One of the benefits of being a freelancer is complete control of your money. Rather than receiving wages from which federal and state taxes have been withheld, you are paid the full amount of the agreed upon fee for your services. The flip side of this is that you are responsible for calculating and paying your own taxes. If you don't routinely set aside a sufficient amount of money to cover federal and state income taxes as well as Social Security and Medicare taxes, you are likely to run into trouble.
Prior Year's Income
As a freelancer, your income can vary substantially from year to year, and even from quarter to quarter. One good starting place to estimate your taxes is to use your prior year's income. If you anticipate your client list will remain more or less the same in the current year, you will probably earn roughly the same amount as you did the prior year. If you intend to put more or less time into marketing and sales in the current year, you can adjust your anticipated income upwards or downwards accordingly. If your income has shown any type of trend over the previous few years, that might also be a good starting place to estimate your income and taxes.
A large chunk of your tax bill as a freelancer can come in the form of federal income tax. The IRS publishes federal tax brackets annually, so you can see what tax bracket you are in based on your estimated income. Federal taxes are graduated, meaning the more income you make the higher the tax rate you pay. For example, as of the date of publication, as a single filer you would pay 10 percent on your first $8,700 of income, and 15 percent on the amount between $8,700 and $35,350. If you earn $30,000, your "marginal tax bracket" -- or the rate of tax you pay on your last dollar earned -- would be 15 percent. In reality, you will probably pay less than that due to deductions and exemptions. However, to build in a cushion you could set aside money for taxes as if you weren't anticipating deductions. You could also use an online tax calculator to estimate your total tax liability based on your estimated earnings.
Self Employment Taxes
"Self-employment tax" is a general description of the Social Security and Medicare taxes that freelancers and other self-employed workers must pay. While traditional employees pay only 50 percent of the Social Security and Medicare taxes due -- with their employers paying the other 50 percent -- as a freelancer you are required to pay 100 percent as you are technically both an employer and an employee. Traditionally, the combined self-employment tax burden has totaled 15.3 percent, comprising a 12.4 percent Social Security tax and a 2.9 percent Medicare tax. You don't have to pay the 2.9 percent Medicare tax on amounts you earn in excess of $106,800. As of 2011, the IRS lowered the Social Security tax to 10.4 percent, resulting in a total self-employment tax of 13.3 percent. You can use IRS Form 1040-ES to help you estimate your self-employment tax.
Nine states have no income tax. If you live in Alaska, Washington, Tennessee, Florida, Texas, Nevada, Wyoming, New Hampshire or South Dakota, all you have to worry about is federal tax and self-employment tax. Other states require you pay additional income tax, with the highest rate as of the date of publication being Hawaii's top bracket of 11 percent. Check with your state tax regulators to find your current state tax brackets.
- IRS: Estimated Taxes
- Forbes: 2012 Federal Income Tax Brackets (IRS Tax Rates)
- IRS: Self-Employment Tax (Social Security and Medicare Taxes)
- IRS: States Without a State Income Tax
- IRS: Form 1040-ES
- CalcXML.com: 2012 Federal Income Tax Estimator
- Federation of Tax Administrators: State Individual Income Taxes
- Comstock/Comstock/Getty Images