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Helping clients navigate the gig economy

Practice Management Gig Economy

Uber drivers, Etsy store sellers, Shipt grocery delivery drivers. Everyone loves the gig economy. It provides flexibility, control over your schedule, and the ability to follow your passions while making money. Sounds too good to be true, right? What most gig workers don’t consider are several very important issues, including potentially filing more complicated income taxes and operating without health insurance and retirement benefits.    

According to a NerdWallet survey, half of U.S. adults don’t understand the tax implications of freelance or gig work, and most gig workers don’t understand, or consider, the lack of benefits that they may have enjoyed as a W-2 employee.

What is a tax advisor to do? The tax and accounting profession is continually evolving, and we need to keep pace. We need to do more for our clients than just prepare tax returns. In fact, our clients come to us not to prepare their tax returns, but to ask us questions and get our guidance, and many look to us to help them navigate, and prepare for, what is to come, as they work their way through the gig economy.

We have a golden opportunity to educate and become an indispensable partner to our clients, while providing a great deal of value.

Educate, educate, educate!!!

Most gig workers aren’t prepared for the new twists and complications for their work situation. As part of the discovery meeting or annual, semi-annual, or quarterly review, you need to dig deep with your clients and ask questions. Get to know them and their story. Give the gig worker a chance to ask questions, and if they don’t ask them, take the time to work with your clients to help them with questions, such as these: 

  • Do I really need to report all my income on my tax return? How do I keep track of it?
  • What expenses can I deduct? Should I keep track of my auto expenses, or is mileage a better way to go?
  • What is the home office deduction? Can I take advantage of it?
  • What is this self-employment tax I keep hearing about? Why do I have to pay it and why does it matter?
  • As a gig worker, I may not have health insurance or retirement benefits. Can you help me with this one?
  • How do I budget and plan, so that I am prepared if the work doesn’t come in as expected?
  • Everyone says I need to set up an LLC when I become a gig worker. Do I need to consider it?

As their advisor, what you need to do is step in, reassure them that they will be okay, and give them guidance on how to proceed. Here’s some ways you can respond.

Q: Do I really need to report all my income? How do I keep track of it?

The short answer is, yes, you do need to keep track of, and report all, income. If you aren’t provided a 1099, the IRS still requires you to report your income. While an Excel or Google Sheet might be just as easy to keep track of your income, QuickBooks® Self-Employed, or a higher level of QuickBooks, will be a great and easy way to keep track. The most important thing is to not only keep good records, but also keep track of, and report, your gains and losses.

Q: What expenses can I deduct? Should I keep track of my auto expenses, or is mileage a better way to go?

This is always the trickiest one for gig workers. Tax advisors need to be proactive to help navigate through this one. You may deduct any expense that is used in the ordinary course of business. For example, if you use stationary to write a client a thank you note in the ordinary course of business, you can deduct it. That nice handwritten note you sent to your grandmother to wish her a happy birthday? Grandma will love the sentiment, but it will not be deductible.

Did you buy a computer to do your gig work or side hustle? Yes, you can deduct it. Did you purchase business insurance? You can deduct it. If you do drive for your gig work, keep track of the mileage and any costs you incur to keep your car running. When you are working with your tax advisor, they can help you determine whether mileage or actual car costs is the way to go. The basic gist is this: If you had to spend money to make money for your gig work, then you deduct it.

Q: What is the home office deduction? Can I take advantage of it?

If a portion of your home or apartment is used exclusively for your work, you can take a home-office tax deduction. The key word is “exclusively.” For example, the area where you work can’t be used for other purposes. If you work in a spare room in your apartment, you can’t use the room for work and as a bedroom. You must use the room “exclusively” for business. This deduction allows you to write off a portion of your rent or mortgage payments, as well as part of your utility bills, maintenance costs, property tax, and other expenses. Again, keep track. Your accountant can guide you as to what percentage of your expenses you can write off.

Q: What is this self-employment tax I keep hearing about? Why do I have to pay it, and why does it matter?  

The self-employment (SE) tax is the most confusing and hardest tax to wrap our heads around. Let’s be honest. It’s a painful, but necessary tax. Self-employed individuals generally must pay SE tax, as well as income tax. SE tax is a Social Security and Medicare tax that’s primarily for individuals who work for themselves. This tax is 15.3% of net income that your gig work and business generated. It helps to contribute to your Social Security and Medicare. The self-employment tax helps to record earnings and wages, so that when it comes time to retire, you may be eligible for Social Security benefits. To be prepared for this tax, you should consider setting aside $0.16 for every dollar of revenue you bring in. So, if you earn $100, set aside $16 in a hard to reach, or hard to touch, bank account. That way, you are prepared at tax time. This one will require discipline, but will pay off when you file your tax return. 

Q: As a gig worker, I don’t have business insurance, health insurance, or retirement benefits. Can you help me with this one?

While tax advisors aren’t necessarily experts in health insurance or retirement benefits, we can recommend that the gig worker investigate various options. Business insurance is important to make sure your business assets are protected. Health insurance and retirement benefits are important to help you be prepared in case of an accident/health issue, and to be ready for retirement. Being properly insured, including having disability insurance, is not just important, but also tax deductible. Having a SEP, solo 401k, or Simple IRA is a great and tax-deductible way to be prepared for retirement.

ProTip: This is a good time for you, as the tax advisor, to have a strong network, so that you can refer your client to various experts in the healthcare, insurance, and retirement benefits space. Moreover, this is a great way to reinforce to your client that you are an indispensable partner because you are looking out for their best interests and the best interests of their clients.

Q: How do I budget and plan, so that I am prepared if the work doesn’t come in as expected?

Planning for the unexpected seems as if it’s easy to do, but just as hard to be disciplined about it. You can’t manage what you don’t measure. Determine how much money you need for personal living expenses. Set aside funds for emergencies, so that you aren’t caught off guard. This will take discipline, but it will help you be prepared to weather any storm. 

Q: Everyone says I need to set up an LLC when I become a gig worker. Do I need to consider it?

When you go out on your own as a gig worker, your first instinct may be to see about setting up an LLC, or limited liability company. There are several different ways for you to operate your business. If you are considering an LLC, there are two important things to keep in mind when it comes to the taxes associated with your business:

  1. LLCs are popular because they allow business owners to have a high degree of flexibility in the way they manage their businesses.
  2. LLCs provide some protection from personal liability for business debts. Your liability is limited to your investment in the business. However, if you are a single-member owner of your LLC, the business is considered a disregarded entity for tax reporting purposes. This means that it will be reported as Schedule C or Schedule E income, and is still subject to self-employment tax.

As to the whether to set up an LLC, your tax advisor can refer you to an attorney who can help you determine the best way to set up your business.

Be the indispensable partner

I’m repeating myself, but this is really important: Helping your clients navigate the impacts of the gig economy is one way to secure long-term client-advisor relationships, and become an integral and indispensable part of your client’s business future. While gig economy clients aren’t for every tax advisor, they can add up over time and provide hot or warm referrals we all need.

The time you take to help your client navigate their way will help you reap additional rewards through additional services you can provide your clients.