Taxes Going Up? Here’s What Musicians Can Do

My clients are completing their 2018 tax returns and it is a mixed bag. Many musicians who used to itemize their deductions, especially married couples, are now taking the standard deduction for the first time in decades. Some are seeing their taxes go down while others, myself included, are paying thousands more for 2018 than we did for 2017.

Generally, if you had a significant amount of itemized deductions, many of those deductions were reduced or eliminated under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. This should be no surprise to my readers, because I’ve been warning you about this since November 2017 when the law was just being proposed in Congress. For musicians who are W-2 employees, the loss of Miscellaneous Itemized Deductions meant losing the ability to deduct your instruments, supplies, mileage, home office, union dues, concert clothes, and other expenses.

What also came as a surprise to many musicians was that their employers significantly reduced their tax withholding from their paycheck. Payroll software has several weaknesses – it doesn’t know what deductions you may have or what other income you or your spouse earns. The software just sees a lower marginal tax rate and automatically withholds less. If your employer under-withheld, you can ask HR to reduce your exemptions to zero and if you are married, you can also ask them to withhold at the higher single rate. If your spouse earns a similar amount as you, withholding at the single rate is likely more accurate.

How can you lower your tax bill for 2019? First, try to increase your 403(b) or 401(k) contributions, if you are eligible for a retirement plan through your employer. So many people are only contributing the amount that their company will match, often four to six percent. Others are contributing 10%, which is slightly better. But your goal should be to max out both your and your spouse’s 403(b) or 401(k) if you can. For 2019, that has been increased to $19,000, or if you are age 50 or over, $25,000. Build wealth, fund your retirement, become financially independent sooner, all while reducing your current tax bill. That’s why we try to max out our accounts every year.

I suggested other ways to reduce your taxes last February, to give everyone a head start on their 2018 taxes. See: Reduce Your Taxes Without Itemizing.

If you have both 1099 and W-2 Income and are wondering if you can just shift all your expenses to your Schedule C, the answer is no. If you have expenses and equipment which is used both for your 1099 and W-2 work, please read: What Should Free-lancers Do with Both W-2 and 1099 Income and Expenses.

For musicians who are W-2 employees, many of you who used to take a home office deduction found that this was eliminated in 2018, to your great frustration. So today, I’d like to give an update on two ways to get a deduction for your other major expense, your car.

First, if you are a self-employed musician, including a 1099 independent contractor, you might consider having a dedicated vehicle for your music business, especially if your work requires frequently driving to places other than your “primary office”. You have a choice of taking the IRS standard mileage rate (58 cents per mile for 2019) OR you can use your actual costs, including gas, repairs/maintenance, depreciation, insurance, etc. Since the standard rate is so much easier to calculate, most people use the standard rate. But, you are allowed to calculate both and use whichever is higher.

If you are self-employed and your car is getting old, instead of getting a new car and using it for both personal and business miles, consider getting an SUV, Van, or Truck for your business and keeping your old car for personal use. If you have a business vehicle with a GVWR over 6000 pounds, and use it 100% for business, you may be able to deduct the full purchase price upfront as a Section 179 deduction. This saves you from having to depreciate the vehicle over time. Then, you should deduct all of your actual costs going forward. Under the new tax law, you can now use the section 179 deduction for used vehicles, in addition to new vehicles. Read more: Bonus Depreciation for Self-Employed Musicians.

If you aren’t self-employed but are in the market for a new vehicle, I wanted to give you an update on the $7,500 tax credit for electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles. A tax credit is not a deduction to your income, but a dollar for dollar reduction of your taxes owed. This credit can reduce your taxes to zero, but is non-refundable if your tax bill was less than $7,500 before the credit.

The full $7,500 tax credit is available on the first 200,000 qualifying vehicles each manufacturer sells. The first two companies to exceed 200,000 vehicles are Tesla and General Motors. If you were hoping to get the full tax credit, I’d look at other companies. Depending on the size of the vehicle battery, some vehicles have a credit of less than $7,500. For complete details of eligible new models, see the IRS Website: Electric Drive Motor Vehicle Credit.

For GM, the credit drops from $7,500 to $3,750 on April 1, then to $1,875 on October 1, and then to zero on April 1, 2020. Tesla hit the 200,000 vehicle mark one quarter earlier. The tax credit for a Tesla purchase is $3,750 right now, falling to $1,875 on July 1, 2019, and then to zero on January 1, 2020.

The Tax Credit is only available on a brand new vehicle, however, used prices for electric vehicles usually reflect the $7,500 credit. So, if you wanted a Chevy Bolt or Volt, or a Tesla, you might want to look at used models now that the tax credit has been phased down.

My goal is to help you keep more of your money so you can invest and grow your wealth. Although the new tax law simplified returns for many musicians, it did not cut taxes for everyone across the board. If you’re wondering if you’ve missed some ways to save on taxes for the year ahead, send me an email and we can discuss what we do for our clients to help. 

Musicians over 65: Start your Pension Before it is Reduced

This week, the trustees of the Musicians’ multi-employer pension, the AFM-EPF, announced that the fund “will likely enter ‘Critical and Declining’ Status in 2019”. A musician friend, who recently turned 65, asked me if there was anything we could do.

If the plan enters Critical and Declining status, it means that the fund is going to run out of money in 20 years or less and the plan is unable to fulfill the benefits they had planned to provide to participants. (I wrote about Critical and Declining status nearly two years ago on this site.)

