Accounting Essentials for Start Ups, Episode II: To Deduct or Not To Deduct?

Guest Blog by: Kerri L. Kutlenios, CPA

One of the most common questions I am asked by new (and seasoned) entrepreneurs is regarding the definition of a business expense.  The following is an example of a conversation I have had with a client:

Client: “Can I deduct the cost of my office supply purchases during the year?”

Me: “Of course!  Those office supplies provide you with resources necessary to sell your valuable widgets, and should absolutely be deducted.”

Client: “How about the shopping trip to New York with my family last Christmas?  I wear that stuff to the office all the time.”

Me: “How much time would you like to spend with the IRS this year?”

Obviously, this is an extreme example of a business vs. non-business expense.  However, there is a pretty wide range of costs you will be able to deduct for your business, all completely legitimate in the eyes of the IRS. Many costs are pretty self-explanatory business expenses (employee payroll, liability insurance, etc.), but there are a few broad areas that may be baffling to the new business owner.  I’ll try to boil down the common categories of these costs:


Business Start-Up Expenses

Before you even open your business, you will most likely incur some expenses to investigate whether your business idea is viable, legal and accounting expenses to draft organization documents and set up your accounting software, and costs to recruit and train your employees before you open your doors.

The good news is, the above expenses are all considered legitimate business start-up expenses and are fully deductible.  The bad news comes into play regarding when you can deduct them.  The IRS allows the first $5,000 of your start-up expenses to be deducted in the first year of your business.   Anything over the $5,000 will be amortized (or spread out) over 180 months.  And, if you incur more than $50,000 of start-up expenses, your allowable deduction phases out dollar for dollar over the $50,000.

The cost of buying equipment and the modifications to your physical space may also occur before you open your business, but these expenses may be capitalized and subject to depreciation, and don’t qualify for the start-up treatment (but keep reading!).

Regardless of when, and if, you can deduct your business start-up expenses, you should keep track of what you spend, and make sure your tax preparer knows about all of them.  You might be pleasantly surprised with the benefit you may receive!


Business Travel and Entertainment Expenses

OK people.  This is the area where I’ve seen clients get a little crazy with the deductions.  The IRS has pages of regulations on what is considered a legitimate travel and entertainment expense, but let’s break it down to the overall purpose of this deduction.

A business travel expense is when you are traveling away from home (and cannot reasonably stay home), primarily for the purpose of pursuing or growing your business.  All travel costs from when you leave your home, to when you return, are 100% deductible if the primary purpose of your trip is business.  The cost of meals during travel for business purposes are 50% deductible.  And make sure to keep documentation (receipts) for everything.

So the family trip to Hawaii when you had lunch with a former colleague for an hour to reminisce about the good old days?  Not deductible.  The three-day trip you made for a business-related conference and met up with a friend in the area for dinner?  Deductible (with the exception of the meal expense).  See the difference?

In conclusion, in determining whether your travel and entertainment is business related, if there is any doubt, don’t deduct, or discuss with your tax preparer.  I don’t mean to be the buzzkill accountant, but any benefit you may get from deducting your annual Cabo trip will be eclipsed by the time and headache of a potential IRS audit.


Costs of Purchasing Business Equipment or Modifying Your Physical Space

Even if you are starting a service-based company out of your garage, you most likely will need to purchase some new equipment to use in your business.  An asset used in your trade or business is deductible, but again, when the deduction takes place comes into question.

The question of whether to expense or capitalize (record the item as an asset and depreciate) will depend on your internal policy.  Most companies set a policy to capitalize assets that cost more than either $500 or $1,000, depending on what you will be buying.  For instance, if you anticipate that you will be buying computer equipment on a regular basis to keep up with technology, you may want to set your threshold at $1,000, to avoid constantly adding and scrapping assets.  To illustrate, if your policy is to capitalize any asset over $1,000, a $700 laptop computer would be expensed immediately, but your $2,000 computer server would be classified as a business asset and depreciated (spread out) over the estimated useful life of 5 years (the IRS guidance for computer hardware).  Whatever policy you decide, you must follow it consistently – in other words, you shouldn’t change the policy to increase or decrease expenses from year to year.

If you need to modify a physical location to accommodate your business, the cost of the improvements will most likely be capitalized and the cost amortized over the appropriate useful life of the improvement.  A general rule of thumb regarding if an improvement is considered equipment or part of the structure of the space would be if you could easily remove the improvement if you were to vacate.  For instance, new built-in desks and cabinetry would be equipment and depreciated faster (higher deduction), but replacing your HVAC system would be a building improvement and amortized over a longer period (lower deduction).

Consultation with your accountant or tax preparer is highly recommended to ensure proper classification and deduction of business assets you are purchasing.  Also, Federal legislation may change from time to time that may accelerate depreciation (and deductions) for business assets, to stimulate investment.  Your accountant should be on top of these changes to ensure you are maximizing your annual deductions.

So, you’re all set!  Clear as mud, right?  If you’re still confused, you’re not alone.  Your accountant should be an ally to help navigate through the deductibility of your business costs.  Proper documentation and accounting application of all costs from Day One will ensure helpful and accurate financial reporting as your new venture continues to grow and flourish.  Hint: this is also a mini-preview of Episode III, stay tuned!


KLKWho is Kerri? Just one of Stacy’s bestest friends EVAR. They’ve known each other since kindergarten (and yes, she probably knows more about her than Stacy would like to admit) but here’s some more interesting stuff about her: she’s also CPA licensed in Arizona, spent 17 years as both an auditor and accounting consultant in public accounting, and as a controller for an international franchise company, before venturing out with Liaison Accounting and Consulting, LLC, to assist start-ups and sophisticated small businesses with outsourced controller and financial consulting.  Kerri believes that, although some businesses may not have the resources for a full-time financial professional, they shouldn’t be deprived of the benefit that is provided to more established businesses.  A graduate of Michigan State University, she bleeds green and white, and takes pride in being told she “doesn’t seem like a typical accountant” – just what you’d expect from a BFF of the chick with the hot pink hair, right??.  You can contact Kerri at [email protected].


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