Here’s a brief overview of how to file and pay taxes as a sole proprietor — and an explanation of when incorporating your business can save you tax dollars.
Filing a tax return
The only difference between reporting income from your sole proprietorship and reporting wages from a job is that you must list your business’ profit or loss information on Schedule C (Profit or Loss from a Business), which you will submit to the IRS along with Form 1040.
You’ll be taxed on all profits of the business — that’s total sales minus expenses — regardless of how much money you actually withdraw from the business. In other words, even if you leave money in the company’s bank account at the end of the year — for instance, to cover future expenses or expand the business — you must pay taxes on that money.
You can deduct your business expenses in the same manner as any other type of business. You are allowed to write off any money you spend in pursuit of profit, including start-up costs, operating expenses and product and advertising costs, as well as business-related meals, travel and entertainment expenses. But you’ll need to keep accurate records for your business that are clearly separate from your personal expenses. One good approach is to keep separate checkbooks for your business and personal expenses — and pay for all of your business expenses out of the business checking account.
Because you don’t have an employer to withhold income taxes from your paycheck, it’s your job to set aside enough money to pay taxes on any business income you bring in over the year. To do this, you must estimate how much tax you’ll owe at the end of each year and make quarterly estimated income tax payments to the IRS and, if required, to your state tax agency.
Sole proprietors must make contributions to the Social Security and Medicare systems; taken together, these contributions are called “self-employment taxes.” Self-employment taxes are equivalent to the payroll tax for employees of a business. But while regular employees make contributions to these two programs through deductions from their paychecks, sole proprietors must make their contributions when paying their other income taxes.
Another important difference between employees and sole proprietors is that employees only have to pay half as much into these programs because their contributions are matched by their employers. Sole proprietors must pay the entire amount themselves.
The self-employment tax rate for 2002 was 15.3% of the first $84,900 of income and 2.9% of everything over $84,900. You’ll need to research the current years’ rate. Self-employment taxes are reported on Schedule SE, which a sole proprietor submits each year with his 1040 income tax return and Schedule C.
Incorporating your business may cut your tax bill
Unlike a sole proprietorship, a corporation is considered a separate entity from its owners for income tax purposes. Owners of corporations don’t pay tax on money earned by the corporation unless they receive the money as compensation for services (salaries and bonuses) or as dividends. The corporation itself pays taxes on all profits left in the business.
While more complicated, corporate taxation can offer business owners some tax advantages. Corporate owners who need or want to leave some profits in the business can benefit from lower corporate tax rates, at least for the first $75,000 of profits. For example, if your Web design company wants to build up a reserve to buy new equipment or your small label manufacturing company needs to accumulate valuable inventory as it expands, you may choose to leave money in the business — let’s say $50,000. If you operate as a sole proprietor, those “retained” profits would be taxed at your marginal individual tax rate, which is probably over 27%. But if you incorporate, that $50,000 would be taxed at the lower 15% corporate rate.
To learn more about how incorporating can reduce your tax bill, see How Corporations are Taxed.