Hobby or business? Taxes either way

Texas journalist Kay Bell helps make your tax tasks less, well, taxing.

In tough economic times, a lot of folks look for ways to supplement their incomes. One of the most popular options is to put your hobby skills to work.

If you have a hobby that lends itself to making money, go for it. But don’t forget the tax implications.

Any money you make off your hobby must be reported as income. The amount of, in IRS’ words, “income from an activity not engaged in for profit” goes on line 21 of Form 1040.

You might, however, be able to reduce that taxable amount. You can deduct legitimate expenses you incurred in connection with making that hobby money.

For example, your neighbors paid you for taking pictures of their son’s college graduation ceremony. You bought a new lens for your camera and several rolls of film, not to mention the supplies to develop the prints. (Yeah, I know, digital and all that. But in some cases, old-school pictures are still the best.)

You can deduct those photography costs … as long as you meet two requirements.

First, your hobby-related deductions are limited to the amount of hobby income you report on your tax return. If you made $1,000 on the photo shoot and spent $1,200 for the supplies, you can only count $1,000 of your expenses.

Second, you have to itemize to claim the expenditures. They are counted as part of any miscellaneous expenses you have on Schedule A. And your miscellaneous expenses must exceed 2 percent of your adjusted gross income before you can deduct them.

Go the business route: OK. So the tax breaks associated with reducing hobby income aren’t that great. Maybe you should consider turning your hobby into a business.

I’m not saying quit your wage-paying job. I am saying that if your hobby is a viable money maker, operate it as a side businesses on weekends or evenings. As long as it’s a sole proprietorship, you can include the income as part of your regular personal income tax return by filing Schedule C or C-EZ.

And here’s the best part. When it’s a business, your legitimate expenses can directly reduce your taxable income from your hobby-turned-business.

So what happens when you do declare your hobby a business, but lose money? That could work out tax-wise, too. You can claim your losses. It says so, again on Form 1040, line 12. That’s where you enter the business profit or loss amount you calculated on your Schedule C.

But be careful. You can’t just go around merrily snapping photos, enjoying the activity on your days off and writing off business losses year after year. In fact, the IRS expects any business to make a profit in at least thee of its last five years of operation.

Proving you’re in it for profit: One of my favorite tax phrases, facts and circumstances, also comes into play when the IRS looks at whether your activity is a business.

The key here is not that you necessarily make money, but that you have a profit motive. You need to show the IRS that you’re really trying to squeeze some bucks out of the endeavor. You can persuade the IRS of that by demonstrating, for example, that:

  • Losses are common in the start-up phase of your type of business,
  • You spent considerable time in the activity,
  • You kept business-like records,
  • You have assets you expect to appreciate in value, and
  • You got expert advice on how to conduct the business.

Be realistic here. Remember that facts and circumstances standard. You can’t claim $5,000 in losses for two straight years, then report a couple hundred in earnings for the next three. The tax man is not the only person who might find such amounts just a tad too convenient.

Of course, if your side income is nominal and you don’t have that many expenses, you can go ahead and keep earning a few extra bucks off your hobby. No need to hassle with extra tax forms, added record keeping and other business concerns.

But do report your earnings as other income.

About destructivetesting

I'm a self-taught artist who prefers to use found objects in ways that were never intended. I'm not interested in making 10 or 100 of the same object. This, of course, takes more time to make each piece. I also prefer a more minimalist look, where each part of a piece can be appreciated. I consider my clocks to be small sculptures with moving parts. And, my lamps to be small sculptures with light. My mirrors are reflective sculptures. DESTRUCTIVE TESTING means to push something to it's limits to understand it's structural performance or material behavior under different stresses. I interpret this in my artwork as using materials in different ways or combinations than they were designed to be used. I also just like the slightly ominous sound of the term...
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