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Tax advantages of leasing vs. buying a car

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As a business owner you likely need to put more thought into whether to buy or lease your vehicles than the average driver. All the standard questions to ask whether to lease or buy come into play, but there is an additional consideration — namely, what are the tax benefits? 

Tax deductions for business vehicles 

When you use a vehicle for business purposes, there are two approaches allowed by the IRS to deduct the associated expenses on your federal tax return. You may use what’s known as the standard mileage rate deduction, or you can opt to use the actual expenses deduction.  

You can swap from standard to actual expense from year to year for a purchased vehicle, but you must stay with what you first pick when leasing.  

Mileage deduction 

The standard mileage approach allows you to claim miles driven for your business on your federal taxes.  

The IRS announces the standard mileage rate that can be used to calculate the deductible cost of operating a car for business purposes every year. For 2022, the rate is 58.5 cents per mile driven for business purposes. This means if you drive 15,000 miles for your business, you can deduct a total of $8,775. 

Lease payments 

You may deduct the cost of monthly lease payments by using the actual expense deduction on your federal tax returns.  

The specific amount of the lease payment deduction allowed depends on how much you drive the car exclusively for business. For example, if your monthly lease payment is $400 and the vehicle is used 50 percent of the time for business, you can deduct $200 per month as an expense.  

These benefits are only available if you sign on to a standard lease. You are not able to claim a federal tax deduction for monthly lease payments if you take on a lease-to-own contract, meaning you will own the vehicle when the contract expires rather than having to return the vehicle to the dealer.   

Depreciation 

Only purchased vehicles qualify for the depreciation deduction — and only when the actual expense deduction is used. The method of determining how much your car depreciated over the year is usually Modified Accelerated Cost Recovery System (MACRS).  

Like the mileage deduction, depreciation deduction changes every year. In 2021, the maximum depreciation you could deduct was $10,200, but there are options to increase this amount based on when the vehicle was placed in service.  

You should review Publication 946 by the IRS to familiarize yourself with the ways you can depreciate your vehicles and other property as a business owner. 

Maintenance and operating expenses 

Actual expense rules also include the deduction of other expenses like gas, oil changes, vehicle repairs and tire purchases for your leased or purchased vehicle. If your vehicle needs extensive maintenance or repairs because of business-related use, keep careful record of it. This way, you’ll know exactly how much you spent — and how much your business can save during tax season. 

Expense differences between leased and purchased vehicles  

The up-front costs may be far less when leasing a vehicle of the same make, model and year compared to buying it. As a business owner, those savings can be redirected to other business needs and investments. Provided you know you will stay within the lease terms for wear-and-tear as well as expected mileage, you may find that the smaller payments open up more cash for your business. 

When comparing the same vehicle as a lease versus a purchase, the monthly payments and the initial down payment can be less expensive for a lease. You may also have reduced maintenance costs if your lease covers the cost of routine services, such as oil changes.  

Purchasing wins out when it comes to the fact that you will eventually own the vehicle, while leases have to end eventually — and your business is left without equity. Early termination expenses if you need to end the contract early and excess mileage fees charged if you go over the mileage limits can also add significant costs when it comes to leases.  

Both options come with interest and other fees, so ultimately, it depends on how your business will need to use the vehicle.  

Is it better to lease or purchase a business vehicle?  

The potential tax benefits are only one of the considerations for business owners. Ultimately, a vehicle purchase or lease is a big expense for your business, so look at the problem from all angles before committing. 

Lease contracts typically limit the number of miles the car can be driven to 10,000 or 20,000 miles per year. Once you exceed that limit, the lease may have a penalty of 10 to 50 cents per additional mile. If you drive a great deal for your business, buying a car may be the better move. 

Lease agreements also require that the vehicle be kept in good condition. If you fail to keep up your end of the agreement or if there’s excessive wear and tear on the car when you return it, there may be additional charges.  

It’s also worth bearing in mind that if you continually lease one car after another, you will always have monthly car payments, unlike when you purchase a vehicle and eventually own the car outright.  

On the upside, if you like having access to the newest car models with the latest technology features available, leasing a vehicle can be a way to do this, allowing you to access a new car every three years or so. In addition, because lease payments are generally less expensive than a traditional car loan, you may be able to afford a higher-end car.  

The bottom line  

As with many aspects of running your business, there’s no one size fits all answer when it comes to if a lease or buying has more tax advantages. Consider how the vehicle will be used, upfront costs, long-term costs and potential added fees along with the number of deductions you might receive before investing in a car for your business.  

Written by
Mia Taylor
Contributing Writer
Mia Taylor is a contributor to Bankrate and an award-winning journalist who has two decades of experience and worked as a staff reporter or contributor for some of the nation's leading newspapers and websites including The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the San Diego Union-Tribune, TheStreet, MSN and Credit.com.
Edited by
Auto loans editor