An introduction to business expenses

Managing expenses is an important part of running a limited company. In this guide, you’ll learn what expenses are and what you can claim through your company.

Many freelancers, contractors and small businesses see claiming business expenses as an onerous task, but it doesn’t need to be. By understanding the HMRC rules and following some simple guidelines, you can ensure that you maximise the tax benefits and improve your balance sheet, quickly and efficiently.

What are business expenses?

In its simplest terms, you should be looking to record any expense, paid by the business, by you, or by your employees that is for physical items or services needed to run the business.

The HMRC rule is clear on this; a business expense must be necessary and that is wholly and exclusively incurred as part of the day to day running of your business. On the face of it, this definition appears simple, but what does it mean for you?

There are two main categories of expenses, and they are treated and recorded differently in your year-end accounts and tax returns:

  • Tax-deductible – the most common type of expense. Tax-deductible expenses are taken from company profits so your tax bill is reduced. These include travel, IT equipment and services like web hosting. For a full list click here.
  • Non-tax deductible – this type of expense is not deducted from year-end profits and therefore does not impact on the company tax bill. The most common example of this expense is client entertaining where you can still record them but it won’t reduce your tax bill and VAT isn’t recouped.

So, if the expense is necessary and wholly incurred as part of the running of your business, it is a business expense. Personal items and expenses must not form part of your expense recording; examples include clothes (non-uniform), dry cleaning and supermarket shopping.

Many businesses have exposed themselves to scrutiny by the HMRC by including personal expenses; they incurred penalties and additional administrative burdens. If you are in any doubt, check the HMRC website for guidance. Two questions you need to ask are:

“Did I purchase this item or service because I need it for my business?” If the answer is yes, then it is a business expense.

“Is the item or service used purely for business?” This helps you ascertain whether a proportion of the cost needs to be deducted for personal use. Examples of this are: mobile phones in your own name but used for business calls too, home-office space running costs, personal vehicles used for business.

Personal expenses – the detail
There is some confusion about personal expenses and whilst some items appear obvious such as your weekly shop and clothes, others can appear to be in the grey area. Common queries are around company cars, gym membership and private healthcare for example. This sort of personal expense is seen as a benefit in kind, which means that there is no reduction in corporation tax, you can’t claim the VAT and you’ll need to pay income tax and National Insurance too: it just adds to your paperwork for no financial gain.  We advise that you should not put personal expenses of any kind through your company.

What sort of things can be classed as a business expense?

The best way to identify your business expenses is to think about what your business uses:

business expenses

Some expenses are simple to process as they are wholly used by the business. Others will require careful calculation because they constitute a benefit in kind (e.g. where a company vehicle is also used as a personal vehicle) or the service/utility is used by the wider household (e.g. your office is a space in your home). In these cases, you should give your account manager a call or refer to the HMRC guidelines on how to calculate what proportion constitutes the business expense.

For a list of the types of expenses that can be claimed click here. You can also visit the HMRC website for detailed examples of allowable and non-allowable business expenses.

Recording client entertaining – the detail
Client entertaining is a valid business expense and can form a major part of business development for many companies. Keep in mind that entertainment expenses do not reduce your corporation tax bill and you can’t reclaim the VAT back either. Our software is aware of the tax rules for entertaining, all you need do is record the expense correctly.  Simply select ‘entertainment’ as the expense category and we’ll do the rest to ensure that your corporation tax and VAT returns are accurate.

Why should you record your business expenses?

The majority of expenses incurred by your company will be tax deductible. This means that they are deducted from your profits and therefore reduce your tax bill. A lower tax bill means more working capital and you have more cash available, increasing the value of your company and maximising profits available for investment or drawing as dividends.

By recording your expenses and having a good expense management, it gives you a clear view of how your company is performing and ensures that you have a true view of your financial position throughout the year. So many people fall into the trap of storing up receipts and invoices to deal with later. This makes claiming expenses an onerous task and means that the end of year accounts and tax bill can come as a shock.

With inniAccounts, logging your expenses is quick and easy; you can capture your receipts through our mobile app or upload them on the desktop. A few minutes a week is all that’s needed to keep on top of things; plus you have a true picture of your tax liabilities and how well your business is doing.