Once in Critical and Declining status, the plan trustees can petition the Treasury department to allow them to cut benefits to participants to save the plan and create a more sustainable payout structure. The AFM has announced that they have already appointed a retired member to serve as the participant representative for this process, so I believe that it is inevitable that cuts will be proposed once the plan enters Critical and Declining status. In fact, if I was a trustee, I think it would be irresponsible to ignore the plan’s underfunded status and NOT consider changes to ensure its survival.

The maximum amount they can cut is to 110% of the guarantee under the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation. The PBGC is the Federal agency responsible for protecting pension participants. Their formula is based on the number of years of service. For a retiree with 30 years of participation in a multi-employer pension plan, the maximum benefit offered from the PBGC is $1,072.50 per month.

For the AFM-EPF, we have not seen a proposal of what kind of cuts might be proposed. However, we do know that the worst case scenario for a 30-year participant would be 110% of the PBGC guarantee, or $1,179.75 a month. So, if the AFM-EPF had promised you $2,000 a month after 30 years, it could be cut to no lower than $1,179.75. If you have fewer years than 30, this minimum threshold would be lower, and if you have more than 30 years, it would be higher. (I explain the PBGC formula here.)

If you are at least 80 years old, they cannot reduce your pension benefit at all. If you are 75-79, they can reduce your benefit on a sliding scale. And for everyone under 75, we could all be subject to the same level of benefit cuts. (Again, we do not know how the AFM-EPF will propose to reduce benefits, I am listing the worst case scenario here, of the maximum allowable cuts. The cuts do need to be sufficient to save the plan, so I expect proposals of significant reductions.)

Now, back to my 65-year old friend. He is still working, playing at the top of his game, and is an active participant in the pension plan. When can you start the Pension? Full retirement age is 65 for the AFM-EPF. Once you are 65, however, you can apply for your benefits, even if you are still working.
If you are genuinely retired before 65, you can apply for early (and reduced) benefits.

If you believe, as I do, that your benefits are inevitably going to be cut, perhaps to as little as $1,179 a month, you might as well start taking your much higher benefit today and start saving that money. This is something every 65 year old musician should consider for their individual situation. Run the numbers and compare your promised benefit and what your benefit could be at 110% of the PBGC guarantee.

Usually, I would not recommend taking benefits at 65 if you are still working for two reasons. First, your benefit would continue to increase very nicely for each year you keep working past 65. Second, if you start benefits while you are still working you could end up in a higher tax bracket and see a significant portion of your pension payment be clawed back by the IRS. (Pension payments are treated as ordinary income for tax purposes.)

However, if you have a chance to receive $3,000 a month for a year or two before the pension cuts your benefit to $2,000 or $1,500 or some unknown amount, maybe it makes sense to start right away and sock that money away. Again, we don’t know what the cuts will be or how quickly they will be proposed, approved, and implemented. According to the FAQs on the AFM-EPF site:

“If the Plan becomes critical and declining and benefit reductions are necessary to prevent the Plan’s insolvency, nothing happens immediately. The reductions would have to be designed on an equitable basis. They would also be subject to an extensive government application process, which includes appointing a retiree receiving Plan benefits to advocate for the interests of retirees, beneficiaries, and vested participants who are no longer working but haven’t begun to take benefits. Finally, even if the application were approved by the government, participants would be able to vote on any plan to reduce benefits (although, given the size of our Plan, a vote against benefit reductions could be overturned, or modified reductions could still be imposed by the government).” 

If you are over 65, but still working, consider if you want to start your benefit today. You can download the application and instructions here.

If a reduction in the AFM Pension is going to have a significant impact on your retirement, consider delaying the start of your Social Security benefits. For each year you delay past age 66 (to a maximum of 70), your Social Security benefit increases by 8%. If you compare starting Social Security at 62 versus age 70, you would see a 76% increase in monthly benefits by waiting until 70, plus any Cost of Living Adjustments. If you are concerned about longevity, holding off on Social Security is a smart move.

I would also note for planning purposes that the benefit reductions are limited by the PBGC formula, which is based on years of participation, whereas the AFM formula is based on contributions and the multiplier for those contributions. If you are under 65 and can continue to add years of participation, even by part-time or free-lance gigs, that will only serve to increase the PBGC guarantee for you personally, which could give you a higher “post-cut” benefit, even if you don’t accrue significant new plan contributions for those years.

And for younger musicians, it is never too early to start funding an Individual Retirement Account (IRA) or participating in your employer’s 403(b) or 401(k) plan. Don’t put all your eggs in the pension basket.

If you have a pension question, feel free to give me a call or send me an email. While I cannot provide individual advice to non-clients, I am happy to share what I know about the plan and your options.

New IRS Rule Spoils SEP-IRA for Musicians

The SEP-IRA has been a key retirement tool for self-employed and 1099 musicians, but its value just got unexpectedly reduced last month, buried in the details of a 249-page release of new IRS regulations. I’m afraid that many self-employed musicians who read this may want to fund a different type of retirement account or may decide to stop their SEP contributions altogether going forward. If you’re a W-2 musician, this doesn’t apply to you, and if you are strictly a W-2, you weren’t eligible for a SEP anyways.

The new regulations don’t directly change a SEP contribution – it’s still a tax deductible contribution. Self-employed musicians are also eligible for a new 20% tax deduction, called the Qualified Business Income or QBI deduction, officially IRC Section 199A. The QBI Deduction is new for 2018 as a result of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act put into law in December 2017. 

The QBI Deduction is available to pass-through entities, including S-corporations, LLCs, and sole proprietors. You do not have to be incorporated, anyone with self-employment income (including 1099 “independent contractor”) is eligible. For “Specified Service Businesses”, including performing artists such as musicians, the QBI deduction is phased out if your income is above $157,500 (single) or $315,000 (married) for 2018.

