Out of the financial comfort zone

In the first of a new series on the self-employed, we look at the initial challenges of going it alone

Take a deep breath and wave goodbye to all you know. As you leap from a full-time job to self-employment, you won't only have to find work for yourself, you will be responsible for every aspect of your financial life.

Instead of an employer forking out for your pension, holidays, sick pay and maternity or paternity leave, you'll have to cover all that yourself. Income tax payments and national insurance contributions (NICs) will be your responsibility too.

In the language of business self-help guides, going self-employed will make you a master of your own destiny. But it will also make you a slave to your finances as you try to keep your head above water and the taxman off your back.

Here's our guide to the first few steps into the financial unknown.

Tax

You must register your new status as self-employed by phoning the tax office on 08459 154515 or going to www.hmrc.gov.uk. Going freelance will also mean you need a new tax code.

National insurance

When you were in full-time work, your company took care of deducting NICs from your payslip as well as paying employer's contributions itself.

In your new, self-employed life, you will have to pay two sets of contributions, known as class 2 (currently £2.10 a week) and class 4 (8 per cent between £5,035 and £33,540).

You can either pay monthly, by direct debit, or twice a year when you settle your tax bill.

Expenses

Hold on to receipts for dear life.

It might be hard to believe, but when you are freelance, tax can become fascinating. This is primarily because, with a bit of effort from yourself (and, perhaps, an accountant), you can slash your tax bill in a way that employed people never can.

You do this by gathering up as many business expenses as you can through the financial year that runs from 6 April, and then offsetting them against your overall income in that same 12 months.

The tax office itself will give you a list of basic expenses that are allowable (see the website above or ask for advice leaflets), though these will be conservative. As a rule, keep receipts for everything. Even if you don't think they could be classed as business expenses, an accountant might disagree. So until you have enough experience to know what is and isn't allowable, just keep everything.

You can include expenses incurred up to three years before you started your business. For example, if you bought a computer 18 months ago, part of that can be put towards your expenses - again, as long as you kept the receipt.

Don't forget items that are not obvious as allowable expenses. These include: "subsistence" - lunch, hotel costs and dinner if you go away for business; "sub-contractors", such as the researcher you brought in for a day to help with a project; and "workwear" - Wellington boots for a gardening business, say.

It's worth attending one of the many free talks and workshops given by the taxman for newly self-employed people. Check www.businessadviceday.co.uk for availability.

Bookkeeping

You can keep records of income and outgoings either in actual ledger books (from WH Smith or Ryman, for example) or on the computer using Excel spreadsheets or bespoke packages such as Sage. Try to input your information regularly - at least once a month - so it doesn't become a gargantuan job at the end of the year.

Set up a separate bank account for your work but, in the early days at least, don't bother with a "business account". These are expensive (with hefty charges) and largely pointless for the freelancer.

Simply open a "Number 2" account with your existing bank and make sure your business transactions go through it.

Number-crunchers

You might be tempted to get an accountant to handle all aspects of your finances but this will add costs that, in the early days, can hit you hard. Most will charge a flat fee depending on what kind of work it is, though for basic bookkeeping expect no more than £100.

A recommendation from a family member or friend can be a good start, or you could search the website of the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants: wwww.acca-business.org/dom/

Keep money aside

When you first get paid as a freelancer, you might think you're doing better than ever, but that could be because your money hasn't been taxed. Come January, and then June, you will receive the demand that gives you just under a month to pay Revenue & Customs.

So set up a high-interest savings account (go online and look at www.moneyfacts.co.uk or www.moneysupermarket.com for the best deals) and transfer around 10 per cent of your earnings into it each month. This should cover you when the bill arrives.

'I got into trouble over tax'

Freelance consultant Tira Shubart learnt the hard way about keeping records and setting money aside for Revenue & Customs.

"I got into trouble over tax a number of times due to a lack of forward planning," she says.

"The idea of simply keeping a deposit account, and regularly putting money into it, eluded me for a number of years.

"Or I would be convinced that more work would suddenly come in and that would cover my tax bill," she adds.

Thankfully, the taxman was able to help her work out a payment plan.

Tira now does her own bookkeeping each month in ledger books and finds the process therapeutic. "It makes me feel I can look at the books next to my desk and believe life is in order."

Anyone toying with the idea of self-employment needs to do a lot of research, she stresses.

"It's critical to talk to people who have been there before and gone freelance.

"And talk to the people at Revenue & Customs, who can be surprisingly helpful. They may give you conservative advice, but it's a great start."

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