Are you involved in a hobby that you not only enjoy but that produces income? If so, you may have wondered whether the income is taxable, how the tax law treats hobby-related expenses, and if a net loss is tax deductible. Also to consider is if there’s a net profit, has your hobby now become a business?
Most individuals don’t get involved in a hobby intending to make money from it. But if they do, the tax law says that the hobby income must be reported on their tax return. The IRS has depended on the honesty of hobbyists to include the income on their income tax returns. However, it was relatively easy for individuals to avoid including miscellaneous income from hobbies when their only sources of sales of their products were word-of-mouth sales, flea market sales and such – generally cash transactions with no paper trail.
Nowadays, many individuals sell the merchandise they make as a hobby through online e-commerce sites such as Etsy, eBay, Amazon and others. Congress decided that to rein in unreported income, these sites and third-party payers such as credit and debit card issuers, PayPal, and similar companies should report to the IRS the income received by the selling individuals each year. After a delay in implementation of the new rules, IRS has said that starting with tax year 2023, Form 1099-K is to be used to report sales of $600 or more, regardless of the number of transactions. Hobbyists will need to be sure the income shown on the 1099-K is included on Schedule 1 of Form 1040, or otherwise explain why the income isn’t taxable.
Expenses related to a hobby are considered personal expenses, which aren’t tax deductible. (Prior to changes included in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, hobbyists were able to deduct expenses up to the amount of their hobby income as a miscellaneous itemized deduction on Schedule A, but this deduction isn’t allowed through 2025.) Thus, hobby income is reported on Schedule 1 of the hobbyist’s 1040 and no expenses are deductible.
Some hobbyists try to get a tax deduction for their hobby expenses by treating their hobby as a trade or a business. By disguising hobbies as a trade or business, and if the hobby expenses exceed the hobby income, they think they can report a deductible business loss. But the tax code includes rules that do not permit losses for not-for-profit activities such as hobbies.
So, what distinguishes a business from a hobby? The IRS considers a number of factors when making the judgment. No single factor is decisive, but all must be considered together in determining whether an activity is for profit. These factors are:
(1) Is the activity carried out in a businesslike manner? Maintaining complete and accurate records for the activity is a definite plus for a taxpayer, as is a business plan that formally lays out the taxpayer’s goals and describes how the taxpayer realistically expects to meet those expectations.
(2) How much time and effort does the taxpayer spend on the activity? The IRS looks favorably at substantial amounts of time spent on the activity, especially if the activity has no great recreational aspects. Full-time work in another activity is not always a detriment if a taxpayer can show that the activity is regular; time spent by a qualified person hired by the taxpayer can also count in the taxpayer’s favor.
(3) Does the taxpayer depend on the activity as a source of income? This test is easiest to meet when a taxpayer has little income or capital from other sources (i.e., the taxpayer could not afford to have this operation fail).
(4) Are losses from the activity the result of sources beyond the taxpayer’s control? Losses from unforeseen circumstances like drought, disease, and fire are legitimate reasons for not making a profit. The extent of the losses during the start-up phase of a business also needs to be looked at in the context of the kind of activity involved.
(5) Has the taxpayer changed business methods in an attempt to improve profitability? The taxpayer’s efforts to turn the activity into a profit-making venture should be documented.
(6) What is the taxpayer’s expertise in the field? Extensive study of this field’s accepted business, economic, and scientific practices by the taxpayer before entering into the activity is a good sign that profit intent exists.
(7) What success has the taxpayer had in similar operations? Documentation on how the taxpayer turned a similar operation into a profit-making venture in the past is helpful.
(8) What is the possibility of profit? Even though losses might be shown for several years, the taxpayer should try to show that there is realistic hope of a good profit.
(9) Will there be a possibility of profit from asset appreciation? Although profit may not be derived from an activity’s current operations, asset appreciation could mean that the activity will realize a large profit when the assets are disposed of in the future. However, the appreciation argument may mean nothing without the taxpayer’s positive action to make the activity profitable in the present.
Because making a determination using these factors is so subjective, the IRS regulations provide that the taxpayer has a presumption of profit motive if an activity shows a profit for any three or more years during a period of five consecutive years. However, if the activity involves breeding, training, showing or racing horses, then the period is two out of seven consecutive years.
Making the proper determination is important because of the differences in tax treatment for hobbies versus trades or businesses. If an activity is determined to be a trade or business in which the owner materially participates, then the owner can deduct a loss on his or her tax return, and it is not uncommon for a business to show a loss in the startup years.
Those with a profit who are truly operating a trade or business will usually be eligible for the Qualified Business Income (QBI) deduction (through 2025), which is generally 20% of the net profit of the business and is deductible in addition to the expenses claimed when figuring the net profit. This deduction, which is allowed without having to itemize deductions, is not permitted if the income is from a hobby.
Another concern for hobbyists who are reporting income from their hobby on their 1040 is whether that income is subject to self-employment (SE) tax. The SE tax is the Social Security and Medicare tax paid by those with a trade or business operated as a sole proprietor. Partners in some types of partnerships also pay SE tax. Luckily, there is an exception for sporadic or one-shot deals and hobbies, which are not subject to self-employment tax.
If you have tax questions related to your hobby activity and how the not-for-profit rules may apply, please give this office a call.