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The Independent Contractor's Guide to Taxes (with Calculator)

Independent contractor tax calculator

If you want to get straight to calculating your taxes, walk through our free self-employed tax calculator. But if you want to learn all about how self-employed taxes work, read on.

Calculate your estimated quarterly taxes (for free)

Follow our step-by-step estimated quarterly tax calculator to figure out how much you owe.

What’s your business structure?

First, make sure you understand your business structure

Most independent contractors will operate either as a sole proprietorship, limited liability company (LLC), partnership, or S corporation. With any of these business structures, your earnings are reported as part of your personal income.

In the USA, approximately 73% of businesses are registered as sole proprietorships—clearly the most popular business structure for entrepreneurs going it on their own. Setting one up is quick and easy: if you don’t formally register as a certain type of business entity, the IRS will treat you as a sole proprietorship by default.

If you run your business part time, and you’re also someone’s employee, you’ll need to file your own business taxes with Form 1040 (US Individual Income Tax Return). Your employer also files a Form W-2 (Wage and Tax Statement) for you.

Note: taxes work the exact same way for independent contractors and freelancers. As long as you’re self-employed, the IRS only looks at you through the lens of your business entity. So if you understand how your entity type works, you’ll know how your taxes work.

The taxes you need to pay

When you’re self-employed, you need to pay self-employment tax (which is 15.3% of your net business income) as well as state and federal income tax.

Self-employment tax

FICA consists of your federal Social Security tax (12.4%) and Medicare tax (2.9%), for a total of 15.3% of your net business income.

When you pay self-employment tax on your freelance income, you’re paying both the portion of FICA you would normally pay as an employee, and the portion your employer would match.

Note: Even if your business is a side hustle, and your employer is withholding FICA from your income, you’ll still need to pay self-employment tax on all the income you earn from your side venture.

Your self-employment tax is filed with Schedule SE, Form 1040.

Income tax

You’ll need to pay income tax just like anyone else, in addition to self employment tax. Your taxable income is your total income for the year minus any deductions. From there, you consult the tax table for the year to see what your income tax rate will be.

Calculating and paying your taxes

You’ll pay all these federal taxes together, four times a year when you pay estimated quarterly taxes.

To calculate how much tax you need to pay, use the Estimated Tax Worksheet, which is part of Form 1040-ES.

You’ll also use Form 1040-ES to file your quarterly estimated taxes.

For a more detailed walk-through of estimated taxes, check out our article How to Calculate and Pay Estimated Quarterly Taxes.

Or if you want to get straight to calculating, use our Self-Employed Tax Calculator below.

Calculate your estimated quarterly taxes (for free)

Follow our step-by-step estimated quarterly tax calculator to figure out how much you owe.

What’s your business structure?

Federal taxes vs. state and municipal taxes

For the most part, this guide covers federal taxes.

But your state and municipality may also expect you to pay taxes. Since every state and municipality is different in this regard, it’s beyond the scope of this guide to cover them all.

To find out what you need to pay in addition to federal taxes, visit the tax authorities for your state and municipality. Here’s a directory to every US state’s tax authority, and here’s a list of every tax-collecting municipality in the USA.

If you’re a freelancer, read this

As a freelancer, you depend on your clients to file Form 1099-MISC for you. When you total that 1099 income up, you’ll get most of the income that you need to report on your tax return (but not all—if a client paid you less than $600 in the tax year, they won’t have to file a 1099.)

When you hire subcontractors to take care of freelance work, the script is flipped. It’s up to you to fill out and file Form 1099-MISC for every subcontractor you pay more than $600 during the course of the year.

The deadline for getting a Form 1099-MISC to a subcontractor is January 31st, 2020. And, as of this current tax filing, all Form 1099-MISCs must also be filed with the IRS by January 31st.

Further reading: Independent Contractors (Everything You Need to Know)

Subcontractor agreements

When you work with a subcontractor, it’s best to have a subcontractor’s agreement in place. In addition to other info, this agreement between you and the subcontractor lists the services they’ll be providing—as well as whether they will be using your facilities and equipment, or their own.

It’s important a subcontractor doesn’t do any work besides that described in the agreement. In case of an audit, the IRS will try to determine who works for you is a contractor, and who works for you as an employee.

If they decide that one of your subcontractors is fulfilling the duties of an employee, you could be penalized for not filing the correct taxes (ie. your share of FICA).

If you’re hiring contractors for the first time, and you’re not sure how you should classify them, ask an accountant.

How to take advantage of tax deductions

Sadly, it’s illegal to skip paying taxes outright. However, there are ways you can minimize how much of your money goes to the IRS.

That’s where deductions come in handy. When you spend money on certain business expenses, the IRS will cut you a break on how much you have to pay in taxes.

Your tax deductions are reported on Schedule C of Form 1040, which you use to report your personal income. Form 1040 is filed at the end of the year, with your final quarterly estimated tax payment.

Further reading: Tax Credit vs Tax Deduction: What’s the Difference?

