From Uber to Dogwalker.com, there are tons of ways to make some money on the side while pursuing your dream job – or just digging out of debt. If you’re hoping to pick up some extra cash with a side gig this year, here’s what you need to keep in mind on the tax side.
1. Income is income. It doesn’t matter if your extra income is from driving a car or trading stocks, income is reportable unless it’s otherwise excluded.
2. Understand the difference between a real business and just a fun way to make money. Income may be income but how and where it’s reported can vary depending on whether you’re engaged in a business or making money with a hobby. Hobbies and businesses are reported on different spots on your federal income tax return (line 21 for hobby income versus Schedule C for business income), and they are treated differently for purposes of self-employment tax (business income is subject to self-employment tax while hobby income is not).
When it comes to deductions, if you earn income in the pursuit of a hobby, you can offset the income with deductions but you cannot claim deductions that exceed your income: if you spend more than you make, you’re out of luck. If, however, you earn income in the pursuit of a business, you can offset the income with deductions, and you can carry losses forward or backward to other years. These are sometimes referred to as the “hobby loss rules,” and they’re important.
To distinguish a real business from a hobby, the IRS looks at a lot of factors including whether you expect to make money (if so, you’re typically a business) as well as whether you are actually making money (again, typically a business)—so how seriously you treat your new pursuit will matter.
3. Keep good records. It may seem like all good fun when you’re renting out your apartment on the weekends, but you want to be able to verify your income and your expenses. The best way to do this is contemporaneously.
If you’re working by the hour, keep a log of your time. Save your invoices and document income: if you can stash it in a separate account, even better. When it comes to expenses, keep receipts and annotate the nature of the expense: you can write this right on the receipt, or use a scanner and upload the image with an explanation). And don’t ditch those receipts immediately after Tax Day: click here to find out how long to hold onto records.
4. You may need to pro-rate some expenses. Typically, you can only deduct expenses primarily for business use. Sometimes, you may have items like your cell phone or your car that are used for business and personal reasons. When it comes to those expenses, all is not lost: you can typically deduct the business portion of the expense. To figure that out, you’ll want to document your use and note when it’s for business. The easiest way to do this is to keep a log of your time and mileage (there are also apps that can help you do this). If at the end of the year, you find, for example, that 40% of the use was for business, then you can typically deduct 40% of the expense. Some exceptions apply (for example, the IRS always considers a primary home landline personal, even if you swear it’s used solely for business). Cars can be tricky: for more tips on the business use of your car, click here.
5. You may need to make estimated payments. The extra few hundred dollars you earn from ads on your blog might not drastically affect your tax bill, but if you’re making a significant amount of money, you’ll want to plan ahead. If you expect to owe more than $1,000 at tax time, you’ll want to make estimated payments. To make estimated payments, you’ll use federal form 1040ES, Estimated Tax for Individuals (downloads as a pdf). Estimated taxes must be paid quarterly: if you skip a payment or pay late, you may be subject to a penalty.
6. Consider hiring a tax pro. If your tax situation becomes more complicated from your side hustle—especially since all of your income will not be reported by your employer on a W-2, you may need help. Don’t hire just on cost. Ask questions. Get a referral and check out local ads (but be on the lookout for these red flags). Sometimes, a side hustle is just that. But if it turns out to be something more, don’t ignore the business side of things. For more on running a small business, check out the Small Business and Startup Survival Guide.