Gig worker gains: Are you grabbing the best possible tax relief?

(BPT) – If you earn all or part of your income these days from freelance or contract work, you’re far from alone.

A CNN report this year estimates some 34 percent of the U.S. workforce is now part of the so-called gig economy, a segment expected to reach 43 percent — representing some 7.7 million workers — by 2020.

The gig workforce includes people paid per task through companies such as Uber and Lyft and those paid per project in more traditional roles such as writer, tutor, entertainer, carpenter or electrician. Some freelance by preference, enjoying the sense of freedom that comes with being their own bosses. Others become gig workers because they can’t find other work. And a certain portion holds down a part-time gig in addition to a steadier job so they can gain extra income or experience.

Because the surge in gig work is relatively new, however, many remain unsure how to maximize the multiple tax breaks available to freelancers. If you’re among them, user-friendly, online tax preparation software available through TaxAct can tell you everything you need to know about maximizing your gig income when tax time rolls around — regardless of your freelance profession. For example, did you know the following expenses are tax deductible?

* Home office and utility costs: Even if you only use a corner of your dining room as your work space, you can count that area as a deduction. Opting for the Simplified Home Office Deduction (instead of the regular deduction) lets you deduct $5 per square foot, with a 300-foot cap, of any portion of your home used exclusively for business. Conversely, the regular-deduction method allows a more specific professional-space deduction while also allowing you to write off the portion of your electricity, gas, cable and cell phone bills pertaining to your business. Further, under either method, a portion of your mortgage interest and real estate taxes could also be deductible under Schedule A guidelines.

* Website expenses: Many savvy freelancers invest in their own websites to further their self-employment. Related fees are all deductible, including anything spent over the last year on domain rights, design, building and maintenance.

* Equipment and supply costs: Save your receipts! If you’ve never taken time to identify and list the costs of doing business, you may be surprised how quickly they can add up in the form of a tax benefit. You can deduct all expenses related to purchasing computers, software (including standard programs such as Microsoft Office), printers, cameras and supplies, pens and paper as well as any other equipment needed to complete your work effectively.

* Professional development fees: Conferences, seminars and other educational opportunities that relate to your freelance career are all deductible. The same goes for travel and accommodations for business-related events and half the cost of your business-related meals. Are you networking through your local trade group or business association? Good news: Dues and membership fees associated with professional organizations also qualify as deductions.

* Unpaid invoices: One of the biggest thorns in freelancers’ sides can be unreasonable employers and/or disorganized accounts payable departments that don’t pay up in a timely manner. Unpaid invoices can be hugely problematic when you’re trying to stay on top of your expenses. Fortunately the IRS has sympathy for such woes. If you previously recorded the invoice as income, you can likely deduct the amount you weren’t paid as a bad debt.

Have more specific questions about your tax benefits as a freelancer? TaxAct has the answers. Let us demystify the complexity of your taxes so you can focus on maximizing your freelance income.

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3 steps to help freelancers and gig economy workers avoid a tax blunder

(BPT) – More and more people are earning extra cash by freelancing in the sharing economy. That may mean writing on the side, playing music on the weekends, driving for ride-sharing services like Uber or Lyft or selling handmade jewelry on Etsy. No matter how the money flows in, gig economy earners must be aware of the related tax obligations and potential pitfalls.

“While it’s easier now than ever to earn extra cash, it’s important for freelancers and independent contractors to get smart about their tax responsibilities,” said Mark Jaeger, director of Tax Development for TaxAct, a leading provider of affordable do-it-yourself tax software. “Gig economy earners must remember they are responsible for paying federal and state income tax on any income earned. And, they’re also subject to self-employment tax, to cover Social Security and Medicare taxes.”

If you’re one of the 55 million Americans who chooses to freelance, it can be difficult to correctly calculate and report to the IRS how much tax you owe. In fact, a recent survey conducted by the National Association of Enrolled Agents found that, “independent contractors participating in the gig economy were cited as among those most at risk of failing to accurately report all of their income.”

