To begin, take our five-question quiz on car allowances. If you can't answer all the questions, no worries – you'll find the answers woven throughout.
This guide will help you pinpoint the strengths and weaknesses of different vehicle compensation policies, including your own. An optimal car allowance policy can accomplish a range of company goals:
Save time and money.
Support mobile employees equitably.
Attract and retain talent.
Protect the company from mobile employee risks.
Fuel is the obvious one, but there are many others. For the average driver fuel only constitutes 17% of the costs of vehicle operation.
Several states (California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and the Dakotas, to name a few) have laws that specify when employees should be reimbursed for work-related vehicle expenses. We'll use California’s law as our guide.
“An employer shall indemnify his or her employee for all necessary expenditures or losses incurred by the employee in direct consequence of the discharge of his or her duties, or of his or her obedience to the directions of the employer, even though unlawful, unless the employee, at the time of obeying the directions, believed them to be unlawful.”
Furthermore, Section 2802(c) defines “necessary expenditures or losses” to include “all reasonable costs."
When calculating a fair car allowance, what counts as a reasonable cost?
First, the operational costs. Adding business use to a personal vehicle means increased fuel consumption and increased wear and tear, with more frequent changes of oil, tires, brake pads, etc.
Second, the ownership costs. If the job requires a vehicle, the employer should reimburse the business portion of property taxes, registration, depreciation, and car insurance. On average around 60% of the costs of a vehicle go to insurance and depreciation.
A car allowance must cover quite a few expenses:
Complicating the matter, not all employees experience the same costs. Auto insurance premiums are higher in Michigan than in Oklahoma. Gas prices are higher in California than in South Carolina. Some employees travel 1,000 miles every month while others travel 2,000 miles.
To calculate a fair car allowance, you need specific data on geographic variations in driving costs. Learn more by reading Four Steps to a Reasonable 2023 Car Allowance.
Before re-calculating your organization's car allowance, first determine whether the allowance is taxable and whether your company is complying with IRS guidelines.
Standard car allowance
A fixed monthly car allowance is considered taxable income at federal and state levels. Both employee and employer must also pay FICA/Medicare taxes on the allowance. A car allowance may be reduced by 30–40% after all these taxes. Consequently, the employer must ensure that the post-tax amount can cover an employee’s vehicle expenses, not the pre-tax amount. The Tax Cut and Jobs Act eliminated the business mileage deduction for employees until 2026.
Car allowance with mileage substantiation
A company can avoid taxation by tracking the business mileage of its employees. Every month, each employee’s mileage is multiplied by the IRS mileage rate ($0.655/mile for 2023). The employee then receives the lesser of the car allowance amount and the mileage rate multiplied by the mileage. In the past, excess mileage could be deducted from income taxes, but that is also not an option until 2026.
Car allowance plus fuel card or reimbursement
In addition to a fixed allowance, a company can supply a credit card used to purchase gas or can reimburse fuel receipts. Not only is the car allowance taxable compensation, but so is any portion of the fuel expenditure that cannot be demonstrated as business use. The company must charge back the employee for any personal gas use to avoid taxation.
Instead of paying a fixed monthly amount, a company can multiply the employee’s monthly reported mileage by a specific cents-per-mile rate and pay the resulting amount as a reimbursement. The reimbursement remains non-taxable as long as the company mileage rate does not exceed the IRS standard business mileage rate of 65.5 cents-per-mile for 2023.
Car allowance with mileage reimbursement
In this case the company pays a fixed monthly amount plus a mileage reimbursement. The monthly car allowance is taxable but not the mileage reimbursement, as long as the mileage rate does not exceed the IRS business rate.
Fixed and variable rate car allowance (FAVR)
This non-taxable approach combines a fixed monthly allowance with a variable mileage rate. FAVR was designed as a corporate expense tool to reimburse employees both tax-free and more accurately than a standard car allowance or mileage rate. A FAVR car allowance achieves precision by using expense data for each employee’s garage zip code to set the fixed allowance and the variable rate.
Originally, car allowances served as a catch-all to cover car expenses and a way to increase compensation without actually negotiating the salary. When fewer jobs involved travel using a personal vehicle, this system worked fine.
But with cars now becoming a de facto "office," the standard car allowance has not kept up with expense needs. Under-reimbursement has become a problem, intensified by the elimination of the tax deduction for business mileage and inflation in vehicle costs. After taxes, many business drivers get shortchanged.
That approach could get prohibitively expensive, and an increase might not be necessary for a low-mileage driver operating in an inexpensive part of the country.
Switching to the IRS business rate can also create challenges. Mileage reimbursement introduces problems with cost control – employees now can drive more to earn more. At 65.5 cents per mile (for 2023), the IRS rate gets expensive fast. Plus, low-mileage drivers will be under-reimbursed.
