5 MIN READ
To begin this guide we ask five questions about car allowances. You may not know the answers unless you are well read on company car allowances or follow our blog.
That's okay. As you read this guide keep the quiz questions in mind because the answers are interwoven throughout.
This guide will help you pinpoint the strengths and weaknesses of different vehicle compensation policies, including your own. A finely-tuned policy can accomplish a range of company goals:
Save time and money.
Support mobile employees equitably.
Serve as a powerful tool to attract and retain talent.
Protect the company from mobile employee risks.
Fuel is the obvious one, but there are others as well. For the average driver fuel only constitutes 17% of the costs of vehicle operation. Several states (California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, North Dakota, and South Dakota to name a few) have laws governing the reimbursement of mobile employees for work-related expenses. California’s law is the most explicit, so we’ll use it 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."
What counts as a reasonable cost?
First, the operational costs. Adding business use to a personal vehicle means both 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 property taxes, registration, depreciation, and car insurance. On average around 60% of the costs of vehicle ownership go to insurance and depreciation.
Suddenly now, the 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.
For more specific data on geographic variations in driving costs, read Four Steps to a Reasonable 2020 Car Allowance.
You may be wondering if your organization’s current allowance amount should be adjusted. First, though, you need to know whether your car allowance is taxable and whether your company is complying with IRS guidelines.
Standard car allowance
The company pays a fixed amount to each employee every month. This payment is considered compensation, rendering the car allowance a taxable benefit at both federal and state levels. Both employee and employer must also pay FICA/Medicare taxes on the allowance. A typical 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. Before 2018, employees could write off business mileage to offset these taxes, but the recent tax reform has eliminated that deduction 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 ($0.575/mile for 2020). 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 next year’s income taxes, but that too has changed with the recent tax reform.
Car allowance plus fuel card or fuel reimbursement
In addition to a fixed allowance, the company either supplies a credit card used only to purchase gas or reimburses receipts for gas expenditures. Not only is the car allowance a taxable benefit, 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, the company multiplies the employee’s monthly reported mileage by a specific cents-per-mile rate and pays the resulting amount as a reimbursement. As long as this business mileage rate does not exceed the IRS standard business mileage rate, the reimbursement remains non-taxable.
Car allowance and mileage reimbursement
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 rate.
Fixed and variable rate car allowance (FAVR)
This approach combines a fix monthly allowance with a variable reimbursement rate. FAVR was designed as a corporate tax tool to reimburse employees both tax free and more accurately than a standard car allowance or mileage rate. Unlike other approaches, a fixed and variable rate car allowance achieves precision by using expense data for each employee’s garage zip code to set the fixed allowance and the variable rate.
But as you examine each more closely, you find that simplicity and ease come at a cost.
As the mobile workforce has grown, vehicle reimbursement models that worked in the past have become less of a “fit” for many organizations. 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 increasingly 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. A fixed car allowance cannot precisely offset each employee’s expenses, and after taxes, many business drivers get shortchanged.
That approach could get prohibitively expensive, and an increase might not even 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 57.5 cents per mile, the IRS rate gets expensive fast.
Both a standard car allowance and a mileage rate share one fundamental problem: applying an equal amount or rate to widely unequal expense needs.
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 variations to these common policy types, such as fuel reimbursement or mileage substantiation, sometimes can help, but they often create new problems. It’s crucial to understand the exact limitations inherent to each policy type before deciding the policy type and amount that would best fit your company and its employees. In the next section, we’ll dig deeper into flaws inherent to car allowances.
Given a $500 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 $341.75 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 $38.25 for FICA/Medicare on that $500.
Given the vehicle expenses an allowance should cover – gas, maintenance, depreciation, insurance, etc. – will that $341.75 truly suffice? Because the IRS considers a car allowance a taxable benefit and not an expense reimbursement, employees are left playing catch up with their income.
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:
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
The 2018 mBurse Auto Allowance Survey revealed that only a quarter of companies based their car allowance on vehicle expense data. And 73% had gone ten years or more since last updating the allowance amount. Not surprisingly, in our 2019 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?
Until 2026 at the earliest, employees cannot deduct unreimbursed business expenses. Previously, employees could track business mileage and deduct the equivalent of the IRS mileage rate, offsetting tax withholding and recouping any gaps between their allowance and their expenses.
But the Tax Cut and Jobs Act removed that deduction for tax years 2018-2025. In our 2019 survey, 61% of employees reported income loss due to the tax reform.
Here are better steps to address car allowance challenges:
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 far more in the long run – a point we’ll return to later.
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 Mileage Rate Is Terrible for Business.)
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 simply leave the company if they cannot obtain equitable reimbursement. Check your attrition rates. If it has been years since you’ve adjusted the allowance or reimbursement, 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 2020 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. Illinois just passed a similar law effective January 2019, and other states may follow suit in the wake of the tax reform.
Employees in these states are now more likely to use labor laws to force companies to cover their loss of income due to the tax reform (Our 2019 Survey found that 61% experienced such a loss of income.)
Moderate-to-high-mileage drivers who receive a standard car allowance are particularly impacted. Here’s 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, mobile employees are seeking recourse. While some may drive less or look for new employment, others may take legal action under state labor laws. Class action lawsuits in employee-friendly states are now more likely.
Increased numbers of employees seeking full reimbursement from their employers may increase the number of states that indemnify employees from company expenses. Illinois is just the beginning. Taking a company to court over insufficient reimbursement could get easier in other states.
In 2019, millions of mobile employees filed their taxes and realized for the first time that they could no longer deduct business vehicle expenses. If their employers failed to adjust in response, these employees may have taken steps to obtain recourse.
Companies that have adjusted now have a competitive advantage over those that didn't.
Estimate actual employee vehicle expenses and compare these with your current allowance amount.
If you’re paying a taxable car allowance, calculate how much your organization could save by switching to an accountable (non-taxable) plan. The elimination of tax waste could be all you need to fully offset employee expenses.
If you’re using a fuel card or fuel reimbursement, find out 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 often 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 expenses among employees will vary, the car allowance amount should vary. It’s possible that a small company with a narrow range of employee expenses can 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 still be a problem.
Territory size MUST factor into the amount the employee receives.
The number of miles driven affects everything from fuel consumption and tire wear to maintenance and depreciation. Employees with larger territories will drive more, and you have to take this into account. Failing to incorporate mileage into the amount will result in low productivity from shortchanged employees.
Geographically-based costs MUST affect the amount the employee receives.
Gas prices, insurance premiums, taxes, registration/license fees, and maintenance costs are regionally-sensitive. And some will be higher than you expect. It’s vital to calculate, given a reasonably-sized vehicle garaged in a particular zip code, what each employee’s expenses will be and to incorporate that data into the amount the employee receives.
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 the costly consequences of 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.
At this point, you could use these average costs to estimate the needs of individual employees based on whether they face below average or above average costs as determined by geographic location, territory size, and vehicle type. But you could also use tools that will give you more specific data.
To give you data specific to select vehicle types and a selection of geographic locations, we have created an additional guide to the process of pinpointing that optimal allowance or reimbursement rate: Four Steps to a Reasonable 2020 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.
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 2020. Many employees have now discovered that they cannot deduct business mileage anymore. If you wait any longer to improve your policy, what will the consequences be?
Improve your car allowance or reimbursement today
2019 Car Allowance & Reimbursement Best Practices