Part of optimizing your tax as an entrepreneur, is simplifying your quarterly estimated tax payments. There's usually no getting around sending money to the government every three months, but with the right pieces in place, you can make it painless and avoid shortfall surprises at year-end.
The reason for estimated tax payments
Sending in 'estimateds' is really just for one purpose: to avoid an underpayment penalty. Essentially, if you don't send the government enough money during the year, and have a balance due on your tax return, they'll calculate interest on the shortfall. Depending on which government you owe, that interest usually ranges between 5 to 15%, which can be painful knowing it could have been avoided.
Having said that, there's another good reason to send in estimated tax payments as well: it prevents you from spending the money elsewhere. There's few things worse than letting good profits transform into tax nightmares, simply by failing to earmark Uncle Sam's piece. That's why we recommend setting aside monies from profits as you go, and avoiding the unnecessary scramble to make up ground at year-end.
How much should you send?
For entrepreneurs, estimating your tax can be tricky, especially if your business is scaling or has seasonal fluctuations. Depending on your situation, different approaches can take out the guesswork and make it easier:
- Use last year as a guide -- If you're not expecting things to change, last year's tax return can be a pretty accurate calculation of this year's tax. Given that's true, simply take the tax that wasn't covered by withholding, and divide by four - voíla: your quarterly amount!
- Applying a rule of thumb to this year's income -- If this is your first year, or the business is scaling/fluctuating, applying a blended tax rate to your profits each month can get you close enough. Your particular blended rate will depend on your tax bracket and whether you're paying self-employment or other special taxes (like AMT). 42% can be a good starting position, or we also can help determine yours.
- Run a tax projection -- The best way to get a read on your estimated taxes, is to do an actual tax projection: prepare a pro-forma tax return, and calculate how the different parts interact with each other. We recommend all entrepreneurs have this done at least once a year, and quarterly can be smart if there's large movements, or more than one variable in motion.
No matter which method(s) you use, remember that it's only an estimate: so be sure to apply a safety buffer for the degree of comfort that works for you.
Sending in the actual payment
One of the traps of estimated tax payments, is that they're due in three month increments. That can be a lot of time going by with money in the bank, giving a false sense that you have more than you think, and possibly getting spent. Which is why we recommend setting up a separate bank account that you transfer tax money into every month, using your estimate above. It seems simple, but it will save you a lot of heartache.
After that, the best way to send estimated taxes is to usually to pay online using the government's own website: you get a confirmation, and you don't have to rustle around for checks or stamps, or rush to the post office in time. Here are links to help you out:
- Federal: A quick, effective method is the IRS DirectPay site, which requires no sign-up. For a more robust scheduling and history tracking features, you can use the EFTPS site, which has a five-day, one-time activation process. And if you're feeling particular techy, you can make payments from the IRS' own smartphone app: IRS2Go (iOS and Android). (The official federal estimated tax form is Form 1040ES.)
- Maryland: Uses their iFile website, which you can register with same-day. While it gives you the ability to schedule future payments too, be aware that they can't be changed after-the-fact. Also, the site doesn't store your bank information, so you'll need to have your routing/account number ready. (The official Maryland estimated tax form is Form 502D.)
- DC: Their newly launched myTax website has a "Pay by eCheck" option (look for the button near the bottom center of the home page). As you complete the screens be sure to select estimated tax from the options. (The official DC estimated tax form is Form D-40ES.)
- Virginia: Simply visit VATax site, or use the Virginia eForms. Both will let you make payments from your bank account automatically. (The official Virginia estimated tax form is Form 760ES.)
Lastly, estimated tax due dates are spaced at weird intervals that aren't exactly quarter ends, or even three months apart: April 15, June 15, September 15 and January 15. To avoid one of these dates slipping by you, we recommend subscribing to our simple quarterly estimated tax reminder e-mail -- we'll send you a short reminder two weeks before the due date, giving you enough time to take action and avoid stress. Just click this button:
Turning taxes into a "non-event"
Accurately estimating your tax, and automating its payment, means there's no surprises at tax time. Instead, filing your return at year-end becomes a paper formality, and turning your taxes into a non-event becomes a reality. Elements are simple, but powerful.