Actual vehicle expense method may help offset higher gas prices

As gasoline prices have climbed in 2011, many taxpayers who use a vehicle for business purposes are looking for the IRS to make a mid-year adjustment to the standard mileage rate. In the meantime, taxpayers should review the benefits of using the actual expense method to calculate their deduction. The actual expense method, while requiring careful recordkeeping, may help offset the cost of high gas prices if the IRS does not make a mid-year change to the standard mileage rate. Even if it does, you might still find yourself better off using the actual expense method, especially if your vehicle also qualifies for bonus depreciation.

Two methods

Taxpayers can calculate the amount of a deductible vehicle expense using one of two methods:

  • Standard mileage rate
  • Actual expense method

Under the standard mileage rate, taxpayers calculate the amount of the allowable deduction by multiplying all business miles driven during the year by the standard mileage rate. One of the chief attractions of the standard mileage rate is its ease of use. Taxpayers do not have to substantiate expense amounts; however, they must substantiate business purpose and other items. There are also limitations on use of the business standard mileage rate.

The standard mileage rate for 2011 for business use of a car (van, pickup or panel truck) is 51 cents-per-mile. The IRS calculates the standard mileage rate on an annual study of the fixed and variable costs of operating an automobile. The IRS set the standard mileage rate for 2011 in late 2010 when gasoline prices were lower than today. It is a flat amount, whether or not your vehicle is fuel efficient, operates on premium grade fuel, is brand new or ten years old, or is subject to high repair bills.

During past spikes in gasoline prices, the IRS has made a mid-year change to the standard mileage rate for business use of a vehicle. In 2008, the IRS increased the business standard mileage rate from 50.5 cents-per-mile to 58.5 cents-per-mile for last six months of 2008 because of high gasoline prices. The IRS made a similar mid-year adjustment in 2005 when it increased the business standard mileage rate after Hurricane Katrina.

At this time, it is unclear if the IRS will make a similar mid-year adjustment in 2011. IRS officials generally have declined to make any predictions. If the IRS does make a mid-year change, it will likely do so in late June, so the higher rate can apply to the last six months of 2011.

Actual expense method

Rather than rely on a mid-year adjustment from the IRS, which might not come, it’s a good idea to compare the actual vehicle costs versus the business standard mileage rate. Taxpayers who use the actual expense method must keep track of all costs related to the vehicle during the year. The cost of operating a vehicle includes these expenses:

  • Gasoline
  • Repair and maintenance costs
  • Cleaning
  • Tires
  • Depreciation
  • Lease payments (if the taxpayer leases the vehicle)
  • Interest on a vehicle loan
  • Insurance
  • Personal property taxes on the vehicle

“Doing the math” this year in weighing whether to take the actual expense method not only should factor in the cost of gasoline but also what depreciation or expensing deductions you will be gaining by using the actual expense method. Enhanced bonus depreciation and enhanced “section 179” expensing for 2011 can increase your deduction for a newly-purchased vehicle in its first year tremendously if the actual expense method is elected.

Certain other costs are deductible whether you take the actual expense method or the standard mileage rate. This group includes parking charges, garage fees and tolls. Expenses incurred for the personal use of your vehicle are generally not deductible. An allocation must be made when the vehicle is used partly for personal purposes

Switching methods

Once actual depreciation in excess of straight-line has been claimed on a vehicle, the standard mileage rate cannot be used for the vehicle in any future year. Absent that prohibition (which usually is triggered if depreciation is taken), a business can switch between the standard mileage rate and actual expense methods from year to year. Businesses that switch methods now cannot make change methods effective in mid-year; you must apply one method retroactively from January 1.


The actual expense method requires taxpayers to substantiate every expense. This recordkeeping requirement can be challenging. For example, taxpayers who fill-up often at the gas pump need to keep a record of every purchase. The same is true for tune-ups and other maintenance and repair activity. One way to simplify recordkeeping is to charge all vehicle related expenses to one credit card.

Our office will keep you posted of developments. If you have any questions about the actual expense method or the business standard mileage rate, please contact our office.

If and only to the extent that this publication contains contributions from tax professionals who are subject to the rules of professional conduct set forth in Circular 230, as promulgated by the United States Department of the Treasury, the publisher, on behalf of those contributors, hereby states that any U.S. federal tax advice that is contained in such contributions was not intended or written to be used by any taxpayer for the purpose of avoiding penalties that may be imposed on the taxpayer by the Internal Revenue Service, and it cannot be used by any taxpayer for such purpose.

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