What Are Travel Expenses for Tax Purposes?

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DEFINITION

Travel expenses are certain travel-related business costs that you can deduct for tax purposes.

Definition and Examples of Travel Expenses

When filing taxes, your travel expenses are the costs associated with travel that a business can generally deduct. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) defines these costs as “ordinary and necessary expenses of traveling away from home for your business, profession, or job.”

For example, a business owner might drive to a client’s office a few hours away and stay at a hotel overnight before driving home the next day. In that case, the business owner can often deduct travel expenses such as gas (or they might use the standard mileage rate rather than adding up actual car expenses) and lodging.

However, not all travel costs are tax-deductible travel expenses. For one, traveling to and from your home to your main office wouldn’t count as travel, because that would just be commuting, which isn’t deductible. Also, tax-deductible travel expenses can’t be “lavish or extravagant,” per the IRS.

While these terms can be somewhat subjective, it helps to refer back to the “ordinary and necessary” guidelines. If your business is centered around blogging about luxury resorts, then perhaps staying at some higher-end hotels could be considered an ordinary part of doing your job. Yet, if you’re a self-employed graphic designer and you travel to another city to see a client, it might not be considered ordinary to stay at a $1,000-per-night hotel when plenty of other reasonable options exist at around a $200 price point.

In addition to being ordinary and necessary, travel expenses also need to be for business use to be deductible, rather than personal use. So you generally can’t deduct the cost of a family vacation as travel expenses just because you’re a business owner.

How Travel Expenses Work

Travel expenses work by businesses reporting these costs on relevant forms when filing taxes, which can reduce taxable income. For example, a self-employed individual often uses Schedule C to report their business income and business expenses, with travel being a line item within the “Expenses” section.

Adding up travel costs can differ a bit based on the taxpayer’s preferences. For example, when it comes to accounting for travel expenses related to driving, you can use either the standard mileage rate (58.5 cents per mile for tax year 2022) or add up actual costs, such as gas, depreciation, insurance, etc. Also keep in mind that someone who has a vehicle that they drive for both business and personal use can only deduct the portion used for business.

Other nuances include the cost of meals while traveling. Generally, only 50% of business meals can be deducted, although certain exceptions apply. However, business owners might decide instead to take the standard meal allowance, which is a daily amount that covers food and incidental expenses, with the exact amount depending on where the travel takes place.

By taking generalized deductions such as the standard meal allowance when counting up travel expenses, a business owner doesn’t necessarily need to save receipts from every food purchase while on the road.

You still need to keep records to prove the business travel took place. Otherwise, if your business gets audited and has insufficient records to justify travel expenses, you could potentially face penalties.

What Tax Exemptions Mean for Individuals

Understanding travel expenses can be helpful for individuals who have their own businesses, including those who freelance or do gig work, thus filling out tax forms such as Schedule C. By accounting for these costs, you can reduce your taxable income, meaning you pay less in taxes than you would if you didn’t deduct these expenses. Consulting with a tax professional or other relevant expert could help you fully and accurately take advantage of these tax-saving opportunities.

However, individuals who do not have business income, such as those who are W-2 employees, generally can’t take any travel expenses on their personal returns due to tax changes stemming from the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. So, even if your employer doesn’t pay you back for business travel, you typically can’t deduct these expenses.

Key Takeaways

  • Travel expenses are tax-deductible costs associated with traveling for business, away from your main workplace.
  • Travel expenses need to be “ordinary and necessary” and have a business purpose, so you generally can’t deduct costs such as those incurred for a personal vacation.
  • Only businesses, including self-employed individuals, can typically deduct travel expenses.

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