What Small Business Can Learn from Big Business Tax Strategies.
by Jen Hickey.
If you’re a small business, chances are you don’t have access to a team of accountants and lawyers to find savings in the tax code. But as it turns out, you don’t need to. Almost every expense is tax deductible if you’re a small business. And recent legislation has dramatically increased the thresholds for certain deductions dramatically for tax years 2010 through 2012.
Pull-Quote.pngTravel and entertainment expenses
Small companies, like their bigger brethren, can write off travel and entertainment expenses. But further savings can be had if a small business adopts an efficient reimbursement method for such costs. Most if not all big businesses have an “accountable plan” for T&E reimbursement. As Barbara Weltman, tax and business attorney and author of J.K. Lasser’s Tax Deductions for Small Business, points out, “these reimbursements are not only deductible, but businesses do not have to include them in their payroll taxes” if they have an IRS compliant accountable plan in place.
Benefit plans are another area often overlooked by small businesses for tax savings. For example, during tax years 2010 through 2013, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act provides up to a 35 percent tax credit for businesses that have 25 or fewer full-time-equivalent employees and that cover at least half the cost of their employee’s health insurance. Yet a 2011 Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that only 29 percent of small firms had made an attempt to find out if they were eligible for this credit. And don’t forget that any remaining premium costs (or all of them if your small business doesn’t qualify for the ACA tax credit) can be deducted as a business expense.
Offering a health savings account (HSA) is another way small businesses can achieve tax savings and offset the medical costs of a high-deductible health plan. An HSA is a tax-exempt trust or custodial account set up by an employer to pay or reimburse qualified employee medical expenses; contributions are allowed annually up to set limits for self-only or family coverage. Flexible spending arrangements (FSAs) work similarly by reimbursing employees for eligible medical expenses up to the plan’s limit (capped at $2,500 annually starting in 2013). They are funded through voluntary employee salary reductions. Most notably, contributions to HSAs and FSAs are not subject to payroll taxes, and withdrawals for qualified medical expenses are tax free.
Retirement plan costs
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 64 percent of all employees in medium- and large-sized firms are covered by an employment-based retirement plan, yet only 34 percent of small firms offer this benefit. Start-up and maintenance costs are often cited as a deterrent.
But small businesses can claim a 50-percent tax credit to help offset the “ordinary and necessary” costs of starting a SEP, SIMPLE, or qualified plan (including a 401k), up to a maximum of $500 per year for each of the first three years of the plan. Even better, this credit dates back to any plans implemented since 2002. As a result, any unclaimed retirement plan startup costs can be retroactively redeemed by amending previous returns going back to that tax year.
“By setting up a small pension fund, you can deduct contributions for employees and, if a sole proprietor, deduct contributions made for yourself,” explains Stephen L. Nelson, a CPA who publishes the website S Corporations Explained and is author of QuickBooks 2011 for Dummies. “Earnings on contributions are tax free until employees receive distributions from the plan. It’s an inexpensive way to encourage savings while lowering your tax rate.”
While the economy may be on a gentle upswing, many small businesses are still recovering from the loss of customers and suppliers swallowed up by the recession. Just like big banks and insurance companies, though, a small business can write off bad debts if it uses the accrual method of accounting. This means the amount must have been previously included in income. And if a bad debt is recovered, accounts can be adjusted for the next tax year.
Ultimately, the structure of one’s business will determine how it’s taxed. This begs the question: which structure is the most tax friendly? Well, that depends on the nature of your business and average earnings. “As a sole proprietor or partnership, you’re legally liable for all debts,” Nelson explains. “In addition to income taxes on business income, the owner also pays another tax on business profits through the self-employment tax.”
For some companies, transitioning to an LLC offers the most tax flexibility while limiting personal liability for owners. S corporations do not pay income taxes, as profits/losses are passed through to shareholders who report them on their individual income taxes.
Whether you’re just starting out or considering a change, Weltman recommends meeting with a lawyer to help determine the best structure for your business. And, as Nelson points out, such tax-planning decisions should be made at the start of the year for the next tax season.
Capital investments and capital gains
“If it has a business purpose, it can be deducted,” says Nelson. And more recently, legislation relating to Section 179 deductions, bonus depreciation, and capital gains taxes on certain small business stock sales has become more accommodating. As a result, more and more large corporations are taking advantage of this favorable tax climate to make large capital investments in their production equipment and rolling stock inventory.
“Keep in mind ‘ordinary’ and ‘necessary’ when gathering those receipts,” Nelson reiterates. Internet service, cell phones/smart devices, office furniture and computers, production equipment, software: all these types of investments are deductible and many can now be completely depreciated within their first year of service.
For small companies that generally struggle with limited cash flow, taking full advantage of all these tax strategies can return real dividends in the long run. And it proves that an entrepreneur need not have access to offshore tax shelters or a team of accounting wizards to achieve big tax savings.