The reason for starting a side business are legion. Maybe early retirement left you with more free time than you know what to do with. Maybe you took early retirement a bit early with the intentions of earning some side income. Or, personal or family issues limit the hours available for gainful activities.
Micro businesses are a great way to earn more money without a massive expenditure of time. You can enjoy the best of both worlds: reasonable income and freedom.
But there is one factor that causes more headaches than any other: taxes. Micro businesses/side gigs have special tax rules that can cause serious problems, or, if done correctly, virtually eliminate your tax bill.
I’ve published on this in the past, but new tax rules require I provide an entirely new guide. Several notable changes require your attention. A misstep will cost you hard-earned tax dollars; a well thought out plan allows you to keep most or all of your side gig income.
Highlights of the Changes
First we need to define what I mean by a micro business or side gig. For this discussion I consider a business micro if profits (not revenue!) are less than $30,000 annually and are expected to remain so in the future. This profit level is confined by economic and personal factors. You still have a micro business if you elect to remain small.
By eliminating businesses with over $30,000 of profits we also limit the choices when we plan for taxes. That allows for a detailed analysis of the issues without concerns for larger side gigs.
One of the large changes to the micro business environment involves hobbies. In the past (2017 and prior) hobby income was reported on the front page of Form 1040 with expenses deducted on Schedule A as an itemized deduction. Hobby expenses could not exceed reported income from Form 1040 and the expenses were combined with multiple other deductible items (job search expenses, safe deposit boxes, tax preparations fees, et cetera) and then 2% of adjusted gross income was subtracted.
Starting in 2018 hobby expenses are no longer deductible in any amount while income is still required to be reported. The revamped Form 1040 also means you need Schedule 1 to report hobby income (see inset).
The other big change for micro businesses comes from §199A, the Qualified Business Income Deduction. This new animal allows for a 20% deduction on certain business income (profits) without an out-of-pocket expense. We don’t have to worry about limitations since we are focused on businesses/side gigs with under $30,000 of annual profits.
While tax code changes didn’t affect LLCs, S corporations or regular corporations (the C corporation), there are considerations for micro businesses when it comes to entity formation.
The Hobby Decision Tree
Even without the possibility of deducting any hobby expenses, there are times being a hobby might be advantageous. Before we begin this part of the discussion you should review this article to refresh your memory of who can and cannot report income as a hobby.
Why would anyone want to report income as a hobby? First, you may actually have a hobby rather than a sole proprietorship (a small business for tax purposes). Second, there is still a possible tax advantage to hobby income over small business income.
Hobby income does NOT incur self-employment tax on the income. A hobby with few expenses will be taxed less as a hobby than over a sole proprietorship.
Example: Fred has a hobby building model ships. He sells a ship every 4 or 5 years without a profit motive; he just likes building model ships in his free time. He meets all the criteria of a hobby. If Fred sells a model ship for $5,000 and reports it as business income he will face income tax at ordinary rates (determined by his income level), plus a 15.3% self-employment tax. Reported as a hobby Fred would not pay around $750 in SE tax. He would still pay income taxes on the hobby income at ordinary rates.
Once the self-employment tax issue is understood (or experienced), smart taxpayers start pushing their tax professional to list income as hobby versus small business income. However, you are automatically considered a business by the IRS anytime you turn a profit in 3 of any 5 year period.
There are ways around every problem. First, you don’t have to conduct the same hobby every year. If you report hobby income every year, but from significantly different hobbies you should be prepared to explain to Revenue your position. (I would actually explain it with an attachment to your tax return every year you report hobby income in 3 or more of any 5 years.)
Second, you can enjoy your hobby like Fred. Fred loved the process of fleshing out a detailed ship from times past. He would spend a year or more on each masterpiece. Fred doesn’t have to sell a ship every year. He can sell his growing cache once every 4 or 5 years. (His wife might require Fred to divest in his some of with hobby creations due to space limitations. She might get sick of cleaning the growing horde of ships decorating every corner of the house.)
Because Fred has few expenses (perhaps $500 or less per ship) most of his income from the sale is profit. However, since he is a hobby he avoids paying self-employment tax on top of income taxes.
How do new tax rules affect your hobby decision? While avoiding self-employment tax can be enviable, hobby expenses are no longer deductible, meaning your income tax will almost certainly be higher. Your other income determines your tax bracket. High earners might be better off as a business than a hobby once expenses are considered.