Taxpayers who miscalculate taxes owed are likely to get a form called a CP2000 from the IRS. According to the agency, that form means, “the income and/or payment information the IRS has on file doesn’t match the information on your tax return.” That could result in issues with your tax bill.

Jaeger said the best way for gig economy workers to avoid a tax misstep is to be diligent and plan ahead now. He provided the following tips to help freelancers get on track so they’re ready to tackle taxes head-on this tax season.

1. Get organized

Whether you work full time and earn a little extra cash from a side hustle or you’re a full-time contractor, meticulous record-keeping is a must. One option is to keep track of all business expenses and related receipts in one large folder. Jaeger recommends taking that one step further by categorizing receipts into specific folders — for example, one folder for mileage and maintenance records, a second for rent or dues if you lease a workspace, and a third for office equipment and business-related equipment. Once a quarter, as you determine what you’ll owe for quarterly tax payments, make note of which of those receipts are deductible.

2. Keep track of your income

When you’re freelancing, you’re your own accounting department. Not only are you responsible for generating invoices and collecting payment, you must also keep track of all income earned and accurately report it to the IRS. That can get complicated when multiple income streams are at play.

For example, gig economy workers who make money freelancing for multiple clients while also moonlighting as an Uber or Lyft driver should track all income and expenses separately. That means keeping accurate records of any money paid directly by clients and keeping track of income reported on documents such as Forms 1099-MISC and 1099-K. These forms are issued when self-employment income exceeds $600 (1099-MISC) and when a contractor is paid through credit- and debit-card payment processors (1099-K). Come tax time, fill out a Schedule C for every company or client who has paid you to report all of the income you earned.

3. Make estimated tax payments

The IRS requires independent contractors to file and pay taxes on a quarterly basis, even if you anticipate getting a refund at the end of the tax year. Use a tax calculator to help determine whether you should make estimated tax payments. You can also use Worksheet 2.1 in IRS Form 1040-ES, Estimated Tax for Individuals, to figure out whether you must pay estimated tax. Whatever method you choose, make sure you calculate adjusted gross income, taxable income, taxes, deductions and credits.

As a rule of thumb, if you will owe at least $1,000 in taxes, you should plan to pay estimated taxes during the current tax year. Jaeger added, “If you owe estimated quarterly payments but don’t pay them in full, you could face an underpayment penalty by the IRS.”

Earning extra money from your freelance work or side gig may not make you feel like you’re self-employed, but in the eyes of the IRS, you are. By planning ahead, getting organized and doing your own taxes with an affordable online option such as TaxAct, you can avoid tax missteps and stay focused on what matters most: earning income on your own terms!

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Get extra money all year: Tips to adjust your tax withholdings

(BPT) – Every year, nearly eight out of 10 taxpayers receive a federal tax refund. Many of them are more than happy to see that “extra” money drop into their bank accounts. In fact, according to a recent TaxAct survey, 61 percent of tax filers said they’d rather receive a big refund than a larger paycheck throughout the year.

Unfortunately, many of those taxpayers don’t realize they could have that “extra” money throughout the year. That’s right — receiving a refund means overpaying the government in the form of a 12-month, interest-free loan.

“Receiving a refund check simply means you’re getting the money you already earned in the past year,” says Mark Jaeger, director of Tax Development for TaxAct. “It’s money you could have used to pay for things like car payments, student loans, groceries and medical bills — or even that island getaway you wanted to take last summer.”

Fortunately, there is something you can do about it. By making the necessary withholding adjustments to your Form W-4, you can have that money a lot sooner than tax season. Follow these three steps to take control of your finances and help give yourself a raise this year — not a refund next year.

1. Review your current withholdings.

To control your tax withholding and paycheck, you need to adjust the number of allowances (withholding exemptions) you claim on Form W-4. If you’re unfamiliar with Form W-4, it’s the tax document you complete each time you start a job to let your employer know how much money to withhold from your paycheck for federal taxes. To better understand how allowances work, think about it this way:

* To increase your paycheck, claim more allowances to withhold fewer taxes.

* To increase your refund, claim fewer allowances to withhold more taxes.

