Freelance Writers Have to Pay Quarterly Estimated Taxes

Freelance writing can be very stressful. Some months new clients are beating down your door (well, email account). The next month, you’re scrambling to write grocery lists for a little bit of cash. It all comes and goes so fast and it’s tough to maintain a monthly rhythm.

Which is why when quarterly estimated taxes come along many freelancer writers just wave their hands in dismay and say they’ll handle it later. After all, with all that other nonsense going on – marketing, negotiating rates, and oh yeah, writing – how are you supposed to deal with things like taxes?

But ignoring quarterly estimated taxes (QETs) can be very costly when April rolls around. Since you haven’t been paying anything in income taxes up until that point, you’ll get hit with them all at once. Worse, there are often IRS penalties attached to skipping out on your quarterly tax payments, so get ready to shell out!

What are you talking about?

Let’s back up a minute. If you’re new to freelance writing you may not even know what these “quarterly estimated taxes” are, much less what to do about them.

The United States income tax is what’s known as a “pay as you go tax.” This means you’re supposed to pay your taxes throughout the year rather than all in one big chunk at the end. When you work at, say, an office job as a W-2 employee, taxes are automatically taken out of your paycheck each period. So you get what’s left of your paycheck and go on with your life. However, when you’re a freelancer writer (or any type of self-employed person earning your own income), tax money isn’t automatically taken out. It’s up to YOU to pay it in.

The way you do that is to send a payment to the IRS every quarter. Those are your QETs. They are an estimate of how much you owe to Uncle Sam based on how much money you made (among a few other things). One such payment – quarter 2 of 2012 - is coming up on June 15th, so make sure you get that one in on time! The other payments are due September 17th, January 15th of 2013, then next year’s first quarter payment is April 15, 2013.

What do I do?

So you’re a writer and you don’t want to deal with math. That’s fine, we understand – so right out of the gate we’ll tell you that offers a handy quarterly estimated taxes estimate. Import your bank accounts, PayPal, and credit cards into your free Outright account, then head over to the Taxes tab to check out what you owe. (Keep in mind we can’t predict your tax credits – such as childcare or the earned income credit – so our estimate will err on the side of paying more and keeping you out of trouble with the IRS.)

Rather do it yourself? This can be a little tricky, but it’s doable. Have you ever filled out a tax form harder than a 1040EZ? Then you already have a solid idea what to do. Basically, you need to calculate all of your income and expenses so you have a good handle on exactly how much profit you’ve made this year. On that note, make sure you keep accurate records of all your receipts, bills, invoices, and other money coming in and out!

Alternatively, since freelance writing can be a feast or famine business, it may be a good idea to start from your 2011 tax return. Have a look at how much you owed in taxes for the year. If you pay in at least 90% of that amount in quarterly estimated taxes throughout this year, you’re safe from penalties. On the other hand, if you already know that this year is going to be much more profitable than last year, this might come back and bite you in April – when the remainder of any taxes owed (minus quarterly estimated taxes you’ve already paid in) come due.

For the budget minded freelancer, trying to save and pay up about a quarter of what you guesstimate you will end up owing in taxes for the entire year is the way to go to save yourself from a tax surprise in April.

Filing Quarterly Estimated Taxes

After you’ve figured out how much you owe, Google up a copy of 1040ES, the tax form specifically made for QETs, then send the completed form to your nearest IRS tax office. If you’d rather do it online, head over to the IRS’ payment system. One of the benefits of using this system is you can set it up to make automatic payments in the future, making your job and life much easier so you can get back to what you should be doing – running your freelance writing business!

And finally, if you are freelancing alongside a W-2 position, you may not have to worry about quarterly estimated taxes at all! The income tax your employer takes out of your check may very well cover your QETs. So if you have any questions at all about QETs, it’s a good idea to consult with an accountant or other financial professional.

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Jennifer Dunn owns Social Street Media where she writes about small business and small business finances for sites like WePay, the easiest way to manage online invoices.

6 thoughts on “Freelance Writers Have to Pay Quarterly Estimated Taxes”

  1. You’re right, freelance writers could file and pay estimated quarterly tax payments. It will take the’ sting’ out of having to pay taxes all at once. I recommend speaking with a CPA if you’re not sure how much to pay and when to file.

  2. This is one area (along with insurance) where I’m lucky to have two jobs. I bumped my withholding up from the teacher job and I don’t take any exemptions on that W-9. Now my teaching job pays all of the taxes for both careers. It’s a nice system – very non-headache-inducing.

  3. I was working full time and freelancing on the side, but just recently went freelance full time. I have been taking 15% out of each “paycheck” and putting it into a savings account because our city does not do quarterly payments. I will definitely check out this site to see if it will be a better way to track everything.

  4. Hi guys,

    I’m so glad you are all so well-informed on the issue! When I started as a freelance writer back in 2008 I had no clue I had to pay quarterlies. Fortunately, like you Rebecca, I was working as a W-2 on the side so had some withholding to back me up. But I’m ashamed to say that it wasn’t until I even started working with that I truly understood all my tax obligations. Oops!

    Andrea, I do hope you check us out! Feel free to tweet us @Outright if you have any questions about getting started!

  5. I’ve been freelancing since February after being unemployed for over a year. I did some cursory research about taxes (how much to put away for taxes etc.) when I started and I’ve been saving 30% of my gross income. However, nowhere mentioned paying taxes quarterly and now I’m worried about having to pay penalties for not having payed my quarterly in June. How can I go about rectifying this situation without having to pay penalties? (I don’t even earn that much money from freelancing right now, generally under 1k per month). This is currently my only source of income and I just stumbled into it recently, it’s not that much but it’s all I’ve got and I really can’t afford to run around paying fees and whatnot. Any help would be greatly appreciated

    • Unless things have changed since I started working independently, you shouldn’t have to worry about those penalties if you had not taxable income last year while you were unemployed. You could pay your tax when it’s due in April and then you would use this year’s numbers to help you estimate for next year. Of course I’m not an accountant, and the best option is to run it by someone who is because they can evaluate your individual circumstances. Or call the IRS directly and ask them about it.


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