“Can I deduct the cost of taking care of my cat? She’s like a member of the family.”
Over the course of the year, I’ve received a bunch of questions – like the one above – about deductions. My answer is often, “It depends.” That’s because facts and circumstances matter: deductibility may hinge on such specifics as your occupation, whether you’re self-employed, the location of your office or whether you have a diagnosed medical condition.
But for many taxpayers, the ones without quirky jobs or unusual circumstances, the answers are largely the same. With that in mind, I’ve compiled a list 12 expenses that you likely can’t deduct on your individual federal income tax return:
- Pets. No matter how much your four-legged, scaly or feathered friend feels like a member of your family, the cost of caring for your pet – from food to vet visits – is generally not deductible. The IRS considers pet-related expenses routinely personal. A few exceptions do apply, including service animals and guard dogs.
- Alarm systems. Generally, there is no tax deduction for installing an alarm system at your home. Similarly, the monthly fees are not deductible. If, however, the property that you alarm is a rental or commercial property, the installation and the monthly fees are deductible as the cost of doing business. Additionally, if you take the home office deduction, then you may claim the pro rata portion of the alarm system on your taxes, just as you do with other home office expenses; the portion attributable to the non-office portion of your home is still not deductible.
- Gym memberships. Most weight loss programs are only deductible as a treatment for a specific disease diagnosed by a physician. The diagnosis is key and the program must be specifically ordered by the doctor: if your doctor merely advises you to lose some weight to protect your health, that’s not sufficient. That said, you cannot deduct gym or health club membership dues even if your doctor orders you to up your activity level. Some separately stated activity fees, such as those for water aerobics, however, could be deductible if prescribed by a doctor.
- Maternity clothes. Clothing for work is only deductible if the sole purpose of the clothing/uniform is clearly for business purposes (think branded uniforms). It’s not deductible if you could wear the clothes outside of your workplace even if you don’t. That goes for maternity clothes, too. If you have to stock up on maternity clothes – including suits for court or coats for outdoor use – to get you through your pregnancy, that cost is not deductible even if you don’t plan to wear them again.
- Driver’s license fees. While state and local taxes are deductible, including certain personal and real property taxes, associated costs and fees may not be. That includes your driver’s license fees and car inspection fees. Similarly, you can’t deduct the cost of licensing dogs, cats or other animals – even if they’re considered property in the state where you live.
- Plastic surgery. You cannot deduct the cost of surgeries to simply look or feel better; the procedure must be a treatment for a specific disease diagnosed by a physician. But plastic surgery for non-medical purposes (including breast augmentation surgery for cosmetic reasons) is never a deductible expense.
- Political contributions. You cannot deduct contributions made to a political candidate, a campaign committee, or a newsletter fund. And don’t try to be tricky: you can’t get around the rules by claiming it’s for business or other purposes. The IRS clearly states that advertisements in convention bulletins and admissions to dinners or programs that benefit a political party or political candidate are not deductible.
- Commuting expenses. You cannot deduct the costs of getting to and from work, no matter if you take a bus, trolley, subway, taxi, or drive your own car. Commuting expenses to and from your regular place of work (as opposed to travel for work) are never deductible.
- Private school. Private school expenses (including tuition) are not deductible. However, expenses for a child in nursery school, preschool, or similar programs for children below the level of kindergarten are deductible for purposes of the child care tax credit if they otherwise qualify as child care. The IRS takes the position in Pub 503 (downloads as a pdf) and in the Regs that expenses to attend private or parochial kindergarten or higher grades are not deductible (I happen to think that’s not always the case).
- Babysitting. Occasional babysitting so that you can catch a movie that isn’t animated (!) or enjoy a nice meal may be a much-needed expense, but it’s still considered personal in nature and not deductible. This should be distinguished from childcare that allows you to work or look for work: those expenses may be count towards the child and dependent care credit.
- Vitamins. For federal income tax purposes, you can only deduct qualifying medical expenses: qualifying medical expenses include the costs of diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease, and the costs for treatments affecting any part or function of the body. That includes any medicine or drug which requires a prescription of a physician for legal use. Over the counter meds – even if you need them – don’t count unless prescribed by a doctor (like gym memberships, the prescription is required, a mere mention or suggestion isn’t sufficient).
- Child support. Child support is tax neutral. It is neither tax deductible to the payor nor taxable to the recipient. Spousal support, on the other hand, is both tax deductible to the payor and taxable to the recipient. You don’t get to choose which is which at tax time: that’s up to the judge or it must be memorialized in agreement.
It’s worth mentioning again that some taxpayers can claim certain of these deductions under specific circumstances (home offices, diagnosed medical conditions, special occupations) but these deductions are off-limits for your average taxpayer. If you think they might apply to you – or you’re not sure – it’s always best to consult with your tax professional.Want more taxgirl goodness? Pick your poison: You can receive posts by email, follow me on twitter (@taxgirl) hang out with me on Facebook and check out my YouTube channel.