Handbag or briefcase? The Deduction Debate

July 2016

If a man can claim a briefcase as a tax deduction, why can't women claim their handbags? 

The work deduction of a briefcase has long been accepted as a legitimate tax deduction, but as the workforce gets ever more mobile, why is it that women can't claim a deduction for their handbags? 

After all, men often have a lot of personal items in their briefcases and working women are just as likely to carry their iPad, documents, and other work related items in their handbag.  

Before you try and claim your $4,000 Gucci handbag as a tax deduction, we step you through the facts of the deductibility debate.

What can you claim a tax deduction for?

The rules around what you can personally claim as a work-related tax deduction are fairly rigid - otherwise everyone would be claiming everything even vaguely associated to what they need for work.

Is the item connected to the work you do?

The first and most basic rule is that there needs to be a connection between the income you earn and the item purchased.  In other words, you need the item to do your job.  

The Australian Tax Office (ATO) can ask you to prove what you have claimed is connected to your job and if you claimed the full cost, then you need to prove that the item is 100% used for work purposes.  

Now if like many women, you use the same bag away from work, there is an immediate and fairly obvious problem.  It's fairly unlikely it is only going to be used for work purposes and it would be up to you to prove otherwise.  

With a briefcase, it's unlikely you would carry it around for any other reason than for work.

This isn't just a briefcase vs handbag debate: the same issue applies to many other deductions. 

Make sure you can prove it

The ATO recently denied a claim by a labourer for $1,200 in mobile phone charges. The worker claimed the phone was necessary to keep in touch with co-workers.  But, when the ATO contacted the employer, they said the labourer did not need his phone for work.  The claim was reduced to $50. 

Self-education courses are another expense that is often claimed and one the ATO is looking closely at.  There have been numerous cases of people claiming overseas travel, course fees, and accommodation as self-education expenses.  

Unless you can prove that you needed to complete the course overseas, it was directly connected to your employment, and the fees you are claiming only relate specifically to the course, you can't claim the full amount.  

Remember, even if the ATO does not immediately detect a questionable claim, they can review past claims and adjust them, particularly where there has been evidence of evasion or fraud.

Did your employer already pay for it – directly or indirectly?

If you already claimed the cost of the item you purchased from your employer, you can't generally claim it as a personal deduction.  The same applies if your employer provides you with an expense account or payment as part of your remuneration package to cover specific costs.  

The ATO recently cracked down on travel expense claims.  A boilermaker's $8,000 travel claim ended badly when the ATO discovered that he received a travel allowance for the same amount from his employer.  He ended up with a $4,000 tax bill as the $8,000 allowance he received had not been declared in his income and the ATO then applied penalties and interest.

Can you prove you paid for it?

The ATO always requires a receipt or paperwork to support any purchase you claim a deduction for.  If you don't have this and you are audited, then the ATO will simply deny your deduction.

Does the price tag make a difference?

Does the price of a work-related expense make a difference?  For example, if the ATO accepts a deduction for a $200 laptop bag will they also accept a claim for say a $4,000 Burberry laptop bag?  

It comes down to a question of need.  If the claim is excessive, you need to prove that the excessive cost is actually required for your job.  The larger the deduction claimed the more likely it is that your tax affairs will be reviewed by the ATO. 

The weird and wild tax deductions available

Here are some of the weirder deductions that you can make:
  • Claiming your home internet expenses – this is an area the ATO has flagged for close review.  Teachers, in particular, have come under scrutiny in previous years for claiming all of their home internet expenses as work-related expenses.  It's important to get the proportions right.  If you are required to work from home and use the internet to do this, you can only claim that portion of your internet expenses you spent working.
  • Hand cream – yes for airline crew but not builders.  
  • Gym membership - Members of the Australian Defence Force in Special Forces can claim gym fees and other related costs in some cases as they need to maintain such a high level of fitness. Landlords can claim costs associated to their rental property such as flying interstate to inspect the property.  But, be warned, if you do anything other than inspect the property and return on the next plane, your deduction may be reduced or declined.  If you spend time doing something other then inspecting your property, then you can only claim the portion of the costs related to the rental property.  Also be aware that deductions claimed for rental properties must be in line with your ownership interest.  If there is more than one owner, then you can only claim deductions in the same proportion as your ownership interest.
  • Newspapers and online news access - if you are a professional who can prove they need to be across the news then you can claim these costs.   

It's not about gender

Access to tax deductions has nothing to do with gender – it's all about the basic rules of how closely connected the purchase is to your job and your ability to prove your case. 

As always, before you claim, talk to your account about the eligibility of your deductions, ensure you have your evidence in place. Contact us on 02 9957 4033 for more information.

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This article is provided for information purposes only and correct at the time of publication. It should not be used in place of advice from your accountant. Please contact us on 02 9957 4033 to discuss your specific circumstances.

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