When you own a business, you’re likely to entertain a few partners, associates, or clients throughout the year. These informal meetings are a great way to brainstorm ideas outside the office. It also allows you to build rapport with the people most important to your business. However, the IRS has rules for exactly where you can reasonably conduct business when it comes to tax-deductible business entertainment. Simply put, some places are considered a business setting, and others are not. Fortunately, the rules are pretty straightforward.
Entertaining in a Business Setting
What exactly constitutes a business setting? It used to be that a “quiet business meal” was a tax-deductible activity. That meant you were not required to actually discuss business in order to get a deduction. Although that is no longer the case, the business meal has set standards for defining business settings.
A business setting, by IRS definition, is a place where you can discuss business without significant distractions from the conversation. Settings considered conducive to business talks include:
- At your home
- At a restaurant or hotel dining room, as long as there is no distracting entertainment
- At hotel bars or cocktail lounges, as long as there is no distracting entertainment
Basically, anywhere you can sit down and have a conversation without distraction constitutes a good setting for business discussions, as far as the IRS is concerned. The IRS also considers the hospitality room at conferences clearly to be a business setting; therefore, displaying or discussing your products there is always deductible entertainment that creates goodwill for your business.
To deduct your expenses, you must establish (through documentation) that the expenses were directly related to your actively conducting business or were attributable to an actual and substantial business discussion. This includes business meetings at a convention.
What exactly is entertainment that is directly related to business? It means that two things must be true prior to committing to the expenditure:
- You expected a specific business benefit other than goodwill in the indefinite future, such as the generation of income (note that you do not have to actually get the expected result).
- You participated in an actual business meeting, discussion, negotiation, or authentic transaction at the location (or you were prevented from doing so by circumstances beyond your control).
Attending a convention or professional association meeting fits under these guidelines.
Entertaining in a Non-Business Setting
Occasionally, you may find yourself talking business in a location that the IRS does not approve for business entertainment. Do you remember that “no distracting entertainment” stipulation? If the IRS thinks a location offers little or no possibility for actively engaging in a business discussion, they don’t consider the meeting tax-deductible. These places include:
- Sporting events, theaters, night clubs, and social events (e.g., cocktail parties)
- Meetings with a disinterested party (or parties) at a country club, athletic club, golf course, cocktail lounge, or vacation resort, even if other relevant parties are present
- Restaurants, bars, or other dining establishments that have distracting entertainment
Putting the Rules in Practice
This advice should give you a basic understanding of which expenses you can deduct. How about a practical example? Let’s assume you have a friend who installed a new phone system for his business. This system both saves him money and makes his business look more professional. You decide to take your friend to lunch to discuss how he purchased the system, as well as how it works and is maintained.
In this case, your lunch with your friend is deductible because 1) it took place in a business setting and 2) you met with the intention of gaining a benefit to your business, which you may or may not have actually gotten.
In addition, you can also deduct entertainment expenses that are associated with a business discussion in your office, directly related entertainment (as defined above), or a convention or professional association meeting. For example, if you took that same friend to a golf resort directly following lunch, you may deduct the golf as associated entertainment. That’s handy information, right?
Associated entertainment is a legitimate business deduction because it is a way for you to build your business. If you and your associates or clients both like golf, then it makes sense to use golf as a way to build your business relationships. The only price you have to pay for these tax benefits is taking the time to thoroughly document your activities.
Recording Your Proof
As always, you will need to provide proper documentation regarding your tax-deductible business entertainment. Wherever you keep records for expenses, be sure to note all the details, including who attended, where you met, what was purchased, when it occurred, why the meeting was planned, and how much everything cost. By keeping the appropriate records, you audit-proof your directly related entertainment deduction.
As a final tip, be sure to record all this information within one week of the activity. One week qualifies your records with the IRS’s timely records safe harbor. As long as you’ve kept notes, you don’t even need a receipt for expenses under $75. So, get out there and enjoy yourself while you build up your company!