It’s almost cruel: as soon as the holidays are over, it’s time to start thinking about first quarter financials. And while winter may be the most wonderful time of the year (… maybe), it’s also one of the most busy and expensive.
Tax time is stressful for everyone, but especially for freelance writers, whose financial situations can be super-complicated. Have you been keeping up with your quarterlies? What about self-employment tax? Maybe you’ve got a “normal job” as a side gig — which means you’ve got W-2s to worry about, too. And how’s that whole “saving for retirement” thing going?
Fret not, frantic freelancer! Because while, yes, tax time will require some additional hustle, getting your ducks in a row at the beginning of the year can set you up for smooth sailing thereafter.
Here are five savvy financial steps to take before the cruellest month arrives.
1. Maximize IRA contributions
You might not have an employer-sponsored 401(k), but you are saving for retirement, right?
Whether you choose a Roth or traditional account, an IRA is a great way to build that nest egg. But you’ve gotta put money into it if you want to take money out!
Given that IRAs carry relatively low contribution limits (up to $5,500 for 2018), meeting the maximum is a relatively achievable goal for many of us — and it’s well worth scrimping and saving for. The magic of compound interest can turn even a modest savings into a sizable retirement fund, provided you give it time to grow.
That $6,000 per year works out to just over $125 a week, equivalent to what you might spend at bars and restaurants…and in 30 years time with a 6% growth rate, you’d have about half a million dollars. (Source: this retirement calculator. I mean, I’m a writer; you can’t expect me to do that kind of math unaided. 😉 )
You’ve got until April 15 of each calendar year to make contributions for the previous years’ taxes, so even if the holidays have you strapped, you’ve still got time to get there.
2. While you’re at it, check out your portfolio
That IRA — or any other investment account you might have — will only grow if your assets are properly allocated. And while we’re not suggesting you take on day trading (unless you really know what you’re doing), it’s a good idea to take a glance at your holdings on a yearly basis.
Malik S. Lee, Certified Financial Planner and founder of Atlanta-based Felton & Peel Wealth Management, cautions average investors against playing with their portfolio too often — especially given the sensationalism of the media. “You don’t want to react to headline risks,” he says. But there are certain situations where updates and changes are called for.
We’re certainly not investment experts, so we’ll leave it up to you to do that research. That said, if you’ve got the budget for it, hiring a qualified financial advisor can be a great way to take the guesswork out of your long-term financial strategy.
3. Review last year’s earnings and set goals for this year
New year, new you, new opportunities to increase your income. But first, take a second to look back at how you performed last year — that way, you’ll have better context from which to set those goals. (Plus the chance to give yourself a well-deserved pat on the back!)
Keeping detailed records is imperative for freelance entrepreneurs, which means that figuring out your total income shouldn’t be too difficult. If you’re struggling with a convoluted system of ad hoc Google doc spreadsheets — or worse, paper invoices (*shudder*), consider upgrading to Freshbooks, which will help with this step as well as the next.
By the way, don’t underestimate the power of writing your goals down. It’s scientifically proven to improve your chances of actually achieving your objectives, and it’s also a great way to track your growth in the long term. There’s nothing like looking back at the goals you set three years ago and finding they’re a fraction of your present-day earnings!
4. Get into the nitty gritty
You’ve checked out how much you made last year and written down an ambitious-yet-achievable goal for this one.
So how are you going to make it happen?
One of the best ways to earn more money as a freelance writer is to get a little bit cutthroat when it comes to your clients. After all, not all paid gigs are created equally — and it’s worth pouring more of your energy into the ones that offer better returns on your time and energy investments.
So take a chilly January afternoon to go over your client list (and/or sources of income in general) so you can decide who and what to prioritize. If you’re looking for a great template to work off, check out this amazing income breakdown by The Write Life’s managing editor, Jessica Lawlor.
5. Prepare for April — don’t forget about self-employment tax!
No doubt this one is already on your to-do list, but it’s worth reiterating: quarterly taxes are due on April 15, and given the probable complexity of your paperwork situation, you probably want to file them quite a bit earlier.
Keep in mind that you’ll be paying both income taxes within your designated bracket, as well as self-employment tax — a particularly, um, fun freelance extra that’s easy to forget about. For most freelancers, it’s a good idea to find an accountant…and given how busy she’s about to be, you might as well schedule that appointment for before the end of January.
Happy new year, writers. May your 2019 be prosperous and your paperwork be as simple as possible!