deductible.” Mitchell edited a couple of community newspapers, and wrote plays about quantum physics.
“This form is the bad guy,” Mitchell then said, holding up a Schedule SE. The simplicity of Schedule SE still makes my salaried, insured, father-of-two blood run cold: Fill in how much you made, multiply it by 15.3 percent, and send the government a check. You can’t get it wrong. In my three years as a freelancer I made $6,000, $18,000, and $8,000, about, before taxes. Living in New York City. It amazed me then, and kind of still does, that anyone made a living self-employed in New York doing anything they’d ever want to tell the government about. Schedule SE somehow didn’t seem fair
“That doesn’t seem fair,” I said.
“It isn’t fair,” Mitchell replied. “But it’s the way it is. Do you have an accountant? You should get one.
They’re you’re last line of defense in case you get audited.”
Eventually I started estimating and I never got audited, but a few years later, while working on the staff of a daily newspaper in upstate New York, the City of New York sent me a tax bill for $5,000, claiming I owed it from when I was a freelancer. My brother laughed when I told him, but nonetheless I called the city (despite a piece of Mitchell’s advice that pointed out that there’s never a written record of a phone call) and told them how much I’d made, and how I’d always paid my city taxes.
“When can we expect payment?” they replied.
So I asked around and found a CPA – the first I’d ever used – who came recommended. I walked into his office and he was on the phone at a desk that offered its own Manhattan skyline of files and papers, and I went to pull out his card and sprayed him and his desk with loose change.
“I’ll have to call you back,” he said into the phone. “Someone’s throwing money at me.”
He looked over the bill. He didn’t laugh, but he did say, “I can get you out of this for considerably less than $5,000.” He did (something like $50, plus his fee, which I was happy to pay), and my view of CPAs changed that day.
As “Self” will probably become the nation’s biggest employer if the Wall Street waterslide continues, get used to steering SE clients to this IRS site. They probably need all the help they can get. Feel free to throw money at them, too.
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