It's not easy making your way in the gig economy. But the new tax law should take out some of the sting.
The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, signed by President Trump in December, aims to deliver cuts almost across the board. However, freelancers -- whether Uber drivers, wedding photographers, or journalists -- get a special perk.
The new benefit, which allows taxpayers to shave their taxable income by roughly one-fifth, applies to so-called "pass-through" (or business) income, starting in 2018. While the pass-through measure was mainly intended to promote hiring and investment by small business owners, the new rules apply broadly to anyone who is their own boss.
There are some catches. For one thing, there are some restrictions for high earners in industries where it's harder to claim they are "job creators." Also, the new law expires in 2025. Although Republicans have said they would like to extend it, that could easily change if Democrats win back Congress -- so the change may not stick around for the long term.
Still, the change could save you thousands in the interim. Here's what you need to know:
The new benefit is designed to apply to "pass-through" business income. That doesn't include dividends and interests if you own investments like stocks and bonds. But it does include partnerships, S corporations, and sole proprietorships -- the default status you assume when you work for yourself.
The new benefit takes the form of a deduction, allowing you lop 20% off the income you report to the IRS. You are eligible even if you take the standard deduction -- which, in another plus for middle-class taxpayers, was doubled to $12,000 from $6,500 for single filers ($24,000 from $13,000 for couples).
Still, not everyone who is self-employed will benefit. To prevent wealthy professionals who aren't likely to do much hiring or investing from getting a hefty tax cut, Congress put in place several restrictions. Perhaps the biggest: The benefit phases out for workers in so-called service fields -- such as healthcare, accounting and the law, among others -- who earn more than $157,500 from all sources ($315,000 for couples).
And workers who may think of themselves as freelancers, moving from gig to gig, yet get paid as an employee through an outsourcing agency will not be eligible.
What do I need to claim the deduction?
Nothing special. Instead of getting a W-2 form from employers, like wage earners, freelancers typically receive a form 1099 from each of their clients. (If you work informally or for cash, you'll have to keep track of it yourself.) Freelancers and business owners report their 1099 income -- as well as expenses for items like travel, rent and supplies -- on Schedule C, which is attached to your Form 1040.
While the IRS has not yet released tax forms for 2018, it's likely the new 20% deduction will be applied as a matter of course when you fill out your Schedule C. As a result, 20% of your freelance or business income simply won't count toward your total taxable income -- that is, the amount that's multiplied by your income tax bracket to figure your tax bill.
How much it will save me?
Of course, this depends on a number of factors -- not least, how much you make. According to a tax calculator created by the Tax Policy Center, a single freelancer with no kids making $50,000 would owe just over $10,200 in federal tax next year, nearly $1,800 less than they would have before the Republican bill. A wage earner with the same profile would also get a tax cut, but a much smaller one -- worth about $1,100.
For high earners, the difference is even more dramatic.
If that same taxpayer earned $500,000 -- and worked outside the service industry, and therefore wasn't subject to the phaseouts -- their total tax bill would come in at just under $140,000, for a savings of more than $36,000 compared against 2017 rules. But a wage earner, or a highly paid freelancer in a service business, such as a lawyer or an accountant, would owe taxes of more than $170,000, reaping savings of less than $4,000 from the new law.
What if I'm not a freelancer?
The good news is, you don't have to be a full-time freelancer to claim the benefit. Even if your main source of income is a steady job with a salary, any extra side income you earn on a freelance basis -- and for which you're not getting a W-2 form -- should be eligible for special tax treatment.
Of course, some wage earners may be tempted to quit their jobs and go freelance, just for the tax savings.
The income limitations for service industry workers are designed to ensure this doesn't happen on a wide-scale basis (as it did in Kansas, when a similar experiment was tried at the state level.)
Still, for anyone below the income threshold, going independent could work in your favor, says Steven Rosenthal, senior fellow at the Tax Policy Center. Nonetheless, he adds, there are also some downsides of working for yourself -- like giving up a 401(k) and healthcare, unless you are on your parents' plan or have a spouse with full health benefits.