Tax tips for freelancers: is it a business or a hobby?

By Sharita Hutton

For Chicago based Aubre Andrus, writing is her life. The author of seven children’s books, a blogger, and website copywriter, Andrus calls herself a triple threat when it comes to her work. “I mix marketing savviness with journalistic integrity and creative writing thanks to various positions I’ve held in the past,” Andrus said.

But instead of waking up every morning, and heading into the office, Andrus is finding her roles in media through freelance work and it turns out she is not alone.

It is estimated that there are 42 million people in work operations based on “freelance” principles and the number continues to grow. That is, these workers have a great deal of freedom in how much and when they work, who they work for and what they get paid. The freedom comes to a halt when it comes to taxes because even if just a little extra income is being earned, that money is reportable income. Plus, special reporting rules apply to some freelancers.

“My least favorite part about being a freelancer is dealing with tax-related issues. I dread tax season and I had no idea what to do at first,” Andrus said.

Freelancers need to track what they earn because even if they don’t get a 1099 or W-2, reporting this income is required by law – even when the payment is made in cash. When freelance work becomes the main source of income or a full-time job, income and expenses need to be reported on Schedule C. Also, when freelancing becomes a business, self-employment tax may be owed, along with quarterly, estimated tax payments. An advantage of operating a business is that expenses can directly offset income, which means a freelancer can show a loss.

“I pay quarterly taxes,” Andrus said. “There a lot of decisions freelancers need to make when it comes to finances, and these are decisions that shouldn’t be made on your own.”

H&R Block Tax Professional Riley Holmes has advice for freelancers. “As a small business owner, you are most likely to report your business income in the year you receive it and deduct your expenses in the year in which you pay them. Sometimes it may be advantageous for you to defer some of your billing until the next year, but once you have access to the income you must report it.”

When freelance activities are at the “hobby” level, all related expenses can be deducted as miscellaneous itemized deductions. But, the deduction is limited to the total revenue from that hobby and it is only for the expenses in excess of 2 percent of adjusted income.

The more you operate your business in a professional manner, the more likely the IRS will treat it as a profession rather than a hobby, making it important to

  • Track all income (it is reportable and taxable)
  • Save receipts (you could be able to deduct some expenses)
  • Secure digital and paper records (be sure to back them up, too)
  • Separate bank accounts (makes it easier to keep good records and file accurate tax returns)
  • Know tax rules for business model (it makes a difference if you have a business or a hobby)
Author’s Bio: Sharita Hutton helps bloggers and other entrepreneurs navigate tax issues. For more information about the difference between having a freelance business and a hobby and other tax topics, contact an H&R Block tax professional. To find the nearest H&R Block office, visit or call 800-HRBLOCK.


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