Written By: Steve Sildon
For those running small or home-based businesses, you may have gotten in the habit of using a credit card to charge items for your business. The nice thing about using a credit card, especially a small business credit card, is that card issuers typically provide year-end expense statements that itemize and categorize expenses, nicely and neatly. Especially at tax time, this is a nice feature for a credit card to have.
There is some confusion, however, for some small business owners about what constitutes legitimate documentation for tax purposes on their business expense deductions. Simply put, is your credit card statement good enough to document your business expenses for the IRS? If you’ve been convinced that using your credit card statements as proof enough for your business tax deductions, depending on who you ask, you just might be in for a rude awakening at tax time.
Regarding business expenses, some tax preparers implore their clients to always save hard copies of their receipts, no matter what, of all their “ordinary and necessary” business expenses as proof of these expense deductions. Other tax preparers indicate that merely keeping your credit card statements, in most cases, should be satisfactory enough.
In fact, both may be right. To be safe, keeping hard copies of the actual receipts (preferably with notes about the specific purchase on the back of the receipt) is the safest and most defensible approach that you can take. Using just your credit card statements for documentation is generally not a good idea for a few reasons, but having them is certainly far better than having no documentation at all. In fact, in certain circumstances, credit card statements might just be enough proof. The IRS has warned tax professionals and businesses alike, however, that, at the very least, you’ll also have to have additional supporting documentation on top of the card statement itself to prove your tax deduction.
In some cases, your credit card statement might simply be the only documentation that you have, specifically for merchants and vendors ordered from online or by telephone where written order confirmations were not provided. In that case, you should keep your own notes and records about those purchases in your files, including the dates, the credit card used for the transaction, the items purchased, and the vendor used.
The IRS requires that any legitimate expense qualifying as deductible for your business must be “both ordinary and necessary.” An ordinary expense is one that is “common and accepted” in your specific trade or business type and a necessary expense is one that is also “helpful and appropriate” for your trade or business. Having an expense item on a card statement for purchases made at Staples, Office Depot or any local office supply store doesn’t automatically qualify the purchase as a legitimate business expense. That’s simply not proof enough. As far as the IRS is concerned, you could have easily just loaded up on iPod accessories, stereo equipment or video games (all of which are sold at Staples, Office Depot). The IRS suggests that business owners keep all the original store receipts that itemize the details of the items purchased. Ideally, the receipts should also have notes on the receipt indicating the business purpose for the items as well.
Scanning the receipts and storing them on a computer is another method that the IRS says is OK, but IRS knows about and fully understands the ease with which these digital files can be manipulated. If you are audited by the IRS and you show up with scanned images of your receipts, they will assuredly test their authenticity by cross-checking some of the scanned receipts with the original copies of the same receipts.
Another legitimate concern of business owners is fading that occurs on the original receipt paper, a fairly common occurrence. In addition to scanning the receipts, you can also make copies and file them alongside (or stapled to) the original receipts for your records as added insurance for record-keeping purposes.
While saving credit card receipts is preferred and certainly the most defensible method, there are instances, however, when a credit card statement will suffice. For example, many small business owners who take out their customers for coffee, meals or other entertainment purposes might not have all of their actual receipts because of disorganization or simply because they might have misplaced or even lost some of these receipts. Just because you’ve lost receipts does not mean that you cannot legitimately deduct them as business expenses. If you have a car expense or vehicle mileage log that tracks your mileage and vehicle expense items or an entertainment expense item log, you can use those as supporting documentation for the items in question on your credit card statement. To be legitimate and verifiable, however, business owners will need to verify who, what, why, where and how the items in question were purchased. What was the specific item? Where was it purchased? With whom and for what purpose were the items purchased? If you can provide answers to those questions and support it with documentation, you can legitimately expense the items.
The bottom line is that, as a business owner, you should make it a general practice to save all of your credit card receipts, no matter what. There’s no doubt that the physical receipt is the most ideal and simply the best evidence that you can provide for legitimizing any expense. In some instances, however, you just might not have a hard copy of the actual receipt. You can legitimately deduct these items in question, but if, and only if, you can provide sufficient supporting documentation in lieu of an actual receipt for items that you purchased.
Steve Sildon is a Senior Contributing Editor for Credit Card Assist. Steve writes about a wide variety of personal finance and credit-related topics, including credit cards, debt consolidation and credit repair.
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