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Still Confused About Whether to Deduct That Business Meal?

Mar 14, 2022

Before the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) of 2017, business owners traditionally lowered their tax liability by deducting meal and entertainment expenses incurred as part of doing business. The TCJA took most entertainment deductions off the table, and a flurry of legislative and regulatory changes over the following years made further changes to the deductibility of meal expenses.

So what’s the picture today? Are business-related meal and entertainment expenses deductible or not, and if so, to what degree?

How the TCJA Impacted Deductions for Meals and Entertainment

The TCJA permanently eliminated deductions for most business-related entertainment expenses. For example, tickets to the theater or a football game are no longer deductible, nor are the costs of the iconic round of golf with a big client. What the law didn’t address was the cost of meals, beverages, and snacks that often accompany entertainment activities.

Are these expenses okay to deduct? The answer remained murky until October 2020, when the IRS issued final regulations clarifying that taxpayers could still deduct 50% of business-related meal expenses under the TCJA.

Final IRS Regulations for Business Food and Beverage Costs

The regulations answered other important questions as well, providing definitions and clarifications to help businesses comply with the law while claiming legitimate deductions. Highlights include:

Defining food and beverage costs: “Food or beverages” means all food and beverage items, regardless of whether they are characterized as meals, snacks, or something else. Food or beverage costs are the full cost of food or beverages, including any delivery fees, tips, and sales tax.

Distinguishing between food and beverage costs and entertainment: To qualify as deductible, amounts paid for food and beverages provided at or during an entertainment activity must be one of the following:

  • Purchased separately from the entertainment
  • Stated separately on a bill, invoice, or receipt that reflects the venue’s usual selling price for such items if they were purchased separately from the entertainment, or the approximate reasonable value of the items

If the food and beverage expense doesn’t meet one or both of these conditions, then the entire cost becomes a nondeductible entertainment expense.

Explaining deductible business meal expenses: Costs for business-related food or beverages are deductible only if all the following are true:

  • The expense isn’t lavish or extravagant under the circumstances
  • The taxpayer or the taxpayer’s employee is present
  • The food or beverages are provided to the taxpayer or a business associate

The term “business associate” includes current or prospective customers, clients, suppliers, employees, agents, partners, and professional advisors — anyone the taxpayer could reasonably interact with in the active conduct of business.

Explaining deductible meals during business travel: These expenses remain deductible, and long-standing rules for substantiating meal expenses still apply. That means deductions are not allowed for meal expenses incurred during business travel by spouses, dependents, or other individuals, unless the expenses would otherwise be deductible. For example, meal expenses for a spouse would be deductible if the spouse works in the business and is traveling for business reasons.

What’s Deductible in 2022

The Consolidated Appropriations Act (CAA) became law in December 2020, two months after the IRS issued the final regulations for meals and entertainment. While the definitions and clarifications from those final regulations remain valid, the CAA made an important change: It offered a temporary boost in the value of business-related meal deductions.

The CAA allows taxpayers to deduct 100% (up from the historical 50%) of the cost of business-related food and beverage expenses incurred at restaurants during 2021 and 2022, subject to IRS regulations. This includes meals provided by restaurants during business travel. There are a couple of caveats, though:

  • For the purposes of this tax break, IRS guidance defines“restaurants” to include businesses that prepare and sell food or beverages to retail customers for immediate on-premises or off-premises consumption.
  • Businesses that primarily sell prepackaged goods not intended for immediate consumption, such as grocery stores and convenience stores, do not qualify as restaurants.
  • Employers may not treat cafeterias or other employer-operated eating facilities as restaurants, even if these facilities are operated by a third party under contract with the employer.

Still Have Questions?

Learning how IRS regulations and the latest tax laws interact can help business owners discover some tax-saving opportunities, such as when a business can deduct the full cost of meals. Download our meals and entertainment chart for more details. And as always, contact your CRI advisor with questions about your specific situation.

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