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Being a freelance means being your own business, and staying on top of your finances is essential.

From taxes to expenses, late payments to limited companies, we asked those in the know about some of the things you ought to be thinking about.

What follows is general information based on journalistic research. It doesn't constitute financial advice, and you should always do your own research or seek advice based on your specific circumstances.

Avoid a nasty tax shock by forward-planning

One of the first crucial differences between having a pay-as-you-earn salaried job and freelancing is you have to fill out a self-assessment tax return at the end of the year – the tax is not taken at source.

Andrew Minsky, a chartered accountant at Nyman Linden, said in a recent podcast: "You need to provide for the future tax bill. It's important that you don't assume that all the money that you've earned is yours. I advise my clients to put aside a particular amount, probably on the prudent side, so the tax bill doesn't come as a big shock.

"A lot of freelances get caught out in year one by payments on account. You also have had to pay 50 per cent of the tax bill for year two upfront. That potentially is a big shock."

Know the rules on expenses

One of the advantages of being a freelance is you're taxed on your profits, not your income. That means that allowable expenses, related to your business, can be deducted. But what counts?

Jon Norris, a freelance writer at online accountancy firm Crunch, said: "HMRC don't have a yes and no list of things you can claim.

"They have a rule called wholly and exclusively which means you can claim things if it's wholly and exclusively for business use, for example if you're buying a new laptop that you're planning to work from."

But if you're buying an X-Box, he said, that could be hard to justify as a business expense unless you write about video games.

The problem with giving your accountant a shoebox of receipts at the end of the year is you might not know how much you need to put aside for your tax bill.Andrew Minsky, Nyman Linden
"There are very complicated rules around how you can claim for room in your house. It has to be worked out on a percentage basis both of the space you're using it and the time you're using it for.

For example, with a five-bedroom house where you're using one bedroom as an office for eight hours a day, you would have to work out the total rental value of the house, divide that by five and then divide that by three (8/24).

"Depending on how often you work from home it can be worth doing – sometimes it's just not worth bothering," said Norris.

Keep good records and work with an accountant year round

Log every invoice you issue and every receipt that you think might be an allowable expense. It might be tempting to wait until the end of the year to seek help from an accountant, but Minsky said: "The problem with giving your accountant a shoebox of receipts at the end of the year is you might not know how much you need to put aside for your tax bill.

"It can be advisable to do some record-keeping yourself so you have a feel of where you're at."

Norris agreed: "The people who turn up with 10 minutes to go are inevitably disappointed – that's not how accountancy works.

"If we can work with people throughout the year we can help identify areas where they can be more tax-efficient, or expenses they're not claiming, and it gives you time to fix any errors...

"That can work in your favour - sometimes you'll get a tax refund and that means you get the money upfront."

Should you become a limited company?

The easiest way to get going as a freelance is to register as a self-employed sole trader. The paperwork is minimal - and you and your business are effectively the same.

However, once the commissions start rushing in, there comes a point when another option could be of interest. And that's registering a limited company. It's a separate entity from yourself, and that has some possible benefits in terms of tax planning.

If the payment is late, don't freak out. It almost definitely doesn't mean that they're not trying to pay you.Jon Norris, freelance writer
Norris explained: "If you're a sole trader you'll pay income tax and National Insurance on your earnings. If you're a limited company you can pay yourself a regular salary or you can take out some of the money from your company as a dividend which is taxed at a lower rate, or you don't even have the take money out of the company at all. Or you could pay into a company pension – there's all sorts of stuff you can do."

Minsky added: "There are some potential tax savings to be made there. The higher your income the more tax-planning availability there is.

"The tax you pay is on what you take out of the company. If you had profits of £30,000 as a limited company you would save about £2,000 in tax. Say you have a spouse who isn't making use of their basic rate tax band, you could give them some shares and take further money out of the company."

Dealing with late payers

It's a fact of life that freelancing often means waiting longer than you'd expected to be paid. How do you chase without burning bridges?

Norris had the following advice: "The best thing to do is have a really good relationship with the person at the client company who's in charge of making sure your payment gets processed. That might not be the person you deal with on a day to day basis.

"If the payment is late, don't freak out. It almost definitely doesn't mean that they're not trying to pay you. It just means their book-keeper is off sick and as soon as you phone them up... they'll get it done.

"If it does begin to look like they're withholding payment, that's when you can get a bit legal with them. There is a piece of legislation called the Late Payment of Commercial Debts Act which lets you start charging interest and penalties once the invoice is 30 days overdue.

"The one client that I've had who paid me very late, I basically mentioned the name of the legislation and they paid."

Register for VAT?

VAT is another potentially interesting area for freelance journalists. You don't have to register until you earn over £81,000 pounds a year. But in some circumstances it could be worthwhile volunteering for VAT, under what's called the flat rate scheme.

It means you charge 20 per cent VAT on your invoices but, if it's for journalism work, you only pay 12.5 per cent to the treasury. It does however mean you cannot deduct expenses when you come to calculate how much VAT you owe.

Avoid late-filing penalties

While there's a mad rush to file tax returns every January, if you're feeling organised, you could do yours any time from 6 April this year. The penalties for letting it slip by can be harsh.

Norris concluded: "If you don't get your self assessment in on time, if you're a minute late, then you get a £100 fine straight away. If you delay further there are other penalties. It can be very costly if you don't get your self-assessment in on time."

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