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Schedule C for the Theater Freelancer

April 13, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: In a Perfect World, Infrastructure, productivity, Tools

If your income stream is anything like mine, you kind of feel a one-two punch at the end of the tax year for simply being an artist in America (though clearly Canadians also have issues). Most theaters don’t employ artists on a full-time basis, nor do they pay a lot. Assembling an artistic income means 1099 / Independent Contractor income and that means no matter how little money you make and how close to the real, scary poverty line you are: you’re in business for yourself now. You get to file a schedule C and pay self-employment tax. The punch that you feel is the realization: I already GAVE my financial stability to theater… now I have to give again because it actually paid me less money than it took for me to survive?

Ah, doesn’t whining make you feel better? I recommend a good whining / coffee / bite your pillow break every half hour or so while doing your taxes.

Before I get started: This is not meant as a catch-all tax guide, nor should you use it as one. I am not a CPA. I am also writing this in 2009, and the tax law changes every year, sometimes drastically. Think of this as a catalyst for your own personal investigation and deeper understanding of how the tax code applies to freelancing artists. If you’re looking for an artist-friendly CPA, I highly recommend getting one locally via word of mouth. I’m also a little “too little too late” for this year, so hopefully this will help serve as a guide to help you capture the information you’ll need for next year. Those of you in the Chicago still in need of help area could also file an extension ASAP (most CPAs are only taking extension clients right now) and look to @rockstarcpa, aka Martin Kamenski of Collaboraction Theatre.

So the trick to Schedule C is the claiming of deductions – expenses – that legitimately offset your as-yet untaxed income and prove to the IRS (in terms it understands) that no, I’m eating Top Ramen for crying out loud, I didn’t turn a $14k profit this year that you now need to tax me for. You’ve accrued more expenses than you may think in the pursuit of your artistic work, which is why it may feel so ridiculous that you’re being taxed on this income. After all, the money is gone now, right?

Hopefully not, actually. In preparation for your next year, make sure you find some way of imposing a rule on yourself that you squirrel away a certain amount of each check into savings over the course of the year or pay estimated taxes at the end of each quarter. The first way, you keep the interest, the second way, the government does. Either way, you’re talking about a couple packets of Starbucks VIA, so do what makes you happy. It makes the tax crunch a lot less stressful to deal with when you’re only worried about filing paperwork rather than hustling for scratch to pay the tax man.

So about those deductions. I use my debit card almost all year long rather than cash. It’s really annoying for splitting the bill, but I find that getting a receipt for everything is both a good budget reminder and takes care of my paperwork for me. I sort and file these receipts all year long into deductible and non-deductible expenses in a little coupon file like this one, one for each year. Best part about the folder? It’s a deductible office expense. I also keep track of my budgets, expenses, and anticipated freelancing income using the cheap and pretty useful online software Buxfer. It’s easy to tag transactions into pre-sorted deduction categories, and balance my checkbook from my iPhone. The upshot of all of this: You’re going for a stress-free tax season. That’s much easier to achieve when you do all the sorting and filing work in little easy chunks all year long rather than in one chaotic panicked mess on April 14th.

These are the deductions I track:

Business Meals. Not every meal, but every meal that I took because I was discussing work related to my 1099 income: Production meetings, design meetings, interviews, planning sessions, all that jazz. It always ends up being a bigger percentage of my meals than I expect. You only get to deduct 50% of these expenses, but the collaborative art of theater often makes us go out together to chat when we could be bringing a sandwich from home, so it’s a cost of doing business. I always write who I was meeting with and what we discussed on the receipt or in a Buxfer note, because you can be sure I won’t remember later.

Office Supplies
For a designer, this can be a pretty big expense. For me, it’s CD-Rs and play binders, for some it’s model building or drafting supplies. In the paperless age, however, it’s nothing compared to the allure of…

Resume and Job-seeking expenses
Oh yeah. Headshots. Portfolio expenses. Kinkos. Anything you spent looking for work, and especially for you performers, that’s a lot a lot a lot of potential deductions.

Section 179 Depreciation
This one is cleverly titled to be as confusing as possible, but it roughly translates as a deduction for the full cost of medium-term assets (Computers, hard drives, PDAs, Software) that you bought this year. Since these assets often die after 3-5 years, Section 179 allows you to depreciate and thereby deduct the entire portion of these assets that you use for business in a single year. Needless to say, if you own a computer or hard drive or seven that you use exclusively for business, as I do, this is the golden child of deductions.

Business Travel
If you’re lucky enough to get regional or even national work, you probably don’t need my advice. However, this can be a useful deduction. Taxis, Hotels, Travel Meals, Parking Fees and Plane Fare are all deductible in the pursuit of the almighty dollar. Track ’em.

