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7 Tax-Saving Tips for Home-Based Businesses

Filing taxes for your home-based business doesn't have to be a daunting process. Here's how to maximize your return.

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Treat receipts like cash, not trash.

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April 15 will be here before you know it. And while it might already be too late to limit what you'll owe Uncle Sam for your 2010 taxes, it might be just the perfect time to start thinking—and actively planning—for ways to save on the taxes you'll pay on your home-based business in 2011.

"True tax planning gives you concepts and strategies needed to minimize your taxes," says John Beidle, a small business tax expert and founder of 1040 Wealth Designs. "It's the key to your financial defense. As a business owner, you have two ways to put cash in your pocket: Financial offense is making more; financial defense is spending less. Taxes are probably your biggest single expense. So it makes sense to focus your financial defense where you spend the most."

One way to get your 2011 tax planning off to a good start is to hire a tax consultant, someone who can both map out the latest IRS changes and explain ways to help you prepare for them. In the meantime, however, here are some tax-saving tips that you can get started on right away.

Tax Tip 1: Get Organized

Good tax planning begins with getting organized—particularly when it comes to keeping good records about the things you spend money on for your business. "It's critical that entrepreneurs ensure that we take advantage of every tax situation," says Denise Winston, founder of Money Start Here, a financial education company. "That means treating receipts like cash, not trash," she says. "Think about it: each $100 business expense receipt could be worth up to $50 when it comes time to filing your taxes, depending on your tax bracket." To keep track of those expenses, Winston recommends carrying a receipt envelope with you in your purse, car, briefcase, backpack, or wherever works best for you. Then, as you make purchases for your business—whether it relates to buying paper for a copier, picking up a lunch tab for a customer, or buying plane fare to attend a trade show—you can simply place the receipt into the envelope. As the envelope fills up, you should then transfer the receipts to your accounting files or to the many software or online programs, such as Shoeboxed.com, that are now available to help you track your expenses. For a more high-tech solution, consider downloading Capturengo, an app for the iPhone that allows you to create IRS-approved digital receipts using your phone's camera.

Dig Deeper: New IRS Smartphone App

Tax Tip 2: Calculate Your Start-up Expenses

If 2011 is the year that you've finally decided to become your own boss, then you might also have the opportunity to deduct the money you're spending to get things off the ground. According to Nolo, the online legal advice site:

Once you're running a business, expenses such as advertising, utilities, office supplies, and repairs can be deducted as current business expenses—but not before you open your doors for business. The costs of getting a business started are capital expenses, and, starting in 2010, you may deduct $10,000 (up from $5,000) the first year you're in business; any remainder must be deducted in equal amounts over the next 15 years.

The rub is that in order to take the deduction, your business actually needs to be losing money. If you are profitable from the get-go, you may be able to work around this rule by delaying paying some bills until after you're in business, or by doing a small amount of business just to establish an official start date.

Dig Deeper: Calculating Start-up Costs

Tax Tip 3: Maximize Your Home-Office Deductions

Home office expenses are probably the most misunderstood deduction in the entire tax code, says Beidle. "For years, taxpayers feared it raised an automatic audit flag," he says. "But Congress has relaxed the rules, so now home offices attract far less attention."

For a home office to qualify for deductions, though, it must meet the following criteria:

  1. You must use the office exclusively and regularly for administrative or management activities of your trade or business.
  2. You have no other fixed location where you conduct substantial administrative or management activities of your trade or business.

Claiming a home office lets you deduct the "business use percentage" of expenses such as mortgage interest or rent, property taxes, utilities, repairs, insurance, garbage pickup, and security. Plus, you'll get to depreciate part of your purchase price, says Beidle.

Dig Deeper: How to Set Up a Home Office 

Tax Tip 4: Deduct Your Health Insurance Costs

Self-employed entrepreneurs can now deduct the cost of their health insurance both for themselves and for their families, says Ryan Himmel, a CPA and the founder of BidaWiz, an online marketplace for professional tax and financial advice.  The catch, however, is that the tax benefit doesn't apply to those with a secondary business and a full-time job in which their employer provides for a subsidized health plan. Those with spouses that have an employer-subsidized health plan are also disqualified from the tax deduction, says Himmel.

Dig Deeper: Ask Inc.: How Can I Reduce My Company's Taxes?

Tax Tip 5: Track Your Mileage

Car and truck expenses are easy to overlook, says Beidel. "That's because you can take a standard mileage allowance," he says. "But that allowance is the same for all vehicles, no matter how big they are, how much they cost, or how much gas they guzzle." In other words, even if you take the standard deduction, you might be short-changing yourself. That's why it's worth keeping track of your actual expenses as a way to compare with the standard deduction.

According to Nolo, here's the difference for 2011:

  • Actual expense method: You keep track of and deduct all of your actual business-related expenses.
  • Standard mileage rate method: You deduct a certain amount (the standard mileage rate) for each mile driven, plus all business-related tolls and parking fees. In 2011, the standard mileage rate is $0.51 per business mile driven, an increase from the $0.50 per-mile rate in effect for 2010.

The newer your car, the more you might benefit from using the actual expense method, especially because you also deduct depreciation on it. But, as with the deduction you can take for home-based expenses, you can only deduct the portion of your vehicle(s) that you use for your business, which means you need to also keep track of how much you use it for business as compared to personal errands.

Dig Deeper: How to Write Off Travel and Entertainment Expenses

Tax Tip 6: Pay Yourself

Home-based entrepreneurs sometimes forget to pay themselves by setting up an IRA or other retirement vehicle, says Gloria D. Birnkrant, a CPA and partner with NSBN, a tax and business-planning firm in Beverly Hills, California, which allows you to put pre-tax money toward your retirement. "Even if the monthly amounts start out small, you will be surprised how soon you have built a nice account, with the advantage of a tax deduction," she says.

Dig Deeper: Tools for Busines Owner Retirement Planning

Tax Tip 7: Hire Your Family

Another tax-saving idea is to hire your child or a child who lives in your neighborhood for your business, says Kristin Oberlander, a spokesperson for the National Association for the Self-Employed, since you can deduct their wages as a business expense. "Write up a job description, cut them a company check every pay period, fill out a W-2," she says. "Any child can earn up to $5,700 tax free. Plus, your child learns about responsibility and earning a paycheck."

Dig Deeper: How to Hire Family Members

Whether you decide to follow just one of these tips or all of them, be sure to start planning for next year now. Tax planning is the most critical step in the process and will make filing your taxes much more streamlined. According to Beidle, "Tax planning guarantees results."

Last updated: Feb 21, 2011

DARREN DAHL

Darren Dahl is a contributing editor at Inc. magazine, which he has written for since 2004. He also works as a collaborative writer and editor and has partnered with several high-profile authors. Dahl lives in Asheville, North Carolina.




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