Several years ago at a party someone asked me what type of business I was in. “I’m a writer,” I replied. “No, I meant for a real job,” she said. Despite the fact I’ve been a full-time wordsmith for some time and earn a good income from it, her response wasn’t an uncommon one. When you have a career that pays you to have fun, it somehow flies in the face of conventional wisdom – and parental nay saying- that you’re just not treating the concept of “work” seriously enough.
Unfortunately, I’ve encountered a number of aspiring writers, artists and musicians that are apologists for their own talent, boxing themselves into the category of hobbyists on the argument that they haven’t been discovered yet. To support themselves until that day arrives, the salary they draw from being employed by someone else often becomes the excuse to avoid thinking about how they’re going to be their own boss.
This is a self-defeating mindset on several levels, the most important being that if you’re not treating your creative endeavors as both a brand and a business right now and spending the time and money to be successful, no one else will invest in your dream, either.
Even if your passion is currently in the part-time/evening/weekend stage:
- Do you have a well defined marketing plan?
- Do you have a presence on social media?
- Do you hold regular staff meetings with yourself?
- Do you set weekly goals?
- Are you willing to cut poorly performing divisions (i.e., low-paying markets)
- Do you research what your competition is doing?
- Do you really know who your audience is?
- Are you staying abreast of current trends and technology?
- Do you constantly look for ways to repurpose/reinvent/recycle past projects into exciting new ones?
- Do you reward yourself when your one-person team does well?
Creative types are also the least likely to pay attention to what they have to pay in taxes or what types of business expenses are allowable as deductions.
Herein are six tips to lessen the pain of tax season (and possibly avoid an audit):
- Even if you haven’t made the transition to a full-time creative (and your relatives still refer to this quest as your “little hobby”), it’s critical to treat your craft like the professional enterprise it is. If you don’t have one already, there should be a designated “home office” space in which you can perform, uninterrupted, the principal tasks relevant to your biz. If this space is used exclusively and regularly for that purpose, you may be able to claim a tax deduction for costs associated with its maintenance (including utilities and repairs). Note: If your art/music/writing really is a hobby, the deductions you claim can’t exceed the total amount you have earned.
- When you work for someone else, a lot of deductions come out of your paycheck before you ever see it – the largest of these typically being state and federal income tax. If you’re a freelancer, the responsibility to estimate these amounts is up to you. For every check you receive, set aside approximately 25 percent of it so you won’t be caught short when annual taxes are due. If you’re bringing in large sums of freelance money on a regular basis – as opposed to occasional dribs and drabs – you’ll need to make estimated tax payments every quarter.
- Familiarize yourself with what’s a legitimate business expense and what’s not. If, for instance, you’re writing a biography about Beethoven, you’re likely to show up on a tax auditor’s radar if you went out and bought yourself a grand piano for $100,000 to just sit in your living room and inspire you. On the other hand, a $2 pair of earplugs so you can immerse yourself in Ludwig’s world of silence would qualify as a research tool. Other deductible expenses include resource materials (books, periodicals, tapes), office equipment and supplies, business insurance and licenses, membership fees, conferences and subscriptions, telecommunications, photocopying and postage, and marketing. Travel, meals and entertainment may also be deductible if there’s a verifiable correlation to your business.
- Keep detailed records and receipts for everything you plan to claim as a business-related expense. And no, we don’t recommend throwing everything into a shoebox. Set up an Excel file or purchase an accounting software program to judiciously log every money transaction that comes in or goes out. Create a back-up file and store it somewhere other than where you keep the original.
- Don’t toss your rejection letters. Yes, yes, we know they’re painful reminders that someone didn’t like your work and you’d just as soon rid yourself of the evidence. When you’re just starting out, however, this paper (or email) trail of correspondence serves as proof that you have actually been trying to hone your craft. Otherwise, that pricey new computer you’re claiming as a business expense could raise suspicions that you’re only using it for games and watching cat videos on YouTube. Keep in mind that you have to be earning something from this creative endeavor and that it has to be more than what you’re trying to claim on deductions.
- Hire a professional who is well versed in the tax laws and filing requirements specific to freelancers home-based small businesses. Even if you’re as savvy with numbers as you are with words, tax preparation can be stressful. (And really now, shouldn’t you be putting your brain to better use thinking of a plot for your next book or the subject of your next painting?) If you do try to go it alone, second-guessing what’s allowable, what isn’t and which form to fill out could get you in trouble. FAQs can be found on your country’s tax authority website along with a help line to speak with an expert.
Here’s the line-up of this month’s guest bloggers:
Can Introverts Excel at Publicity? – by Marcia Yudkin
Level the Playing Field Using Sponsored Content – by Roger Wu
The Anatomy of a Killer Facebook Ad – by Jasmine Batra