Whenever I bring up my various side hustles, I’ll sometimes get criticisms that these gigs aren’t worth doing since I have to pay taxes on that income. I was reminded of this in a recent guest post I wrote over on Money Wizard, where I talked about how I’ve made around $90,000 from side hustling over the past four years.
On the one hand, I get the rationale behind this criticism. If I’m making $100 but have to pay a large portion of that income to taxes, then I’m not really making that much, which then begs the question of whether whatever I’m doing is worth my time. This is even more true with side hustle income, which arguably is taxed at your highest marginal tax rate since, in theory, you could have opted to not make that extra income at all. (One solution to this problem is to think about side hustling differently – it doesn’t have to be just about the money.)
That said, this idea that earning extra income isn’t worth it because you have to pay taxes is sort of confusing to me. Making more money – especially if you can make more money doing something that you enjoy and that doesn’t take up much of your time – is something that I think a lot of us want to do. I don’t think I’ve heard of too many people opting to make less money simply so they can pay less in taxes.
Admittedly, I often underestimate the impact of taxes and often downright ignore them when I discuss concepts like the Reverse Latte Factor. There’s a reason for this though. The point of these types of posts is to make a general point about how small amounts matter – especially when combined with the power of time and consistency.
In any event, the truth is that when I think about side hustling and taxes, the actual paying more in taxes part is something that I just don’t worry about too much. There are just so many strategies you can implement to lessen the sting of taxes that I don’t think it’s as big a deal as people think. These are things that you simply can’t do when you’re only working a regular 9-5 job.
In today’s post, I want to go over some of the strategies you can use when it comes to side hustling and taxes.
A Brief Primer On Taxes
Whenever you receive earned income in the United States, you’re responsible for paying taxes on it. As the IRS explains, there are two ways to get earned income:
- You work for someone who pays you; or
- You own or run a business or farm
When you’re side hustling, you’re going to be earning income in that second category since, more likely than not, your side hustle is going to be a business (and probably not a farm). This is true even of simple side hustles where you’re working as an independent contractor. The easy way to think of it is that if you’re getting paid via a 1099, then you are an independent contractor, which makes you a business.
If you’re business, you’re going to be paying taxes. And you’ll be on the hook for a decent chunk of them. Below is a list of the different taxes you’ll pay on your typical side hustle income:
- Federal Income Tax
- State Income Tax
- FICA Taxes (employer portion)
- FICA Taxes (employee portion)
The federal income taxes you pay will depend on how much you earn from other sources of income. State income taxes will also vary based on your income and what state you live in (and in some places, you might have to pay local taxes as well).
The one big downside of side hustling is having to pay self-employment taxes. The government taxes earned income at 15.3% in order to pay for Social Security and Medicare. 12.4% of that goes to Social Security taxes. 2.9% goes to Medicare taxes. If you’re getting paid as a W-2 employee, your employer pays for half of those taxes and you cover the other half (so in your paycheck, you’ll pay 7.65% to Social Security and Medicare).
But when you’re self-employed and earning 1099 income, you’re both the employee and the employer, which means you’re on the hook for paying the entire 15.3% yourself. When you add up the federal and state income taxes you pay, plus the 15.3% in self-employment taxes you’re paying, the taxes can really add up.
Strategies To Deal With The Tax Problem
Because your side hustle likely makes you a business, you have the opportunity to take advantage of a lot of things that can reduce your tax burden. Here are some strategies you can implement:
1. Take Advantage Of Business Expenses
The biggest advantage of side hustling is that it gives you the opportunity to reduce your tax burden in the form of business expenses. Almost everything that you want to buy in life requires you to purchase it using after-tax dollars – that is, money that you’ve paid taxes on already. Business expenses allow you to get around this and purchase things using pre-tax dollars.
Picking up even simple side hustles can open up a lot of potential business expense deductions. For example, every year I deduct the cost of my yearly bike maintenance from my delivery income since I use my bike to do deliveries. This is maintenance that I do every year and while it’s not that much money, it’s still money that I’m able to spend with pre-tax dollars.
There are a lot of other things that might qualify as business expenses – phone bills, any equipment you buy, etc. It’s very likely these are things that you’re already buying anyway. If you can turn it even partially into a business expense, that’s all the better.
Of course, I’m not a tax expert, so be sure to speak to a professional when you’re trying to figure out what qualifies as a business expense. The main point to take away from this section is that side hustling gives you the potential to be creative and pay for things that you might already be paying for anyway, but with pre-tax dollars.
2. Use A Solo 401k To Tax-Shelter Your Income
A lot of people don’t realize that if you’re earning 1099 income, you have access to tax-advantaged accounts that are better than the ones you can get from an employer. The Solo 401k might be the best tax-advantaged account out there – a bonus retirement account that most people won’t have access to. This tax-advantaged account works just like a 401k, only you have more control over your investment options and you can potentially put away much more in tax-advantaged savings.
In the past, making pre-tax contributions was likely the way to go about it. These days though, thanks to some recent tax changes, taking advantage of Roth Solo 401k contributions might be the best way to utilize this extra retirement account. You won’t get a tax benefit now, but your money will grow tax-free forever if you utilize a Roth Solo 401k.