(I’ve written about the QBI Deduction for musicians previously on my site HERE, as well as for the International Musician.)

What was a surprise announcement in the January 2019 regulations, some 13 months after Congress signed the new law, is that all self-employed people have to subtract any “employer paid retirement contributions” from their Qualified Business Income. It was previously thought this would only apply to S-corporations. This was not mentioned or hinted at in the legislation or in the regulations the IRS published in August. In fact, many tax software programs are having to be rewritten because of the January announcement. The SEP-IRA, even for a sole proprietor, is considered a type of employer-sponsored retirement plan, even though the employer and the employee are the same person.

It may be easiest to explain this with an example. Let’s say you make $60,000 as a self-employed musician and choose to contribute $10,000 to a SEP IRA. (In this example, I am assuming that your taxable income and your Qualified Business Income are the same, but in some cases, they will be different.) Now, instead of getting the 20% deduction on the $60,000 of Qualified Business Income, worth $12,000 off your income, you have to subtract your SEP contribution of $10,000 to reduce your QBI to $50,000. Now your QBI deduction will be $10,000, $2,000 less than if you had not made the SEP contribution.

Your SEP contribution reduced the value of your QBI deduction by $2,000, so instead of adding a $10,000 benefit, your SEP contribution only increased your deductions by $8,000. Another way of looking at this: if you are eligible for the QBI, you are only getting 80% of the value of a SEP Contribution, but 100% of your SEP contribution will be taxable when you withdraw it in the future.

And that’s a problem. The $10,000 you contributed to a SEP only provided an increase of $8,000 in deductions, but the full $10,000 will be taxable when you withdraw it later in retirement, plus the tax on any growth. Who wants to get an $8,000 deduction today and immediately have a $10,000 future tax liability? 

You might pay less in lifetime taxes by not making the SEP contribution, receiving 100% of the QBI deduction and then investing your $10,000 in a taxable account. The growth of the taxable account, by the way, could be treated as long term capital gains, which for most taxpayers is at a lower rate than the ordinary income rates applied to growth of your SEP (when withdrawn).

There are three additional solutions which you might consider rather than a funding SEP, given this new rule.

1. Traditional IRA. The Traditional IRA contribution will reduce your personal taxes, unlike a SEP, which is considered an employer sponsored plan. The SEP reduces the amount of your QBI deduction, but the Traditional IRA does not. However, there are two issues with the Traditional IRA:

  • The contribution limit is only $5,500 for 2018 ($6,500 over age 50). With a SEP, you could contribute as much as $55,000, ten times more than a Traditional IRA.
  • If you or your spouse are covered by any employer retirement plan, your eligibility to deduct a Traditional IRA contribution depends on being under income limits.  (Details here.)

If you are single and are not covered by any employer plan (or married and neither spouse is eligible for a company plan), then there are no income restrictions on a Traditional IRA. And if you were planning on contributing less than $5,500 to your SEP, just skip the SEP altogether and fund a Traditional IRA so you can receive the full QBI deduction.

If you are eligible for both a Traditional IRA and a SEP, I would always fund the IRA first to the maximum, and only then make a contribution to the SEP.

2. Roth 401(k). A Traditional 401(k) or Profit Sharing Plan, like a SEP, can also land you in the penalty box for the QBI as a self-employed person. However, if you set up an Individual 401(k) plan that allows for Roth 401(k) contributions, then you will receive the full QBI deduction, even if you put $18,500 into your Roth 401(k). 

Of course, you won’t get a tax deduction for the Roth contributions you make, but that account will grow tax-free going forward, which is a lot better than a taxable account. It’s a great option if you anticipate being in the same or similar tax bracket in retirement as you have today. The only problem is that unlike a Traditional IRA, you cannot establish a 401(k) today for the previous year (2018). 

But you can establish one for this year, and if you’d like to do so, I can help you with this. 

3. Spouse’s 401(k)/IRA. If you are self employed, but your spouse has a regular W-2 job, have your spouse increase their 401(k) contributions through their employer. That won’t ding your QBI Deduction and will reduce your joint taxable income dollar for dollar. If your spouse is eligible for a Traditional IRA – including a Spousal IRA if they do not have any earned income – that would also be preferable to having the self-employed spouse fund a SEP-IRA.

I do not want to suggest anything to discourage musicians from saving for retirement! But when one type of retirement account will reduce other tax deductions, I want to make sure that all my clients are informed to make the best choices for their situation. Feel free to email or call me if you’d like more information.

This article does not offer or imply individual tax advice; please consult your tax professional for information regarding your personal situation. 

7 Missed IRA Opportunities for Musicians

The Individual Retirement Account (IRA) is the cornerstone of retirement planning, yet so many musicians miss opportunities to fund an IRA because they don’t realize they are eligible. With the great tax benefits of IRAs, you might want to consider funding yours every year that you can. Here are seven situations where many musicians don’t realize they could fund an IRA.

1. Spousal IRA. Even if a spouse does not have any earned income, they are eligible to make a Traditional or Roth IRA contribution based on the household income. Generally, if one spouse is eligible for a Roth IRA, so is the non-working spouse. In some cases, the non-working spouse may be eligible for a Traditional IRA contribution even when their spouse is ineligible because they are covered by an employer plan and their income is too high.  This is great if one spouse is a stay-at-home parent or in school.

2. No employer sponsored retirement plan. If you are single and your employer does not offer a retirement plan (or if you are married and neither of you are covered by an employer plan), then there are NO income limits on a Traditional IRA. If you are a self-employed musician, and looking to get started with saving for retirement, start with a Traditional or Roth IRA.