Here’s what you can deduct

From home office repairs to health insurance, there’s a wide range of deductions available to independent contractors. To learn about which deductions you may qualify for, and how to report each one, read our article Small Business Tax Deductions and How to Claim Them.

How to file your taxes

Doing it yourself

If you don’t owe any outstanding taxes from the past, and your business hasn’t changed significantly in the past year or two, you can opt to roll up your sleeves and file taxes yourself.

There are two methods for filing your taxes: by mail, or online.

To file by mail, you’ll have to obtain tax forms by ordering them online, then fill them out and submit them to the IRS. You can pay your taxes by check or money order.

To file online, you create an account on the IRS website, and transfer funds directly from your credit card or debit accounts.

We recommend online filing because of its ease and speed. It also saves trees and reduces the likelihood of paper cuts. When you file online, your payment history and other important info is stored in your secure IRS account, so you don’t need to worry about paper records being lost or damaged.

Hiring an accountant

If you have any questions about filing your taxes, or if your business has undergone recent growth, it’s a good idea to consult with a Certified Public Accountant (CPA). When you’re a potential new client, many CPAs are willing to sit down with you for a free consultation.

Even if you don’t hire an accountant to do your taxes, they can help advise you—for instance, on the best way to estimate your quarterly taxes. Learn more about how to find, hire, and work with an accountant.

Preparing your books for tax filing

Even if your business is only a part-time venture, you should still have a bookkeeping solution in place. It will make tax season a lot easier.

After you “close” your books after the end of the year—bring all accounts up to date, and finish record-keeping for the financial year—you can quickly determine your income.

You need to know your income in order to file your taxes. If you haven’t closed your books, you may find yourself scrambling to get all your information together so you can file a Form 1040 before the tax deadlines.

If your books are well-organized, and you have separate ledgers tracking different categories of business expenses, you’ll also find it easier to track your deductions for the year.

Naturally, we recommend trying Bench out. We pair you with a team of in-house bookkeepers who do your books, and smart software to track your finances. We’ll even file your taxes for you.

Quarterly taxes for the self-employed

Earn more than $1,000? You need to pay taxes quarterly, in April, June, September, and January.

If you also work for someone as an employee, they’ll withhold taxes from your pay. But the money you make on the side is also taxed. And those taxes, in the form of a portion of your income, need to be withheld by you.

You can calculate your estimated tax payments based on last year’s income, or on your estimated income for the present year.

Contractor tax deadlines

Keep in mind that deadlines for state and municipal taxes will be different from those set by the IRS.

Quarterly estimated tax deadlines for the 2021 tax filing year

Once you start filing estimated taxes for the 2021 tax filing year, here are the deadlines you’ll have to meet through 2021/22:

  • April 15, 2021
  • June 15, 2021
  • September 15, 2021
  • January 15, 2022

Personal income tax (Form 1040)

Tax filing for the 2020 tax year opens on February 12, 2021. This was delayed from the usual January 1st date to allow the IRS time to make system changes based on the second stimulus package signed into law at the end of 2020.

Your income tax for 2020 (Form 1040) must still be filed by April 15, 2021.

This income tax filing will also include whatever deductions you’re claiming.

If you’re not ready to file your taxes, you can request an extension with Form 4868 (Automatic Extension of Time to File US Individual Income Tax Return.) If you request an extension to file your 2020 taxes, your final deadline becomes October 15, 2021. You’ll still need to make a payment on time, though. Learn more about how to get a tax extension, and what happens when you do.

Partnerships (Form 1065)

If you operate a partnership, you’ll file your taxes as an individual. However, the partnership still needs to report its financial activity for the year to the IRS. This is done with Form 1065 (US Return of Partnership Income), which is due March 15th, 2021.

S corporations

If you’re a shareholder in an S Corporation, you need to file a Form 1120S (US Income Tax Return for an S corporation), which reports the financial activities of the organization, as well as how many shares you control. Every shareholder in the S Corporation must file Form 1120S.

Subcontractors (Form 1099-NEC)

If your business hired a contractor in 2020 and paid them more than $600 in a year, it’s your responsibility to file a Form 1099-NEC with the IRS and send a copy to the contractor. You must mail them their Form 1099-NEC and submit a copy to the IRS by January 31st.

Further reading: 1099-NEC and 1099-MISC: What’s New for 2020

Tax time can sting a little. Math isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, and nobody likes thinking about how much money they owe the IRS.

If you don’t think you’re up for the challenge of doing your taxes, try Bench. We’ll get your bookkeeping done to IRS standards and get your taxes filed for you. Consider your tax season solved.

What's Bench?

We're an online bookkeeping service powered by real humans. Bench gives you a dedicated bookkeeper supported by a team of knowledgeable small business experts. We’re here to take the guesswork out of running your own business—for good. Your bookkeeping team imports bank statements, categorizes transactions, and prepares financial statements every month. Get started with a free month of bookkeeping.

This post is to be used for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal, business, or tax advice. Each person should consult his or her own attorney, business advisor, or tax advisor with respect to matters referenced in this post. Bench assumes no liability for actions taken in reliance upon the information contained herein.

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