So you’re self-employed. Good for you! You’re officially in charge of your own destiny. But if you’re self-employed in the U.S., Uncle Sam gets his share.
Most fitness pros know this. (Those who don’t are in for a very rude awakening when their tax bill comes due this spring.) But what you may not realize is just how much you can save by taking advantage of strategic tax deductions. By deducting all those you’re entitled to, you reduce your taxable income, potentially saving you a lot of money.
I know all this can seem overwhelming at first. I’ve had multiple entrepreneurs tell me they can’t understand a word their accountants say. It’s like their CPA speaks another language. (I call it “accountantese.”)
That’s where I come in. My job is to demystify money for entrepreneurs, breaking down complex financial goals into simple steps. The idea isn’t to replace your accountant—and yes, you do need one!—but to empower you with the baseline knowledge to feel more confident and prepared for your next appointment.
It’s about more than simply knowing what you can and can’t deduct—although that’s a big and important part of it. It’s about instituting the systems and resources that help you maximize profit while minimizing stress.
These 10 steps will put you on the right path.
1. Make friends with your accountant
I’ll be honest: If you struggle to understand your accountant, the problem might be you. It’s important to make an effort. You don’t have to pick out curtains or anything, but you do need to spend some time together.
Chat, build a rapport, and ask questions. No good? Then find someone else. The U.S. tax code is complicated and always changing. You need a professional to guide you, one you can talk to and trust.
2. Open a separate account for business expenses
A lot of newbies use their personal checking account and credit card for business expenses, and it can be a mess to sort out.
You need to treat personal and business money like church and state. It’s easier to track expenses, and you’re less likely to overlook deductions. Plus, it’s much easier to see at a glance how much you’re spending. That’s vital for trainers who’re too busy taking care of clients to stop and look at the numbers.
You don’t need a “business account” per se, especially if you’re not incorporated yet. A dedicated checking account or credit card works just fine (although you should check with your accountant first).
3. Expense the basics
Basics are your business necessities, and the more obvious write-offs. They include all your operational costs—fitness equipment, insurance, supplies, marketing, professional memberships and publications, and any business license you need—along with accounting and legal fees.
You can also write off the costs of using your work space—rent, utilities, Internet. Use a car for business? You can write off a portion of your mileage, and perhaps even your lease. I put cellphones and computers in this category too. If you use it for business, you need to deduct it.
4. Don’t forget the discretionary stuff
Things get interesting when it comes to discretionary spending, a category that includes travel, education, events, business meals, and client gifts. (Notably, the cost of entertaining clients is no longer deductible in the U.S., though client meals still are.)
Unlike basic expenses, like keeping the lights on and your equipment in working order, there’s a less direct line from these costs to your business’s bottom line. But that doesn’t mean they’re too risky to deduct. It just means you have to document why you spent that money. Taking a client to dinner, for example, helps you build a relationship and improve retention. Attending a fitness conference helps you stay connected and informed, and usually offers CEUs to retain your certifications.
Ask yourself if the expenditure will help your business grow. If the answer is yes, expense it.
5. But don’t go crazy
It’s smart to deduct the things you need to run your business. But it’s foolish to take on new expenses just because they’re deductible. The fact you can expense fancy dinners with clients doesn’t mean that’s a good way to spend your hard-earned money. At least half those costs are still coming out of your own pocket. Tax deductible doesn’t mean free.
6. Embrace development and education
Anything that makes you more knowledgeable in your field is deductible: books, magazines, memberships, courses, certifications, seminars, conferences. I know one entrepreneur who was able to deduct the $50,000 cost of attending a huge industry event.
The key: It must be related to your field. Did you join the Online Trainer Academy? Subscribe to Fitness Marketing Monthly? Buy one of Jonathan Goodman’s books? All are 100 percent deductible. But a subscription to Architectural Digest? Probably not.
7. When in doubt, expense it
I’ve seen entrepreneurs and CEOs deduct the cost of therapists and life coaches, which they justify as the price they pay to stay mentally healthy.
To justify an expense, you need to show how it can help grow your business, and you want to expense everything you have a good case for. It’s easy enough to move these “gray area” expenses over to the personal side if your accountant says no.
8. Ask questions
Think of your accountant the way your clients think of you. If they’re confused about something that’s important for their success on your program, wouldn’t you rather have them ask you? You can’t be afraid to ask questions that affect your financial fitness.
So if your accountant says no to a deduction, this is how you follow up: “What needs to happen for this to be a legitimate business expense?” I know one company owner who was able to expense clothing by making a simple tweak to the structure of the organization.
You may be able to do that, but you won’t know if you don’t ask.
9. Get organized
I work with highly successful entrepreneurs. In my experience, they know a lot about tax deductions, but they’re completely lost in terms of organization. Their records are a mess. They don’t use accounting software. They know next to nothing about the financials of their own business.
No matter how good you are at training your clients, if your financial records are in shambles, you’re only inviting stress.
Anyone making $30,000 a year or more should invest in accounting software like QuickBooks, or at least track revenue and expenses on spreadsheet. I also recommend hiring a bookkeeper, even for just a couple of hours a month. Ninety percent of the time, entrepreneurs should not be doing their own bookkeeping.
10. Save your receipts
And here’s your pro tip: Jot down any details regarding the expense right on the receipt. If it’s a meal receipt, write down the client you were dining with and the purpose of the meeting. If it’s a travel receipt, same deal.
More documentation is always better. It helps at tax time and makes any audit a thousand times easier. I know one entrepreneur who was recently audited and asked to present 30 receipts. Thanks to a solid organizational system, compliance was easy and painless. Done and done.
Organizational systems are key, and the lack of them is the number-one thing that holds entrepreneurs back. Figure out the right ones for you, and you’ll not only save money and reduce stress at tax time, you’ll find yourself with a business that runs better all around.
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