Don’t fall for this small business tax trap – and tips on how to avoid it

There are many benefits to owning your own business – you are the boss, your hours are more flexible (though on average, small business owner work more than regular employees) and you can often make more money.

The reason you can make more money or at least, running your small business can be positive financially, is because of the things that you can expense (read: reduce your profit and pay less tax) through your business that you can also use outside of your business.

However, some people take it too far and end up expensing way too much – and get caught with serious consequences.

It can be exhilarating to know that as a small business owner you can legitimately expense things you need and use everyday anyway – things like your car, your cell phone and – if you work from home – even a portion of your mortgage interest. As these are things that you often need to run your business, they can be written off as a business expense.

But some people cross the line from grey to black. One friend, a successful small business owner, admitted to me that he and his two business partners had a very good year and realized that their company will need to pay a lot of tax. So they decided to buy some extremely expensive designer suits (at a cost of $10,000 a pop!) and expense them as “uniforms” to reduce the total profit to bump them down into a lower tax bracket. Sounds like a great idea, right? Except that the tax authority caught on right away and not only did they have to pay the tax, they were slapped with a fine – and they weren’t able to return the suits!

This is a trap that many small business owners fall for, and I think the worst offenders are people who run small businesses that are closer to hobbies or are part of a multi-level-marketing type business because they often don’t understand what is reasonable to expense and what isn’t.

Here are some expensing tips to avoid being audited and potentially hit with major fines.

1. Expense reasonable things.

Even if you don’t always or only use the items for your business, there are many expenses that we have that are considered reasonable to expense through a business.

These are things that a person would reasonably use for their business. For example, if you are a physiotherapist that does house calls, expensing your car payments and gas is reasonable even if you also use that car for personal reasons. Bought a bunch of stamps that you mostly used to mail Christmas cards to your family and friends? That’s ok too as having postage is a reasonable thing for any business to need (even if you mostly communicate with your clients via email). Expensing flights to Hawaii as a travel expense? Not reasonable because why would a physiotherapist need to go to Hawaii (unless maybe it was for a conference related to your field of work)?

2. Make sure the expense amount is reasonable. If you are a part-time real estate agent that sells two or three houses per year, its reasonable to expense four or five $200 bottle of champagne (even if you ended up drinking some of those yourself) as a marketing expense. It would not be reasonable to expense 50 bottles worth. Why? Because its reasonable for an agent to give a thank you gift to her clients and buying four or five bottles seems like a reasonable amount (you might want to give awesome clients two bottles for example). But if you only sell about two or three house it might be difficult to make the argument for why you needed so many bottles of champagne that year.

This also applies to how much of an expense you allocate to your business. Things like car payments, cell phones, home office expenses etc are reasonable to expense in full only if you use them mostly for your business. But if you sell Arbonne cosmetics on the side and do a couple shows per month, its not reasonable for you to expense 100% of your cell phone bill or your entire internet bill.

Look at your bills and try and gauge how much you use for your business. It doesn’t have to be exact (no one is going to throw you into jail if only 8% of your cell phone minutes were used calling customers but you expensed 10% of your cell phone bill). Another good way to determine reasonable allocation is based on the time you spend on your business. If you spend about 20% of your time working on your business (cold calling customers, following up on appointments, administration etc), then expensing everything that would be reasonable to spend on your business at 20% is fair.

3. Keep receipts for everything. In my books, if you don’t have the receipt, don’t claim the expense. If its a major expense (say you bought a new computer) and lost the receipt you can get away with potentially using a credit card statement as evidence (so a $1,500 charge on your credit card from the Apple store might be sufficient) if you are audited, but I would fall back on this as exception rather than a rule.

But keep receipts for the small ticket purchases too – people often get caught up in the big ticket items and forget that small legitimate expenses add up. For example, did you take a potential client out for coffee? Buy a thank you gift for that couple that recommended your services? These are legitimate expenses (though remember, food and entertainment can only be claimed at 50%) even if they are only $5 or $10 each.

4. Remember that there is an expectation of profit. Look, the government is aware that most small business owners will expense things that they will use personally and they will turn a blind eye if its reasonable because its not worth their time (or money) to verify, for example, that every cell phone conversation is related to your business and every item purchased at Staples is in your office cupboard. But you, as a small business owner, have to show that its worthwhile for you being in business and that you are making (or are close to making) a profit from your business. Generally, if you don’t start showing a profit after two or three years of business, you will be at much higher risk of being audited and having your expenses declined – even if they are legitimate.

Remember a good rule of thumb to follow is one that my dad (a CA and business owner) gave me.

It is that you can be a pig – but not a hog.

Why? Because pigs get fat and hogs get slaughtered 🙂

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