5 common small business misconceptions about taxes

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Small business taxes are more complicated than personal income tax and come with a host of misconceptions. Eliminate five of them by reading this piece on tax myths.
Woman at laptop holds her temples.

Tax season can create anxiety, confusion, and misconceptions for small business owners. Maybe even a little fire and brimstone. Hyperbole aside, taxes are notoriously complicated, and many small business owners who brave their taxes on their own may rely on pieces of tax wisdom heard from friends or read online. That is to say, if you're not an accountant or a certified tax professional, chances are you may not have the background needed to separate fact from fiction.

So let's get some things straight with common misconceptions about taxes.

Tax myth: I don't have to pay quarterly taxes

If you're a W-2 employee whose taxes are being withheld by your employer, no, you don't have to pay quarterly taxes. And if you're a W-2 who freelances on the side, you may not have to pay them if you withhold enough federal and state taxes from your regular paychecks to cover the extra you may owe.

But if you don't fall under either of those categories, you most certainly are required to pay quarterly income and self-employment taxes to both the state and federal government. Failure to do so results in underpayment penalties when you file your annual return. Your accountant can advise you on how much to set aside, but usually, 30% is a safe starting point.

Quarterly taxes are due by…

  • January 15
  • April 15
  • June 15
  • September 15

To learn more tips on freelance taxes, check out the post "Did you freelance this year? Now is the time to focus on small business taxes."

Tax myth: Affordable Care Act penalties aren't that expensive

That depends on how you look at it. It's true that your penalty for not having health insurance by tax time this year is probably less than what you'd pay for a whole year of coverage. But here's the thing: you're going to pay the penalty and still not have insurance. That means if you have an unexpected injury or illness, you'd have to pay all your medical bills out of pocket and you'd still be out the money you paid in fines.

Doesn't seem like a good gamble, does it? You essentially get a double-whammy hit when your health takes a turn for the worst.

By now you know that you're required to buy your own health insurance if you don't have coverage through an employer or a spouse. Failure to obtain that coverage means you will pay Obamacare penalties, and those fines will increase each year. For 2015, your penalty will be the greater of the following two amounts:

  • 2% of your income
  • $325 per uncovered adult in your household and $162.50 for each child under 18, with a maximum of $975

For example, if you're a freelancer who lives alone and makes $40,000, you'd owe $800 (2% of your income) for not having insurance. When you file your 2015 taxes, your penalty will be deducted from your return or added on to the amount you owe.

Tax myth: I can deduct whatever I spend on my business

You can deduct quite a few business expenses, but don't get carried away. It's important to work with a tax professional to ensure you take every deduction you're entitled to, but don't take too many and set yourself up for an audit.

Here are some common small business deductions:

Home office: The IRS recently simplified the home office deduction so that you can deduct $5 per square foot of your home that's used for business (up to 300 square feet).

Insurance: If you purchase your own health and small business insurance, you may be able to deduct your premiums. It's best to work with an accountant if you offer health insurance benefits to your employees and want to write off those expenses – some rules apply.

Communication: If you use your internet and phone services for business, you may be able to deduct these expenses.

Advertising: The money you spend on ways to promote your business may be deductible. For example, you may be able to write off what you spend on social media ads or premium LinkedIn accounts.

Meals and entertainment: Wining and dining potential clients can get expensive, so save your receipts from these outings. You can deduct 50% of your meals and entertainment costs so long as they are for business purposes. Again, work with a CPA because extravagant entertainment expenses can be red flags for auditors.

For more pointers on deductible business expenses, check out this guide by Nolo.com.

Tax myth: I can just put everything in a box and my accountant will know what to do

Don't make your accountant's job harder than it already is. Help them make sense of the heap of expenses you've amassed over the year by…

Scanning your receipts. Printed receipts fade over time and some are as long as your arm. Scanning receipts ensures you don't lose them.

Logging expenses into an Excel spreadsheet. This will help you make notes of the amount you spent and why you spent it. That can help your accountant quickly sort through what you can and can't deduct.

Tracking your income. You can use many online tools to track your business income. The important thing is to find a system that works for you and stick with it. Ask your accountant for good recommendations.

Remember, the more you organize your expenses and income, the less time you'll have to spend away from your work explaining what it all means to your accountant. Plus, the little forethought helps your accountant file your taxes quicker.

Tax myth: CPAs and tax pros only fill out forms that I can do myself

Unless you're a financial wizard and study tax laws for fun, chances are licensed preparers know way more than you do about taxes and how to save your business the most money. Licensed preparers must receive IRS-approved training each year to ensure they are current on the latest tax code changes. Also, enrolled agents can represent you to the IRS if you're audited. To find a tax expert in your area, you can search the National Association of Enrolled Agents directory.

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