Business Mileage & Use of a Personal Car
No, you can’t deduct your regular commute, so get that out of your head. But if you’re freelancing and go to a different location to work, that is deductible, as are Taxi fares and Parking costs that you incur for freelance business purposes. (For instance, my “day job” source of W-2 income is downtown, so when I park there as part of my regular commute, I do NOT get to deduct those expenses, but if I travel to Wisconsin to design a show, I DO.) What the IRS would like here in your records is odometer readings all year long, which I find to be an unsustainable practice when you use your car for both personal and business use. The key here is specific written records. I find myself keeping a really good calendar record of everywhere I go day-to-day, so I cross reference round-trip mileages for a number of theaters in the suburbs where I work with my calendar. A simple spreadsheet later, I have a table of about a dozen places I drove for business over the year and the number of times I drove there, and voila: a pretty close estimate of my business mileage. Also, if you really want to make the IRS happy, make writing your odometer reading into a dashboard notebook an annual New Years tradition. How they want you to do this and while also not drinking and driving is something they leave up to you.

Professional Research & Subscriptions – This is something you should definitely talk over with a professional, but I encourage you to track your expenses here, whether or not you can deduct them. Artists spend a lot on research in the course of the year. We see other shows and buy tickets, we go to awards ceremonies and trade shows because we it’s good for our career. We rent movies and purchase books and music and all kinds of art to investigate dramaturgical history or artistic technique. Actors and dancers need to maintain themselves physically, so a gym membership is a reasonable business expense. If you spend money on it because you’re using it as research or material for your work, it is deductible. Be reasonable now. Your Nintendo Wii is probably not helping you with your flexibility all that much.

IRA Contributions – Why pay taxes when you can be saving for poverty-in-retirement? You ain’t gonna be a ballerina forever. Another benefit I’ve found about squirreling away some of my 1099 income is that it means I have a glut of savings that I can throw into a traditional IRA at the end of the year… some of which will actually increase my refund at the end of the year. Stocks are also in the toilet this year, which means that unless the economy really falls off a cliff your donations will go farther when the economy rebounds. Check with an accountant about the pros and cons of traditional vs. Roth IRAs… They are DIRT simple to set up online. I was surprised.

Other deductions you should track closely:

Tax Filing Expenses including software, filing costs, and CPA professional fees. I guess this is how the government absolves themselves of the guilt of making the tax code so complex that you need a professional to file if you have a non-traditional relationship with your employer.

Credit Card Interest on Business Expenses ONLY sometimes.

Cellphone Usage for business purposes – as with all personal / private usage, deduct business usage only.

Professional Dues & Fees – I got my IATSE Union Card this year. It was espensive, but it’s quite the deduction.

Charitable expenses – Track all your donations of materials to 501(c)(3) organizations, and make sure you get a donation letter for the agreed-upon value of your donated goods. Update: thanks to @rockstarcpafor this catch: You cannot take a tempting, tempting deduction for donated time to an organization. Donated goods and materials only. Also, do not deduct political contributions or anything that you received a benefit in kind for, like that CD I got with my NPR donation this year.

State, Local Taxes and Registration Fees – Different states allow you to deduct different taxes, so this is definitely one you’ll want to investigate more. For instance, Illinois does NOT allow you to deduct annual car registration fees, other states do.

Home Office
This is one that every CPA and tax software warns you that it’s like playing with Audit fire, and I tend to agree with them. However, it’s a huge potential deduction IF you have a dedicated space of your home that you use exclusively for business. The concept here is: figure out the percentage of square footage in your home that you use for your home office, and then deduct that percentage of your home expenses: Rent, Utilities, Mortgage Interest, Association Fees. This is an oft-abused deduction, so handle with care and seek specific advice to your situation. Remember too that you can deduct 100% of any office-related expenses like furniture that you use entirely for business purposes. Getting the trend here? Do not deduct your personal stuff, DO deduct your business stuff, the rest is just capturing and estimating the relative value of each. If you own your home, there are also some long-term ramifications to using the home office deduction.

One thing that’s really important than can be confusing when using tax software like TaxCut or TurboTax: Most business deductions can EITHER be deducted on schedule C as business deductions OR you can deduct them as part of your itemized deductions offsetting your W-2 tax-withheld income. Obviously the advantage is to apply deductions as much as is appropriate off your Schedule C income, since the standard income deduction is pretty healthy on your W-2 “day job” income. And be careful when moving column A to column B that you don’t accidentally deduct expenses in both places, because that of course is a no-no.

See? This is SIMPLE. Taxes are EASY for EVERYONE to do, especially artists whose livelihoods neatly fit into predescribed non-corporate deductible behavior like BOTTLED WATER DELIVERY. I am being SARCASTIC.

I’m gonna wrap up with a little bit of social commentary about an often-overlooked, but significant deduction that I think artists would be more vocal about if they had ever heard of it. It’s called the “Qualified Performing Artist Deduction” and it’s a doozy. It’s so obscure and mostly useless that most CPAs I consulted in my early theater years had never heard about it. If you are “Qualified” for the deduction, you are allowed to deduct all your job-related expenses IN ADDITION to the standard deduction, even on your non-schedule-C income. However, to qualify you need to jump through some gut-wrenching hoops that I wouldn’t wish on anyone:

– You need to have made a minimum of 2 $200+ performer-related W-2s during the year
– Your performing-related deductions must have been 10% or more of your income
– Your adjusted GROSS total income cannot be more than $16,000 for the year – and married couples taking the deduction must not have a COMBINED income of $16k in a year.

