Generally, if you produce, purchase, or sell merchandise in connection with your trade or business, you are required to keep an inventory of the merchandise and use an accrual method of accounting for all merchandise purchased or sold. For example, let’s say you own a lemonade stand business and you purchase $5 of lemons from the grocery store to make a batch of lemonade. Then you end up selling the entire batch of lemonade for $20. Normally, you would be required to account for the $5 purchase of lemons as part of your costs of goods sold (COGS) on your books and records, and categorize the $20 received as gross sales or revenues. Then, at tax time, you would calculate and report a net profit of $15 on your tax return by taking the $20 in gross sales and substracting the $5 for COGS. As an aside, you would also factor in the COGS for all other components connected with selling the lemonade (e.g., the paper cups, ice, water, etc.). Now this is an overly simplistic example, but one can imagine how burdensome the inventory accounting process can be for a small business owner with several different types of inventories or a large volume of a single inventory.
Electing to Treat Inventory as Non-incidental Materials or Supplies
Fortunately, a qualified small business taxpayer may elect to deduct the costs to acquire or produce an inventory item rather than keeping an inventory of the item and tracking its value. The deduction is taken in the year in which the inventory item is first used or consumed in your trade or business. Importantly, the election generally requires the small business taxpayer to change its method of accounting for inventory, as further explained below.
If a small business taxpayer makes the election to not keep an inventory, then they must account for inventory items as non-incidental materials and supplies on their applicable financial statements (or on the books and records for small business owners without applicable financial statements).
Qualified Small Business Taxpayers
You qualify as a small business taxpayer for purposes of the election if you:
Have average annual gross receipts of $26 million or less for the 3 prior tax years, and
Are not a tax shelter (as defined in I.R.C. section 448(d)(3)).
Note, if your business has not been in existence for all of the 3-tax-year period used in calculating average gross receipts, base your average on the period it has existed. If your business has a predecessor entity, include the gross receipts of the predecessor entity from the 3-tax-year period when calculating average gross receipts.
Financial Accounting Treatment of Inventories
Your financial accounting treatment of inventories is determined with regard to the method of accounting you use in your applicable financial statement (as defined in I.R.C. section 451(b)(3)). If, however, you do not have an applicable financial statement, your treatment of inventories is determined with regard to the method of accounting you use in your books and records that have been prepared in accordance with your accounting procedures.
Changing Your Method of Accounting for Inventory
Remember, if you were previously keeping an inventory but would like to take advantage of the no inventory exception, you are generally required to file IRS Form 3115 to change your method of accounting for inventory.
Key take-away: Making the election to not keep an inventory can significantly save small business taxpayers time that would otherwise be spent on tracking and managing inventory items for tax accounting purposes.
For favorable tax treatment with respect to the purchase of business equipment and other non-inventory property, see MyTaxRights's article entitled The de minimus safe harbor election: A must read for all small business owners.
For more information generally, see the Exception for small business taxpayers section in IRS Publication 334 (Tax Guide for Small Business).
About the Author
Attorney Jordan D. Howlette is the President of MyTaxRights, LLC and the managing-member of JD Howlette Law, LLC, a civil litigation firm that represents individuals and businesses involved in tax disputes with the IRS, the United States Department of Justice (DOJ), and various state departments of revenue. A former trial attorney with the DOJ’s Tax Division, Jordan leverages his extensive background in tax litigation to educate others about their federal tax rights and responsibilities. Each tax season, Jordan also volunteers as a tax coach with the Center for the Advancement of Tax Equity, where he teaches others how to self-prepare and file their taxes through the non-profit's free tax clinics.