3. The 20% Pass-Through Deduction
Under the recent Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, any income that goes on a Schedule C gets a 20% pass-through deduction. There are some nuances about what type of income qualifies for this deduction, but most likely, your side hustle income is going to qualify you for it. This is definitely true if you’re doing simple stuff like gig economy work.
On a practical level, what this means is that you only have to pay federal income taxes on 80% of your side hustle income. For example, if you make $10,000 worth of side hustle income (after expenses), you’ll only pay federal income taxes on $8,000 of it. The TL/DR is that because of the current tax structure, our side hustle income has some notable tax advantages that make it more advantageous compared to traditional, W-2 employee income.
4. Pay Your Taxes With Credit Cards
One of the overlooked strategies you can use to reduce the impact of taxes is to pay your taxes with credit cards. Taxes are generally our largest yearly expense. Most of us pay our taxes straight out of our paychecks and get nothing back for it.
I’ve been doing it differently. By strategically using credit cards, it’s possible to earn lucrative signup bonuses that you can then use for free travel. This essentially allows you to get something back for the tax spending you’re already doing anyway. For example, if you’re going to pay $3,000 in taxes anyway, opening up a new credit card and getting back $500 to $1,000 in points and miles effectively reduces what you paid in taxes.
I’ve made it a point to pay for everything that I can with credit cards over the past several years. This has made it so that I haven’t had to pay for a flight or hotel in years. It’s also important to remember that points and miles are not taxable, which means I’m able to pay for my travel using what amounts to tax-free income.
If you have to pay taxes anyway, being able to pay them yourself, rather than having an employer pull them out of your paycheck, is actually the best way to do things. I wrote a post about the benefits of paying taxes with credit cards, so be sure to check that post out to get a better understanding of why you should be paying your taxes using your credit cards. If you’re interested in learning more about credit cards and travel rewards, I offer free credit card consultations and I have a list of my favorite credit cards here.
5. The Master’s Rule
A little known strategy for tax-free income that isn’t discussed often is the Master’s Rule. This rule states that you can rent out your primary residence for up to 14 days without having to pay federal income taxes on that income.
This is obviously a specific tactic to use, but worth considering. Most of us probably aren’t in our house for 14 days per year, so renting your house out while you travel is an easy way to bring in some side hustle income with little tax impact.
Taxes are a real expense – the largest expense that most of us have. You definitely have to think about them whenever you’re making income.
But it shouldn’t hold you back either. You’re going to have to pay taxes anyway. The beauty of side hustling is that you at least have more options and strategies you can use to reduce the impact of your taxes. Hopefully, this post gives you some ideas.
Disclaimer: I am not a tax professional and anything I say here is not tax or legal advice. Talk to a professional for your own specific situation.
FI for the People says
My dad once told me that a self-employed friend of his would complain about making more money because of the extra taxes he’d have to pay. Dad and I just shook our heads.
Financial Panther says
Never really made much sense to me. Like I sort of get it, but it seems like making more money is something everyone wants to do.
It’s amazing the amount of stuff you can write off. Actually wrote off too much and am having to re-do my taxes and take off some expenses, since I’m trying to qualify for a mortgage. This year’s taxes are getting me the SW business card signup and SW priority signup, for almost 145k miles, and a companion pass.
I’m also happy to know about the solo IRA options- I had no idea about this until a few months ago. Actually your site was the one that let me know about this, and I’ve since told many of my friends about this who are all self-employed- we are all starting to contribute to these now.
Don’t forget that if you are self-employed, you can get your own health insurance, and pick a plan with an HSA. I am doing that with a plan I got thru the marketplace for a very reasonable amount per month.
Your site has really motivated me a lot to start side hustling- a lot of the opportunities you use aren’t available to me, but some are, and I’ve definitely been easing into them.
Financial Panther says
Good point about the HSA. Insurance is also a deductible expense, which is helpful for my current situation since I need insurance anyway.
Glad that you’ve been able to do some side hustling. The key is to take what works for you, disregard the rest. We all have unique lives that require our own specific strategies.
In order to take advantage of #1 to #3, do you need to create a legal business entity for your side hustle income?
I think of income taxes on the margin. You have your current base level income (however you define it). If you do more work, you will have more income but it is taxed at your marginal rate. That can be substantial depending on your tax bracket, the inclusion of FICA taxes and any state & local income taxes. So the decision variable is the net expected income. Is working another X hours per week for Y dollar of incremental net income worth it? I phrase the question as “Is X hours of my free time worth Y dollars?”
I don’t think so- one of my businesses is just me- my music performing gigs. I’ve never gotten a business license for this, most people I know haven’t done this either- just report our 1099s etc, write off whatever, etc. When I set up my solo401k I didn’t have to supply my biz license (I do have one, for another non-music gig I do).
Assuming then this all worked for the pass-thru, I have 0 income that’s W-2. Will have to take a look at what turbotax generated.
Financial Panther says
You don’t need a legal business entity for any of them. Whenever you make money not from a W-2 job, you’re automatically a sole proprietor.
How do you learn to do your own taxes?
Financial Panther says
Like anything, you read about it from people with more knowledge. There’s a lot of benefit to doing your own taxes so you can understand how the tax code works.