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It’s hard enough to save money for your own financial goals, let alone for taxes. But anyone who’s been on the self-employment merry-go-round will tell you that planning for your tax bill is essential.
As a rule of thumb, I usually recommend self-employed people save 20-30% of their earnings for Uncle Sam. This is about how much it takes to cover income and self-employment taxes.
The short answer: yes. The long answer: not really, but it feels like it. Self-employed people have to pay more in Social Security and Medicare taxes, but they’re also allowed to claim business write-offs which more than makes up for it. The lack of tax withholding, though, will make your tax bill seem really high.
You can read more about this unique tax situation below, or just skip ahead to learn what taxes to budget for.
Technically, self-employed people pay slightly more in Social Security and Medicare taxes than traditional W-2 workers. This is because they have to pay the employer portion of the tax in addition to their own. The extra burden adds to their overall tax rate by 7.65% — no small amount.
On the flip side, self-employed individuals have a number of tax-saving options that aren’t available to W-2 workers. Namely, business write-offs.
When those are factored in, self-employed taxpayers often pay less overall than their W-2 counterparts. (The problem is, not enough self-employed people know how to take advantage of these write-offs. But more on that later!)
If you’re a freelancer, gig worker, small business owner, or independent contractor, your taxes will feel higher because of the sticker shock. Traditional W-2 workers have their Social Security, Medicare, and income taxes withheld from their paychecks throughout the year. When it’s time to file, most, if not all of their tax has already been paid, and they’ll often get a nice refund from the IRS.
Self-employed workers, on the other hand, do not have an employer to withhold taxes on their behalf. Many are shocked when they file their taxes and realize how much they owe.
If all you’ve known is the W-2 life, it might feel like you’re paying more in taxes. But the reality is, you’re just paying it all at once.
There are two types of tax that self-employed people generally have to pay when they file their taxes: income and self-employment tax.
Almost every type of income is subject to income tax. This includes things like:
Most self-employed individuals end up in the 10-22% income tax range, with most people having an average (or “effective”) tax rate of around 14%. (You can read more about how these tax ranges work by heading over to our income tax calculator.)
Why you shouldn’t use your effective tax rate to budget
You might be wondering how your effective tax rate squares with the results on our calculator above, which shows a much smaller percentage for federal income taxes.
The short answer: it’s because the calculator only shows the amount of money you’ll actually pay at tax time, after accounting for things like your standard deduction. To explain, let’s walk through an example. Imagine you have $48,000 of self-employment income. Your top income tax rate is 22%. The calculator gives you this result:
The percentage shown here isn’t meant to reflect your actual tax rate. Rather, it shows what percentage of income you’ll have to set aside to account for income taxes at tax time.
The tax breaks that will lower your income taxes
Here’s why the two rates don’t match up: you won’t get taxed on the full $48,000 of income. A few things are subtracted before landing on your “taxable income.” Namely:
Once you remove these amounts, your taxable income will be around $22,000. Your new top tax rate is 12%.
If you set aside around 5% of your gross income ($48,000), that should be enough to cover your income tax liability. Though, of course, your tax burden doesn’t end there.
Tax filing for freelancers and side hustlersGet started→
Self-employment tax goes to two separate government programs: Social Security and Medicare. All working people pay into these funds. For W-2 individuals, these taxes are known as “FICA taxes.” (They’re automatically deducted by their employer from their paychecks — more on that later!)
For everyone else, these taxes are collectively called “self-employment taxes,” and they have a combined rate of 15.3%. Unlike income tax, self-employment taxes only get applied to your business income. Meaning, income that’s reported on a form 1099. You can read more about how this tax works in our beginner’s guide to self-employment tax.
Why not all business income is subject to self-employment tax
Only your net business income is actually subject to self-employment tax. “Net business income” means your earnings minus any business write-offs you might have. This could be anything from inventory you buy for your business to your cell phone bill.
The IRS lets you subtract all of those costs from your self-employment income and will only tax you on the remainder. This is why business write-offs are so important! It’s the most effective way to lower your tax bill.
To get the most accurate tax projection, use your net monthly self employment income in the calculator above. If you use your gross income, you risk overpaying in taxes.
How to find write-offs with Keeper Tax
Not sure what write-offs you can count? Give Keeper Tax a try. Our mission is to help self-employed workers find and claim all of their business write-offs.
Our app connects to your bank and credit card accounts and scans for every eligible business expense, based on what you do for work. From there, the deductions can be easily imported into our tax filing system (or exported for your tax preparer if you don’t want to do your own business taxes).
The United States operates on a “pay-as-you-go” tax system. Meaning, taxes are due when the money is earned, not when your tax return is filed.
If you expect to owe more than $1,000 in taxes, you should probably be making estimated tax payments. Not making payments throughout the year could result in penalties and interest when you finally file your tax return.
But making periodic tax payments is easier said than done. Between rent, groceries, and the occasional Starbucks latte, there never seems to be money leftover.
If you relate to that, you’ve come to the right place. We’ve compiled some tried and true methods to effectively manage yourself — and some common financial pitfalls to avoid.
In many cases, self-employed individuals start their careers working W-2 jobs. They know what a competitive hourly rate is in that context, but when they strike out on their own, they often feel lost.
What frequently happens: they forget to factor in things like taxes and end up undercharging.
If you’re looking for a sign to increase your fees, here it is. Your billing should always be marked up to cover self-employment taxes. So the next time you send out an invoice, make sure you’re not underselling yourself.
Many people are surprised to learn this, but just because your estimated taxes are due quarterly doesn’t mean they have to be paid on the due date. You can make estimated payments as often as you need to to say on top of things.
Some people prefer making monthly or biweekly payments, so that they don’t have to sit on their tax money for too long. A more regular payment schedule also helps keep the process fresh —you won’t have to relearn it every four months.
Much like the gym membership you signed up for and forgot about, setting up auto transfers is a sneaky way to steal money from yourself.
Most banks will let you automatically move funds from one account to another. By using this approach, you can save for your tax bill without having to think about it.
Sometimes, even your savings account is too accessible. After all, transferring funds back and forth takes a mere click of a button.
Try setting up an account at a separate bank — not the one you go to normally. That can add another layer of difficulty in accessing the funds.
If you use another bank just for taxes, resist the temptation to download the mobile app. It’s convenient to be able to view all your balances on your phone, but it also increases the likelihood that you’ll dip into those funds.
The best approach here: Keep it out of sight and out of mind until it’s time to make your tax payments.
The goal with all of these strategies is to limit your access to your tax money. To that end, it’s best to not even activate the new debit card or store it in your wallet.
Think of it this way: The second the money gets transferred into your tax account, it no longer belongs to you, it belongs to Uncle Sam. Cutting off access points will remove the temptation to spend what’s not yours.
Similarly, avoid connecting your new account to your regular payment apps like Apple Pay, Venmo, or PayPal. Not only does that make the funds more accessible, it also increases the likelihood that you’ll use them by mistake.
Some of you probably read these suggestions and thought, “That seems like overkill.” And honestly, I happen to agree. But sometimes overkill is exactly what the doctor ordered.
The fact is, we live in a spend economy. Everywhere we look, we’re being bombarded by ads and promotions, whether we’re browsing TikTok or just walking down the street.It’s not easy to admit it, but, the truth is, most of us need some hand-holding when it comes to budgeting.
In my experience, the business owners who do the best are the ones who learn to protect themselves… from themselves.