Before You Do Your Taxes, Understand the Difference Between a Hobby and a Side Hustle

How much is your side hustle currently bringing in? How much do you think it’ll earn this year, based on your first-quarter revenue?

(I’ll wait while you do the math.)

Next question: how much are you spending on your side hustle? Is it more or less than what you’re earning?

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Gross income is great, but the new tax laws have gotten a lot stricter on whether you can deduct those expenses you’re racking up as you pursue your side hustle. This means that if your side hustle isn’t hustling up a profit, you might have to classify it as a hobby—and lose out on potential tax savings.

The basic “business vs. hobby” rules are still the same: to qualify as a business, you need to make a profit in three out of the past five years. To quote IRS Publication 535:

An activity is presumed carried on for profit if it produced a profit in at least 3 of the last 5 tax years, including the current year.

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(There’s an exception for people who breed, show, train, or race horses—they only have to show a profit for two out of the last seven years, probably because horses are expensive.)

If your side hustle qualifies as a business, you’ll report your income and expenses on a Schedule C and will be able to deduct qualified business expenses from your taxes. That also remains unchanged.

However, taxpayers used to be able to itemize and deduct some hobby expenses from their taxes as well, even if their money-making endeavor didn’t qualify as an official small business. As The Washington Post reports, the new tax laws have eliminated that deduction:

“In the past, you could claim hobby expenses as part of the class of miscellaneous itemized deductions that needed to exceed 2 percent of adjusted gross income,” [IRS spokesperson Eric Smith] said. “But that category of deductions was eliminated under tax reform.”

Previously, you could deduct expenses from a hobby up to the income it generated as personal itemized deductions, as long as you met the 2 percent threshold. However, starting in 2018 and up until 2025, this deduction is no longer allowed.

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What does that mean for you? If your side hustle has more expenses than income, and you haven’t earned a profit in three out of the past five years, you’ll have to classify it as a hobby.

If you are starting a side hustle and it hasn’t made a profit yet—but you think it might earn a profit in three out of the next five years—you can file IRS Form 5213, “Election To Postpone Determination as To Whether the Presumption Applies That an Activity Is Engaged in for Profit.”

(If you’ve read all of this and feel more confused than when you started, you can always hire a CPA or tax preparer to help you.)

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Most importantly: if your side hustle isn’t bringing in any profit, you can start cutting business expenses or working on growing your income. Do it for the sake of your business’s bottom line—or your own bottom line, because that money you’re spending on an unprofitable business is probably coming out of your own pocket—and do it for the sake of your tax return.

Or, you could always accept that your “side hustle” is really a “side hobby.” Not every hobby has to become a full-fledged business, after all.

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