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How Tax Reform is Taking a Bite Out of Meal and Entertainment Expense Deductions

Now that we’ve officially rung in a new tax year, it’s time to address the key provisions of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) that are likely to impact you as a freelancer on a day-to day basis.

One area that is worthy of immediate consideration is that of meal expense tax deductions. As an individual freelancer, nothing has changed. Under the new tax laws, you (and any employees you have), can still claim 50% of the cost of meals that you purchase when you are away from home for work purposes. What has changed is how the IRS looks at entertainment expenses you may incur for business clients. Starting in 2018, the deductions you may have claimed for client entertainment expenses such as tickets to a play or sporting event are eliminated. However, you can still claim 50% of the cost for treating your client to a meal, as long as it is accompanied by a substantive business discussion.

As a freelance business owner, there are also significant changes that affect the amount you can deduct for de minimis meal costs which we outline here:

How the IRS views de minimis meal expense deductions for your business.

Expenses for meals provided on-premise by companies to their employees are considered a form of de minimis or “fringe” benefits by the IRS. Typically, de minimis benefits are characterized by a) their low value (a good rule of thumb is the expense is less than $100) and b) the relative infrequency with which they are offered.

Historically, de minimis benefit expenses have been 100% tax deductible as a general business expense under the Internal Revenue Code and, in association with our topic of meal costs, include items such as occasional snacks and refreshments provided to employees by an employer or the infrequent provision of money for meals by an employer when employees are working overtime. A key caution with these types of benefits has always been that they cannot be used as a form of covert employee compensation.

New tax rules downgrade the de minimis meal expense deductions your business can claim.

The TCJA represents a major departure in how the IRS views de minimis meal and on-premise meal expenses for businesses. The government is taking a step-wise approach to these changes as follows:

  • Starting in the 2018 tax year, the deduction businesses can claim for de minimis meal expenses (e.g., providing coffee and bagels in the break room as an employee “perk”) is reduced from 100% to 50%. In the 2025 tax year, the ability to deduct these costs is completely eliminated.
  • In the 2018 tax year, the current 50% limit on the deductibility of business meals by individual taxpayers expands to include businesses. This means that any meals provided by businesses on their own premises, such as at a company cafeteria, holiday party or employee picnic—as well as any related operating costs—are no longer 100% deductible. Therefore, this year only 50% of these costs may be deducted by businesses and in 2025 no deduction for these expenses can be taken.

The bottom line: If your freelance business provides on-premise meals or snacks as an employee perk (and an employer convenience), you will be, pardon the pun, eating these costs starting in the 2025 tax year as you will no longer be able to write the expenses off on your business tax return. Despite this, employees are still shielded from having to claim these benefits as part of their compensation under the new tax laws.

At first glance, these changes to client entertainment and de minimis meal expenses may seem like minor ones, but these types of deductions do add up over the course of a year. Depending on how often you take clients out to an event like a play or a sporting event and how often you bring doughnuts to the office or provide refreshments to your staff when they work long hours, you may have to be prepared to swallow a larger tax bill given the new TCJA provisions.

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Picture of Jonathan Medows, CPA

Jonathan Medows, CPA

Jonathan Medows is a certified public accountant licensed in New York, New Jersey, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. He is also a recognized expert in taxation for freelancers and the self-employed—often tapped for his expert knowledge and perspective on self-employment taxation by national and regional publications such as The New York Post, BusinessWeek, Forbes taxation blog, WebCPA, CPA Practice Advisor, and others. You can read some of Jonathan’s press coverage here.

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