(Note that this eligibility is determined by your employer offering you a plan and your being eligible, and not your participation. If the plan is offered, but you choose not to participate, then you are considered covered by an employer plan, which is number 2:)

3. Covered by a employer plan. Here’s where things get tricky. Anyone with earned income can make a Traditional IRA contribution, but there are rules about who can deduct their contribution. A tax-deductible contribution to your Traditional IRA is greatly preferred over a non-deductible contribution. If you cannot do the deductible contribution, but you can do a Roth IRA (number 4), never do a non-deductible contribution. Always choose the Roth over non-deductible. The income limits listed below do not mean you cannot do a Traditional IRA, only that you cannot deduct the contributions.

If you are covered by an employer plan, including a 401(k), 403(b), SIMPLE IRA, pension, etc., you are still eligible for a Traditional IRA if your Modified Adjusted Gross Income (MAGI) is below these levels for 2018:

  • Single: $63,000
  • Married filing jointly: $101,000 if you are covered by an employer plan
  • Married filing jointly: $189,000 if your spouse is covered at work but you are not (this second one is missed very frequently!)

Your Modified Adjusted Gross Income cannot be precisely determined until you are doing your taxes. Sometimes, there are musicians who assume they are not eligible based on their gross income, but would be eligible if they look at their MAGI.

4. Roth IRA. The Roth IRA has different income limits than the Traditional IRA, and these limits apply regardless of whether you are covered by an employer retirement plan or not. (2018 figures below.) If you don’t need a tax deduction for this year and are eligible for both the Traditional and Roth, I’d go for the Roth. 

  • Single: $120,000
  • Married filing jointly: $189,000

5. Back-door Roth IRA. If you make too much to contribute to a Roth IRA, and you do not have any Traditional IRAs, you might be able to do a “Back-Door Roth IRA”, which is a two step process of funding a non-deductible Traditional IRA and then doing a Roth Conversion. We’ve written about the Back Door Roth several times, including here.

6. Self-Employed. If you have any self-employment income, or receive a 1099 as an “independent contractor”, you may be eligible for a SEP-IRA on that specific income. This is on top of any 401(k) or other IRAs that you fund. It is possible, for example, that you could put $18,500 into a 403(b) at a University job, contribute $5,500 into a Roth IRA, and still contribute to a SEP-IRA for self-employed gigs.

There are no income limits to a SEP contribution, but it is difficult to know how much you can contribute until you do your tax return. The basic formula is that you can contribute up to 20% of your net income, after you subtract your business expenses and one-half of the self-employment tax. The maximum contribution to a SEP is $55,000 for , and with such high limits, the SEP is essential for any musician who is looking to save more than the $5,500 limit to a Traditional or Roth IRA. 

Learn more about the SEP-IRA.

7. Tax Extension. For the Traditional and Roth IRA, you have to make your contribution by April 15 of the following year. If you do a tax extension, that’s fine, but the IRA contributions are still due by April 15. However, the SEP IRA is the only IRA where you can make a contribution all the way until October 15, when you file an extension. 

Bonus #8: If you are over age 70 1/2, you generally cannot make Traditional IRA contributions any longer. However, if you continue to have earned income, you may still fund a Roth IRA after this age.

A few notes: For 2018, contribution limits for Roth and Traditional IRAs are $5,500 or $6,500 if over age 50. For 2019, this has been increased to $6,000 and $7,000. You become eligible for the catch-up contribution in the year you turn 50, so even if your birthday is December 31, you are considered 50 for the whole year. Most of these income limits have a phase-out, and I’ve listed the lowest level, so if your income is slightly above the limit, you may be eligible for a reduced contribution. 

Retirement Planning is our focus, so we welcome your IRA questions! Most musicians are going to be responsible for funding their own retirement plans and we want to see you succeed. Be sure you don’t miss an opportunity to fund an IRA each and every year that you are eligible. 

Your Goals for 2019

Welcome to 2019! A new year brings a fresh chance to accomplish your goals. No one becomes a musician for the paycheck, but at the end of the day, musicians have the same financial goals as most people: to become a home owner, pay off your student loans, get married, raise a family, plan for your retirement, or support your favorite charity. We can help you achieve these goals or others. The purpose of our financial planning is not to own a bunch of stocks and bonds or get a nice tax break, it is about finding an effective, efficient, and logical way to help you accomplish your life’s goals.

We love when someone has a concrete, specific objective. When you truly embrace an important goal, there is ample reason to find the discipline for whatever steps are needed to achieve your objectives. That’s why you spent all those years honing your skills as a musician.

I can tell you all about the benefits of a Roth IRA or a 529 College Savings Plan, but if that doesn’t fit into your needs, all my words are worthless. The “why” has to be there first, before we can get excited about “how” we are going to do it. If you have goals that you want to accomplish in 2019 – or 2020 or 2029 – I’d like to invite you to join us and become a client of Good Life Wealth Management today. We serve smart investors who value personalized advice centered on their goals.

I’d welcome the opportunity to share our approach and allow you to consider whether it would be a good fit for you and your family. 

