Can firefighters deduct meals on duty?

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In a word – No.  There’s a very specific, uncommon exception I’ll tell you about later.  But for most of you, even if the guys around the table at the firehouse tell you it’s ok, it’s not.

So first, where does this idea come from? The IRS says: “Meal expenses are deductible if your business trip is overnight or long enough that you need to stop for substantial sleep or rest to properly perform your duties.” Sounds like a shift at the firehouse, right? And they say you can either keep receipts or just use the per diem rate for the location.  Great, look up your city on the per diem table, multiply it by the number of shifts in a year, and you have a decent size deduction.

Not so fast, they used the term “business trip.” They also use “traveling away from home.” But they have a slightly different definition of home.  They are talking about your “tax home.” What’s a tax home?” According to IRS Publication 463:

Generally, your tax home is your regular place of business or post of duty, regardless of where you maintain your family home. It includes the entire city or general area in which your business or work is located.

So, the IRS considers your firehouse, and the entire city where that firehouse is located, as your tax home.  So when you are on duty you are not traveling away from home and your meals are not deductible. Sorry.

Back to the exception I mentioned earlier.  If contributing to meals is a condition of employment, it’s deductible.  This needs to come from the employer (ie in your contract), not from the union, not from the chef for the day, not from peer pressure.  If you could lose your job if you don’t contribute, you can deduct it.  Otherwise, sorry, it’s not allowed.

Following this rule might cost you a little more in taxes now, but that’s nothing compared to what you would owe if you got audited.

Have more questions about meals, deductions and other specific Firefighter tax issues?  email me