It can feel so daunting to creative people to think about numbers and calculations, I know it is for me. That being said, of my favorite things about being a self-employed photographer is I get to decide how much work I take on. If I need more income, I can go out and photograph something – the opportunities are endless. Knowing when I need to pick up more work and when I can enjoy the free time I have worked my butt off to have is one of the most important things to me in creating a healthy work/life balance. Each month I analyze my finances to track growth, set goals, and make sure taxes won’t sneak up on me and ruin my April. Here are some tips for easy management of your finances as a wedding photographer, so tax time isn’t scary and you can accurately track and grow the business of your dreams.
UNDERSTANDING BUSINESS TERMS
DBA, LLC, EIN – what do they mean and how to they apply to you? Getting legal is the first step you should take when taking money for photography. Everyone has to do it, everyone has to pay taxes, so just get it squared away as soon as you can so you can focus on everything else in your business. It’s super easy to get your Employer Identification Number (EIN) online. This number is like a social security number for your business, and you’ll use it with banking and taxes. You’ll also need to decide what kind of business you want to be; Doing Business As, (DBA) which means you’re a sole proprietor, or if you want to file as a Limited Liability Company (LLC), or S-Corp. These all require different steps and management, so do research and chat with your accountant to see which is best for you.
KNOW YOUR COST OF DOING BUSINESS
Cost Of Doing Business (CODB) is imperative to your pricing. You need to understand your overhead and how much time you’re actually spending on jobs/weddings outside of shooting them to figure out how much you need to charge. For example, I estimate between 25-40 hours for each wedding. From emails, meetings, vendor relations, location scouting, traveling, editing, delivery and blogging, that time adds up and you need to charge for it. If you don’t, you’ll realize very quickly that you are making closer to minimum wage than you think, and that’s not why you became an entrepreneur!
Too often, we do our market research and see what others in the area and the same line of work are charging, but we skip the all too important part of figuring out what WE need to make independent of others. Even if you have a trusty accountant or family member that does your finances, you are the one who decides what work you take as an entrepreneur. Once I figured out my CODB, my whole outlook on my business changed. I am now able to only take on a certain amount of work for the year and not fret about what my income will look like, it’s already known. I know the minimum amount I need to charge in order to take a job, and when I can say that all too rarely used word, “No”. I can’t stress how important this is for mental health and for awareness of how your business is doing. My favorite CODB calculator is this one. I calculate my CODB twice a year because as my expenses, goals, and bookings change, so should my prices.
UNDERSTANDING ESTIMATED TAX AND SALES TAX
I’m not an accountant, so I won’t try to explain this one, but it’s very important. Here is an article on Estimated Taxes in Maine, and here’s one on Sales Tax in Maine. Maine has a special bulletin in its tax law for photographers, so make sure to read that and charge accordingly.
HAVE A SEPARATE BUSINESS BANK ACCOUNT
This is one of the first things you should do in your business after becoming legal. As you start tracking your expenses and income, having a separate bank account for your business makes tax season so much easier. The combination of Quickbooks and an automatic bank account connection works so smoothly, so all expenses are automatically entered so I can quickly calculate and categorize everything. A free service called Wave is also an option for tracking your finances.
EXPENSES ARE NOT DOLLAR FOR DOLLAR
This is something I think is very often misunderstood. If you purchase a new lens for $2000, that is NOT a $2000 deduction for the year. First, it’s only a percentage of each expense that goes towards a business deduction, and second, purchases such as equipment can be considered assets and are taxed differently as well. I suggest consulting your accountant on this one!
SET ANNUAL BUDGETS FOR ADVERTISING AND OTHER EXPENSES
Each year, I set a budget for ads. I think they’re important in promoting and growing my business, but they can get away from you quickly. A $20 Facebook ad here and there can quickly amass into a huge expense. I advertise on one website and it’s my entire budget each year. This way I am not tempted when other outlets offer specials on advertising because I know that money is already spent. Being prepared for these and other business expenses throughout the year creates more predictability for your end of year profit.
VISIT YOUR LOCAL SMALL BUSINESS ASSOCIATION BRANCH
When I moved to Portland and really wanted to get going on my business, I set up a free meeting with my local Small Business Association. It was so helpful to be walked through what I needed in a relaxed and helpful atmosphere. They answered so many questions for me and kept in contact after the meeting. It can be scary to call the IRS or State Tax departments, so this was a nice bridge to get reliable information.
PREPARING TO GO FULL-TIME
Before you can go full-time with your wedding photography business, there are a lot of things to consider. Photographing weddings can feel like anything but business sometimes, but it is very important to treat it as what it is, your career. Once you’ve calculated your CODB, added in savings, (look into the 50/30/20 budget that is mentioned on the CODB website) you might feel a little overwhelmed. It’s completely understandable and I think the best way to financial freedom is being prepared. While it might seem tempting to make the leap, make sure you can replace your current income without changing your lifestyle too much, or you’ll be resentful towards your work once it’s your only source of income. Running a small business is tough, and the rewards aren’t always instant. I know, I’ve been a full-time photographer for 5 years, and each year ebbs and flows with success. If you place realistic goals into motion, work smart and keep your expenses down then you’ll be setting yourself up for success!
SET CLIENT EXPECTATIONS
This isn’t really entirely about managing finances, but I think it’s super important and see if way too often in photography. You shouldn’t have anything on your calendar without taking a retainer for it. You are blocking off a time slot in your life for this event, and like with any business, that time is valuable, so charge for it. Set up your contracts with retainers, due dates, and cancellation fees. It will create professionalism in your business and lessen the chance of cancellations.
I hope these tips were helpful in putting you in the right mindset about the financial side of your business. Understanding your income needs will allow you to more accurately price yourself, setting you up for success and growth in your business. Remember, your finances aren’t the same as the photographer down the road, so don’t use their pricing to structure your business. You may need a new camera this year so you need to account for that in your pricing, or maybe you just want to take a vacation after the wedding season is over! Set those goals and expectations now, and it’ll be smooth sailing for the future. Finances don’t have to be overwhelming or scary. If you have more questions on how I organize and track things, feel free to shoot me an email. I love the safety that comes with understanding this, and I wish that for you too!
BOOK RECOMMENDATION: In another blog post, I’ll talk more about some of my favorite wedding business books, but I’ll list this one here because it’s all about money. All Your Worth By Elizabeth Warren is a great personal finance guide and offers a creative outlook to managing money.