With one simple form you can make the necessary adjustments to give yourself a raise and put more money in your paycheck instead of waiting to receive it in the form of a tax refund. Take a moment to review your withholdings along with your current financial situation. Is it better for you to receive a larger refund or would additional money in each paycheck benefit you more?

2. Use tools to help calculate the appropriate withholding.

If you are unsure of what number of allowances is appropriate for your tax situation, a variety of tax tools can make calculating your withholdings easier. The Paycheck Plus calculator, for example, will use information like your income and tax deductions to help you determine how to make changes to your W-4 to receive a boost in your refund or more money in your paycheck.

By answering a few quick questions, you can easily adjust your withholdings to see how they impact your paycheck and your tax liability. The tool will also auto-populate your new Form W-4 if you choose to adjust your withholdings.

Using a tool like the Paycheck Plus calculator not only takes the stress out of estimating your withholdings on your own, it also lets you quickly see the potential impact on your finances before you make any official changes.

3. Assess recent life events.

As life changes, so do your taxes. Generally, you should consider adjusting your W-4 any time a major life event occurs, to ensure the right amount of tax is withheld from your paycheck. For example, did you start a new job this year or get a pay raise in your current position? A change in household income can impact your tax situation and require you to modify your allowances.

Did you recently tie the knot? Saying “I do” can affect your tax rate, especially if you and your spouse are both employed. Filing a joint return can lower your tax rate and qualify you for deductions you didn’t have as a single person. The same is true if the opposite occurs — divorce. Untying the knot will place you back in single status and take away many of the tax benefits available to those who are married.

A new baby is also a major life event that greatly influences your tax situation. This is true even if you adopt. Not only can you claim an additional allowance for your new dependent, you may also qualify for various credits, like the Child Care Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit. Both of those decrease your tax liability. If your withholdings remain the same, you may receive a larger refund, but you will miss out on extra dollars in your paycheck to cover the costs of added expenses, like diapers and formula.

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Where to find rebates, tax credits and rewards for energy-efficient home improvements

(BPT) – If you’re planning to make some home improvements this year, you’re probably thinking about energy-efficient options, knowing they can save you money in the long run. However, many eco-friendly home improvements that help lower your energy bills can also pay off right away in the form of rebates and tax credits.

Whether you’re considering installing an energy-efficient tankless water heater, putting solar panels on your house, or adding a skylight, chances are you can find a program that will put cash back in your pocket for improving your home’s energy efficiency. Here is where to look for rebates, tax credits and rewards for your energy-efficient home improvements:

Qualifying improvements

When you think of energy efficiency, insulation and appliances probably come to mind. But a number of improvements can help reduce your home’s energy consumption, and many of them qualify for tax credits, rebates and incentives from a variety of sources. The kind of improvements that can make your home more efficient and get you some cash back typically include:

* Solar energy systems (such as solar panels)

* Tankless water heaters

* Solar-powered appliances

* Energy-efficient windows and doors

* Skylights and solar-powered blinds

* Wood or wood-pellet stoves

* Home wind turbines

Manufacturer rebates and incentives

Makers of energy-efficient products and appliances often offer their own rebates to homeowners for making eco-friendly upgrades. If you’re considering an energy-efficient upgrade such as installing new windows, HVAC system or tankless water heater, be sure to ask the retailer or installer about any available manufacturer’s rebates.

For example, now through at least Feb. 15, 2017, you can get up to a $650 rebate on select tankless water heaters from Noritz. The average American household spends nearly 18 percent of its energy use on heating water, at a cost of $200-$600 per year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Tankless water heaters are more energy-efficient because they only heat water when you need it, rather than constantly consuming fuel to keep water hot in a tank. To learn more about tankless water heaters and the rebate, visit www.noritz.com.

Federal tax credits

Although many tax credits for energy-efficient home improvements expired at the end of 2016, some are still available. The federal government offers a tax credit of up to 30 percent for home solar energy systems through Dec. 31, 2019, and there’s no upper limit on the credit, according to EnergyStar.gov.

If you’ll be making energy-efficient home improvements, be sure to talk to your professional tax preparer about any credits or deductions that may be available to you from the federal government.

