Setting Up as a Freelancer

 You are a highly skilled professional, providing services to other businesses such as graphic design, marketing or IT consulting.  You are now a contractor or freelancer, a self-employed business owner. It doesn't matter if you employ just yourself or a large team, have few resources or huge capital, have lots of clients or just starting out, you are still a business owner.

Here are my brief answers to the most common business questions I have been asked by new freelancers. Each paragraph is a topic in its own right, so do ask us for more information. If you want more confidence on your business journey, start here.

Pink Rosebud

Should I Form a Company?

When deciding whether you should operate as a company, partnership or sole trader, consider these factors: ownership, commercial risk, credibility, administration, income allocation.  A Look Through Company is a hybrid company-partnership structure, with the legal status of a company, but treated as a partnership by Inland Revenue for income allocation and tax.


How many working owners? Will there be non-working investors? If it's just you, then sole-trader would be simpler. If there's outside investment or unequal personal effort between owners, then a company would be advisable. Partnerships are simpler structures than companies, but if a partner leaves or joins, you have to register a new partnership.

Commercial Risk

Sole traders and partners in a partnership take on the risk for business losses. Companies are separate legal entities, so shareholders are not personally responsible for company debts unless they have provided personal guarantees. Directors may still be liable if they have been careless, negligent or trading recklessly.


Some suppliers and customers prefer to deal with a company.


Companies must be registered at the Companies Office, and file an annual return confirming addresses and other company information in the same month each year. Registered companies are issued a company number and New Zealand Business Number. Companies also have stricter reporting requirements, so company accounting fees are generally higher. Companies need an IRD number, which is different from the IRD number of the shareholders.

Partnerships and sole traders need just an IRD number, but it's a good idea to get a New Zealand Business Number (NZBN) to store your contact details. Sole traders use the same IRD number for all their personal income. Partnerships can have their own IRD number. The Government is working towards using the NZBN for e-invoicing, which will make it easier for businesses to send out invoices and get paid.

Income Allocation

For a sole trader, the business profits (losses) belong to the individual. For a partnership, business profits (losses) are allocated evenly between partners, unless you have a partnership agreement which specifies a different allocation. For a company, the business profits (losses) after deducting shareholder salaries remain in the company unless it is a Look Through Company (LTC) or personal services attribution applies.
For a sole trader, the business profits (losses) belong to the individual. For a partnership, business profits (losses) are allocated evenly between partners, unless you have a partnership agreement which specifies a different allocation. For a company, the business profits (losses) after deducting shareholder salaries remain in the company unless it is a Look Through Company (LTC) or personal services attribution applies.

What Records Do I Need to Keep?

Your business needs its own bank account. It is easier to track income & expenses that way. If you need to use money for private expenses, then transfer the funds to your personal account (this is called Drawings).

You'll need to keep copies of invoices (customer & supplier), till receipts and other accounting records for over 7 years. Many accounting apps allow you to scan or photograph invoices or till receipts so that you don't have to retain the paper copy. Keep your GST workings attached to copies of the GST returns you lodged.

There are a lot of accounting apps available for freelancers, to send out invoices and track your business transactions. Our favourites for freelancers include invoicing and bank reconciliation: Xero Starter, MYOB Essentials, Wave, Reckon One.

Don't just look at cost, look at ease of use and what you want to do with it. Choosing a suitable accounting app depends on how many invoices, bank transactions a month; whether you employ staff, sell goods, manage projects with milestones; whether you charge GST. 

Keep copies of important contractual agreements, like service performance agreements. You'll need these if you have a dispute with a client. If you form a company you will also need to keep a register of shareholders and directors.

Every year you will need to lodge a tax return with IRD. Sole traders will lodge an IR3 individual return. Partnerships and LTCs will lodge an IR7 return, and the partners/LTC owners will lodge an IR3. Companies will lodge an IR4 return, and shareholder-employees will lodge an IR3.

Do I need to register for GST?

If you are GST registered, then you add 15% GST to your service fees, and pay the GST you collect to IRD. You can also claim back the GST you have paid on your business purchases and expenses.

If you expect your business to earn income (before deducting expenses) of $60,000 or more, then the business must register for GST. If you expect it to earn less than $60,000 then you can voluntarily register for GST. Voluntary GST registration may be helpful if you are buying a vehicle or expensive equipment for the business, because you can claim back the GST. It may also be helpful to register early if you are near the $60,000 threshold, so you don't have to adjust your fees.

If you are freelancing for clients based offshore, you may be able to zero-rate the fees (charge 0% GST) , as you are exporting your services. Check with us if you think this applies to you.

You can lodge GST returns on a 6 monthly, 2 monthly or 1 monthly frequency. You can choose invoice, payments or hybrid basis, which determines if you disclose GST when invoiced or when paid. Most of our freelancers choose to file GST returns 6 monthly on a payments basis.

What Expenses can I Claim?

You can claim a variety of expenses for GST and income tax. This is not an exhaustive list and there are some limitations, so it pays to check with your tax advisor. Some suppliers may not be GST registered, so you can only claim those expenses for income tax and not GST.

  • ACC levies, professional indemnity insurance, other insurances. Life insurance and some disability insurance premiums are not claimable for GST and income tax.
  • Accounting, legal, business coach and other professional fees.
  • Bank fees and interest on business borrowing (no GST).
  • Courses for professional development.
  • Depreciation - gradual write down of equipment or vehicle cost. (No GST on depreciation, but you may claim GST on equipment and vehicles used for business.)
  • Entertainment - coffees with clients and prospects (50% claimable) or meals while travelling.
  • Home Office – Proportion of house costs related to your office, studio, workshop and storage space. Rent (no GST), interest (no GST), water, rates, power, gas, repairs.
  • Marketing – paid advertising, branding.Mobile phone, business landline, internet.
  • Motor vehicle expenses - Either keep a logbook and claim some mileage for income tax (no GST). Or claim the business portion of expenses for income tax and GST.
  • Rent, parking, travel.
  • Software licences.
  • Stationery and printing.
  • Subscriptions e.g. professional associations, networking groups.

What are Schedular Payments?

Schedular payments are made to contractors, usually individuals, for certain activity types. The payers deduct tax at a set rate, usually 20%. You can apply to IRD in MyIR for a tailored rate (10% or more) or a certificate of exemption to manage the taxes you pay more closely. The tax deductions are passed by the payer to IRD on your behalf, and offset against the income tax you have to pay for that year.

What is Provisional Tax?

Provisional tax is a regular payment of income tax to spread the amounts across the year that the income is earned. Most taxpayer have a March year end (balance date) and pay provisional tax three times a year: 28 August, 15 January and 7 May (after balance date). If you are GST registered on a 6 monthly basis, then provisional tax is due on the same dates as GST: 28 October and 7 May (after balance date).

Terminal tax is the final instalment of income tax and reduces by the amount of provisional tax you have paid. Terminal tax for 31 March 2020 balance date is due on 7 February 2021 or 7 April 2021 if you have a tax agent.

Setting up as a freelancer/contractor/self-employed business owner can be easy, once you know the answers to these initial business questions. Please contact us if you need any help.

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This information in this article is for general information purposes and should not be relied on without additional advice specific to your circumstances. If you require advice in relation to your specific circumstances please contact the author for a consultation.

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- By Serena Irving, JDW Chartered Accountants

Serena Irving is a director in JDW Chartered Accountants Limited, Ellerslie, Auckland. JDW is a professional team of qualified accountants, auditors, business consultants, tax advisors, trust and business valuation specialists.