Self-employed are facing disaster


Dumping your boss and going self-employed is a tempting thought, but many aren't planning sufficiently for their future. And that's a recipe for disaster.

Being your own boss is a wonderful thing. You can dress how you want, work when you feel like it. There's no commute, no office politics, no uniforms and nobody to tell you what to do.

As a freelancer myself, I know all the benefits. I also know the downside. There's no company pension, no redundancy package, no sick pay, no death-in-service benefits and no PAYE.

You have to sort all that out yourself, because nobody is going to do it for you.

The bad news is that too many self-employed people ignore this vital stuff, because they have other things on their minds. Unfortunately, they're courting disaster.

On your own
This matters, because 367,000 people have became self-employed since the financial crisis in 2008, according to Government figures, mostly in the last two years.

Some are following a dream, many can't find a decent job. Either way, if you're one of the newly-minted self-employed you must do some financial planning now, or things could turn nasty later.

Pension pains
Nearly half the self-employed have no pension savings at all, according to insurer Prudential. Incredibly, four out of ten plan to keep working until they drop, which is a delightful prospect. Others bank on having a flourishing business to sell when they retire, so they can live off the proceeds.

That isn't financial planning, that's day dreaming.

The self-employed have to save harder for retirement than wage slaves, because they won't get any pension contributions from their employer, or qualify for the government-backed auto-enrolment workplace pension. Read Workplace pensions: what it means for you.

Many will also have a highly erratic income, especially when building up their business, which makes it harder to fund regular monthly contributions.

But you can still claim tax relief on your personal pension contributions. Basic rate taxpayers can claim 20% and higher rate taxpayers get 40%.

You could start with a low-cost stakeholder pension, sold by insurers such as Aviva, Friends Life, and Standard Life. More experienced investors might prefer a self-invested personal pension (SIPP), offered by low-cost brokers such as Cavendish Online, Hargreaves Lansdown and Sippdeal, which allow you to take charge of your own investments.

One big drawback with a pension is that you can't touch the funds until you are aged 55 at the earliest. That's a problem if you need funds to help you through a rough patch, or invest in your business.

ISAs are more flexible, because you can dip into your savings (but don't do it too often, or you'll have none left). You can invest up to £11,280 this tax year. You don't get tax relief on your contributions, but the growth and income is free of tax.

You will still get the State Pension, of course. From April 2016, the government will merge the basic State Pension and State Second Pension (S2P) into a single universal payment. That's good news for the self-employed, because they don't qualify for S2P, and should therefore get more. Read New £144 State Pension: all you need to know.

You will also need to make the maximum 35 years of National Insurance contributions to qualify for the full amount, up from the current 30 years. Read How to get a State Pension forecast.

The single-tier pension will be worth £144 a week in today's prices. That isn't enough to live on comfortably, so make sure you save in your own name as well.

Your tax hell
By far the worst thing about becoming self-employed is sorting out your own tax affairs. Unless you're crazy, you'll want to hire an accountant to sort out the tricky technical stuff. Don't get a rubbish one (as I did initially), get a good one (like I've got now). The best way is to ask friends and contacts for recommendations. Failing that, you could search for an ICAEW chartered accountant.

I'm told you can find an accountant to do a simple self-assessment tax return for as little as £150. Good luck with that. You will certainly pay more in London and the South-East.

But even if you have to pay £300 to £500 for their services, it's worth it. Better still, their bill is tax-deductible.

Don't hang around. You will need to tell HM Revenue & Customs that you are trading by 5th October following the end of your first tax year, and file your self-assessment tax return by 31st October for paper returns, or 31st January electronically.

You pay your tax twice a year, on 31st January and 31st July, in two big fat lump sums. Make sure you have the money to hand, because there are penalties and surcharges for late payment. Read How to get your online self-assessment tax return right

You may also have to pay National Insurance (NI) twice. The self-employed pay both Class 2 NI contributions, which are £2.65 a week, and earnings-related Class 4 contributions, which are paid with your tax bill on 31st January and 31st July.

If you're likely to earn more than £77,000 a year, you will need to register for VAT within 30 days. Again, there are penalties for failing to do so.

Remember to keep every single receipt for expenses, because they can be deducted against your tax bill, provided they are "wholly and exclusively" for business purposes.

That's a lot of dreary paperwork. Try to do it as you go along, rather than feeling guilty about it all year, then ruining a weekend trying to find everything at the last minute.

You need protection
The better sort of employer offers valuable benefits such as life insurance, sick pay and paid holidays, but now you have to pay for it yourself.

Your priority is income protection, which pays a tax-free income if you can't work due to sickness or ill health. This is vital cover, yet alarmingly few people take it out.

Don't confuse it with that mis-sold monstrosity, payment protection insurance (PPI). Income protection is much better.

How much you pay depends on your age, lifestyle and state of health. Typically, a 40-year-old non-smoker would pay £40 a month for £20,000 annual tax-free income, or £55 a month at age 50.

That income would kick in after six months of illness and continue until you recover, or if you can't work again, until you turn 60.

You may need to speak to an independent financial adviser, to find the right policy.

Don't forget state benefits
Your income could drop sharply while setting up your business, which means you could be eligible means-tested state benefits such as working tax credits and child tax credits.

To find out more, contact the tax credit helpline on 0345 300 3900.

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