8 money tips for gig workers and the self-employed
There are a lot of reasons to enter the world of freelance. Maybe you made the decision for yourself or it might have been out of your control—either way, you’re not alone. Whether you’re self-employed or a gig worker, you have to manage not only your personal budget but your business budget as well. As your own boss, you’ll need to take care of your own finances, insurance and retirement savings.
Your financial life doesn’t have to be unpredictable just because your paycheck might be. Here are eight ways you can steady your financial situation—even while your income fluctuates.
Keep track of your time and costs
As a freelancer, time is money. Keeping track of how you are spending your time—and money—not only helps you properly bill clients, but can reveal which areas of your freelance work are most (and least) profitable. That can help you improve your bottom line. And since it’s up to you to track your time, find a system that works for you. Search online: There are a lot of apps that make it easy for you to track the time and money you spend working for various clients or on creating your product.
Make a monthly budget
When you’re creating a budget, it’s common to start by noting your net income. But if you have a different amount of money coming in each month, it helps to start with what you need to get by—rent or mortgage, utilities, car or student loan payments, groceries. You may also want to create a second budget that includes want-to-haves—like dinners out, weekend trips or a new smartphone.
If you’re in a line of work that has a busy season, plan to save more during those months so you’re prepared when income is lower. And don’t forget to account for savings and retirement planning as part of both budget options. Check steps No. 3 and No. 6 for more on that.
Build an emergency fund
Experts recommend that salaried employees set aside money to cover at least three (ideally nine) months of expenses in case of a financial emergency. But when your paychecks vary, you should consider covering nine to 12 months. This will give you a cushion if you are between projects or you face an unexpected expense. If you have dependents or fixed expenses like a mortgage or a car payment, aim for the higher end of the savings spectrum.
Be a good bookkeeper
Being self-employed and working from your home means you may be able to write off business expenses like business travel or certain home office expenses. Keep records of expenses such as printer paper, ink, gas and tolls. You’ll need them for your tax returns and potential audit purposes.
If you work multiple jobs, you may have a lot of invoicing to manage. Do some research into available software programs and services that are designed to help freelancers keep track of invoices and client payments.
File quarterly taxes
If you’re self-employed and expect to owe $1,000 or more in federal income tax at the time of return filing, and you meet certain other requirements, the IRS generally requires that you file estimated quarterly taxes. This differs from the days when you received a salary (or wages) from an employer, which would generally withhold taxes from your earnings. If you don’t pay enough tax through estimated quarterly tax payments, you may be charged a penalty and/or interest.
Even if you’re not required to do so, filing quarterly taxes lets you pay your taxes in smaller increments four times a year instead of having to save up to pay for a big lump sum. Determining your quarterly tax payments is a straightforward process. The amount of income tax you pay to the IRS is generally based on your estimated income for the year, plus taxes for Social Security and Medicare. Most people use their previous year’s taxes as a starting point.
Reference the IRS rules on estimated taxes for more details and consult an accountant if you’re not sure which rules apply to you.
Save for retirement
As your own boss, you’ll have to take retirement savings into your own hands—and you won’t have perks like matching funds to incentivize you. Freelancers have several options for retirement accounts, including SEP IRAs, SIMPLE IRAs, individual 401(k)s, or a Roth IRA.
It’s a good idea to schedule automatic transfers from your checking account to your retirement account to ensure your savings and investments plan stays on track. Just make sure you’ll have enough money each month to cover the transfer. Also, consider contributing to your retirement account with windfalls, such as tax refunds or big client payments, whenever you can.
Protect yourself with insurance
Disability insurance can provide you with income if you have an accident or illness that prevents you from working. The income can keep you from going into debt to cover your basic expenses while you’re laid up. Be sure to get a policy with an own-occupation rider. Without it, your insurance company may refuse to pay your benefit if it feels you can still earn money outside of your current occupation—and that might be at a job that only pays minimum wage. On that note, health insurance is your responsibility too.
If you’re a gig worker or self-employed, it helps to annually review all your insurance needs—ranging from life and homeowners insurance to considering an umbrella liability policy—to make sure there aren’t gaps in your coverage.
Consider a separate bank account
Creating a separate account for your freelance business can help you monitor your income. You might consider opening a small business checking account, which will give you tools to keep track of your business expenses. Pay yourself a salary by transferring money to your personal account. This setup can be particularly helpful when tax time rolls around. The documents you need to apply for an account, and the type of account you qualify for, may vary, so be sure to do some research.