Can I claim for business start-up costs?

Yes, business set up costs can be claimed as business expenses.  Any expenses that are paid for using personal funds should be documented and claimed for when the company starts trading. You do need to remember a few rules when claiming this type of expenses:

  • Does it meet the business expense criteria above?
  • For corporation tax purposes the expense must be no more than 7 years and for VAT purposes no more than 6 months before you started trading. In reality, it would be best to concentrate on the expenses incurred 6 months or less prior to the start of trading.

What about Contracts inside IR35?

If you have a contract that is caught by IR35 legislation, the expenses you can claim are restricted. Essentially allowable expenses will be the same as what a permanent employee would normally be able to claim.

Can I claim VAT back on business expenses?

You can claim VAT back on certain types of expenses and the inniAccounts system calculates this for you. You’ll need to enter the VAT rate charged when entering the business expense. This is usually noted on the receipt, but if not, the main rates are below:

  • Standard (20%): The VAT rate charged on most expenses.
  • Exempt: Bank charges, postage, insurance, and mortgage interest.
  • Zero: Train tickets, flights, books, newspapers, food (except hot prepared food to eat in or takeaway which is standard rated).
  • Reduced (5%): Domestic fuel & power, energy saving materials.

Remember: VAT can’t be claimed back on business entertaining expenses.

If you use the VAT Flat Rate Scheme, VAT is not reclaimed on individual expenses; it’s calculated using the flat rate percentage for your business type and recording individual expenses won’t influence your VAT calculations and return directly. If you use the Flat Rate Scheme, only VAT on purchases in excess of £2,000 can be claimed.

What is the 2 year expenses rule?

The 24 month or 2 year rule is a time period set by HMRC whereby travel and subsistence expenses can be claimed whilst working at a ‘temporary’ workplace such as a clients site. After this, the workplace is classed as permanent and travel expenses can longer be claimed.

The rule also states that as soon as you have visibility of being at that temporary workplace for more than 2 years you must stop claiming travel related expenses straightaway, i.e. you cannot claim continuously for 2 years. For example, if you start with a 12 month contract and you secure another 12 month contract with that client, you must stop claiming expenses at 12 months.

How do I record my business expenses in inniAccounts?

Entering your expenses is quick and easy in inniAccounts and we’d suggest that you set aside a few minutes a week to keep on top of them. There are two places to input your expenses, dependent on how you paid for them:

  • Quick entry – for expenses you paid for with personal money e.g. with cash or a personal bank account/credit card.
  • Bookkeeping – for expenses you paid for using company funds i.e. from a business account or your company credit card.

When recording the expense just: enter the details, select the correct accounting category and check that the VAT rate shown matches the rate on the receipt.  The inniAccounts system does the rest. Have a go at entering some expenses in these areas in our free demo.

Want to find out more about the bookkeeping aspect of our software? Visit our bookkeeping page for more information on online bookkeeping for contractors.

What receipts should I keep and how?

You need to keep a receipt/proof of purchase for all expenses that you claim for.  This can be in the form of the paper originals or electronic copies.  It is worth noting that if you are keeping electronic copies, you should ensure that they are complete, legible, secure and backed up in more than one place.

As with all receipts and HMRC required evidence, you need to make sure they are retained and available for inspection or you could receive an unexpected tax bill if you can’t provide the required proof of purchase. Within the inniAccounts software, you can easily capture and store your receipts against your transactions.

Quick links

Next → Up next in this guide: Home office expenses

Explore our demo company and
discover cloud-powered accountancy

Our innovative cloud-powered service is revolutionising accountancy for contractors and freelancers. Find out how by exploring our demo company now
Get your demo account


We're a multi-award winning, innovative accountancy practice who use cloud technology to deliver an efficient, accurate and reliable accountancy service to contractors, freelancers and small businesses.

AAT ACCA accountants


inniAccounts Ltd
1 Derwent Business Centre
Clarke Street

Registered in England


0800 033 7827

Calling from overseas
+441332 460 010

Contact us

Contact inniAccounts



0800 033 7827

Calling from overseas

+441332 460 010

Head Office

1 Derwent Business Centre
Clarke Street