How to Handle Tax Deductions for Business Equipment and Supplies

A small business owner using a laptop to record shipping products as an expense for tax purposes.
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When it comes time for a business owner to complete business tax forms, it can get a bit confusing when trying to understand how to handle equipment and supplies purchased for business purposes. These two types of purchases are considered in different ways for accounting and tax purposes. 

Some purchases, especially those of a smaller amount, can be expensed, while other purchases, usually equipment, must be depreciated.

Equipment and Supplies for Business Use

First, note that these purchases are for business purposes only, not for personal use. If you buy business equipment, such as a computer, it must be used entirely for your business in order for you to deduct the full cost as a business expense. The same is true for supplies.

Supplies, such as printer paper, cannot be used for personal printing. While this doesn't seem like an important distinction, an IRS audit might find these purchases non-deductible if you can't prove their use as a business expense.

Business equipment that can be used for both personal and business purposes is called listed property. You may be able to deduct a certain percentage of the cost of business equipment if you can prove the amount of business use.

Business equipment and supplies should be purchased with your business credit card or bank account. However, the purchase method alone doesn't prove their use as a business expense.

​Expensing vs. Depreciating

The most important thing to remember about the difference between business supplies and business equipment is that supplies are a short-term or current asset, while equipment is a long-term asset.

Current assets are those assets used up within a year (more or less), while long-term assets are used over several years. Yes, copy paper can sit on a shelf for over a year, but this is just a general guideline for categorizing assets for tax purposes. 

Since supplies are supposedly used up within the year of purchase, the cost of supplies as current assets is expensed on the income statement and taken as a deduction on your business taxes in the year they are purchased.

Since equipment can be used over a longer period of time, the value of this equipment is categorized as a long-term asset on the balance sheet, and the cost is depreciated over time (taken as a deduction in increments over the useful life of the equipment).

In each case, the purchase cost is a deductible business expense (as long as the item purchased is used for business purposes), it's just that the expense may be taken over a shorter or longer period of time.

What Are Business Supplies?

Business supplies are items purchased and typically used up during the year. The most common types of business supplies are office supplies, including staplers, sticky notes, highlighter pens, and supplies used to run copiers, printers, and other office machines.

If you are buying supplies for use in products you manufacture or sell, including packaging and shipping supplies, these supplies are handled differently for accounting and tax purposes. 

Supplies for making, shipping, and packaging products are counted as inventory and are part of the Cost of Goods Sold calculation. At the end of a year, an inventory is taken of these supplies as part of this calculation.

For accounting purposes, business supplies are considered to be current assets. Business supply purchases are deducted on your business tax return in the "Expenses" or "Deductions" section.

What Is Business Equipment?

Business equipment is tangible property used in a business. Equipment is considered more permanent and longer lasting than supplies, which are used up quickly. Equipment includes machinery, furniture, fixtures, vehicles, computers, electronic devices, and office machines. Equipment does not include land or buildings owned by a business.

The purchase of equipment is not accounted for as an expense in one year; rather the expense is spread out over the life of the equipment. This is called depreciation. From an accounting standpoint, equipment is considered capital assets or fixed assets, which are used by the business to make a profit.

Gains or losses on the sales of capital assets, including equipment, are handled differently, from both tax and accounting perspectives, from regular income of a business from sales. Capital gains are taxed differently from sales income.

Effective as of 2016, the IRS made a change that allows businesses to take a deduction in the current year for the entire price of a business asset under $2,500 (as documented per invoice).