Both a standard car allowance and a mileage rate share a fundamental problem: applying an equal amount or rate to unequal expense needs, as the following chart shows.
A company with a variety of employees driving for work cannot address that variety using a standard rate or amount. Disparities will emerge due to varying territory sizes and costs:
Adding fuel reimbursement or mileage substantiation sometimes can help, but may increase costs or decrease productivity. It’s crucial to understand the limitations inherent to each policy before determining the policy type and amount that best fits your company and employees. In the next section, we’ll dig deeper into flaws inherent to car allowances.
Given a $600 monthly allowance, how much actually goes to pay vehicle expenses? Less than you’d think. An employee in the 24% tax bracket will take home only $410.10 after subtracting both income taxes and FICA/Medicare. That amount will decrease further if the car is garaged in a state that levies an income tax. On top of this, the company pays $45.90 for FICA/Medicare on that $600. Here's an infographic representing the same calculations applied to a $500/month allowance:
Given the vehicle expenses an allowance should cover – gas, maintenance, depreciation, insurance, etc. – will that $341 truly suffice? or the $410, if you pay a $600 allowance? Because the IRS considers a car allowance a taxable benefit and not an expense reimbursement, employees are left playing catch up. Why not divert the tax money away from the government and back into your organization?
Variations in expenses
A single employee’s expenses can vary month-to-month. Two different employees in the same company can have widely different expenses. Gas prices rise and fall, territory sizes differ, and geographically-sensitive expenses can vary widely.
Compare the average fuel and insurance costs between three different states from 2018 (expenses have increased significantly since then):
Paying everyone the same amount can create fairness problems, shortchange some employees, and lead to undesirable employee behavior, such as curtailing business trips to save money.
Lack of precision
As recently as 2018, mBurse's Annual Auto Allowance Survey revealed that only a quarter of companies calculated their car allowance using vehicle expense data. And 73% had gone ten years or more since last updating the allowance amount. In the next year's survey, 62% reported complaints from employees about the car allowance. How can anyone expect their allowance to meet all employees’ needs when the amount has no basis in data and goes unreviewed for years?
Taxes eat up 30-40% of a typical allowance. Mileage rates incentivize over-reporting of mileage (or unnecessary driving). Fuel cards are not cost-effective. Employees cannot deduct unreimbursed business expenses, including business mileage. (Only independent contractors can.)
Here are some possible solutions to the three challenges of car allowances:
As you can see, taking any step to address the shortcomings of car allowances will cost time or money or both. Most solutions require adding a mileage log as well. But to do nothing will cost more in the long run.
Simply switching to a mileage reimbursement like the IRS mileage rate cannot solve the problems of expense variations and lack of precision and adds a new challenge: cost control. (See Why the IRS Rate Overpays Some Workers and Underpays Others.)
Only a fixed and variable rate car allowance can eliminate tax waste while solving these problems. We’ll explain this, and how a FAVR program is more cost-effective. But first, let’s look at how your car allowance policy impacts every aspect of the company.
We’ve already covered tax waste and inequitable compensation of employees due to expense variations. But there’s also a domino effect that touches other aspects of an organization:
If you fail to sufficiently reimburse all employees, you open the door to labor code lawsuits and to employees taking risky measures to cut costs. For example, an employee might reduce insurance coverage. If that employee causes a car accident while working, your company’s insurance may be forced to close the gap between the employee’s insurance and the costs of the accident.
Under-reimbursed employees may also recoup lost income by reducing the amount of driving they do. Reduced travel can mean fewer face-to-face meetings with clients and potential clients. Over time, less driving may compromise sales productivity and client relations.
Some employees will leave if they cannot obtain equitable reimbursement. Check your attrition rates. If you have not adjusted the allowance or reimbursement recently, don’t be surprised if attrition has increased. Similarly, if prospective employees project insufficient reimbursement, they may not seek or accept a job at your company.
The tax reform has made paying a fair car allowance in 2023 a necessity. The changes in tax deduction rules place pressure on states to tighten vehicle reimbursement rules, and company car allowances face higher levels of scrutiny.
As we've already established, under the Tax Cut and Jobs Act (TCJA), employees cannot write off unreimbursed business expenses during the 2018-2025 tax years.
This change poses a problem for companies with employees in employee-friendly states like California and Massachusetts that have reimbursement indemnification labor codes. These laws prohibit companies from passing business expenses to employees. Eight other states plus Washington, D.C., have passed similar employee reimbursement laws.
Employees in these states can use labor laws to force companies to cover their loss of income due rampant inflation in vehicle costs.
