Every week I get a few emails from bloggers or online professionals asking me questions about taxes. Most of them are the same questions again and again. Because I can’t answer fact-specific questions individually without potentially creating an attorney/client relationship, I tend to give the same general answers. First and foremost, seek counsel from a reputable accountant. Unfortunately, I understand, too well, that many accountants don’t understand about how blogging works and some of the nuances related to making money online. And I also understand that finding a tax lawyer who may understand these nuances can be very expensive.
I started out my legal career in the tax group of a boutique firm. I’ve spent thousands of hours working with tax laws. That said, I am not a tax attorney. Through the online world I have gotten to know tax attorneys. One, in particular, is not only an exceptional tax attorney she happens to understand the online and blogging worlds. Kelly Erb is a practicing tax attorney, writes tax-related articles for Forbes magazine, has spoken at BlogHer and is well-known by her pseudonym, TaxGirl. I had the pleasure of speaking with her to clarify my knowledge and get some insight about how the IRS thinks when it comes to bloggers and taxes.
Tax Tips For Bloggers
SWAG (Stuff We All Get) – It may surprise you that the IRS defines this as compensation. Of course, while we like to think we hit the trifecta of SWAG bonanzas at blogging events, it was celebrity awards shows that led the IRS to look into this concept of giving people stuff for showing up. Under federal income tax law, such gift bags are treated as taxable income, not gifts, by the IRS since they are not “solely out of affection, respect or similar impulses for the recipients of the gift bags”. This may come as a shock to many people, because despite the fact that bloggers aren’t getting free trips to Tahiti, Botox, and jewel encrusted sunglasses we do get some pretty nice gifts in our conference attendee bags. Are bloggers really claiming the value of their SWAG bag as income? I can’t answer for anyone else. I can only tell you that if you are audited and you’re taking deductions for going to a conference, the IRS has every right to ask you if you claimed the value of the swag as income. Can you argue it away? Sure, but talk to your tax preparer or seek legal advice before doing so.
Promotional Items in the Expo Hall – If you’ve gone to tradeshows, you know some have better stuff at them than others. Having been to a number of legal conventions, I’m likely not alone in saying that our expo halls tend to have pretty lame stuff compared to the housewares show or the candy and gourmet food shows. Depending on the event, bloggers are walking trade shows and convention exposition halls where companies are plying men and women, moms and dads, especially, with all kinds of products. Are these income? Again, the companies aren’t giving you this stuff solely out of affection and respect for your awesome blogging. The company likely wants something in return. Many people throw around the number of $25 as the baseline to determine if something is income or a gift. The value of $25 comes from that being the threshold in deducting business gifts. It’s a good rule of thumb, but it’s not ‘the law’. That being said, what you get in an Expo Hall may or may not be ‘taxable income’ depending on the circumstances surrounding how you received it. If there are discussions about doing reviews, writing about the company on your blog, tweeting, or creating social media impressions, you may have created a business relationship. Or, are you a ‘big time A-list blogger’ and when they saw your badge they began plying you with everything they had in their booth (we can dream, right)? This is one of those circumstances where you have to look at what the expectation is regarding your getting the product or service.
Affiliate Income – seems pretty easy to say, it’s income. And not just income, taxable income. However, this is one area I have many people wanting to argue with me. The IRS does not care if you get paid in non-US Treasury currency. Payment in money, products or services can be considered income. If you are using affiliate codes, links, banners, etc., the money generated from them is taxable income because it is payment made for helping a direct seller make sales. And keep in mind that even if you don’t have enough in your affiliate account to cash out, you are still responsible for reporting the funds sitting in the account. To the IRS, it doesn’t matter if your compensation is in the form of martian bucks, if you can spend in on earth, the IRS want’s their cut!
Beginning in 2012, for tax year 2011, a new form has been introduced that may impact affiliate income reporting. The 1099-K is a new informational reporting mechanism for the IRS. Online affiliates that once sent out 1099-Misc may move to the 1099-K. Given that the reporting thresholds are much higher ($600 vs $20,000) you may not get a form reporting your income earned. This puts the responsibility on you to track this income closely.
I didn’t get a 1099, do I have to report that money? – Yes! A 1099-Misc form is an informational filing that is required only if the income is $600 or more. If you did not fill out a W-9 the company does not have your information on file and can not report using a 1099-Misc, even if you earned $600 or more. Regardless of what you earned, it is still up to you to report this income.
“Free Trips” – There’s no such thing! No one is flying you anywhere out of their affection or respect for you. Except maybe your family. If it’s a company, PR agency, brand rep, or anyone business related, your trip is for a reason. What is that reason? Why are you going? Are they paying you in addition to covering your travel expenses? Most likely you’re being given a trip so you can do something for the organization. Even if they’re not giving you any cash, the cost of the plane ticket, the hotel, the car service, the meals and any pampering, events or attractions you’re taken to should be reported as taxable income. Regardless of whether you get any money to pay the taxes on this several-thousand-dollar-trip, it is taxable income. That magical trip doesn’t seem so magical after all, does it?