  • Our process focuses on planning first – we want to fully understand your goals and needs before we make any kind of recommendation. You would think this would be universal, but believe me, most of the financial industry has a product that they want to sell you before they have even met you. (Read our 13 Guiding Beliefs.)
  • We have no investment minimums. Younger musicians have financial goals and complex, competing objectives (hello, student loans!) even if they haven’t started investing or only have a small balance in an IRA. We think helping young professionals build a strong financial foundation is important work. This is our Wealth Builder Program.
  • I’ve been a financial planner for 15 years and hold the Certified Financial Planner and Chartered Financial Analyst designations. Professional expertise and deep investment experience should be a given if you’re seeking financial advice. (More about Scott‘s background as a financial planner and musician.)
  • Having your own plan means that you have taken an objective measure of where you are today, that we have created specific goals and objectives, and that we identify and implement steps to achieve those goals. While this is often savings and investment based, we’re going to evaluate your whole financial picture, from taxes and employee benefits to estate planning and life insurance. Bringing in a professional delivers accountability to a plan and protects you from what you don’t know you don’t know. (Financial Planning Services)
  • We are a Fiduciary, legally required to place client interests ahead of our own. Our fees are easy to understand and transparent. We aim to eliminate conflicts of interest wherever possible and if not possible, reduce and disclose. I invest in our Growth 70/30 model right along with our clients; if I thought there was a better way to invest, we would do that instead. (Skin in the Game)

Successful musicians seek out the help and expertise of others. They surround themselves with knowledgeable professionals, not to abdicate responsibility, but to improve their understanding through asking the right questions. I became a financial planner to help others achieve their goals, and I love my job. For me, it is endlessly interesting and personally rewarding, especially when I get to work with a fellow musician.

You could make a New Year’s resolution about your finances, but I genuinely believe you are more like to have a good outcome if you hire the right advisor who understands a musician’s career and can help guide your journey. If you want 2019 to be the year when you turned your dreams into goals and a plan, then let’s talk about how we can work together.

Musicians and the QBI Deduction

This year, there is a new 20% tax deduction for self-employed individuals and pass through entities, commonly called the QBI (Qualified Business Income) deduction, officially IRC Section 199A. While most musicians who file schedule C will be eligible for this deduction, high earners – those making over $157,500 single or $315,000 married – will see this deduction phased out to zero, because they are considered a Specified Service Trade or Business (SSTB).

See: New 20% Pass-Through Tax Deduction

Professions that are considered an SSTB include health, law, accounting, athletics, performing arts, and any company whose principal asset is the skill or reputation of one or more of its employees. That’s pretty broad.

Some musicians may have income that is from an SSTB and other income which is not. For example, consider a musician who has a business managing tours and logistics. If she performs a concert, clearly she is working in an SSTB as a performing artist. If she is making a profit from organizing and promoting a concert tour, that might be considered a different industry.

This possibility of splitting up income into different streams has occupied many accountants this year, to enable high-earning business owners to qualify for the QBI deduction for their non-SSTB income. Since this is a brand new deduction for 2018, this is uncharted territory for taxpayers and financial professionals.

In August, the IRS posted new rules which will greatly limit your ability to carve off income away from an SSTB. Here are some of the details:

  • If an entity has revenue of under $25 million, and received 10% or more of its revenue from an SSTB, then the entire entity is considered an SSTB. If their revenue is over $25 million, the threshold is 5%
  • An endorsement by a performing artist, or the use of your name, likeness, signature, trademark, voice, etc., shall not be considered a separate profession. If you are in an SSTB, an endorsement will also be considered part of the SSTB.
  • 80/50 rule. If a company shares 50% or more ownership with an SSTB, and receives at least 80% of its revenue from that SSTB, it will be considered part of the SSTB. So, if our musician only organizes tours for herself, then that business will be considered part of her SSTB. If the Tour business has at least 21% in revenue from other bands, then it could be considered a separate entity and qualify for the QBI deduction.

Business owners in the top tax bracket of 37% for 2018 (making over $500,000 single or $600,000 married), might be considering forming a C-corporation if they are running into issues with the SSTB. While a C-Corp is not eligible for the QBI deduction, the federal income tax rate for a C-Corp has been lowered to a flat 21% this year.

Of course, the challenge with a C-Corp is the potential for double taxation: the company pays 21% tax on its earnings, and then the dividend paid to the owner may be taxed again from 15% to 23.8% (including the 3.8% Medicare surtax on Net Investment Income.)

Still, there may be some benefits to a C-corp versus a pass-through entity, including the ability to retain profits, being able to deduct state and local taxes without the $10,000 cap, or the ability to deduct charitable donations without itemizing.

If you have questions about the QBI Deduction, the Specified Service Business definition, or other self-employment tax issues for musicians, we can help you understand the new rules. We want to help you keep as much of your money as possible, so let’s talk about how we might be able to help you.

Starting a Profitable Music Studio

Many professional musicians find teaching to be personally fulfilling and an important part of their annual income. Sharing your love of music with someone else is incredibly rewarding and a way of giving back for the great teachers who inspired us to follow our own path.

Teaching the content is easy, but I think many of us struggle with the business, marketing, and organizational aspects of being a self-employed private lesson teacher. That’s why I reached out to Andrea Miller, founder of MusicStudioStartup.com, for advice. I’ve learned from reading her posts and think many musicians would benefit from subscribing to her newsletter, whether you are starting a studio for the first time or have been teaching for decades. Here’s our conversation:

Finance For Musicians (FFM): I’ve really enjoyed reading your posts on starting and running a music studio. You’ve got a unique story, please tell us about your background as a musician, piano teacher, and in business. How did this all come together?

Andrea Miller (AM): My interest in entrepreneurship developed long before my interest in music! I was always starting businesses as a kid. I started piano lessons when I was seven and started teaching in high school. That’s also about the time I decided the first business I would start after college would be a music school.

