Roles and Responsibilities of the Self-Employed
Four Additional Roles for the Self-Employed
Self-employment offers freedom and the opportunity to achieve your dreams, but with these perks come new responsibilities that even entrepreneurial-minded people can overlook.
When you become self-employed, you'll have to play the roles of the employee and employer. In the absence of a bona fide human resources department, you will be responsible for your work time, your amount of work, your own taxes, benefits, and future.
If you want to work for yourself as a freelancer, independent contractor, or business owner, there are four key responsibilities of self-employment to consider first.
Although you may want to skip this expense if the costs of being your own boss are already high, health insurance is not something you can do without when you're self-employed. The risks of going deep into debt or even going bankrupt as a result of medical bills are too great.
Fortunately, there are several plans available in locations throughout the country, and you are likely to find at least one that fits into your budget. It can be intimidating to sort out the differences between the various plans, but knowing which factors to consider can make your decision easier:
- Provider: If you're married or at least 65 years old, consider enrolling in health insurance from your spouse's employer or Medicare, respectively. If those options are unavailable, shop for a plan through the health exchange, or "Marketplace," which is a government-run service that helps you find and enroll in an insurance plan from a private insurer. Or, buy a plan directly from a private insurer.
- Plan type: High-deductible plans require you to pay more out of pocket before your insurance starts to pay on your behalf. They're an option if you're fairly healthy because they offer a lower monthly premium, let you contribute to a health-savings account to boost your savings, and still protect you in the event of a medical emergency. However, you might want to choose a traditional plan with a lower deductible if you have a condition that requires you to see a doctor often.
- Costs: Factor in the monthly premiums, along with out-of-pocket costs like deductibles, copayments, and coinsurance, to determine whether a plan is affordable for you. In 2020, the IRS stipulates that a high-deductible plan can have a deductible of at least $1,400 and no more than $6,900 for an individual.
Taxation is another area where you're on your own when you become self-employed. When you start out, you won't have a payroll administrator who automatically deducts federal income taxes and FICA taxes (Social Security and Medicare taxes) from your paycheck.
Instead, you'll need to take on that role as a self-employed individual and manually set aside a portion of your income each month for income taxes and self-employment taxes, which are the self-employed equivalent of FICA taxes.
The process requires you to figure out exactly how much you owe using Schedule SE of Form 1040. You'll pay a self-employment tax rate of 15.3% (12.4% for Social Security taxes and 2.9% for Medicare taxes) on 92.35% of your net earnings from self-employment.
You'll generally have to pay these estimated taxes quarterly to the IRS—on time and in full—to avoid facing penalties when you file your tax return. Enlist these tips to ensure sufficient, timely payments:
- Treat taxes as an expense: Set aside money each month to cover your taxes.
- Consider other taxes: Include state and local taxes, if they apply.
- Keep records: Document your earnings and taxes in the event that you are audited.
- Get help: Consider using an accountant for the first year you pay self-employment taxes.
Self-employed individuals pay the full 15.3% in Social Security and Medicare taxes; traditional employees only pay 7.65% in FICA taxes since the employer pays the other half.
As a self-employed individual, you won't have retirement contributions automatically deducted from your paycheck and directed to a 401(k). It will be your role as a self-employed person to establish a retirement account and then put in place a plan to save for retirement. The earlier you start saving, the better—you will not have additional help from matching employer contributions.
There are special retirement accounts available to the self-employed that offer tax savings. To minimize your tax burden in your prime earning years, take advantage of tax-deferred retirement accounts that don't put you on the hook to pay taxes until withdrawal in retirement. These include pre-tax plans like solo 401(k) plans and traditional SEP-IRAs, which can reduce your taxable earnings upon contribution, along with accounts you pay into with post-tax dollars (like Roth IRAs). Roth IRAs have an added benefit: Withdrawals generally aren't taxed.
You may also want to open a taxable brokerage account to increase your savings potential, but keep in mind that your investments can generate taxable dividends, and, when sold, taxable capital gains. It's useful to talk to a financial adviser to learn exactly what you can do to make sure you save enough to reach your retirement goals.
The most difficult requirement that comes with self-employment is to manage your money wisely when you transition from a fixed, biweekly paycheck to an irregular schedule of unpredictable payments. The highest challenge when you are self-employed is not knowing how much you will bring in each month. For that, you need to be prudent and budget for the worst-case scenario. The easiest way to ensure financial security in self-employment is to step into the role of an accountant and set up a basic budget.
You can create this monthly spending plan in a similar way as you would a budget on a fixed income. The difference is that when listing your income, you should use the income from your lowest-earning month of the year as your baseline income.
Beyond establishing a budget, there are additional steps you can take to stretch your variable income:
- Separate accounts: Open a business account to make it easier to keep your business expenses separate from your personal expenses.
- Save aggressively: When business is booming, put as much money into savings as possible, to help you weather a potential bust in the future. The most notable case study of this is how much small businesses—hurt with COVID and weathering one year of low or no business—required substantial savings.
- Keep expenses flexible: Arrange your finances so that you can cut back on services when needed. For example, avoid contracts that you have to buy out in order to cancel. Avoid totally hiring full-time employees, and stick with ad hoc freelancers.
- Delay large purchases: If you've just begun working for yourself, you might want to delay buying a new home or car so that you don't have a huge payment hanging over your head.
If you budget carefully and save regularly, you should be able to survive the months when your income is lower than normal. After you've been in business for some time, you might not need to be as conservative in your monthly spending.