State-level programs

In addition to federal programs, a number of states offer their own incentives to encourage homeowners to make energy-efficient improvements. For example, Alabama allows homeowners to deduct 100 percent of the purchase price and installation costs of a wood-burning heating system. In Minnesota, homeowners can borrow up to $20,000 at 4.99 percent interest to make energy-efficient improvements such as water heaters, lighting, furnaces, air conditioners, insulation, windows, tankless water heaters and more.

You can find a searchable Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency at www.dsireusa.org.

Utility company incentives

Many utility companies also offer programs designed to help homeowners reduce energy consumption and save money. Typical programs include free LED or CFL bulbs to replace incandescent bulbs in a home, and rebates or discounts for installing energy-efficient HVAC equipment or programmable thermostats.

The best way to find out what programs your local utility offers is to check out their website or give them a call. You can also find state-specific lists of programs at www.dsireusa.org.

Energy-efficient home improvements pay off over the long-term by reducing your home’s energy consumption and utility bills. With a little bit of planning and legwork, you can also find rebates, tax credits and incentive programs that will also repay your eco-friendly investment right away. To learn more, visit Noritz.com, www.direusa.org, energy.gov, energystar.gov and irs.gov.

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4 life changes that affect your taxes and how to tackle them

(BPT) – Life changes often mean tax changes. Whether it’s getting married, buying or selling a home, moving abroad or having a baby, misunderstanding the tax and financial implications of these life changes can lead to taxpayers making mistakes or leaving money on the table.

Depending on your situation, there are new tax implications that will impact your benefits, tax bill and how you file. If you experienced a life change in 2016, here is a list of tax implications and how they will affect you.

Marriage

Many couples close the book on their “wedding to-dos” once the last thank you card has been sent, but looking at your new tax situation is an important first step in your married life. There are some instances when getting married can have negative implications for a couple’s tax situation. Once you’re married you must file either as married filing jointly or married filing separately. In some cases, a couple where one spouse earns most of the household income will benefit because their overall tax bracket may decrease. However, a couple with two high earners may find they face a higher tax rate than if each paid tax only on their own income and added the taxes paid.

However, there are some ways to protect against potential negative tax implications. After your marriage is official, update your W-4 with your employer to account for your new marital status. If you’re self-employed or a small business owner, make sure to adjust your quarterly estimated tax payments.

Buying a house

Purchasing a home may open the door to more deductions through itemizing if you weren’t already doing so. Once you become a homeowner, you can deduct many of your home-related costs, including your qualified home mortgage interest, points paid on a loan secured by your home, real estate taxes and private mortgage insurance premiums paid on or before Dec. 31, 2016. If you choose not to itemize, you may benefit from other tax advantages such as penalty-free IRA withdrawals if you are a first-time homebuyer under the age of 59 and a half, or residential energy credits for purchases of certain energy efficient property.

New homebuyers should be on the lookout for Form 1098 Mortgage Interest Statement, which is used to report mortgage interest. This form can help you identify these deductions when completing your Form 1040.

Moving abroad

Are you excited to move abroad, but have no idea what will happen to your taxes and how to file? Many Americans living and working overseas will not owe tax to the IRS because of the foreign earned income exclusion and foreign tax credit. However, even if you qualify for those benefits, you have to file a U.S. tax return each year if you received income over the normal filing threshold.

It is also important to understand your Social Security coverage before moving abroad. Knowing whether your earnings overseas will be subjected to Social Security taxes in the U.S. or the country you are residing in will be an important factor when analyzing the economics of your move.

Having a baby

A new baby means you may be able to take advantage of tax breaks, including the Child Tax Credit (CTC). The CTC is worth up to $1,000 for each qualifying child younger than 17, a portion of which may be refundable as the Additional Child Tax Credit (ACTC) depending on your income. A tax preparer can help you understand the qualifications to determine whether a child is considered qualified for purposes of the CTC. Some of those qualifications include but are not limited to their relationship and residency.

