Growing Freelance Economy Creates Financial, Tax Implications

By Lance Wiedower | Special to The Daily News

Gone are the days of the traditional 9-to-5 office setting dominating the white-collar landscape.

In fact, it’s estimated that a third of the U.S. workforce now freelances in some form. In a 2015 report from nonprofit organization Freelancers Union and Upwork, a company that provides platforms for freelancers to find work, it was revealed that 54 million Americans qualify as freelancers.

Of the more than 1,000 American workers surveyed, 60 percent of them said they received 25 percent or more of their income from freelance work.

Call it the gig economy or an on-demand marketplace, the use of contract workers doesn’t seem to be going away. The trend of individuals doing work for a company without being listed as an employee is growing, and with that comes financial implications.

For first-time freelancers, filing that first tax return can be a rude awakening. Full employment status means taxes are taken care of before a paycheck is ever received. But for freelancers, it’s a new world of invoicing and quarterly tax payments.

And for those workers making a go at a full-time freelance career, the realization quickly sets in that they are, in fact, small-business owners.

Matthew Patrick, managing member of Patrick Accounting: “The moment someone pays you to do something for them, you’ve created a business.”

(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

“I don’t think it matters if you have just one or two clients at night, the moment someone pays you to do something for them, you’ve created a business,” said Matthew Patrick, managing member of Patrick Accounting. “The fact your only expenses may be a phone and pencil, that’s the starting point. It doesn’t mean you have to have a separate checkbook but you do have to track what you do.”

As more individuals enter the freelance economy, either as side work or a full-time career, there is a growing need for financial help. The IRS estimates that just more than half of Americans prepare their own tax returns, meaning the financial services industry already has its hands full with tax work.

Freelancers by nature might be more inclined to at least attempt to continue with the task. But as the forms multiple, so does the room for error.

Every client that pays a freelancer $600 or more for services owes a 1099 form. Freelancers who generate more than $400 annually must pay self-employment tax in addition to income tax.

These small-business owners have plenty of tax write-off opportunities, but there are complications. Take a home office space. If a freelancer uses his dining room as an office space, that room can’t be claimed as an office. It’s a dining room.

But if the room is converted into an office and then only used for work he can write off the space.

“Another issue is people they’re working with may be in another state and the person employing them has self-employment taxes to deal with,” Patrick said. “Freelancers need to make sure they have a solid agreement on how they’re getting paid and make sure they’re in compliance with local laws.”

Jim Howell is a freelancer of sorts. He formed his own company, Howell CFO LLC, to provide chief financial officer-type functions to small- and medium-size companies. These small companies are more than individual freelancers, but the same principle applies: They need a CFO, but don’t have enough work to justify hiring someone for the position.

So Howell offers his services for as much as a few days a week or as little as maybe once a month. Much like freelancers, he strings together enough of those clients to make it work financially.

“If I’m the small-business owner selling widgets, the types of things I might need from an outsider is I may need tax help, legal help or HR-type stuff that I don’t need on a full-time basis,” Howell said. “I may need it once a month and can’t afford to hire staff.”

Freelance work often is thought of more for millennials. Howell is 62 and no longer wanted to work the 50 to 60 hours a week he once did. Offering high-level financial services to companies while working no more than 20 or 30 hours a week fits his lifestyle.

“Before if you worked for a company and you didn’t like something about it, you stayed and grin and bear it or find something elsewhere,” Howell said. “Today as a freelancer you pick and choose who you want to work for. If somebody is difficult to work with, you don’t work with them. It’s hard to do when on a payroll.”

But to make it last, freelancers must realize they are small-business owners. Chirag Chauhan is a financial planner with The Barnett Group. Much like businesses in a physical location, he said, freelancers must understand the legal ramifications of operating their own business, which might include the formation of a limited liability corporation.

“You have to determine what is your potential downside on liability,” he said. “How well do you have to insulate yourself? When talking about a doctor’s office, they have a lot of liability. You have to look at your personal situation and determine what you have at risk and how can that affect your personal and family situation.”