Because you need money to make money

How to Categorize Expenses for Small Business: 8 Strategies

Date published: February 9, 2024
Businesses with good financial planning strategies are often more successful, and it all starts with categorizing expenses. Read our blog to learn how and why your business should categorize expenses for financial planning.
Best Practices Business Tips
Listen minutes

While navigating through the world of business finances, a good starting point is learning how to categorize expenses. This task, though seemingly simple, can have a profound impact on your business's financial health. By carefully creating a list of business expense categories, every transaction finds its right place, ensuring accuracy in your financial records.

Request Funding Today*
By clicking "Get Started", I consent and agree to the Privacy Policy and Terms of Site Use.
*By filling out the form above, you will be routed to Lendza’s funding request form.

Not only does this bring clarity to your budgeting, but it also smartly positions you for maximizing tax deductions. Let's embark on this journey to refine your financial management skills.

What Is a Tax-Deductible Business Expense?

A tax-deductible business expense is money spent on running the business, which can be subtracted from its income to reduce how much tax it has to pay. For an expense to qualify, it needs to be both ordinary and necessary.

An "ordinary" expense is one that's common and accepted in your business industry, like office rent or utility bills. A "necessary" expense is one that's helpful and appropriate for your business, such as employee salaries or office supplies.

Think of it like this: if a business earns $100,000 in a year and spends $20,000 on tax-deductible expenses, it only has to pay tax on $80,000. This is because the $20,000 is subtracted from the total income.

Deductible vs. Non-Deductible Expenses

Navigating the complexities of business finance involves a clear understanding of which expenses can be deducted from your taxable income and which cannot. Let’s take a look at the distinctions with examples:

Type of Expense



Deductible Expenses

Costs that can be deducted from business income, reducing the tax burden. Common in business operations.

  • Payroll
  • Travel
  • Office Supplies
  • Utilities
  • Advertising
  • Rent

Nondeductible Expenses

Expenses that cannot be used to reduce tax burden. Often personal or not directly linked to business operations.

  • Long-term Property Improvements
  • Political Contributions
  • Government Fines
  • Federal Income/Gift/Estate Taxes
  •  Lobbying Expenses

Category List of Business Expenses

In business finance, understanding expense categories aids in organizing and analyzing costs effectively. Below is a list of common business expense categories:

  • Rent and Lease Payments: Covering spaces like offices or stores, including property or equipment leases.
  • Utilities: Including electricity, water, gas, and Internet services essential for business operations.
  • Salaries and Wages: Often the largest expense, covering employee compensation and benefits.
  • Office Supplies and Equipment: Including basic supplies, technology equipment, software, and furniture.
  • Marketing and Advertising: Expenses for building brand awareness, attracting customers, and retaining them.
  • Insurance: Protecting against potential losses with policies like liability, property, and workers' compensation.
  • Taxes: Including income, payroll, property, corporate, and other business-related taxes.
  • Travel Expenses: Covering costs during business-related travel, such as airfare, accommodation, and meals.

Why Categorizing Expenses is Important: 10 Benefits

Categories for business expenses are a key component in managing a business effectively. It's more than just keeping financial records in order; it's about gaining deeper insights into your business operations.

Professionals reviewing business financial planLet's look into why accurate categorization of business expenses is a significant factor in business management:

  • Enhanced Financial Clarity: Proper categorization offers detailed insights into where and how money is spent, which is necessary for effective budgeting and financial planning. This clarity helps in identifying areas of overspending and potential savings.
  • Maximization of Tax Deductions: By categorizing expenses accurately, businesses can ensure they take full advantage of tax deductions. This process identifies eligible expenses that can be deducted, reducing overall taxable income.
  • Informed Decision Making: With organized expense data, successful business owners can make strategic decisions based on spending patterns and financial analysis. This leads to more informed choices about where to cut costs or where to invest more.
  • Simplified Audit Process: A well-organized expense record simplifies the auditing process, making it less time-consuming and more efficient, which is particularly beneficial during tax season or in compliance reviews.
  • Regulatory Compliance: Keeping expenses categorized correctly ensures your business is adhering to tax laws and accounting standards. This helps in avoiding legal issues and potential penalties.
  • Resource Allocation Optimization: Knowing how money is spent allows businesses to allocate resources more judiciously, ensuring that every dollar contributes to the business's growth.
  • Benchmarking and Performance Analysis: Accurate expense tracking enables businesses to compare their spending with industry standards, helping to gauge financial performance and identify areas for improvement.
  • Increased Transparency with Stakeholders: A clear categorization of expenses provides stakeholders with a transparent view of the business's financial health, fostering trust and confidence.
  • Facilitation of Future Forecasting: Historical data on expenses, when categorized properly, assists in creating more accurate financial forecasts and budgeting for future business needs.
  • Streamlined Expense Reimbursement: For businesses with employees who incur work-related expenses, a clear categorization system simplifies the reimbursement process, ensuring accuracy and efficiency.

7 Expense Tracking Challenges

Tracking expenses can present several challenges for businesses, particularly small ones.

Professional categorizing and calculating business expensesHere's a list of common issues they might face:

Frequent Updates Needed

Keeping expense records up to date, especially in a dynamic business environment, requires constant attention. You can automate the expense tracking process using cloud-based software such as QuickBooks Online, Xero, or FreshBooks. These tools can sync with bank accounts and credit cards, automatically updating expenses in real-time. Setting up regular (weekly or monthly) review sessions can also ensure that any discrepancies are addressed promptly.

