How to Calculate and Pay Quarterly Self-Employment Taxes

If you’ll have self-employment income this year – either from a small business with employees, a sole proprietorship, or even just contract work you do alongside your full-time job – you’ll probably need to pay quarterly self-employment taxes this year.

As an employee, this isn’t something you have to worry about. Your employer actually saves the taxes he or she takes out of your check, and then sends them to the federal government quarterly. That’s why at the end of the year, if too much has been taken out of your paycheck for taxes, the government writes you a check for your tax return.

As with all things IRS-related, though, calculating and paying quarterly self-employment taxes can get a little hairy. Actually, “quarterly” doesn’t even really mean every three months! So here’s what you need to know to make sense of it all.

Who’s required to pay?

If you think you’ll owe $1,000 or more of taxes on your annual return, you’ll need to split that up into quarterly payments throughout the year – or risk paying a penalty. If your business is structured as a corporation, you’ll need to pay taxes if you expect to owe $500 or more when you file.

This means that if you’re just running a side business and expect to owe less than $1,000 – or if you owed less than that last year and don’t expect things to be much different – you don’t have to pay quarterly taxes. You still can pay them, but you won’t get penalized for not paying estimated quarterly taxes.

Remember, even if you’re working on a regular basis and have a full-time schedule with a business, you may be required to pay estimated taxes. If you’re working on a contract basis (ie. If you get a 1099 instead of a W-2), your employer isn’t taking income taxes or Social Security payments out of your check, so you’ll have to pay those estimated taxes four times a year.

What’s the penalty for not paying?

New contract workers or business owners often make the mistake of thinking they can just pay taxes in a lump sum at the end of the year. However, penalties will be leveraged on quarterly taxes that weren’t paid when you owed them.

The penalty can be small if your tax bill is small. It’s usually around one-half percent of your tax bill per month that you don’t pay. But, still, you don’t want to pay the IRS more than you absolutely have to, so paying on time is important.

With that said, you also don’t want to pay more than you need to pay. If you wind up with a check from the government at the end of the year, you’ve over-paid. That means you basically gave the IRS an interest-free loan, and that money is money you could have invested or used to pay down high-interest debt throughout the year. So it’s important that you get the next step – estimating how much to pay – right.

How much do you need to pay?

There are two approaches to calculating estimated tax payments: (1) a safe-harbor calculation, or (2) estimating your actual tax liability. The safe-harbor approach is ideal if you’re looking to avoid penalties for underpayment. Estimating your actual tax liability is ideal if your goal is not to owe any taxes at the end of the year. As you might imagine, however, accurately estimating your taxes can be tricky. Let’s look at both approaches.


According to the IRS, if you want to avoid any penalties without estimating your taxes, make sure that–

  • The total of your withholding and estimated tax payments was at least as much as your 2012 tax (or 110% of your 2012 tax if your AGI was more than $150,000, $75,000 if your 2012 filing status is married filing separately) and you paid all required estimated tax payments on time.

While in the past I’ve had my accountant estimate my actual tax liability, it’s getting harder to do so. You have to estimate not only your income, but also your expenses (if you run a business) and all of your deductions and credits. You then have to consider the Alternative Minimum Tax, all of which makes the process extremely complicated. So for 2013, I’ll be following this safe-harbor approach.

Estimating Actual Tax Bill

If your income is pretty steady from your business or contract work from year to year, you can probably just use last year’s return to estimate how much to pay in taxes. Just divide last year’s tax liability by four, and make four separate payments to the IRS throughout the year.

But if you’re filing a joint return, your spouse’s income will also need to be steady. If your spouse gets a big raise or makes less money, your tax situation may fluctuate, as well. So if this happens – even if your own income is the same – you may want to re-calculate quarterly payments.

Another option to figure out how much to pay is to use form 1040-ES. This IRS form helps you calculate your estimated taxes based on your expected adjusted gross income for the year, which can definitely be more accurate.

Finally, if your income fluctuates – or if you’re currently in the midst of a rise or decline – you may want to just make your estimations quarterly. If you do this, your estimated payments will fluctuate from one quarter to the next, based on your actual income.

To calculate your payments quarterly, you may need to check with a tax professional. A pro can help you look at your income and expenses – as well as your family’s total gross income – and determine what percentage of your freelance or business income to put towards your quarterly taxes.

For all but the simplest tax situations, using a tax accountant is a smart choice. In addition, tax software such as TurboTax can help you calculate these payments as well.

When do you need to pay?

Like I said, quarterly taxes aren’t actually paid every quarter. Go figure. Instead, each payment period has its own due date. Here’s when you should pay for each “quarter”:

  • For January 1st through March 31st, pay by April 15th
  • For April 1st through May 31st, pay by June 15th
  • For June 1st through August 21st, pay by September 15th
  • For September 1st through December 31st, pay by January 15th of the next year

If the due date falls on a Saturday, Sunday, or government-recognized holiday that year, you’ll just pay on the next business day. Also, if you file your taxes by January 31st, you can just make the rest of your tax payments for the previous year, so you don’t have to pay your quarterly estimate. (ie. File your 2013 taxes by January 31st, 2014, and simply skip the January 15th estimated tax payment.)

Where do you send the check?

You can actually pay your quarterly taxes online or over the phone with a direct bank transfer, credit card, or debit card. You can also send in a payment with the payment voucher from Form 1040-ES. Pay online or over the phone (with a convenience fee charged) through the Official Payments Corporation, Link2GOV Corporation, or WorldPay.

To pay with a check or money order, send it (with the voucher) from the 1040-ES form. Be sure not to use the address shown in the 1040 or 1040A forms, since that address is different.

What about state taxes?

Some states also require that you pay estimated quarterly taxes on a similar schedule and with similar requirements. You’ll need to check with your state, though, to see how much tax to pay, which forms to use, and how to pay your tax.

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