The Salon Owner’s and Booth Renter’s Guide to Avoiding an IRS Audit

Cash based businesses, like salons, are often targeted for random audits. The audit rate is roughly 1 in 100, but we’re in a unique position that puts us at special risk. In this article, you’ll learn how to avoid drawing any negative attention and how to ensure your books will be solid if you happen to be one of the unlucky few whose returns get flagged.

Don’t deduct questionable expenses.

A typical deduction is a recurring business expense, like your online booking service or your salon’s rent. Daily commuting to and from your work is not a legitimate deduction.

The general rule is that anything you have to spend money on to make money on is deductible.

For our industry, a trip to a trade show is understandable. An extravagant European cruise is not. Big deductions for meals, travel, and entertainment are inviting audit. To qualify for meal or entertainment deductions, you must keep detailed records that document for each expense the amount, the place, the people attending, the business purpose and the nature of the meeting. Without that documentation, you get no deduction.

If you can’t verify your deduction, don’t claim it.

Snap your receipts and save them on Dropbox (or whatever cloud-based storage system you prefer). Keep the originals in labeled monthly envelopes.

If you’re ever audited, you can correspond your deduction with the original receipt. Some places give really crappy receipts, so if you need to notate what the expenses were, do so on the back of the slip.

File your taxes online.

Sometimes, mistakes happen when IRS representatives manually enter your handwritten return information into the system. Numbers get omitted or added. This mistake (that is entirely out of your control) can result in an audit. Eliminate the middle man entirely and e-file.

According to the IRS, the error rate for a paper return is 21%. The error rate for electronically filed returns is 0.5%.

Eliminate cash from your business.

The IRS knows that those who receive primarily cash are less likely to accurately report all of their taxable income. So, eliminate cash from your business.

I don’t like cash. I don’t like that it’s impossible to track. I hated counting it every night. I hated filling out deposit slips every night. I hated depositing it every evening. When I’m done working and cleaning up, I just want to walk out of the building. (In addition, I often worked alone in the building and both my husband and the doctor I worked with worried about me getting robbed.)

I made the decision to quit accepting cash entirely. None of my clients routinely paid with cash anyways so this policy didn’t generate any complaints at all.

I implemented a new policy and only took traceable forms of payment. This included checks, gift certificates through SpaWeek, credit cards, and instant transfers from Paypal. Not only did this policy make me less likely to be audited (and robbed), it simplified my accounting, saved me daily trips to the bank, and gave me peace of mind.

I opened an account with Simple (an entirely online bank without branches that doesn’t take cash deposits unless they’re turned into money orders and submitted as checks) and never exchanged physical currency again. Checks were instantly photo deposited and destroyed once they cleared.

I think as a modern society, we’re all moving towards digital currency. For me, this was one of the best decisions I could have made for myself and my business, but it does have a downside.

Payment settlement entities have been required since 2012 to report all credit card transactions to the IRS on Form 1099-K.

This includes Visa, MasterCard, and American Express, as well as online merchant processors. The IRS compares your credit card and cash receipts with your industry average. The IRS may send you a letter asking you to re-examine your books to make sure you didn’t omit any cash transactions if they feel your non-cash transactions make up too large a percentage of your annual revenue.

To protect yourself from this, make sure your refusal to accept cash is clearly stated on your website, your brochures, and posted in your business. Keep your appointment records and your daily sales records. It shouldn’t be difficult at all to compare each appointment from the book with the corresponding payment record, especially now that many merchant service companies provide and store digital signatures and digital receipts.

Hire an expert.

Managing your own business finances puts you at risk. Turn that responsibility over to a professional. It’s a small annual investment that can pay off big. If you’re going to be itemizing (which you most likely will), a tax professional can help keep you organized and maximize your deductions and credits.

Focus on making the money. Let someone else handle the paperwork.

Cross your T’s and dot your I’s.

Make sure your social security number is correct. Don’t round your numbers. Triple-check every figure. Leave nothing blank. For the love of God, this is 2014 2020. If you aren’t using software, get out of the stone age and start doing so now.

Incorporate or register an LLC if you’re self-employed.

Small businesses are a favorite target of the IRS…and for good reason. Self-employed people are most likely to underreport income and overstate deductions. The IRS doesn’t care whether your business is high-grossing or not. If you are self-employed (booth renters, I’m looking at you), consider incorporating or forming a limited liability company (LLC). Corporations and LLCs are audited less frequently than other small businesses. Incorporating or forming an LLC also allows for more deductions. You can learn more about the different types of business structures and the pros and cons of each here.

Watch your charitable deductions.