Receipt Organization

Managing physical or digital copies of receipts for accurate record-keeping poses an organizational challenge. Instead, utilize digital tools that specialize in receipt management. These can include mobile apps like Expensify, Receipt Bank, or Evernote. They allow users to take photos of receipts, automatically categorizing and storing them. Cloud storage can also be used for easy access and backup.

Integration with Financial Systems

Seamlessly integrating expense tracking with other financial management systems, like accounting software, can be technically challenging. Choose expense-tracking software like Concur, Expensify, and Sage that offer integration capabilities with popular accounting systems. This integration facilitates real-time data transfer and coherence between systems, simplifying financial management.

Distinguishing Personal and Business Expenses

For small business owners, keeping personal and business expenses separate can be difficult, particularly in sole proprietorships. Use separate bank accounts and credit cards for business and personal expenses. Employ expense tracking software like FreshBooks or Wave that allows for categorization, helping in clearly separating business expenses from personal ones.

Regulatory Compliance

Staying compliant with tax laws and regulations when recording and categorizing expenses requires thorough knowledge and regular updates. Regularly consult with a tax professional or use updated accounting software like TurboTax Business and TaxAct Business Edition that are designed to be compliant with current tax laws. These tools often include features that alert users to potential compliance issues.

Budgeting Accuracy

Incorrect or incomplete expense tracking can lead to inaccurate budgeting, impacting financial planning and decision-making. Ensure rigorous and consistent tracking practices, possibly supported by automated tools like Mint, YNAB, or PocketGuard. Regularly reconcile recorded expenses with bank statements to maintain accuracy.

Time Management

The time required for meticulous expense tracking can be substantial, taking away from other business activities. Implement time-saving tools such as Neatfiles or Expensify that integrate with accounting software. Delegate or outsource expense tracking activities to specialized staff or external services to free up valuable time for core business functions.

How to Categorize Business Expenses

Categorizing business expenses is a practical step for managing small business finances, offering benefits beyond just tax preparation. It aids in budgeting, tracking financial performance, identifying cost-saving opportunities, and providing clear insights for strategic decision-making.

Accounting software on laptopHere's a streamlined approach:

  • Use Accounting Software: Incorporate tools like QuickBooks, Xero, or FreshBooks to simplify expense tracking. These platforms offer user-friendly interfaces and integrate with your financial accounts. For smaller businesses or freelancers, consider options like Wave or Zoho Books, which are tailored for less complex needs.
  • Implement a Receipt Management System: Utilize digital tools like Expensify or Receipt Bank for efficient receipt management. These apps allow you to scan and categorize receipts easily and can integrate with your accounting software to streamline your process.
  • Schedule Regular Financial Reviews: Allocate time each month to review and categorize expenses. This practice helps in maintaining accurate records and identifying spending trends, offering insights into possible cost reductions.
  • Cross-Check with Bank Statements: Regularly comparing your expense records with bank statements ensures that all expenses are accurately accounted for and properly categorized.
  • Educate Your Team: If your staff incurs expenses, guide them on proper record-keeping and set clear guidelines for spending and reporting. Using corporate credit cards can help centralize and simplify expense tracking.
  • Categorize by Projects or Clients: For businesses handling multiple projects or clients, organizing expenses by project or client can provide a clearer view of where funds are going and which areas are more profitable.
  • Align with Tax Categories: Organize your expenses in line with the categories recognized by the IRS or your local tax authority. This makes tax preparation smoother and helps ensure you're taking advantage of all relevant deductions.
  • Consult Professionals for Complex Categories: For more complicated aspects like depreciation or international expenses, seeking advice from financial professionals can offer clarity and ensure accurate categorization.

FAQ on Categorizing Business Expenses

Categorizing business expenses can lead to various questions, particularly for small business owners focused on accurate record-keeping and making the most of tax deductions. Below are some frequently asked questions to help simplify this process:

What is a Good Routine for Managing and Categorizing Business Expenses?

To stay on top of business finances, it's advisable to review and categorize expenses weekly. This practice helps in maintaining current and accurate financial records, making monthly and quarterly financial reviews more manageable and efficient. Regular categorization also simplifies tax preparation and financial analysis.

How Can I Identify if an Expense is Tax-Deductible for My Small Business?

To determine if an expense is tax-deductible, evaluate if it's both ordinary (common in your industry) and necessary (helpful and appropriate for your business). Consult the IRS guidelines or a tax professional for specific rules related to your business type. Regularly updating and reviewing your categorized expenses can also aid in identifying eligible tax deductions.

How Do I Manage Expenses That Don't Fit into Standard Categories?

For expenses that are not a regular part of your business operations and don't fit into existing categories, create a specific category like 'Special Projects' or 'One-time Expenses'. Be sure to keep detailed records of these expenses and review them periodically. If certain types of expenses recur, consider creating a dedicated category for them in the future.

How Should I Categorize Large, Infrequent Expenses for My Business?

Large, one-time purchases should be categorized as 'capital expenses'. Examples include buying new equipment and vehicles or renovating your office space. These are not regular operational expenses and often qualify for different tax treatment. Keep detailed records and receipts of these transactions for accurate accounting expense categories.

Sum Up

Effective categorization of business expenses is a cornerstone of sound financial management for small businesses. It's not just about keeping records in order; it's about gaining insights into spending, ensuring compliance with tax laws, and making the most of potential tax savings.

The strategies and insights shared in this article are designed to guide small business owners toward a more organized, efficient, and financially savvy approach to handling their business expenses.

Ethan James   Lead Writer
Ethan James is an experienced Financial Writer at Lendza with over a decade of experience.