Published March 17, 2014
Small-business tax rule No. 1: Don't mess with the IRS.
But that doesn't mean you should cheat yourself. Take every legal deduction you can. Here are a dozen that even savvy small-business owners and entrepreneurs sometimes forget:
The deductible dozen
1. Home office
Concerned that claiming a home-office deduction is tantamount to sending an engraved invitation to an Internal Revenue Service auditor? Don't be, says Jan Zobel, author of "Minding Her Own Business: The Self-Employed Woman's Guide to Taxes and Recordkeeping."
"I don't agree that chances of getting audited are greater with a home-office deduction," says Zobel, a San Francisco Bay-area tax expert, who specializes in serving the self-employed. The key is that you use the term "home office" the same way the IRS does. The tax agency says it must be a space devoted to your business and absolutely nothing else. Deducting the den that houses the family computer and serves as a guest bedroom won't fly with Uncle Sam.
"If you only have one computer and you have a child over 4, the IRS is going to be pretty certain that the child is using the computer," says Zobel. "And the burden of proof is on you."
The deduction, however, isn't limited to a full room. Your home office can be part of a room. Just how much of the space is deductible? Measure your work area and divide by the square footage of your home. That percentage is the fraction of your home-related business expenses -- rent, mortgage, insurance, electricity, etc. -- that you can claim.
2. Office supplies
Even if you don't take the home-office deduction, you can deduct the business supplies you buy. Hang onto those receipts, because these expenditures will offset your taxable business income.
When your office supplies are more than just pens and paper, you have another tax-cutting opportunity.
Office-furniture acquisitions provide a couple of choices. Deduct 100% of the cost in the year of the purchase or deduct a portion of the expense over seven years, also known as depreciation.
To take the whole cost in one tax year you'll use the Section 179 deduction (named for the part of the tax code where the law appears). Recent tax-law changes have made this deduction even more attractive. Stimulus measures increased this deduction to $500,000. However, unless Congress acts again, the Section 179 limit for 2014 is just $25,000.
If you choose instead to depreciate the desks and filing cabinets, you can't simply split the cost into equal portions over the depreciation period. Instead, you must use an IRS chart to make separate calculations each year.
Which is better for you? Anticipate the times that your business will need these deductions the most. Both options are reported on IRS Form 4562.
4. Other equipment
Items such as computers, copiers, fax machines and scanners also are tax deductible. As with furniture, you can take 100% up front or depreciate (this time over five years).
5. Software and subscriptions
The recently increased Section 179 provides another tax break in this area of business expenses. Previously, a company had to depreciate the cost of computer software over three years. Now, off-the-shelf software a business buys can be fully expensed in the year purchased. This option, however, is only good for the 2013 tax year unless Congress renews it for the 2014 tax year and beyond.
The rules for deducting business and industry-related magazine subscriptions weren't changed. You can continue to take the total costs as a full deduction in the year spent.
If you drive for business, the IRS wants to give you some of your money back. But Uncle Sam loves documentation, so keep a notebook in your vehicle to record the date, mileage, tolls, parking costs and the purpose of your trip.
At the end of the year, you have two choices. You can total the mileage and add in the tolls and parking to calculate your deduction. Once you have your mileage total, multiply it by 56.5 cents for your 2013 deduction. For 2014 business tax purposes, the rate drops to 56 cents a mile.
Or you can measure your business usage against your personal driving and deduct that portion of your auto-related expenses, says Zobel. Remember to include gas, repairs and insurance.
If you are leasing, include those payments. If you are buying the car, factor in the interest on your loan and depreciation on your vehicle.
And if your company's office is at your house, you get a bit more of a break. You can deduct the entire business-related mileage, from the minute you pull out of the driveway until you return home, says Gary W. Carter, CPA and author of "J.K. Lasser's Taxes Made Easy for Your Home-Based Business: The Ultimate Tax Handbook for the Self-employed."
If your business is not home-based, your mileage meter starts at your first business-related destination and ends at your last. You can't include the drive to and from home, says Carter. In this case, try to schedule several business appointments on the same day to allow you to take the mileage between stops as a tax write-off.
7. Travel, meals, entertainment and gifts
Good news, small-business travelers. You might as well stay in a nice hotel, because the entire cost is tax deductible. Likewise, the cost of travel -- air, rail or auto -- is 100% deductible, as are costs associated with life on the road (dry cleaning, rental cars and tipping the bellboy).
The only exception is eating out. You can deduct only 50% of your meals while traveling. So stay at the Ritz and eat at Wendy's.
Once you get home, your on-the-job meals aren't deductible -- unless you bring along a client to talk business. In this case, you might consider splurging on a fancier meal because then you can write off half such work-related dining costs.
The 50% deduction limit applies to most other client entertainment expenses, too. But a direct gift to a client or employee is 100% deductible, says Zobel, up to $25 per person per year.
8. Insurance premiums
Self-employed and paying your own health insurance premiums? These costs are 100% deductible.
This break primarily benefits proprietorships, but there are limits. The deduction can't be more than your business' net profit. And it's not allowed if you were eligible for other health care coverage, including that offered by your employed spouse's medical plan.
Did your spouse work for you last year? Then, Carter says, you can get the full medical premiums deduction on your return. As an employee, your spouse's premiums are 100% deductible; if you and the children were on his or her policy as dependents, so are those costs.
Two caveats: 1) Your spouse's employment must be real, not in name only, and you must offer coverage equally to any other employees. 2) Failure to meet these requirements could result in a lawsuit, an audit or both.
You also can include some of the premiums you pay for long-term care insurance for yourself, your spouse or dependents.
9. Retirement contributions
Are you self-employed and saving for your own retirement with a SEP IRA or Keogh? Don't forget to deduct your contribution on your personal income tax return.
10. Social Security
The bad news: If you're self-employed or starting a small business, you have to pay double the Social Security contributions you would as an employee. That's because federal law requires the employer pay half and the employee pay half. Self-employed workers are both, meaning the total will equal 15.3% of your net profits.
The good news: You can deduct half of the contribution on your 1040.
11. Telephone charges
You can deduct the cost of the business calls that you make for business from home. When your bill comes in, circle the business-related calls, total them up and keep a copy. At the end of the year, tally your 12 bills and deduct 100%.
The IRS assumes that you will have a phone in your house anyway, so Zobel cautions that regular fees and charges don't count toward your deduction. But if you have a second line installed and use it only for business, all of these charges are deductible.
Many people now rely solely on a cellphone. If you use your cellphone for your business, you can claim those calls as a tax deduction. If 30% of your time on the phone is spent on business, you could legitimately deduct 30% of your phone bill.
12. Child labor
"It's always good to employ your kids," says Carter. Depending upon how much you paid them, they might be able to avoid income taxes. Plus, there is no Social Security tax when you hire your child who is 17 or younger and you can deduct the salary as a business expense. This break is available, however, only if you operate as a sole proprietor or as a partnership in which you and your spouse are the only partners. If your business runs as a corporation, then it, not you, are considered the employer and the corporation is not relieved of the tax liabilities.
Make the money go even further. Have your child contribute to a Roth IRA, says Carter. Not only have you gotten a nice tax deduction from the salary and trained your youngster to save, you've also helped establish a nest egg for his or her future.
Copyright 2014, Bankrate Inc.