Small Business Recordkeeping: Tax Records You Need to Keep

By Cameron McCool on January 18, 2017

In business, keeping records isn’t just helpful for filing your taxes and monitoring your finances. It’s a legal requirement imposed by the IRS. But which records do you need to keep? And which ones should you send to the shredder?

In this guide, you’ll find an overview of the records you should be storing, instructions on how long you need to keep them, and methods for filing digital copies of your records online.

Receipts and Tax Records: What You Need to Keep

As a small business or self-employed worker, the IRS requires you to keep documentation that supports an item of income, deduction, or credit shown on your tax return. This documentation proves that you earned what you said you earned, and purchased the things you said you purchased.

Tax records and supporting documentation that you’ll want to keep include:

  • Receipts
  • Bank and credit card statements
  • Bills
  • Canceled checks
  • Invoices
  • Proof of payments
  • Financial statements from Bench or your bookkeeper
  • Previous tax returns
  • W2 and 1099 forms
  • Any other documentary evidence that supports an item of income, deduction, or credit shown on your tax return

It’s important to note that this is not a comprehensive list, as the nature of your business will affect the type of records you need to keep for federal tax purposes.

Because the burden of proof is on you, the taxpayer, to back up every item on your tax return with supporting documentation, our advice is very simple: the best approach to recordkeeping is to keep everything.

Receipts and tax records are your first line of defense during a tax audit. Storing all of your receipts and tax records digitally means you’ll have everything on hand should your business ever be scrutinized by the IRS.

Similarly, it will help you avoid losing receipts, so you’ll be able to claim (and prove) every possible tax deduction available to your business.

The $75 Rule: When You Don’t Need to Keep Receipts

Generally, you are required to keep documentary evidence, such as receipts, canceled checks, or bills, to track your business expenses. There are exceptions, however.

Documentary evidence is not needed if any of the following apply:

  • The expense is less than $75 (Note: this rule does not apply to lodging expenses.)
  • The expense is for transportation, and a receipt is not readily available
  • You are reporting lodging or meal expenses while traveling for business, which you account to an employer under an accountable plan, and for which you receive a per diem allowance

Keep in mind that any business deduction on your tax return can be called into question during an audit—even expenses under $75.

If your business is audited, in order for the IRS to uphold a deduction under $75 in one of the above categories where you haven’t kept the receipt, you’ll need to present certain information upon request.

This is the expense information you need in case of an audit:

  • The amount of the expense
  • The date the expense was made
  • The place the expense was made
  • The essential character or purpose of the expense

For meals and entertainment expenses, you also need to list the people involved in the expense.

Record these details on the back of receipts, in your diary or online calendar, or use a mobile app like Expensify to store these details each time you make a business purchase under $75.

You can review the IRS guidelines on proving expenses under $75 here.

How Long Should You Keep Tax Records?

The Three Year Rule

In general, you should plan to keep your tax records for three years from the date the return was filed, or from the due date of the tax return (whichever is later). If you filed your return early, it’s treated as being filed on the due date.

An example of the three year rule

A couple of years ago you were organized, so you filed your 2013 tax return on February 10, 2014.

However, the due date for tax returns that year was April 15, 2014. You would need to keep the receipts, tax records, and any other supporting documentation related to your 2013 tax return, until April 15, 2017—three years after the date that your 2013 tax return was due.

This three year rule is in place thanks to the Period of Limitations, which is the period of time during which you—the taxpayer—can amend your tax return, or when the IRS can perform an audit on your return. When the period of limitations on your tax return expires, you’re no longer required to keep the tax return, or its supporting documentation.

As is often the case with IRS regulation, there are exceptions to this rule.

Exceptions to the Three Year Rule

In certain instances, you’ll need to hold on to tax records for longer than three years.

Here’s a rundown of these exceptions, and a basic explanation of how long you should keep the records in each category:

Bad Debt and Worthless Securities 

If you deducted the cost of bad debt or worthless securities on your tax return, keep the records for seven years.

Omitted Income 

If you do not report income that you should report, and it is more than 25% of the gross income stated on your return, keep records for six years after the date that you filed, or the due date of the tax return (whichever is later).

Employee Records 

Do you have employees? Keep the employment tax records for at least four years after the date that payroll taxes become due, or is paid (whichever is later).