I paid my way through a double-major in Entrepreneurship and Piano Performance by teaching and running a house-painting business. My senior year was an especially busy one. When I wasn’t practicing for my senior recital, I was wrestling with my music school business plan, trying to find a way to make it work without having to go into major debt.

There was always a tension in college between the music and business worlds. The two finally collided when I had to reschedule my senior recital at the last minute because I was invited to compete in a national business plan competition the same weekend.

I launched my music school a few months after graduation and hired my first teacher that same year. Soon we had over 100 students and five teachers in our thriving community. Four years into growing the music school, a move to the East Coast led me to pass the music school off to a new owner and revise my entrepreneurial path.

I opened a home studio in my new town and began consulting for startups and business owners in a variety of industries. In 2016, I decided to bring my entrepreneurial focus back to the music world full-time. Today, I coach ambitious music teachers who want to accomplish big things in their careers!

FFM: Musicians are certainly taught how to be great performers and teachers, but most schools aren’t preparing their students for the business side of music, such as having your own private studio. What do you find are the biggest initial challenges facing someone who wants to start a studio? 

AM: Unfortunately, I think many fantastic teachers start off on an unsustainable path by under-pricing their services. They don’t have a clear picture of their long-term financial goals and responsibilities or are afraid to charge what they need to to make it work.

FFM: A lot of musicians resent the idea that we have to market and “sell” ourselves. As artists, it seems maybe a bit degrading, or at the very least, it’s uncomfortable. How can musicians open themselves up to think more like an entrepreneur and embrace marketing? For creative people, why does this seem so difficult?

AM: I encourage musicians to think about why they’re uncomfortable with marketing.

Afraid of coming across as “salesy?” Look for a promotional style that fits your personality. Timid about putting yourself out there? Make mini goals each week to practice and grow in this area. (It’s kind of like learning a new instrument!)

FFM: If someone is new to a town, what would you suggest for them to get established as quickly as possible? If you are trying to pay your bills, you can’t exactly wait three years to get your studio up and running. 

AM: Set up a website and get involved in your neighborhood. Actively participate in community events and introduce yourself to the local play group organizers and school music teachers.

FFM: As teachers get more students, the administrative tasks outside of lesson time can become quite time consuming, with scheduling, billing, and communicating with parents. I know some teachers get really burned out on this part of being a self-employed teacher. Any suggestions for this, maybe tools or apps that help a teacher save time and be better organized?

AM: I love a good system! Use an automated system for billing so you never have to worry about not getting paid on time because you forgot to send the invoices.

Write canned email responses for new student inquiries so you can respond quickly and don’t waste time writing the same email over and over.

Establish routines for important tasks that you have to do manually (every Saturday morning I spend about 15 minutes processing receipts and doing my bookkeeping).

Schedule time to zoom out from the day-to-day tasks and establish long-term goals (Ex. If the admin side really isn’t your forte, what would it take to hire an assistant or outsource one particularly arduous task?).

FFM: You’ve got a lot of great resources on your website and you also coach people to start, grow, and better manage their studio. Tell me about what you do for your clients and who would benefit the most from your services. What sorts of concerns can you help teachers address and solve?

AM: We cover a lot of topics in coaching, but ultimately I help teachers build financially-viable studios faster. Most teachers don’t realize that running an unsustainable studio when they’re young can have huge long-term costs.

Right now, if a 25 year old teacher decides to max out his Roth IRA this year only, his $5,500 investment will be worth about $82,000 when he retires. If he waits until he’s 30, he loses five years of potential investing and his $5,500 investment is only worth about $59,000 when he retires. If he waits until 35 the value of that $5,500 investment drops to $42,000.

The ramifications of building a sustainable studio early on are huge!

FFM: There’s no substitute for getting an early start on saving, so thank you for pointing out how important that is! What qualities do you think are most important to be a successful lesson teacher?

AM: From a teaching perspective, you have to actually care about the students. If you don’t care about them, they won’t care about what you have to say.

From a business perspective, I think focus is one of the most important qualities. There will always be more things to do than you have time for and you have to be able to look past the distractions to work on the important things.

FFM: Suggested book or resource for studio teachers?

AM: The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

FFM: I think most teachers have had teachers who inspired them. Would you like to give a shout out to any people who made a big impact on your life?

AM: I’ve had three teachers who each inspired me in different ways. My first teacher taught me how to motivate and inspire students. My second teacher taught me how to foster a love of music in my students. My third teacher taught me how to coach students to reach a higher level of musical mastery. I’m thankful for all of their influences!

FFM: Thanks for your insights! Where can readers connect with you?

AM: Thank you, it’s been a pleasure. My site is MusicStudioStartup.com. I’m on Instagram @musicstudiostartup, Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/musicstudiostartup, and (soon) on the podcast!

Estimated Tax Payments For Musicians

The IRS requires that tax payers make timely tax payments, which for many self-employed musicians, including 1099s, means having to make quarterly estimated tax payments throughout the year. Otherwise, you could be subject to penalties for the underpayment of taxes, even if you pay the whole sum in April. The rules for underpayment apply to all taxpayers, but if you are a W-2 employee, you could just adjust your payroll withholding and not need to make quarterly payments.

If your tax liability is more than $1,000 for the year, the IRS will consider you to have underpaid if the taxes withheld during the year are less than the smaller of:

1. 90% of your total taxes dues (including self-employment taxes, capital gains, etc.), OR
2. 100% of the previous year’s taxes paid.

However, for musicians with an adjusted gross income over $150,000 (or $75,000 if married filing separately), the threshold for #2 is 110% of the previous year’s taxes. Additionally, the IRS considers this on a quarterly basis: 22.5% per quarter for #1, and 25% per quarter for #2, or 27.5% if your income exceeds $150,000.

