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This article isn’t about any particular way to save money on your taxes. However, it will make a huge difference in your taxes no matter what strategy you use for your tax return. Even the absolute best tax methods can leave you at the mercy of an auditor when you don’t properly document and keep records. Sure, you may think it’s a hassle, but is putting in a few hours up-front on an organized record-keeping system worth thousands, even tens of thousands, of dollars in tax savings? You bet!
The Rules of Record Keeping
Here’s the fact—the IRS is never just going to take your word for it that you spent X number of dollars on justifiable and legal business expenses that are now tax-deductible on your return. Sorry, no documentation, no deduction.
So, with that in mind, here’s the first rule you need to know.
Rule #1 Always keep your accounts separate. In fact, you should have separate checking accounts for:
- Each spouse,
- Each corporation,
- Each Schedule C business you report, and
- Your rental properties (you may even want a few separate accounts for these if they are very different kinds of rentals).
How about an example of why this is so important. Let’s say you own a sole proprietorship, and you cover your spouse under a Section 105 medical reimbursement plan. If you’re using one checking account jointly for your household and your business, you would have to write the reimbursement check to yourself—and that negates your Section 105 plan.
That’s exactly how Darwin Albers lost out on deductions for his 105 plan. Keep your business and personal accounts separate—just do it.
Rule #2 Earnings go to the account belonging to the business that earns the money. Do not take payments in your personal name. If you do, they cannot be assigned to your corporation. The person or entity that earns any given income is taxed for said income. If you follow the rule above, then it’s easy not to mix personal receipts into your business account and vice versa. Although it’s possible to argue with the IRS that some receipts in a given account are not taxable, it’s not worth the frustration and wasted time.
Rule #3 Keep track of your deductible expenses each day. Don’t wait until two weeks from the purchase to write down your expenses (or save them in your file). For one thing, it increases the chance that you may miss something. For another, the IRS requires that deductible expenses are recorded within one week. The idea of doing daily record keeping may make you want to just toss your files over your shoulder (don’t—you’ll hate reorganizing them up later), but it really is good practice. After all, how hard is it to save a receipt and make a note about why you spent the amount?
Rule #4 Keep a log for each set of expenses. For most deductions, you need evidence that proves your business use or business purpose for the expense. Want to deduct vehicle expenses? Keep a log to track daily mileage. Want to deductions on your rental properties? You’d better keep track of how you materially participate in your real estate or how you qualify for status as a real estate professional. Planning to make deductions for your home office? Again, you need a log, this time to keep track of how many hours you spend working in that office. You’ll have to consistently spend more than 10 hours per week working from your home office in order to claim it on your tax return. By keeping track on a daily basis, you can take advantage of the sampling method of calculating your deductions in some cases (such as vehicle mileage); this method allows you to take a sample from a three month period rather than calculating the exact sums.
Rule #5 Keep track of travel and entertainment costs. For travel expenses, you have to prove (with documentation) where you were each day and why. Your business entertainment costs also need proper documentation, including what you spent money on, how much, when, and where the expense occurred. Your receipt will cover all of those, but you’ll additionally need to note who you entertained and why (i.e. the benefit to your business).
In the case that you operate your business as a corporation, you’ll have to turn the expenses in to your company. You can do this by paying with a corporate credit card, or you can have the corporation reimburse you for the expenses. Making sure the company pays is important; otherwise you’ll only get employee-business deductions for those expenses.
What to Remember
No matter what kind of business costs you incur, you need to remember these two primary pieces of information: 1) prove what you bought and 2) prove that you, in fact, paid for it. As mentioned above, a receipt or paid invoice covers the first part of this. In order to prove payment, you can use a credit card receipt or statement, canceled check, or bank statement (for electronic transfers). Note: An item is considered paid for when you charge it to your credit card, regardless of when you pay the amount to your card.
Don’t pay with cash. It makes things more difficult for you. If you pay with cash, an auditor will want to know where the cash came from, how you can show cash trail and tie it to the payment, whether you can prove an ATM withdrawal, and most importantly, did you really pay for something in cash or are you just making up a deduction? Paying with pretty much any other method is much less of a hassle.
A Note on Petty Cash
Petty cash works for some small businesses. If it’s what you’re accustomed to and you haven’t had any problems, then by all means continue using the system. However, many small business owners end up kicking themselves in the pants with a petty cash system. You’ll likely find it easier to use a reimbursement system.
With the reimbursement system, your company simply writes you a check for the expense when you provide documentation for it (a receipt or expense report, for instance). Because you have to present documentation for reimbursement, you’re less likely to get caught without evidence for your spending, as you could with petty cash.
Statutes of Limitations and How Long to Keep Records
The IRS has statutes of limitations on when either you or it can make changes to a tax return (this is not just the period during which they can audit you). Here are the time frames given in IRS publications:
- No limit if you did not file a return
- No limit if you filed a fraudulent return
- Three years after filing if you filed on time (or with extensions), you did not understate your income by 25 percent or greater, and you did not file fraudulently
- Six years after filing if you filed on time (or with extensions) but you understated your income by greater than 25 percent
- If you filed an amended return or already made changes to the original return (like a quick refund claim), either three years after filing or two years after paying the tax
- Seven years from filing for a claim filed for a bad-debt deduction or loss from worthless securities
If you have employees, you need to save your employment tax records for four years after whichever date comes later, the date payroll taxes were paid or the date they were due.
Because these statutes of limitations also indicate how long the IRS can audit your return, you need to ensure that you hang on to all of your records until the risk of audit has passed. This could mean keeping records for a period of multiple years. In the case of assets, like office equipment and office buildings, the records are relevant throughout the asset’s entire depreciable class life. As long as you are still depreciating an asset, it will be in that year’s tax return. When using Section 179 to expense an asset, you also have a potential recapture throughout the depreciable class life.
Here’s an example. You buy a desk for $1,500 and depreciate it over the MACRS life of seven years. This depreciation actually takes eight years, so you need the original purchase receipt in year eight in order to prove your deduction. Additionally, you will need to retain that purchase record for three years after that when the statute of limitations expires (for a total of eleven years). It works the same with Section 179, except that you also have recapture exposure during those eight years of depreciation.
Would you like an easy way to keep track of this? Just make a permanent file for any assets with a life greater than one year. This way, you don’t need to keep track of class lives or time frames on the statutes of limitations.
And, here’s another quick tip for keeping those records organized:
Simplify your file system by devoting separate drawers for each tax year. In those drawers, you’ll put any information on assets, income, and other information applicable to your return. This method is for assets other than those you keep in your permanent file. The first drawer will be where you put all documents as you acquire them throughout the year. The next drawer is last year’s tax documents. The drawer after that contains documents from three years ago, and so on until you reach the year at which your statute of limitations expires. Each year, you move the drawers down one level and dump the one at the bottom of the line. You can also use this method for any employee tax files.
You see? It really isn’t all that difficult to keep your records straight. You’ll be thankful you did when it comes time to prepare your return.
- Darwin J. Albers v Commr., TC Memo 2007-144. ↑
- United States v Basye, 410 U.S. 441, 449, 451 (1973); Lucas v Earl, 281 U.S. 111 (1930). ↑
- John W. and Regina R. Z. Green v Commr., 78 TC 428 (1982), reversed on other grounds, 707 F2d 404 (CA9, 1983). ↑
- IRS Reg. Section 1.274-5T(c)(3)(ii)(C), Example 1. ↑
- E.g., Rev. Rul. 78-38; Rev. Rul. 78-39. ↑
- IRS Pub., 583, Starting a Business and Keeping Records (Rev. January 2007), Record Keeping. ↑