Finally, don’t succumb to temptation to cheat. The IRS watches hobby income and gets irritable when the line is crossed. Yes, if Fred had a model ship hobby where he completed and sold a ship every 5 or for more years for $80,000 he could avoid SE tax. But he better be prepared to explain why he isn’t really a business. Be sure to read the article from the link about to gather a better understanding of where the line is if you plan on reporting income from a hobby.
Business deductions that are “ordinary and necessary” and that are reasonable are allowed. This is a very wide road to travel.
Your business structure doesn’t change what can be deducted. A sole proprietorship, regular corporation, S corporation and partnership can all deduct reasonable ordinary and necessary business expenses.
Let’s talk about common deductions first. Anything related to your business is usually deductible. Advertising, rent, utilities, office supplies and bank fees are just a start. A painting to decorate a wall at your business or home office is ordinary and necessary because it creates a better profit producing environment. (A Picasso would not be reasonable and would be disallowed for all but the largest of businesses and even then might be a problem. Remember the expense needs to be reasonable.) Desks, computers, chairs are also business expenses, though they may need to be depreciated over a number of years.
There is a sweet spot in business deductions, too! While cash going out is easy to record and deduct, non-cash deductions are easily forgotten. You may qualify for an office in the home. With the standard deduction much higher now the office in the home might be a way to benefit from some of your mortgage interest and property tax expenses.
Mileage is another expense without an easy correlation. The mileage deduction can exceed actual cost, creating an additional non-cash deduction.
Meals and entertainment offers a choice when traveling. You can use actual expense or a per diem. The per diem can exceed your actual outlay providing another non-cash deduction. The beauty of this method is that you can choose which method you use for each business trip. High meal expense trips can use actual expense and low meal expense business trips can use the per diem.
Bonus depreciation is 100% this year for most new assets. The de minimis election to deduct rather than capitalize tangible property with a class life of 20 years or less and with an initial cost of $2,500 or less also allows for faster expensing of most business assets purchased.
You can even estimate some expenses! If receipts are lost or destroyed you can use reasonable numbers for expenses, except for meals & entertainment, travel, auto expenses and listed property. Advertising, supplies and postage can be estimated if records are unavailable. Be sure to review the rules with the link at the beginning of this paragraph to avoid problems.
And here is a final deduction nugget frequently overlooked. If you have a customer appreciation event, Christmas party for the office or other business event at your home you can charge your business a reasonable fee (deductible) and not report it on your personal return (tax-free) if you rent out your home for 14 or fewer days per year. To determine “reasonable”, check around locally for the cost of renting a similar facility. As always, document ad nauseam.
Even the owner of a micro business can reduce or eliminate income taxes.
We turn now to deductions that amount to moving money from one hand to the other and receiving tax advantages as a result.
There are a host of retirement plans available to micro business owners unless the income is classified as hobby income.
SEP plans are probably not the best choice for a micro business due to contribution limitations based on income. (20% of a $20,000 profit is only $4,000).
401(k) plans, including solo plans, allow for larger deductions ($18,500 in 2018 and $19,000 in 2019) but can have higher fees than other options.
If other income doesn’t preclude an IRA contribution you then have a choice: Roth or traditional. The maximum contribution allowed for either is $5,500 in 2018 and $6,000 in 2019; folks 50 and older on the last day of the tax year can add an additional $1,000.
If the traditional or Roth IRA are not allowed or not enough for your needs you should consider a SIMPLE IRA. SIMPLE IRAs are just the way they sound: simple. They are simple to setup and maintain with low fees, if any. Investment houses like Vanguard and Fidelity will help you with the process if you have issues. The best part of SIMPLE IRAs is the higher contribution limits: $12,500 ($13,000 for 2019) with a $3,000 additional catch-up provision for those 50 and older on the last day of the tax year. Also, you can contribute 100% of your business profits up to the contribution limits! This means if your micro business earns $10,000 per year you can contribute the entire amount, avoiding income tax on your business income (SE tax is stilled owed on business profits regardless of retirement plan contributions).
§199A: The Qualified Business Income Deduction
This new and unique deduction is in the news a lot lately. The Code is vague on certain issues at it pertains to the §199A deduction. While vague may sound like a problem, tax professionals deal with vague tax issues all the time. It comes with the territory.
We can avoid many of the complicated issues because we limited our discussion to micro businesses of less than $30,000 of annual profits.
Real estate investors of income property can also benefit from the 199A deduction. (Generally an income property investor must meet the definition of a “trade or business” (undefined as of this writing) before taking the QBI deduction up to the level of profit or 2.5% of the original basis before adjustment, whichever is less.)
