Tax Tips For Bloggers

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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.

Conclusion

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

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31 thoughts on “Tax Tips For Bloggers

  1. Chrysta Bairre

    Thanks for this informative post!

    The information provided is thorough and well-researched and very helpful to give bloggers like myself a starting point when considering what is and what isn’t taxable income by IRS standards. It certainly provides a basic understanding of tax law that I can review with my tax professional.

    (Hopefully my comment is carefully worded to avoid the implication of advice as I am absolutely not giving advice. Hey, I have enough accounting experience to know better than give tax advice and/or black & white answers when it comes to the IRS! ;))

    Chrysta

    Reply
    1. Sara Post author

      Chrysta,

      Thanks for your comment and I think your comment is well worded. :-)

      Glad you find it helpful and feel that it’s a good starting point to have the discussions with your tax professional.

      Reply
  2. Tony Bennett

    Well, I’m not yet at the point where I need tax tips for my blog but you never know when I may! But I did want to say that I love your site and I have no idea why it took me so long to come here :)

    Looking forward to getting to someday sooner with your help

    Reply
    1. Sara Post author

      Tony,

      Thanks for visiting and commenting! You’ll be that ‘Big Blogger’ we all say “I knew when …”.

      Thank you for your kind comment and I hope one day soon you’ll need to print this out and take it to your tax preparer because you’re rollin’ in dough!

      Wishing your much success on your journey to making someday come as soon as possible.

      ~ Sara

      Reply
  3. Maegen

    Do you know if I have to report something I get if I give it away to readers?

    Like, let’s say the roller rink gives me two passes, and I do a little contest, and give them to a reader.
    Is that income?

    Reply
    1. Sara Post author

      Maegen,

      It would depend on how you structure the promotion and who the actual sponsor of the promotion is.

      For giveaways, you can check out my post about them here: http://www.savingforsomeday.com/blog-law-is-your-giveaway-legal/

      If you are the sponsor of the promotion then you own what you’re giving away. If the establishment is the sponsor then they’re giving them away. So, it would depend on how you do your promotion.

      If you own the property then you got it somehow – (1) you purchased it or (2) it was given to you. If it was given to you then you have to determine if it was a gift or compensation. Chances are a business is giving you things a compensation.

      The rule here would be similar to that of donations – if it’s income to you or you bought it with your own money and you give the product/service away then you can possibly claim it as a business expense (you’d have to know the rules related to legitimate business expenses).

      If the item was a gift and you’re giving it away, the IRS may not see how it became a legitimate business expense. You’d have to discuss this with your tax professional.

      Reply
    1. Sara Post author

      Meredith, glad to provide you with useful information. I know it’s not easy to find all this tax info, especially when it comes to online businesses.

      Reply
  4. nicole

    Sara- am sorta confused so 2 quick questions:

    1. if I have not seriously tried to make money on my blog, and income is less then $600, then I can keep is as a hobby (blog only 2 yrs old), right?

    if so, say books received for review would be considered income? But, then mailing costs for them (sending to giveaway winners) would be costs incured/deductions?

    2. in relations to that scenario- if i read the book and then giveaway to a reader via giveaway, is the book considered a charitable deduction? Am confused as to whether you can ‘donate’ books to yourself, aka your blog. What about books from my personal bookshelf (that I bought)- can they be donated as well to myself/blog?

    Thanks for the help!

    Reply
    1. Sara Post author

      Nicole, While I can’t answer your questions specifically I can give you some general guidelines.

      1. To determine if your blogging is a hobby or business I suggest you check out the following IRS article on the topic – http://www.irs.gov/newsroom/article/0,,id=169490,00.html

      You will see that it provides questions/guidelines on how you can determine how your blogging should be handled with regard to your taxes.

      2. A book received for review may or may not be business income depending on the relationship you have with the source of the book. If it is income, then expenses associated with sending it to a giveaway winner would likely be a legitimate business expense. This is definitely a question for your tax professional since it would be their credentials on the line if you are audited. If you do your own taxes, you should read IRS Publication 535, Business Expenses.

      3. Charitable deductions are only permitted for qualified organizations. Winners of giveaways are not likely to be qualified charitable organizations. You can gift property to anyone. And in doing so, if the gift is substantial enough you should look in to that topic. However, giving a gift and making a qualified charitable contribution are not the same.

      4. Converting personal property to business property – If you wish to take something personal and make it into business property you’ll need to read up on that topic. It’s not as easy as it seems because there is a formula to determine the cost basis and property converted from personal use to business use does NOT qualify for the first-year expensing deduction (Section 179).

      Reply
  5. Stacie

    Hi, Sara,
    I know this may not be something you can answer, but what do you think about “credits” from places like Groupon, Mamasource, Swagbucks, etc.? When people sign up under you and you earn a credit to use towards a daily deal, is this reportable as income? I’ve used some of mine to purchase items to give away on my blog, but I’ve also used some to buy a few things I wanted.

    I’d love to hear some thoughts on this, because I can’t seem to find anything about it!

    Reply
    1. Sara Post author

      Stacie, it’s a very valid question. In the eyes of the IRS those ‘credits’ are likely to be deemed income. I know in the past some of those referral-type sites have sent our 1099s to affiliates when their ‘cash out’ exceeded the $600 threshold. Some may continue to do it, while others may fall under the new online payment guidelines which raised the minimum amount for the new 1099-K. But if you signed up as an affiliate, it doesn’t matter how your affiliate pays. There is a further challenge because with some the payout may be more than what you have in your account, but it is considered ‘earned’.

