Can I Deduct My Uniform Costs On My Income Tax Return?

Are military uniforms tax deductible?

Whew!  The debate on various message boards has been ferocious when it comes to whether or not you can deduct uniform expenses on your income tax return.  I’ll tell you what I know, then I’ll tell you what I think.  You can decide for yourself how you want to handle it.

Let me preface this entire article by saying that when in doubt, I tend to err on the side of keeping myself out of trouble with the IRS.  If the guidelines are unclear, I play it safe.  I have not yet been audited by the IRS and I fully expect that it will happen any year now.  With rental property, and my self-employment, and random in-and-out of combat zone issues, I feel like our tax return already has an entire field of red flags all over it.  Plus, we don’t really pay much in taxes most years.  There are plenty of years where we pay no taxes.  It is not worth it to me to take a questionable deduction to save $6 on my already low tax bill.

Back to the issue at hand…

What Items Are Deductible?

I’m sure many of you have heard rumors that you can deduct the cost of your uniforms, the cost of insignia, the cost of alterations, and/or the cost of cleaning your military uniforms.  I’ve heard those rumors, too.  Here’s what I can find, however, from the IRS Publication 529, Miscellaneous Deductions:

Military uniforms.You generally cannot deduct the cost of your uniforms if you are on full-time active duty in the armed forces. However, if you are an armed forces reservist, you can deduct the unreimbursed cost of your uniform if military regulations restrict you from wearing it except while on duty as a reservist. In figuring the deduction, you must reduce the cost by any nontaxable allowance you receive for these expenses.

If local military rules do not allow you to wear fatigue uniforms when you are off duty, you can deduct the amount by which the cost of buying and keeping up these uniforms is more than the uniform allowance you receive.

If you are a student at an armed forces academy, you cannot deduct the cost of your uniforms if they replace regular clothing. However, you can deduct the cost of insignia, shoulder boards, and related items.   

You can deduct the cost of your uniforms if you are a civilian faculty or staff member of a military school.

I’ve highlighted in red the parts of this that I think are most important.  For clarification, the part that talks about fatigue uniforms refers to any uniform that your branch or local commander has deemed may not ever be worn off base.  If you have a uniform that falls into this category, you know what it is.  If you would get in trouble if you wore it home and stopped to pump gas on the way, that is the type of uniform they’re talking about.

You may deduct insignia, corps devices, epaulets, aiguillettes, and swords.

But Will It Lower My Tax Bill?

In addition, even if you had deductible uniform expenses, they are limited to the amount of expenses that exceed 2% of your Adjusted Gross Income (AGI). What this means is that if you AGI is $30,000 for the tax year, your deductible uniform expenses would have to be more than $600 and you would have to itemize your expenses on a 1040 Schedule A in order to benefit from this deduction.

You can probably see where I’m going with this.  The way I read the IRS instructions, there are nearly no circumstances in which uniforms are going to be deductible to the point of having any impact on your total tax liability.  If you have a low enough income that your uniform expenses exceed 2% of your AGI, then you probably don’t have any tax liability from which to deduct the cost.  If your income is high enough that you owe taxes, then the 2% of your AGI is likely to be more than the deductible part of the uniform costs.  With all the smoke and mirrors of how the income tax return is structured, even if it appears that you are saving money by deducting your uniforms, it often isn’t making any difference in the number at the bottom of the return.

Kate’s Bottom Line:  For 99.99% of the military members out there, saving receipts and filling out extra paperwork is not going to result in an income tax savings.  The only people who might benefit from this deduction would be people, usually reservists, who meet the following criteria:

  1. have exceptionally high deductible uniform costs one year
  2. itemize their deductions and exceed the standard deduction when they itemized
  3. have a low adjusted gross income (AGI)
  4. have a tax liability after the regular exemptions, deductions, and non-refundable credits are calculated.

If you want to save the receipts and do the paperwork, go ahead.  I would love to hear if it actually saves anyone any taxes.

EXAMPLE:  I’m sure many of you will find my example confusing, but I’m including it for the small percentage of readers who find it helpful.

Let’s say you did have a deductible uniform (that you could not wear off base) that cost $500.  (I’m making this up for the example.)  Then let’s say that you are male, have been in the military more than 3 years, and you are in the Air Force.  Your yearly clothing allowance would be $388.80 per year.  Take the $500 of actual deductible cost, subtract the yearly clothing allowance, and you will come up with $111.20.

You then take that number and compare it with 2% of your adjusted gross income.  To really stretch this example as far as possible, let’s say you were deployed to a tax-free combat zone for the entire year and therefore your AGI was $0.  With an AGI of $0, you could put that $111.20 on your 1040 Schedule A, Itemized Deductions.

You would take that $111.20 and add it to the rest of your itemized deductions (usually only mortgage interest, taxes and charitable deductions) and then see if the entire total was more than your standard deduction (2011 rates:  single, $5,800; married filing jointly, $11,600.)   Let’s then imagine that you were already over the standard deduction and so you are adding the entire deductible part of this uniform to your itemized deductions, resulting in an addition $111.20 deduction from your AGI before you get to the calculation of the taxes.