Fraudulent Return or No Return

Hoping to get away with tax fraud? There is no statute of limitations on fraudulent or unfiled returns—so the IRS can come after you forever. Just something to keep in mind.

Records Connected to Property

In general, you should keep records relating to property until the period of limitations (the period in which you can amend your tax return, or be audited by the IRS—generally three years) expires for the year in which you dispose of the property.

You need to keep records connected to property so that you can calculate any depreciation, amortization, or depletion deduction, and to factor the gain or loss when you sell or dispose of the property.

Let’s clarify this with an example. Say you dispose of a property by selling it during the 2015 tax year. You report the financial gain on your 2015 tax return, and you file your tax return right on the tax deadline of April 18, 2016. You would need to keep records connected to the property until April 18, 2019 (i.e. three years after the filing date of April 18, 2016).

Important property documents include deeds, titles, and cost basis records—for instance, receipts for equipment such as computers or vehicles.

How to Store Receipts and Tax Records

Once you’ve determined how long you should hold onto your records, you’ll need to set up a safe and organized system for storing them. You could go the old fashioned route and pick up a fireproof safe to store your records. But if you’d prefer to avoid filling your office with paperwork, a better suggestion is to go paperless and store your documents electronically.

The IRS accepts digital copies of documents as long as they are identical to, and contain all of the accurate information from, the original copies. You need to be able to produce a printed, legible copy of the document upon request.

Store copies of your receipts and tax records online using a secure cloud storage service like Dropbox, Evernote, or Google Drive. If you have plenty of records to upload, consider investing in a business scanner that automatically files documents in the right location at the push of a button.

It’s also a good idea to keep a backup copy of your documents in a second location, such as a password protected hard drive, or a secondary, secure cloud storage service.

Keeping Records for Non-Tax Purposes

Keep in mind that your creditors, business lawyer, or insurance company may need you to keep records longer than the IRS does. Once your records are no longer required for tax purposes, double check that they’re no longer required for other purposes before you shred them.

If you store digital copies of your receipts and records, you can simply archive them permanently in online storage (rather than delete them)

Do I Need to Send Receipts to My Bench Bookkeeper?

Unlike the IRS, Bench doesn’t need to see receipts to verify each of your business transactions.

Your Bench bookkeeping team can balance your books using the information on your business’s bank and credit card statements, provided that you sync your business’s bank and credit card accounts with Bench. Most major financial institutions can connect directly with Bench. For those that cannot—and for services such as payroll—your bookkeeper is able to work with you on a case-by-case basis to make sure Bench receives your statements every month.

Once you have set up a means of transmitting information from your business accounts to Bench, it is important that you run all business transactions through those accounts, so they can be tracked in your books.

The only times you’ll need to upload a receipt to Bench:

  • When you perform a business transaction that is not recorded on your business’s monthly bank statements.
  • When you spend over $2500 on a business transaction. Such a purchase may indicate capital expense, such as equipment, whose value can be expensed over the useful lifetime of the item.

For example, let’s say you’re out shopping one day, and you don’t have your business credit card on hand. You buy something for your business using your personal debit card, and you want to record the transaction as a business expense. In this case, you would need to upload the receipt to Bench, so that your bookkeeping team could verify that the purchase was a valid business transaction and include it in your financial statements.

Here are some other examples of when you may be asked to upload a receipt to Bench:

  • When you pay for a business expense with cash (cash expenses)
  • When you pay for a business expense using your personal debit or personal credit card (personal contributions)
  • When your employee pays for an expense using their own money, and you need to reimburse them (employee reimbursements)

Don’t worry too much about remembering when to upload a receipt to Bench. If a receipt or further information about a business transaction is required, your bookkeeping team will get in touch to sort it out.

Remember: The Best Approach is to Keep Everything

Keeping up with the rules that govern small business recordkeeping can be challenging.

While it’s important to understand what tax records you need to keep, and how long you need to keep them, remember: the best approach to small business recordkeeping is to keep everything.

When you’re not scrambling to locate missing receipts and records next time the tax deadline rolls around, or in the event that your business is audited, you’ll be glad you did.

This post is to be used for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal, business, or tax advice. Each person should consult his or her own attorney, business advisor, or tax advisor with respect to matters referenced in this post. Bench assumes no liability for actions taken in reliance upon the information contained herein.

Portrait of Cameron McCool
Written By

Cameron McCool

Cameron writes for Bench, the online bookkeeping service for entrepreneurs.