The IRS knows what the average charitable donation is at every income level. If your salon holds a charity event where services are rendered in exchange for donations to a particular charity, be sure to document everything. When I worked in management, we held cut-a-thons for charity twice a year. Each client filled out a form with their contact information, the services rendered, and the donation made. They received a receipt from us so they could also claim that charitable donation themselves.

Always consult with a tax professional when claiming charitable deductions to ensure that you have all the documentation necessary to justify that deduction.

Classify your staff appropriately.

By now, anyone who has read this blog should understand that the independent contractor classification absolutely DOES NOT apply to our business except in very specific, limited instances. If you aren’t yet aware of what misclassification could mean for you, I recommend reading this post and this post ASAP.

Expect it.

Expect to be audited and be prepared for it before it happens. That way, if/when it does happen, you’ll be ready for it. Keep yourself organized. Keep yourself honest.

Remember that even the most minor illegal, fraudulent activities are indefensible in the eyes of the IRS.

An accidental crime is still a crime, so run everything by your accountant/bookkeeper. Excessive preparation and organization will always be your best defense.

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Tina Alberino
Tina Alberino
Beauty industry survivalist, salon crisis interventionist, tactical verb-weapon specialist, and the leader of at least a hundred workplace revolutions, Tina Alberino is known as much for her extensive knowledge as for her sarcastic wit and mercilessly straightforward style. She’s the author of The Beauty Industry Survival Guide and Salon Ownership and Management: A Definitive Guide to the Professional Beauty Business. When she’s not writing, educating, or consulting, she can be found overthinking everything, identifying problems people didn’t know existed, and stubbornly working to change the things she cannot accept.

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  1. As an owner who is also a stylist, am
    I able to claim myself as a booth renter or do I have to claim myself as a commission paid employee?

    • I’m not sure what you mean by “claim” yourself. Where the IRS is concerned, you’re either employed or self-employed. In your case, regardless of whether you’re operating as a booth renter or an owner, you’re considered self-employed and responsible for the entirety of your self-employment tax.

  2. I have a booth rental salon. Occasionally I will take on a new stylist and let them pay 30% of their income to me(tips& their retail sales not included) for rent. They must go full rent within 6 months. The clients pay them, they sell their own retail and they provide all of their own products. I do not set their schedule but if they are not building, showing ambition etc. I will let them go. Am I legal? I’m just trying to help them build. In the town we live in almost all of the salons are booth rental.

    • Your arrangement is legal, but puts you in a questionable position. Five of six IRS revenue rulings show that salon landlords who collect a percentage of gross sales in lieu of rent are determined to be employers. However, you’re very clearly the one who operates at a financial disadvantage in this arrangement, and you’re honoring all of the freedoms due to a self-employed person, so I think you’re in a better position to defend it if you had to. A good friend of mine (also named Sharon, coincidentally) offers the same deal to new professionals with no clientele as a courtesy to them. It’s a generous thing to do for a new stylist, and I’d be willing to make that argument to any IRS or DOL investigator if necessary.

  3. Is sales tax usually included in the price of the service being provided. i.e. $10.00 hair cut, or is the taxes need to be added after the hair cut price?

    • If your state has sales tax on services, you would add that to the cost of the hair cut (the same way taxes are added to retail items). However, you can adjust the service price to be inclusive of sales tax so clients aren’t surprised at the register. (I prefer to do it this way. We don’t have service taxes here in Florida, but we have sales tax on products. My sticker prices are the actual price, taxes and all.)

  4. Hi Tina
    So as a salon/barbershop owner/operator, I do pay booth rent into my business account every week just as the other independent operators do every week. I deposit this money every Monday into my business account. The reason I do this is because, the business pays all of its own bills and operates solely on it’s own income from booth rent received. l deposit these monies into an account separate from my personal account (my household account). Should I do a 1099 for myself for the money I receive for the services I provide to my customers and a separate 1099 for the booth rent paid to the business. I have my business listed as an LLC. Thank you so much.

    • If your business is an LLC, all of your business income should “pass through,” meaning that it gets reported on your personal income tax return. You shouldn’t have to issue yourself a 1099, but I’m not a tax professional, so I recommend talking to someone qualified to advise you, someone who knows every detail of your specific situation. (I’d be happy to help, but I’m certainly not qualified, lol.)

    • Yes, the IRS will have the right to look at all business-related documentation and records to assist in the auditing process. (Here’s more information about what they will request and why. Since appointment books help to verify income, it falls within the range of documentation they’d be interested in looking at.) I’m actually in the process of becoming an Enrolled Agent, which will allow me to represent salon owners in proceeding with the IRS (like a tax attorney).


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