While most of what we do at Financial Finesse centers around helping employees, we sometimes get questions on our financial Helpline from people who are interested in starting a business on the side. We recently received a question on our blog about how to start a poultry farm. While I’m certainly no expert in poultry farming (or anything remotely like farming), there are some basic financial steps you can take before you start any type of business.
Take charge of your cash flow
As important as budgeting and saving are, they will become even more important if you’re self-employed. That’s because without a steady paycheck, your income could see lots of ups and downs and probably a lot more downs than ups in the early years.
The key will be discipline, not just when times are bad but also when times are good. I remember that when I first started working on commission and had a big payday, I tended to celebrate by splurging and buying something expensive that I really wanted. When the good times were followed by the not-so-good times, I quickly learned the importance of saving that extra cash for the next rainy day. See some of my earlier posts for ideas on how to minimize your expenses, pay off any high-interest debt you may have, and…
Beef up your savings
Speaking of saving extra cash, having lots of cash will become even more important. In an earlier post, I wrote about how the size of your emergency fund should be based on how risky your income is. Well, few things are as risky as starting your own business. Not only may you need to cover personal emergencies and income shortfalls, you may need to pay for some business emergencies and other costs out-of-pocket too. Aim for at least 1 year of expenses and ideally 3-5 years somewhere safe and accessible.
Buy health insurance
This is one personal expense that’s likely to go up when you’re self-employed. Under COBRA, you can keep your group health insurance for about 18 months after you leave your job (but generally without your employer’s subsidy so the rates are likely to be higher than what you’re used to paying) and then after that, you’re on your own.
One way to reduce your premiums is to choose a high-deductible plan, especially if you’re in good health and have enough savings to pay for that high deductible. On the other hand, an individual plan could be out of reach if you have pre-existing conditions or are in poor health. In that case, as much as you may come to dislike the President’s health care plan as a future employer, you may love it as someone who may benefit from the regulations and the subsidies that could make individual health insurance more affordable.
Get a handle on your credit
In addition to savings, you’ll probably need access to credit of some kind. The trouble is that it will be harder to get once you don’t have a regular income. If you can benefit from refinancing your mortgage, do it before you leave your company. The same goes for signing up for a home equity line of credit. You might also want to start developing positive relationships with your local bankers.
Since you won’t have much income to show, more weight will be put on your credit score. If you haven’t gotten a free copy of your credit report in the last 12 months, order one from each bureau at annualcreditreport.com and fix any errors you find. You can also use sites like creditkarma.com and quizzle.com to get a free copy of your credit score and see what other steps you can take to improve it.
Learn as much as you can about your future business
When Warren Buffett was asked why he didn’t invest in tech stocks before the dot com bubble burst, he said that it was because he didn’t understand them. This is even more true when it comes to investing in your own business. Study the industry you’re entering into as much as you can and find a mentor that you can learn from. You can also get general information on starting a business from the Small Business Administration. It’s good to learn from your mistakes but it’s even better to learn from someone else’s.
Know the rules
Even if you know everything there is to running your business, you can easily get tripped up by taxes, lawsuits, and regulations. You’ll need to decide whether to set your business up as a sole proprietorship, partnership, LLC, or corporation. The LLC has become particularly popular as a way to shield you from both the personal liability of a sole proprietorship or partnership and the double taxation and regulatory burdens of forming a corporation.
You’ll also want to get a tax identification number from the IRS, register your business name with your state and find out about your state’s tax, worker’s compensation, unemployment, and disability insurance requirements, check local zoning laws before choosing a location, make sure you have the proper licenses and permits from all those various levels of government, and keep your personal and business finances separate.
Depending on the complexity of your situation, you may want to hire a business attorney and/or an accountant to help you with all this.
Look for ways to shelter your income from taxes
Once your business becomes profitable, you’ll want to start protecting those profits from the tax man. If you have a high deductible health insurance plan, you can contribute to a health savings account. In addition, there are a myriad of tax-sheltered retirement accounts for small business owners like SEP-IRAs, Simple plans, and Individual 401(k)s. These accounts will also help diversify your wealth away from your business.
Starting a business is exciting but as I’m sure you realize by now, these initial steps can be a lot of tedious work. After all, we’re just scratching the surface here. (We didn’t even get to talk about the chickens!) Just remember that your sacrifices today can save you from catastrophe tomorrow and eventually make your dreams come true.