Many self-employed musicians will find it sufficient to make four equal payments throughout the year. If that’s the case, your deadlines are generally April 15, June 15, September 15, and January 15. However, if your income varies substantially from quarter to quarter, or if your actual income ends up being lower than the previous year, you may want to adjust your quarterly estimated payments to reflect those changes.

You can estimate your quarterly tax payments using IRS form 1040-ES. Of course, your CPA or tax software should automatically be letting you know if you need to make estimated tax payments for the following year. You can mail in a check each quarter, or you may find it more convenient to make the payment electronically, via IRS.gov/payments.  For full information on quarterly estimated payments, see IRS Publication 505 Tax Withholding and Estimated Tax.

Estimated payments will fulfill the requirement of 100% of last years payment, or 90% of this year’s payment if that figure is lower. However, estimated payments are not designed to cover 100% of the current tax bill, so if your income is significantly higher this year, you could potentially owe a lot of taxes in April even after making quarterly estimated payments.

If you’re a self-employed musician, you don’t need to be a tax expert, but you do need to understand some basics and to make sure you are getting good advice. When you aren’t being paid as a W-2 employee, it is up to you to make sure you are setting money aside and making those tax payments throughout the year, so that next April you aren’t facing penalties on top of having a large, unexpected tax bill.

20% Pass Through Deduction for Musicians

You’ve probably heard about the new 20% tax deduction for “Pass Through” entities under the  Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), and have wondered if musicians qualify. For those who are self-employed (1099, not W-2) here are five frequently asked questions:

1. Do I have to form a corporation in order to qualify for this benefit?
No. The good news is that you simply need to have Schedule C income, whether you are a sole proprietor (including 1099 independent contractor), or an LLC, Partnership, or S-Corporation.

2. How does it work?
If you report your music earnings on Schedule C, your Qualified Business Income (QBI) may be eligible for this deduction of 20%, meaning that only 80% of your net income will be taxable. Only business income – and not investment income – will qualify for the deduction. Although we call this a deduction, please note that you do not have to “itemize”, the QBI deduction is a new type of below the line deduction to your taxable income. The deduction starts in the 2018 tax year; 2017 is under the old rules.

There are some restrictions on the deduction. For example, your deduction is limited to 20% of QBI or 20% of your household’s taxable ordinary income (i.e. after standard/itemized deductions and excluding capital gains), whichever is less. If 100% of your taxable income was considered QBI, your deduction might be for less than 20% of QBI. If you are owner of a S-corp, you will be expected to pay yourself an appropriate salary, and that income will not be eligible for the QBI. If you have guaranteed draws as an LLC, that income would also be excluded from the QBI deduction.

3. What is the Service business restriction?
In order to prevent a lot of doctors, lawyers, and other high earners from quitting as employees and coming back as contractors to claim the deduction, Congress excluded from this deduction “Specified Service Businesses”, which includes not only health, law, accounting, financial services, athletics, and consulting, but also performing arts. High earning self-employed people in one of these professions will not be eligible for the 20% deduction.

4. Who is considered a high earner under the Specified Service restrictions?
If you are a performing artist and your taxable income is below $157,500 single or $315,000 married, you are eligible for the full 20% deduction. The QBI deduction will then phaseout for income above these levels over the next $50,000 single or $100,000 married. Musicians making above $207,500 single or $415,000 married are excluded completely from the 20% QBI deduction. Please note that these amounts refer to your total household income, not the amount of QBI income.

5. Should I try to change my W-2 job into a 1099 job?
First of all, that may be impossible. Each employer is charged with correctly determining your status as an employee or independent contractor. These are not simply interchangeable categories. The IRS has a list of characteristics for being an employee versus an independent contractor. Primarily, if an employer is able to dictate how you do your work, then you are an employee. It would not be appropriate for an orchestra, university, or contractor, to list one worker as a W-2 and someone else doing the similar work as a 1099.

Second, as a W-2 employee, you have many benefits. Your employer pays half of your Social Security and Medicare payroll tax (half is 7.65%). You might think that 20% is more than 7.65%, but remember that a 20% deduction in taxable income in the 24% tax bracket only saves you 4.8% in tax. That’s less than the value of having your employer pay their 7.65% of the payroll tax.

Employees may be eligible for other benefits including health insurance, vacation, state unemployment benefits, workers comp for injuries, and most importantly, the right to unionize. The Lancaster Symphony spent eight years in court, unsuccessfully trying to assert that musicians were not employees, to prevent them from unionizing. You would have a lot to lose by not being an employee, so I am not recommending anyone try to change their employment status.

Still, I expect many of you have Schedule C income from teaching private lessons, playing weddings, or other one-time gigs. If you do have self-employment income, you should benefit from the new tax law as long as you are under the income levels listed above. If you do other related work in music – publishing, repairing instruments, making accessories, etc. – that income might not be considered a Specified Service, so be sure to talk with your tax advisor about your individual situation. We will continue to study this area looking for ways to help musicians like you take advantage of every benefit you can legally obtain.

Musicians, Reduce Your Taxes Without Itemizing

If you used to itemize your tax deductions, chances are you will not be able to do so in 2018 under the new Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA). While it sounds good that the standard deduction has been increased to $12,000 single and $24,000 married, many musicians are lamenting that they no longer can deduct many expenses from their taxes. (See Tax Bill Passes, Strategies for Musicians.)

