Calculating income taxes is a royal pain, even when your situation is uncomplicated enough that you can file a 1040EZ Form. And if you’re self-employed, be prepared for extra layers of complexity. Not only must you file an annual return with numerous additional forms and schedules, you’re also responsible for paying quarterly estimated taxes, which can mean having to write a pretty hefty check while waiting for your clients to pay their overdue bills.
Add in that you’re also responsible for funding your own health insurance and retirement and you may start to miss having an employer manage a portion of your financial affairs, although many people go into business for themselves precisely to call their own shots.
This year, there’s some potentially good news for taxpayers who claim a home office deduction: You now may choose between the traditional method of calculating the business use of your home — which involves numerous calculations, filling out the onerous IRS Form 8829 and maintaining back-up records for years — and a new simplified option.
Under the new, so-called “safe harbor” method, you can simply claim a standard deduction of $5 per square foot for the portion of your home used regularly and exclusively for business, up to a maximum of 300 square feet — a $1,500 limit.
Contrast that with the traditional method where you must calculate actual expenses of your home office expressed as a percentage of the square footage your home office consumes. For example, if your office takes up 12 percent of your house, you can deduct 12 percent of your electricity bill.
You can choose either method from year to year; however, once you’ve elected a method for a given tax year it’s irrevocable. Under the safe-harbor method you cannot depreciate the portion of your home used for business in that particular year.
With the new method you can still claim allowable mortgage interest, real estate taxes and insurance losses as itemized deductions on Schedule A. These deductions don’t have to be allocated between personal and business use, as under the traditional method.
You’ll need to weigh whether the recordkeeping hours you save justify the potentially smaller deduction — especially if you have a large home office or considerable deductions. Suggestion: Look at last year’s deduction and compare what it would have been using the $5 per square foot calculation, factoring in time spent doing the math.
A few other self-employment tax-filing considerations:
In addition to the home office deduction, you generally can deduct many other business-related expenses, including: legal and accounting fees; professional dues and subscriptions; business insurance and licenses; professional training and education; professional equipment and software; maintenance/repairs; and business-related mileage, travel and entertainment.
You can also deduct the full cost of medical, dental, vision and long-term care insurance premiums for you, your spouse and dependents, even if you don’t itemize deductions.
For more details on business expenses and deductions, see IRS Publication 535 at irs.gov). Also visit the IRS’ Self-Employed Individuals Tax Center.
Bottom line: Income taxes are often more complicated for self-employed people and good recordkeeping is essential. Unless you’re an accounting whiz, consider hiring a tax professional or financial planner who specializes in self-employment issues. The penalties and fees they can help you avoid — and hidden deductions they can uncover — will probably more than pay for their fees.
Jason Alderman directs Visa’s financial education programs.