Regular corporations saw a massive reduction in their marginal tax rates, except for the lowest bracket which was increase from 15% to the flat rate for regular corporations of 21%. Unlike partnerships, S corporations and sole proprietorships, the §199A deduction does not apply to regular corporation.
Revenue issued some guidance on the QBI deduction. One thing is certain, the deduction is allowed for all business entities, except regular corporations. Partnerships that pay guaranteed payments to partners (the paycheck portion paid to owners of a partnership, in a manner of speaking) will reduce the QBI deduction.
Example: Sally and Mark form a 50/50 partnership to sell widgets. They have one part-time employee. The employee receives a weekly wage and a W-2 at year-end. Sally and Mark agree to pay themselves $100 per week. They do not get a W-2! Instead, their payments are considered guaranteed payments to partners. If profits are $20,000 after all expenses, including guaranteed payments to partners, they use $20,000 to calculate their QBI deduction of $4,000.
S corporations generally require more than $30,000 of annual profits to be a viable choice for tax reductions. If you have an S corporation you must pay reasonable compensation to owner/employees which reduces the QBI deduction.
Sole proprietors do not pay themselves a wage or receive a W-2. Instead, they take draws. QBI is generally the reported profit of the sole proprietorship without regard to self employment taxes. Once again, multiple by 20% and deduct.
The QBI deduction is not taken at the entity or business level. The deduction is claimed on page 2 of Form 1040, Line 9 (2018 tax forms).
Caution! My journals have some conflicting advice on reasonable compensation to S corporation owner/employees and guaranteed payments to partners. Before Revenue released guidance on August 8th some felt guaranteed payments to partners and reasonable compensation to S corporation owner/employees would be added back before calculating QBI. Sharp readers called me on this. The reason for the assumed (by some people) add-back before guidance was released is so high earners couldn’t play with reasonable compensation to qualify for the QBI deduction in certain service businesses. Guidance now indicates QBI is profit after reasonable compensation or guaranteed payments.
Planing tip! Because S corporations require reasonable compensation to owners/employees, micro businesses probably do better as a sole proprietor since there are no wages to the owner to reduce QBI.
I preach LLCs treated as S corporations a lot. However, micro businesses rarely benefit taxwise from such a structure. In most cases S corporation treatment does not lower taxes enough to offset costs of organizing as an S corporation until profits consistently exceed $30,000. Even $30,000 is really low! I prefer to see $50,000 or more before deciding to switch to an S corporation and only if it appears profits will remain north of $50,000 in future years.
We are discussing micro businesses of under $30,000 of annual profits so organizing as an LLC is fine for legal purposes, but electing to be treated as an S corporation is a questionable move if taxes are the reason why.
Your S corporation may have started as something bigger and withered over the years as you downsized. Keeping the S corporation may be more convenient than moving to a sole proprietorship. For these reasons we’ll touch on S corporations.
S corporations generally pass all their profits to the owners on Form K-1. The QBI deduction is not lost! Rather, as stated above, owner’s wages are added back with 20% of this higher total deducted on page 2 of Form 1040.
We already discussed partnerships above.
While I focus on tax considerations, entities serve a legal purpose as well. I encourage you to discuss the legal ramifications of entities with a competent legal professional.
While the sole proprietorship is easy to organize, it also pays the most tax of any form of conducting business. Sole proprietors also face a highest federal audit risk, around 4% per year. Corporations (regular and S) and partnerships are audited at well below 1% per year. For this reason alone you may wish to organize even a micro business as an S corporation, regardless of the tax ramifications.
The Best Tax Choice
Here is a step-by-step guide to deciding how to manage your micro business:
- Are you a Hobby or business? It makes a difference. A hobby is by far the easiest way to report income. But no expenses are allowed while SE tax is avoided.
- Choose an entity structure. An LLC provides legal protections and takes on the tax flavor you want. A single member LLC defaults to a sole proprietorship and if there are two or more owners to the business, partnership is the default. These are called disregarded entities (disregarded for tax purposes only, not legal purposes.)
- Make sure you don’t miss any deduction.
- Take advantage of the QBI deduction.
- Consider retirement plans.
- Enjoy! It is a micro business for a reason. Your goal is a bit of extra money while engaging an enjoyable activity.
Note: Technical corrections were made to this article. The complexities of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act have caused serious issues when tax planning. The IRS issued some guidance on August 8, 2018, but more issues remain. Tax professionals are encouraged to contact the author if they disagree with a statement here. I have attended several training programs this year on the new tax rules and there are areas of disagreement between programs. I’ll make additional technical corrections as they are discovered by readers (or me) or further guidance is provided by Revenue.
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