Deducting Military Job Related Expenses

It’s tax time, and with tax time comes questions about deducting job related expenses from your tax return.  I’ve written specifically about uniforms in the past, but today’s question is more broad.  The question comes from

I need tax advice on what items I can deduct as work expenses. I’m an active duty military officer filing federal and state in Colorado. Provide references supporting your answers. Specifically, which of the following can I deduct: uniform dry cleaning, haircuts, uniform purchases (uniforms themselves, rank, ribbons/medals), Colorado car registration fees, car mileage to a class I attended but wasn’t reimbursed for, hotel expenses for that class since it was like an hour away, conference fee that I wasn’t reimbursed for but I was asked to attend for work.

I know that there are tax practitioners that are telling people that they can deduct all these things, but they are generally wrong.  Some have even been charged with crimes for the incorrect tax filing information they were spreading.  The truth is, there isn’t much you can deduct, and even if you can, it isn’t often that it pays off in the big picture.

There are very few expenses that are actual deductible for an active duty service member. The first issue is that you have to itemize your tax deductions, and your itemized deductions must be greater than your standard deduction. The second issue is that all your combined job related expenses must exceed 2% of your Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) for the year. If you have not spent any time during the year in a Combat Zone Tax Exclusion (CZTE) area and don’t have any unusual losses (such as rental losses or business losses, your AGI is going to be at least $36,000 per year. That means that your job related expenses must exceed $720 per year in order to even start to qualify.

Uniforms are usually the most expensive job related expenses for the military. The IRS has deemed that you may only deduct certain uniform expenses. From the IRS Publication 529, Miscellaneous Deductions: “You generally cannot deduct the cost of your uniforms if you are on full-time active duty in the armed forces.” There is an exception for any uniform whose wearing is prohibited off base, such as working uniforms.

With regard to the course, and the travel, I would tread carefully. In general, the IRS assumes that your employer will pay for required courses, transportation, and lodging. In particular, they are unlikely to consider “an hour away” to be a hardship distance requiring lodging.

Even once you’ve found all the allowable deductions, and if you’ve found enough to exceed 2% of your AGI, and if you’ve found enough deductions to exceed your standard deduction, you have to calculate how much money this is going to save you and compare it to your overall liability. You then have to consider whether it is worth the effort and the potential flags on your return.

I completely failed to mention that haircuts aren’t deductible, nor are car registration fees.  Haircuts are always considered a personal expenses, even if required by your employer.  Car registration fees, similarly, are a personal expenses and not deductible in most cases.  Commuting to and from work does not make vehicle costs deductible.

I know my opinion is unpopular, but it is very uncommon for military folks to be able to deduct business expenses.

For more information on this question, please see:

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

More Questions About Deductible Expenses

Tax Considerations For Reservists

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.
  • Jeremy Champagne

      Your quote on uniform deductions is incomplete and misleading. You can deduct uniform expenses that exceed your yearly clothing allowance. For enlisted that can range but for officers, it is immediate since they do not receive a clothing allowance.

      • Kate

        I’m afraid that is not true. According to the IRS Publication 529,

        “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.”

        As I’ve discussed at great length in many different articles, you can only deduct the cost of uniforms that you are not permitted to wear off base. If you are permitted to stop at a civilian gas station and fill your car in that uniform, you may not deduct it’s cost. Also, as you mention, you can only deduct costs that exceed your clothing allowance, if you receive one. Lastly, you can only deduct permitted uniform expenses that exceed 2% of your adjusted gross income.

        Very few military personnel have uniform or other job related expenses that fit all the necessary criteria for deductability.

  • honordads

    Kate, your articles are often helpful, but your guidance is a little narrow in focus here. If you are a Reservist that must travel more than 100 miles on a drill weekend to get to your duty site, your travel expenses are deductible. Navy Reserve commanders/captains must pay out of pocket to drill. My typical drill weekend from New England to DC every month runs $350 in unreimbursed transportation and other costs – well over $3,500 per year. Senior officer/enlisted uniform needs are often more costly as well, and we receive no uniform allowance for these. Bottom line is all military personnel should absolutely track their work related expenses, and work with a good tax advisor to determine what is deductible.

    • Kate

      honorsdad, I agree. Drilling reservists aren’t discussed in this reader’s question, and I didn’t elaborate on the uniform question. You may prefer these articles which address those two issues specifically:… and….

      I will stand by my position that it is nearly impossible for a military member to be in a situation where deducting uniform expenses nets any lessened tax liability. First, you have to have uniforms that aren’t authorized for wear off base. In most cases, that’s not a lot. Second, if you receive a uniform allowance, you must deduct that from your total expenses. Third, you may only deduct uniform costs that exceed 2% of your adjusted gross income. (This is the first major sticking point.). Fourth, your total itemized deduction must exceed the standard deduction. And fifth, you must have a tax liability from which there to be a decrease. It is the combination of factors three and factors five that result in virtually no one being able to deduct uniform expenses. If your AGI is low enough that your uniform expenses exceed 2%, which might happen when deployed to a CZTE area, then you aren’t paying taxes on which to have a deduction.

      Everyone, civilian or military, should track their work-related expenses. However, they should not expect that their expenses are going to result in a lower tax liability. It’s just not the reality for most people.

      To help others, I will add links to more comprehensive articles in this post.

  • Your quote on uniform deductions is incomplete and misleading.