6 Cool Ways to Save Taxes during the Hot Summer Months

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) may have put a crimp in some of your summer plans by eliminating or scaling back certain tax breaks. But individuals and small business owners still have plenty of opportunities to save taxes. Here are six ideas to consider this summer.

Row of adirondack chairs on the beach

1. Host an Outing for Employees

Under prior law, businesses could deduct 50% of the cost of its entertainment and meal expenses, with certain exceptions. For example, you could write off 100% of the cost of a company outing for employees, such as a 4th of July barbecue or company picnic. This special tax law provision wasn't touched by the TCJA.

However, there has always been a catch to claim this tax break: You must invite the entire staff. In other words, you can't restrict the get-together to just the higher-ups. Inviting a few friends or family members won't jeopardize the deduction, but you can't write off the costs attributable to those social guests.

2. Combine Business Travel with Pleasure

Small business owners can generally deduct the cost of business travel — such as airfare and lodging — if the primary purpose of the trip is business-related. If you add a few extra vacation days to the trip, you can generally still write off your business-related expenses, including the entire cost of a round-trip airline ticket and lodging expenses and 50% of meal expenses for the business days. But the number of business days vs. personal days is critical to establish the primary business purpose test.

Business travelers should remember that the TCJA eliminates deductions for most business-related entertainment expenses, including the cost associated with facilities used for most of these activities. For instance, you can no longer deduct the cost of tickets to sporting events, sailing or golf outings, and theater tickets for events that immediately follow or precede a substantial business meeting.

You can still deduct 50% of your meal expenses while away on business, but the exact rules for deducting meals with business contacts aren't clear yet. Expect the IRS to issue detailed guidance sometime this year. In the meantime, keep detailed records of what you spend to take advantage of any deductions that turn out to be available.

3. Navigate a Deduction for a Boat

Under the TCJA, the mortgage interest deduction for 2018 through 2025 for one or two qualified residences is limited to interest paid on the first $750,000 of acquisition debt. (Prior home acquisition debts are grandfathered under prior law.)

The TCJA limit on home acquisition debt is down from $1 million, while the deduction for interest on the first $100,000 of home equity debt is generally repealed (unless the home equity debt is used to buy, build or substantially improve the home secured by the debt, in which case it can be treated as acquisition debt). Depending on the size of your mortgage(s), you might have enough slack to benefit from a little-known tax break for boats.

For this purpose, a "qualified residence" can be your primary residence and one other home. The IRS definition of a qualified residence includes a boat that has sleeping, cooking and toilet facilities. Therefore, a vessel should qualify if it has a galley, sleeping quarters and a bathroom. If you're shopping for a new boat, remember to stay within the current home acquisition debt limit of $750,000.

4. Schedule Time at Your Vacation Home

If you own a vacation home and rent it out part of the year, you can generally deduct related expenses against the rental income. You might even be able to claim a rental loss if your personal use for the year doesn't exceed the greater of:

Keep an eye on these two personal use tests as the year progresses. If it helps you out tax-wise, you might forgo some personal vacation or rent out the place a little longer. Also, remember that a day spent cleaning the vacation home or making repairs doesn't count as a personal use day — even if the rest of the family tags along.

5. Camp Out for Dependent Care Credits

If you pay for child care costs while you work and the kids are out of school, you may be eligible for a dependent care credit. Generally, the credit is equal to 20% of the first $3,000 of qualified expenses for one child or 20% of up to $6,000 of qualified expenses for two or more children. So, the maximum credit is usually $600 for one child or $1,200 for two or more children.

The list of qualified expenses includes the cost of day camp where your child participates in recreational activities, such as swimming or hiking. The credit is even available for costs of specialty camps for athletics, academics or other pursuits. However, no credit can be claimed for an overnight summer camp.

6. Hire Your Kids

While staffing your business this summer, you might add a teenager or 20-something who's off from school. Not only does this provide a meaningful and financially rewarding activity for your child, but you can also claim a business deduction for the wages, assuming the amount is reasonable for the services performed.

When interviewing applicants for summer help, consider hiring your own child or grandchild. He or she will probably earn less than the standard deduction for a dependent — which the TCJA increased for 2018 to the greater of:

So, your child or grandchild probably won't owe any federal income tax on the wages. A child can even avoid withholding by claiming an exemption when filing his or her W-4. As a bonus, wages paid to an under-age-18 child or grandchild are exempt from Social Security and Medicare taxes, if you run your business as:

A similar exemption for FUTA tax applies to wages paid to a child or grandchild under age 21.

Hot Planning Strategies

Could any of these strategies work for you or your business? Although the recent tax law may have complicated tax matters, it still provides some tax-saving opportunities. Contact your tax advisor for more information on these strategies and many other ideas that may apply to your personal or business tax situation.

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