You may also qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) which is a benefit for working people with low to moderate income that reduces the amount of taxes you owe. However, it’s important to note that due to the new “Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes ACT” or PATH Act, this year the IRS is required to hold any refund from those claiming the EITC and ACTC until at least Feb. 15. This delay will be widely felt by tax filers who typically file as soon as the IRS accepts e-filed returns and who normally expect to receive their refund by late January.

To learn more about this new tax law change, how it may delay tax refunds in January and February, and H&R Block’s free solution to this delay, visit www.hrblock.com/refundadvance or make an appointment with a tax professional.

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6 common tax filing mistakes to avoid

(BPT) – It’s probably safe to say handing cash to Uncle Sam does not top the list of your favorite things. When it comes to filing taxes, making a small mistake can mean paying more taxes than you need to or forking over cash to cover penalties.

Fortunately, there’s an easy way to make sure your tax return is mistake-free: just take a little extra time to double check your work. Here’s a closer look at the six most common tax-filing errors and tips to help you avoid making them.

1. Mistake: Not reporting all income. Reporting your income is easy if your employer sends you a wage statement (called Form W-2) documenting what you made throughout the year. But what about the money you earned from any freelance work? Unfortunately, many people forget to report extra income from side jobs such as photography shoots, design projects and Etsy shops.

How to avoid the error: Depending on how much you earned, you may receive an “information return” called Form 1099 from the institution that paid you. There are numerous 1099 forms that report different types of income earned during the year, but in some cases you may not receive the document. For example, if you earn less than $600 as a freelance writer, the institution is not required to send you Form 1099-MISC. However, you still need to include the amount earned in your total annual income so it’s important to keep your own records of each transaction.

“To help accurately report your income, review last year’s return and match your income sources item by item,” says TaxAct Director of tax development, Mark Jaeger. “If you discover you haven’t received a 1099 for your work, last year’s return will serve as a reminder to ask about it. Keep in mind, all freelance or side-gig income is reported on Schedule C as part of your Form 1040.”

2. Mistake: Mistyping bank accounts and personal information. Believe it or not, incorrect bank account numbers or personal information – like Social Security Numbers – is one of the main reasons tax returns are rejected. Using a nickname or a shortened version of your legal name also lands near the top of the list.

How to avoid the error: Double – or triple – check any personal or bank account information before you submit your completed tax return. “If you need help figuring out account information, don’t be afraid to ask your bank for assistance,” Jaeger says.

3. Mistake: Paying too much to file your taxes. Whether you tap a tax professional or choose a DIY tax provider that charges an arm and a leg for their product, paying too much to file your return is a mistake.

How to avoid the error: Fortunately, filers have more affordable options to choose from. When looking for DIY options, do some comparison shopping. The leading tax preparation software providers offer similar features and benefits, but the price points can widely vary. In many cases, prices increase as the filing deadline nears. Look for a provider like TaxAct that not only offers a low price, but also guarantees your price won’t increase if you start your online return but wait to file later.

4. Mistake: Not e-filing. While 91 percent of tax returns were e-filed in 2016, there are still filers who file a paper return. Going the pencil and paper route often means longer tax return processing times.

How to avoid the error: Electronic filing (e-filing) is the quickest and most accurate way to file your tax return. In fact, the IRS typically processes e-filed returns within 48 hours. If you’re due a refund, you’ll get it quicker if you e-file and choose direct deposit.

5. Mistake: Incorrect calculations. When the IRS receives your tax return, one of the first steps the agency takes is to check the figures to make sure they add up. Unfortunately, it’s easy to miscalculate numbers – especially if you’re in a rush or aren’t sure what to add or subtract.

How to avoid the error: First, take your time and double check all numbers. Second, consider using DIY tax software so you don’t have to do the math on your own.

6. Mistake: Using the wrong filing status. Choosing the wrong filing status, like Head of Household instead of Single, can have a great impact on your tax rates, the number of personal exemptions you can claim, your qualifications for certain tax deductions, credits and more.

How to avoid the error: Before starting your return, review the five different filing statuses to help you select the one most appropriate for your tax situation. Carefully selecting the right one will help you feel confident you’re taking the right steps to maximize your tax outcome.

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