Moderate-to-high-mileage drivers who receive a standard car allowance were particularly impacted when the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act was passed in December of 2017. A comparison of 2018 and 2019 tax deductions shows why:
Driver 1 received an enormous benefit under the old tax code. That $21,800 deduction equated to more than a $5,000 decrease in taxes at the 25% tax bracket. But the 2018 tax bracket reduction to 24% covered only a fraction of the loss of that gigantic business expense deduction.
Driver 2 received a lesser benefit under the old tax code with fewer miles driven and an allowance that came closer to actual expenses. But it was a significant benefit nonetheless that will not exist until at least 2026.
In the wake of the lost tax deduction that hit in 2019 and the inflation that has occurred from 2021-2023, mobile employees are seeking recourse. While some may drive less or look for new employment, others may take legal action under state labor laws, including class-action lawsuits.
Increased numbers of employees seeking full reimbursement from their employers may increase the number of states that indemnify employees from company expenses. Taking a company to court over insufficient reimbursement could get easier in other states.
We are now in the fifth year of a tax policy that prevents employees from writing off business mileage and other unreimbursed expenses. In an inflationary economy, workers face significant financial anxiety.
Companies that adjust to these realities have a competitive advantage over those that don't.
Estimate actual employee vehicle expenses and compare these with your current allowance amount. Then calculate the car allowance amount needed to close any gaps.
If you’re paying a taxable car allowance, calculate how much your organization could save by switching to a tax-free plan. The elimination of tax waste could fully close the gaps.
If you’re using a fuel card or reimbursement, calculate whether fuel consumption matches business productivity and whether your organization is properly limiting personal use.
Learn more about the fixed and variable
Hopefully, you’ve figured out the answer: It’s complicated!
Because mobile employees within the same organization can experience widely different costs, there’s no quick and easy way to determine the right amount. Without knowing an employee’s mileage and zip code and the size of vehicle required to carry out the job, it’s impossible for someone to tell you the right amount.
But there are some clear-cut principles that you can follow:
One-size-fits-all CANNOT be your solution.
Because car expenses among employees vary, the car allowance should vary. A small company with a narrow range of employee expenses may get away with a standard allowance amount, but even then there will be disparities between expenses and reimbursement for some employees – and tax waste will remain a problem.
Territory size MUST factor into the car allowance calculation.
Mileage affects everything from fuel consumption and tire wear to maintenance and depreciation. Employees with larger territories drive more, and should be reimbursed more. Failing to incorporate mileage into the amount will result in low productivity from shortchanged employees.
Geographically-based costs MUST affect the car allowance calculation.
The costs of gas, insurance, taxes, registration/license, and maintenance are regionally-sensitive. It’s vital to calculate, given a reasonably-sized vehicle in a particular zip code, what each employee’s expenses should be. Incorporate that data into the allowance calculation.
Different employees should receive different amounts and those amounts should be based on actual data. This is the only way to ensure equitable reimbursement and to prevent over-reimbursing and under-reimbursing.
To get started, use the graphic below to discover the average costs of owning and operating a vehicle by expense category. You might be surprised at what you find.
These average annual costs amount to a monthly expense of $615.50. And that’s average. Will a $600/month taxable car allowance cover the costs of the average American driver? No way! After taxes, that $600 might be as little as $400.
What about a driver in California, where gas and maintenance prices are through the roof? Or in Michigan, where insurance rates are the highest in the country? Those drivers' monthly vehicle expenses could easily reach $1,000.
Would a mileage reimbursement work better? Not necessarily. Depreciation and insurance together make up 60% of vehicle costs. That poses problems for low-mileage drivers since fixed costs are only marginally affected by miles driven.
You could use these average costs to estimate the needs of individual employees based on whether they face below-average or above-average costs based on location, territory size, and vehicle type. But more specific data exists.
To obtain data specific to select vehicle types and a selection of geographic locations, see our additional guide to the process of pinpointing that optimal allowance or reimbursement rate: Four Steps to a Reasonable 2023 Car Allowance.
Or, you can complete our three-step process below – audit your current car allowance, complete a competitive benchmarking analysis, and then receive a free, optimized rate.
Even simpler, contact mBurse to find out about vehicle allowance program administration. You don't administer you're own health insurance, so why administer your own car allowance?
There are IRS-accountable plans designed specifically to help businesses address the variety of vehicle expenses their employees experience. Why waste money on taxes when you could both save money and boost your employees' take-home pay? The time is now – review the recommendations throughout this guide, and commit to improving your car allowance policy today.
It is now 2023. Employees know that they cannot deduct business mileage anymore. They face even more economic uncertainty due to inflation. If you wait to optimize your policy, what will the consequences be?
Improve your car allowance or reimbursement today
Car Allowance & Reimbursement Best Practices Checklist