Here’s where I get incensed… that $16,000 limit is awfully close to the poverty line, and don’t get me started about not doubling the limit for married couples. I’m glad truly starving artists can actually take this deduction, the problem is all those folks who are still starving and make more than $16k in a year. The limit on this deduction – as far as I can gather – has not been amended to adjust for inflation since the Tax Code was overhauled in 1986, as similar deductions are on a regular basis, although Sens. Schumer and Feinstein attempted to in 2006. So bully to them. It’s such a weird tax code exception – an exception literally made for only one kind of worder – and so on the one hand it’s one of the only tangible examples I can think of where the government has actually tried to treat performing artists differently and give them a leg up. On the other hand that assistance is so half-hearted and I’m sure politically unstable that a prerequisite for that leg up is that you chop the leg off first.

This article was sponsored by @marebiddle, who not only bought me a cup of home-made Kona coffee that fed the adrenaline drive required to write a post on tax code, but also specifically requested that I follow through on it with a simple “Please…”. Thanks, Mare, and good luck!

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6 Comments to “Schedule C for the Theater Freelancer”


  1. It’s worth noting, since this is a fairly universal problem, that most of the 1099 payments made by theatres actually fail to meet the IRS’s definition of an independent contractor. There are other dimensions too, such as IC’s are not covered by workman’s comp – think about that the next time you’re up a ladder at a focus. For a myriad of reasons it is worth your time at your hiring to do whatever you can to be paid W-2 as an employee rather than 1099.

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  2. That’s a whole other post, David.

    Ever since my first internship, theaters have been trying to sell me on how 1099 income is in my best interests and after many stressful tax years and near misses, I will agree with you: The way the theater industry (and it is EVERYONE) pays for its freelance consultants is not right. It’s a great deal for the theaters themselves because they don’t need to take out insurance or deal with payroll, but just like firecode violations, it’s also dangerously skirting the rules.

    I’d also like to look at this problem from a practical standpoint. Seeing the calculus from the other side of things as a theatrical producer, as well, I can say that if theaters were always held to the standards of normal business practice, they would not be able to produce. There are many reasons aside from this one why theaters just don’t function under the acceoted standards of doing business in America – most of them wouldn’t even get past rent. But I’d argue that some of those contributions are worthwhile enough to be supported by the community one way or another, and what’s more, there’s no real mechanism other than 501c3 status that actually helps us as a community determine which non-profit organizations are valuable – so it’s help all or help none.

    The current tax code system gives a certain level of support to non-profits as far as payroll goes, but theater non-profits historically don’t even have the business infrastructure to take advantage of free resources. This lack of business sense has been an internal struggle within the theatrical community and from what I can tell the only lasting change possible would come from creating a clearly navigable and different framework of payroll rules and incentives for arts organizations or even all non-profits, who all seem to have this problem in the current system: For instance, a law that required theaters to file W-2s for employees and take out workers comp insurance for all freelance employees that ALSO provided dirt-simple payroll consulting and infrastructure for theaters to do so, and incentives to insurance companies to provide affordable rates to non-profits.

    I know theaters want to do what is best for their employees, but their priority is always going to be production. As we all know, in a theater you usually just get to the first few things on your list.

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  3. I’ve been engaged in taxes for lengthier then I care to admit, both on the personal side (all my employed life story!!) and from a legal standpoint since passing the bar and pursuing tax law. I’ve rendered a lot of advice and redressed a lot of wrongs, and I must say that what you’ve put up makes complete sense. Please continue the good work – the more people know the better they’ll be armed to handle with the tax man, and that’s what it’s all about.

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  4. It is rare that I find something online to be so thoroughly helpful.

    I realize this was written in 2009, as you mention, but you’ve edified me with regard to the Schedule C.

    Thanks.

    Jack

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  5. Gosh, I hope so, Jack. This will be the first year I will not be filing my taxes on my own in a while – it’s just getting too nuts as my income is diversifying more and *thankfully* also increasing.

    If you ever want to graduate beyond Schedule C, talk to a tax advisor about whether going S-Corp or LLC might be for you. The major benefit of that conversation for me was to put me in the frame of mind that my 1099 work is not a hobby – and therefore I can’t afford to paid like it is a hobby. It’s a complex leap to make, and as I say above, it’s not as cut and dry as the IRS would like to make it out to be – many artists live in that kind of subsistence Schedule C territory, and it’s not a comfortable place to be – and often that means it’s not a comfortable place to stay in for more than a few years.

    That said, I think that the work that Schedule C’ers do and are trying to do is really valuable, and much more valuable than their compensation would indicate. So I hope this post at least clarifies some of the challenges you face when you’re in that window of more-than-hobby and less-than-incorporated-business, and allows you to stabilize so that you can move in the right direction for next year.

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  6. Nikki Delhomme says:

    Nick!!! Oh man it’s tax time. Ran across this article in searching for some thoughts about a “research” trip I took this year, and it’s you! Every year I kick myself for not jumping into an LLC, maybe it’s this year after all. Hope you are well, come to NYC sometime!

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