As a reminder, these changes impact W-2 employees. Musicians who are self-employed or “1099” can continue to deduct business expenses on Schedule C, as well as take the standard deduction. However, for any taxpayer who used to itemize on Schedule A, we’ve lost the following deductions in 2018:

  • Miscellaneous Itemized Deductions, including all unreimbursed employee expenses, tax preparation fees, moving expenses for work, and investment management fees. W-2 musicians have lost the ability to deduct instruments, equipment and supplies, concert clothes, mileage, home office expenses, union dues, etc.
  • Interest payments on a Home Equity Loan
  • Property Tax and other state and local taxes are now capped at $10,000 towards your itemized deductions.

For a married couple, even if you have the full $10,000 in property tax expenses, you will need another $14,000 in mortgage interest and/or charitable donations before you reach the $24,000 standard deduction amount. If you do have $25,000 in deductible expenses, you would effectively be getting only $1,000 more in deductions than someone who spent zero. And that $24,000 hurdle makes it a lot less attractive to try to maximize your itemized deductions any more.

Under the new law, people are no longer going to be able to say “it’s a great tax deduction” when buying an expensive home. When you take the standard deduction, you’re not getting any tax benefit from being a homeowner or having a mortgage.

So if you’ve lost your itemized tax deductions for 2018, can you you do anything to reduce your taxes? Thankfully, the answer is yes. I’m going to share with you 9 “above the line deductions” and Tax Credits you can use to lower your tax bill going forward.

Above The Line Deductions reduce your taxable income without having to itemize on Schedule A. All of these savings can be taken in addition to the standard deduction.

1. Increase your contributions to your 401(k)/403(b) or employer retirement plan. For 2018, the contribution limits are increased to $18,500 and for those over age 50, $24,500. What a great way to build your net worth and make automatic investments towards your future.

2. Many people who think they are maximizing their 401(k) contributions don’t realize they or their spouse may be eligible for other retirement contributions. If you have any 1099 or self-employment income, you may be eligible to fund a SEP-IRA in addition to a 401(k) at your W-2 job. Spouses can be eligible for their own IRA contribution, even if they do not work outside of the home.

3. Health Savings Accounts are unique as the only account type where you make a pre-tax contribution and also get a tax-free withdrawal for qualified expenses. You can contribute to an HSA if you are enrolled in an eligible High Deductible Health Plan. There are no income restrictions on an HSA. For 2018, singles can contribute $3,450 to an HSA and those with a family plan can contribute $6,900. If you are 55 and over, you can make an additional $1,000 catch-up contribution.

4. Flexible Spending Accounts (FSAs) or “cafeteria plans” can be used for expenses such as child care or medical expenses. These are often use it or lose it benefits, unlike an HSA, so plan ahead carefully. If your employer offers an FSA, participating will lower your taxable income.

5. The Student Loan Interest deduction remains an above-the-line deduction. This offers up to a $2,500 deduction for qualifying student loan interest payments, for those with an AGI below $65,000 single or $130,000 married filing jointly. This was removed from early versions of the TCJA but made it back into the final version.

Tax deductions reduce your taxable income, but Tax Credits are better because they reduce the amount of tax you owe. For example, if you are in the 24% tax bracket, a $1,000 deduction and a $240 Tax Credit would both reduce your taxes by $240.

Tax Credits should be automatically applied by your CPA or tax software. For example, if you have children, you should get the Child Tax Credit, if eligible. (Since it’s only February, there is still time to make a child for a 2018 tax credit!) If you are low income, still file a return, because you might qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit. But there are other tax credits where you might be eligible based on your actions during the year. Here are four Tax Credits:

6. The Saver’s Tax Credit helps lower income workers fund a retirement account such as an IRA. For 2018, the Savers Tax Credit is available to singles with income below $31,500 and married couples under $63,000. The credit ranges from 10% to 50% of your retirement contribution of up to $2,000. Note for married couples, if you qualify for the credit, it would be better to put $2,000 in both of your IRAs, and receive two credits, versus putting $4,000 in one IRA and only getting one credit. If you have a child over 18, who is not a dependent and not a full-time student, maybe you can help them fund a Roth IRA and they can get this Tax Credit. Read the details in my article The Saver’s Tax Credit.

7. Originally cut out of the House bill, the $7,500 Tax Credit for the purchase of an electric or plug-in hybrid vehicle was reinstated in the final version of the TCJA signed into law. The credit is phased out after each manufacturer hits 200,000 vehicles sold, so if you were planning to add your name to the 450,000 people on the waitlist for a Tesla Model 3, forget about the Tax Credit. But there are many other cars and SUVs eligible for the credit which you can buy right now. There are no income limits on this credit, but please note that this one is not refundable. That means it can reduce your tax liability to zero, but you will not get a refund beyond zero. For example, if your total taxes owed is $5,200, you could get back $5,200, but not the full $7,500.

8. Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit. To help parents who work pay for daycare for a child under 13, you can claim a credit based on expenses of $3,000 (one child) or $6,000 (two or more children). Depending on your income, this is either a 20% or 35% credit, but there is no income cap.

9. New for 2018: The $500 Non-Child Dependent Tax Credit. If you have a dependent who does not qualify for the Child Tax Credit, such as an elderly parent or disabled adult child, you are now eligible for a $500 credit from 2018 through 2025.

Even with the loss of many itemized deductions, you may still be able to reduce your tax bill with these nine above the line deductions and Tax Credits. We want to help professional musicians find Financial Security, whether that is through long-term, diversified investment strategies, by teaching you how to save on taxes, or making sure you can afford to maintain your lifestyle in retirement. If you want an advisor who is knowledgeable about your unique financial needs as a musician, let’s talk about what our program can do for you.