Products for review – while many bloggers frequently talk about the cool products that just show up at their door, most products arrive with some expectation. The company or PR rep had to get your address or possibly exchanged emails with you regarding some expectations they may have with regard to sending you their product or service. If there has been conversation where you have agreed to try their product or service and then write about it, the brand or PR rep is sending it to you with the expectation of getting something in return. That is the fine line separating ‘random stuff dropped off by hot delivery guy’ (not taxable income) and ‘item provided for something in return’ (taxable income). If you’re sent a product for your use to help facilitate a giveaway you’ll be doing, that item you received is taxable income.
“Free Stuff” - There are many examples of things bloggers get that the IRS would find to be taxable income, despite the fact that you may not ever receive a dime. I’ve seen bloggers tweet, post and facebook about their home full of new appliances, the fashionable new clothes for their kids, the best organizational products, and so on. Regardless of whether they are theirs to keep or simply to use for 6 months, the value of the products is compensation and the IRS would expect to find it reported as taxable income. And those ‘free cars’? Not so free, really. Bloggers given the use of vehicles to drive to a conference – tweeting weeks in advance, on the way, etc. – are given those vehicles for one reason only. To talk about it. True, you can’t talk about the vehicle unless you use it. However, use of the vehicle is the compensation the blogger is receiving in exchange for their social media engagement. It’s easy to come up with a value for this, even if the company doesn’t send you a 1099-Misc.
Conference ‘Sponsorships’ – Not every company sends bloggers a check to pay for going to a conference and touting a specific product or service. I’ve seen tweets about ‘free clothes’, ‘new shoes courtesy of …’, ‘my new luggage’, and much more filling up a conference’s twitter stream. Add a hashtag and tell twitter how excited you are that company XYZ has given you something for the conference chances are they gave it to you in exchange for you giving them time in social media, on your blog and maybe other platforms. Most likely you’ve sent the company or PR rep a sponsorship pitch detailing what you will do if they ‘sponsor’ you. Bloggers are not charities. You know as well as I that you’re not getting ‘free stuff’ for your conference experience. You’re entering into a business relationship, no matter how much you don’t want that ‘free outfit’ to be taxable income.
But I Donate The Stuff I Get! – That’s awesome! Here’s the general rule: If you don’t report it as income, you don’t get to take the charitable deduction. That ugly sweater Aunt Martha gave you? Donate it all you want and take the charitable deduction. She gave it to you because she loves you. Nothing about it will be considered taxable. However, if the item would be taxable income you need to report it as such if you want to get the benefit of a charitable deduction. This is definitely one of those ‘you can’t have your cake and eat it too’ type of situations.
While many don’t want to hear that their ‘free’ stuff is actually taxable income according to the IRS, in reality it likely is. When it comes to taxes, the Number One piece of advice you’ll get from almost every tax preparation professional is to keep good records. But don’t just keep them in a pile in a shoe box. Annotate them. Make notes regarding the circumstances that led you to getting the product or service, take photos.
Keep in mind that all those blog posts, tweets, facebook status updates and countless social media check-ins may tell a different story than you’re hoping to tell to the IRS should you get audited. Good record keeping does take time, but it will always be helpful should you find yourself being audited. As to how long to keep tax records, it depends. For most things it’s 3 years, but there are some instances where it could be 4 years or 7 years. Before you discard them, double-check the time period for the IRS and determine if you might need them for another purpose, such as insurance which may require they be maintained longer.
While many accountants may not understand the blogging world, they do understand the concepts of income. If you don’t feel your accountant ‘gets it’ then find another accountant that will take the time to understand your industry nuances. Many people now opt to do their own taxes since tax preparation software is very comprehensive and rather easy to use. But that tax prep software is only as good as the information it is given. If the person putting in the information doesn’t understand the tax laws, it doesn’t matter what the software spits out at the end.
When it comes to taxes, if you don’t know what to do, ASK! The consequences of the IRS finding errors in your tax return can be significant. Even if it is a paper audit, the stress, time, anxiety and frustration can often be more than the penalty potentially assessed.
UPDATE: I’m not here to tell you that if you don’t do exactly as I say you’re going to jail, will be reported or find yourself audited. Like many laws, there are people willing to push the envelope. Tax laws are no different. If you feel you have a logical and legal ground for what you choose to do, then do it. This information is to help you make decisions based on what the laws say.
Disclosure: While I am a lawyer, I am not offering legal advice. Posts on legal matters are intended to provide legal information and do not create an attorney/client relationship. All references to tax codes are to the US Tax Code. This is not tax advice. Seek advice from a tax professional to address your specific needs.
All references to taxes are to the United States Federal Income Tax.
Image Credit: Arvind Balaraman/FreeDigitalPhotos.net