      It’s something you should discuss with your tax preparation professional, if you use one.

      Reply
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  7. Travel Writer

    First, I wanted to thank you for your article on tax tips for bloggers. I had searched the web for over an hour before I found your article (the only useful article out of the whole bunch.)

    Secondly, I often receive “all expenses paid trips” in exchange for writing articles about my travel experiences. I don’t receive any other form of compensation from the companies. If I were to claim everything I’ve received for “free” this year, I could not afford to pay the taxes. Since websites need fresh content daily, if I were to decrease my trips I’d no longer be providing a steady stream of content and would likely lose these opportunities. Up until reading your article I felt like the luckiest person alive to be able to travel for “free” but now I feel like I’m going to have to walk away from the dream job because I can’t afford to pay the taxes on it. Do you have any thoughts you can share with me on this?

    Thank you

    Reply
    1. Sara Post author

      Thanks for the comment, TW.

      Your question is one that many bloggers/online writers are facing more and more. When companies offer “free” products/services/travel in exchange for content it often is very enticing. The problem is that (1) nothing in that relationship is free and (2) products/services/travel do not pay our bills.

      In the scenario you mention, receiving free travel in exchange for writing articles, there is clearly a business relationship. It would be near imposible to argue that it was a gift. PR companies and brands DO NOT just give away trips as gifts to bloggers.

      You’re not alone in this, though. On any given day I find bloggers jaunting off to places around the globe and talking about their free trips. (never mind that there are also FTC Disclosure issues that are also raised in talking about these “free” trips)

      In speaking with bloggers and online professionals, and in the multiple emails I receive, it’s clear that many of them are not declaring the value of these trips on their taxes and, thus, not paying the appropriate taxes. Should they be audited by the IRS on this matter there may be significant tax liabilities that were not planned for.

      What can you do? I suggest you speak to a tax and/or legal professional and if you are audited that you seek legal advice before responding to any IRS inquiry.

      Much of this misconception could be solved if PR agencies and brands were to obtain the necessary tax-information and send out 1099-Misc forms whenever one of their independent contractors is compensated in cash/good/services that equals or exceeds $600. The problem with that is it’s extra work and poses the risk that the blogger may not want to participate “for the experience” when it’s obvious there will be a tax consequence. In addition, liability for taxes is triggered well before the $600 threshold for issuing a 1099 which may leave the blogger with the erroneous belief that no taxes are due for compensation under $600.

      Clearly, this is an area where all the players need to be educated. For bloggers it’s pretty simple though – you get something for “free” from a company that approaches to you do something in exchange then there is a business relationship and the value of that product/service is taxable income. For PR companies and brands a bit more due diligence and up-front communication on their part would bring this to the blogger’s attention. The companies offering up these “free” products/services/travel know the value and could easily disclose it up-front in a written communication. The companies are deducting the value/cost of these “freebies” as business expenses so there needs to be accountability for where they’re going.

      Reply
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  9. Janel

    Can you give some guidance as to the valuation? If I receive a product as a review sample I understand that I’m liable for taxes on it but I read that it is the Fair Market Value. However, I don’t know what the FMV really is. I use the sample solely for business purposes – for my review – until that review is published. Then, what I get to keep is now the “used” product that becomes my personal property to keep. This sample, in my mind, doesn’t carry the retail value but more like what I would truly pay for it as a consumer from Craigslist, for example. I know it’s not worth the retail, either, because if I went to resell it at that point, it would be worth far less. Also, consumables like food and such that are used solely for business purposes (the review) seems as though it now has $0 value. Can you clarify on these thoughts?

    Reply
    1. Sara Post author

      Janel, thank you for your comment. I think part of your confusion is that you’re not separating your business from your personal use. If you (as an owner of your business) receive a product/service to use for facilitating a review, the FMV is the value at the time it is received. There is a legal definition of Fair Market Value: The fair market value is the price at which the property would change hands between a willing buyer and a willing seller, neither being under any compulsion to buy or to sell and both having reasonable knowledge of relevant facts.

      If you are unsure of the FMV of a product you can check online if it is readily available for sale.

      If, after your review, the product still exists (for example a vacuum cleaner) then it remains the property of your business. Business property can be converted to personal use (as opposed to maintaining ownership by the business) but there may be other considerations and calculations required by the IRS depending on how the business property was handled for depreciation purposes. Only your business can sell/give/dispose of business-owned property. If you personally sell business-owned property you should talk to an accountant to ensure it is accounted for properly.

      Despite what many believe, consumable do have a FMV because the time for assessing FMV is upon receipt of the product/service and not after it has been consumed/used. For example, air travel has a FMV despite it being a single-use service. As you mentioned, food is an excellent example of a consumable but when it arrives to you there is some value. For products that are not yet on the market, the company can often provide you with a suggested retail price.

      I hope this offers you some clarification.

      Disclosure: This is not tax or legal advice. If you have specific questions please contact a tax professional.

      Reply
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  17. The Grits

    This is awesome! Thank you so much!! Currently I earn $00 in fact, I am negative LOL so I am in the clear. BUT I had been wondering at what point I do need to report to the IRS. Until I heard a profit, I suppose I don’t need to worry about it. Thank you!!

    Reply
    1. Sara Post author

      There’s a difference between earning money and obtaining cash or other compensation for work. If you are concerned about what you need to report, please consult with a tax professional.

      Reply

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