Learn how one trainer handled it when—gulp!—the IRS came calling.
We work hard as personal trainers. Many of us invest a great deal of not only our time but also our hard-earned money in our chosen profession; expenses such as certifications, uniforms, CPR training, continuing education credits, business cards and fitness equipment really add up. The good news is that a significant portion of the costs of doing business can be itemized as deductions. The bad news is that, because personal training is still a young profession, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) doesn’t always readily understand our deductions.
I learned this firsthand. On August 15, 2001, I received a letter containing the words that no American wants to read: “Internal Revenue Service—Department of the Treasury: We selected your 1999 federal income tax return for examination and have scheduled the following appointment for you.” The letter asked me to bring records supporting my employee business expenses.
The following account details my actual IRS audit experience. Although not an accountant, I believe my experience will shed light on mysteries about this complex process and help you save valuable time and money and potential aggravation if you are ever audited.
In 1999, I worked as a personal trainer and group fitness instructor at three different clubs in New York City. I also trained clients at a private training facility, paying the gym monthly rent and session fees and setting my own rates per session. That year was the last one for which I prepared my tax return myself, using the TurboTax software and filing my return electronically. I itemized my deductions, which were significant that tax year.
As always, I had kept meticulous records. At the end of every day, I emptied my wallet of all business-related receipts. On the back of each receipt, I wrote a note describing the expense. For example, if I needed to purchase black shorts for work at a specific gym, I wrote the name of the gym and “uniform” on the receipt. If I took a cab to a work-related event, such as a continuing education seminar, I wrote a short description of the event’s purpose on the back of the cab receipt. Every night, I also recorded the business of the day in a special book using two columns: one labeled “income” and another labeled “expenses.” I then recorded three essential pieces of data—the date, a short description of the expense and the amount—into the book. I stored all of my receipts in a manila envelope. This whole process took just a few minutes each night. It was simple and would both prove convenient during tax time and pay dividends in the long run.
When I received the audit notice, I immediately called my accountant to set up a meeting to discuss the matter. My main concern was whether I should attend the audit alone or have him represent me. We met, and I explained my situation in 1999 to him, showing him my receipts, credit card statements and detailed income/expense book. Although willing to represent me, he believed that, with my copious records and the relatively small amount of my return, I would do well by myself. (He did not foresee a lengthy audit and, if he did attend it with me, would obviously have to charge me.) He advised me to separate my receipts into categories, putting each category into an envelope with the specific type of expense and total amount of expenses for that category written on the front. He also told me to transfer all of my expense information into an expense journal utilizing the categories I had chosen. In addition, I recorded all of the information from my journal into a weekly tax expense record. (See “Documenting Expenses” below.) My accountant’s final instructions were to bring all receipts, credit card statements, cancelled checks and log books with me to the audit.
I went to the IRS offices in Midtown Manhattan and was not “in and out” that day, as my accountant had expected. I spent the first hour explaining to two IRS agents exactly what my business as a fitness professional entailed. The agents and I then spent that entire first day logging my receipts, including every expense: every cab ride, dumbbell purchase, certification test and more.
We were only about halfway through the receipts when they told me I had to return in several weeks to complete the process. In the interim, I needed from each of the three clubs where I worked a letter saying that I was not reimbursed for my expenses. The letter also had to state that these specific expenses that I had outlined were definitely necessary. (I was actually not required to get a letter from the private facility where I rented space; I merely reported the monies I made at this club as income and labeled the gym rent as an expense. The agent treated these items as just additional income and expenses.) I spent the next several weeks making numerous phone calls and running from club to club to obtain these letters. After considerable effort, I got all three. (I recommend that you draft such a letter and have your club’s management sign it for future protection. See “Sample Business Letter for the IRS” on page 23 for one of the actual letters I furnished to the IRS.)
Only one of the two agents from the first session was present for my second visit, and, as we sorted through my remaining receipts, she repeatedly asked me, “Was this expense required by your employer?” I believe this is one of the most pertinent pieces of information that you need to keep in mind as you itemize your deductions. The IRS says, “To be deductible, an expense must be both ordinary and necessary. An ordinary expense is one that is common and accepted in your trade or business. An expense does not have to be indispensable to be considered necessary.” (See “What Can I Deduct?” at www.irs.gov for more information.)
This question of whether or not expenses were “required” came up several times and especially with regard to continuing education expenses. (Many clubs, including the ones that employed me in 1999, required me to attend numerous fitness seminars at my own expense. In addition to my significant athletic achievements, obtaining those additional certifications and skills helped promote me to a higher pay scale.) The IRS states, “You may be able to deduct work-related educational expenses paid during the year as an itemized deduction on Schedule A of Form 1040. To be deductible, your expenses must be for education that:
- Maintains or improves skills required for your present job; or
- Serves a business purpose of your employer, or by law or regulation, to keep your present salary, status or job.”
Some CPAs think it’s preferable to deduct expenses on Schedule C because you do not have to exceed the threshold of 2 percent of adjusted gross income, as you do on Schedule A. Self-employed trainers can file a Schedule C.
We eventually finished logging all of my receipts, cancelled checks and credit card receipts. The logbook that I had kept so religiously was my saving grace. Whenever a question about the purpose of a receipt came up, I simply checked the date on it, looked it up and explained it to the agent.
What was the result of my audit? Several weeks later, I received a letter that stated, “We examined your tax return(s) for the above period(s) and made no changes to the tax you reported.” I had successfully defended my audit! The whole process taught me several important lessons.
Record All Expenses in a Formatted Logbook Right Away. Both my accountant and the IRS agents may have remarked at how thorough my recordkeeping was, but transferring all of my information into categories and weekly totals took quite a bit of time. Save yourself time later by categorizing your fitness expenses as you incur them and keeping weekly totals in an expense record journal. (Basic accounting software, such as QuickBooks, can make this process even easier and faster.)
Obtain Letters From Your Employers. Ask each of them now for that letter stating that the fitness expenses you incur are necessary to your job and not reimbursed. (See “Sample Business Letter for the IRS” above.) List your specific expenses.
Be Honest. As stressful as those weeks were (and, trust me, they were), knowing that I had nothing to hide was truly a great feeling. It is much easier to sit in front of IRS agents when you know that you are being truthful.
Know What You Can Deduct. Make sure you understand the types of deductions that the IRS allows. Many of the expenses we incur are directly related to improving the skills required for our jobs, and the vast majority of them are not reimbursed by our clubs. We can deduct these. Health insurance for the self-employed is another major allowable expense.
If you are a career-minded fitness professional and even if you plan to prepare your tax return yourself, I highly recommend investing in a consultation—or two—with an accountant. It can save you time and headache. A tax professional can provide answers regarding whether or not certain expenses fit the criteria of approved deductions, and you can deduct the consultation fee!