It wouldn’t really matter, because you would be deducting from an AGI of $0 and there are no negative numbers permitted before you get to the tax calculation line of the return.  Zero minus anything still equals zero up until a certain point in tax calculation, so you haven’t benefited at all.

About the Author

Kate Horrell
Kate Horrell is a military financial coach, mom of four teens, and Navy spouse. She has a background in taxes and mortgage banking, and a trove of experience helping other military families with their money. Follow her on twitter @realKateHorrell.
  • J N Schank

    How about the cost of commuting more than 50 miles to drill for a reservist?

    • KateKashman

      Absolutely. If a military reservist travels more than 100 miles to perform their reserve obligations, and the trip involves at least one overnight stay, many costs are deductible. Lodging expenses are deductible as long as they do not exceed the federal per diem rate for that location, one-half of meals are deductible (subject to the per-diem limitation), and mileage is paid at the prevailing rate.

      Even better, these expenses get taken off as an adjustment to income on line 24 of your 1040, before you even get to the taxes part of the form. You will need to file a Form 2106 or 2106-EZ to claim these expenses.

    • guest

      hey does someone know whether a army national guard person while not on active duty orders can wear his acu jacket with no rank or insignia on it while in civlian clothes

      • Usmc2012
  • AShurbanipal

    if the person lives that far away, isn’t their lodging already covered by the Army?

    • kylie

      not necessarily. my husband travels more than 100 miles to drill, but does not stay in the hotel, he stays with a nearby family member. because of this, he is not eligible for meal vouchers or travel vouchers, etc. so his gas and meals are all out of pocket because he does not stay in the hotel. this is the air nat’l guard however, and his home base is only a guard base therefore they do not have food or housing available on the base

  • Taylor

    Do you know if you are gone for pre mob and even the deployment, if you are able to deduct any expense that you purchase? (i.e. personal hygene, linens, ect.)

    • KateKashman

      That would be extremely unlikely, for the same reasons that it is unlikely that you would be able to deduct uniform costs. First, they would have to be certain qualified expenses (toiletries and linens don’t count), second, they would have to exceed 2% of your Adjusted Gross Income (AGI), third, you would have to file a Schedule A where your itemized deductions exceeded your standard deduction, and fourth, you would have to have a tax liability from which to deduct the expenses.

      If you somehow manage to meet all four of those criteria, your taxes are probably complicated enough that you are using a tax accountant and they can work out the details for you.

  • Sara

    Thank you all the info really help a lot.

  • Elizabeth

    What about for officers? My husband went Warrant this past year and will only got a one-time amount (around $300 something I think), aka he won’t get the yearly clothing allowance he used to.

    • KateKashman

      Elizabeth, he is still unlikely to spend more than 2% of your Adjusted Gross Income on uniforms. If he does, and you meet all the other criteria outlined above, then yes, you can deduct them. I’ve honestly never met anyone who can legitimately deduct uniforms, but there is a first time for everything.

  • Brenda Young

    yes you can deduct uniforms and any other work related expense on the taxes. I advise you having a professional do this though because they know the correct tax laws. You can also deduct your gas to and from work as well as your cell phone bill if you use it for work purposes.

    • KateKashman

      Brenda, did you by any chance read the entire article? Yes, in theory uniforms can be deducted. However, there are several important and challenging criteria that must be met, meaning that almost no one can actually deduct uniform expenses. From IRS Publication 529, ” You generally cannot deduct the cost of your uniforms if you are on full-time active duty in the armed forces.” Gas to and from work is never a deductible expense. Per the IRS Publication 529, “In general, the costs of commuting between your residence and your place of business are nondeductible.” There are certain specific rules for reservists who live more than 100 miles from their reserve unit. A cell phone that is a requirement of your job and is used solely for work related purposes may be deducted, but you really need to document this carefully and prove that it is used solely for work purposes. All these expenses, combined, would be subject to the 2% of AGI limit. Readers, if your tax preparer is telling you that these are deductible expenses, that is a huge red flag. There have been many tax preparers charged with all sorts of crimes, all based around taking unauthorized deductions. Some of them particularly target military families. One example can be found here:

      This is why it is very important for you to understand as much as you can about your taxes. You are responsible for the tax return you sign. You’d better hope it is right.

  • Mary

    So here’s another twist. My husband volunteers for the NY Guard (I think they are something like the old militia). Anyway he is not paid unless the governor of NY calls them to active duty. And they are not technically the US Armed forces so he gets none of the benefits that go along with being in the military. I don’t even think he can shop in the PX. Anyway they have admin nights and drills that he has to drive to. Also he has uniform expenses, including all the patches and other things that go on them. So are these considered volunteering or Unreimbursed Business Expenses? My gut says that since he is getting nothing in return he is volunteering, but I’m not sure if the NY Guard qualifies as an approved organization. Any ideas?

    • KateKashman

      Mary, I have no idea I would check with an accountant who has experience with this issue. I can’t imagine how they would be unreimbursed business expenses, and even if they were, they would have to exceed 2% of your family’s Adjusted Gross Income to be eligible for deduction. As for volunteering, I just don’t know. Your husband can ask around his unit – everyone would have the same situation. Good luck!