Accounting is one of the least exciting aspects of small business ownership for many owner-operators. However, you can’t afford to neglect it since your responsibilities can quickly become overwhelming if you fall behind. Here’s what you need to know about trucking accounting, including how to set up an effective system and some common mistakes to avoid. Bookkeeping Vs. Accounting for Trucking Bookkeeping and accounting are closely related business functions. While they’re theoretically distinct, the line between them is somewhat blurred. Accountants sometimes perform bookkeeping services and vice versa. In broad terms, bookkeeping involves maintaining financial records of your trucking business’s day-to-day transactions in a general ledger. It’s a routine, administrative process that requires relatively little critical thinking. As a result, many truck drivers handle a significant portion of their bookkeeping without much assistance. For example, it’s usually best for a driver to keep track of their miles, fuel purchases, and meal expenses while on the road. Meanwhile, accounting refers to refining and using the financial records created through bookkeeping for various purposes; including the development of financial statements, cash flow analysis, and tax planning. Accounting is more sophisticated and analytical than bookkeeping, and there’s often more at stake. For example, accounting errors could cause you to miss out on valuable financing or get you in trouble with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). As a result, you probably shouldn’t try to manage your trucking business’s accounting function without help. It may be worth handling some lower-level aspects, but you’re better off outsourcing the more complex and time-consuming parts. How To Do Accounting For Trucking Even if you rely heavily on the transportation accounting services of a Certified Public Accountant (CPA), you still need to know the fundamentals of trucking accounting, as you’ll always be somewhat involved. Here’s a general framework you can use to establish a trucking accounting system as a self-employed truck driver. Open Separate Business Accounts The first thing every business owner should do to simplify their accounting is to separate their business activities from their personal ones. The easiest way is to open up a new checking account and credit card and reserve them for business use only. Many business owners learn too late that mingling your personal and business funds makes it hard to identify which transactions belong in which category. It's often even more difficult for truck drivers, whose gas and food expenses could easily be personal costs if they occurred outside of a trucking trip. Choose A Legal Entity Structure Another decision every small business owner has to make is what type of legal entity they want to use. Sole proprietors are the default structure, so owner-operators who start doing business without filing any paperwork will fall into that category. The simplicity is convenient, but it comes with unlimited liability. As a sole proprietor, you and your trucking business are a single entity. If someone sues your company, your personal assets are vulnerable. Because working in the trucking industry involves taking on significant risk, you’re often better off taking the time to form a limited liability company (LLC) or a corporation. However, that’s a decision you should get a CPA firm’s advice on first. Choose An Accounting Basis Truckers must choose between the two fundamental methods of accounting, the cash and accrual bases. They impact your tax return significantly, so consider consulting an accountant before choosing one. The cash basis involves recognizing revenues when you receive payments and deducting expenses when you pay them. Because it’s easy to implement, many small businesses favor this method. The accrual basis of accounting requires that you recognize revenues when you earn them and expenses when you incur them, regardless of when funds enter or leave your accounts. It takes more work, but it also documents your profitability more accurately. Track Your Expenses And Retain Supporting Documents All businesses need to keep track of their expenses, but it’s more challenging in some industries than others. Unfortunately, trucking is a business that requires you to be particularly diligent in your record keeping. Truck drivers can incur many different expenses while on the road, and most of them are potentially tax-deductible. For example, you need to keep careful records of all of the following costs while you’re on long hauls away from home: Fuel Meals Lodging Auto washing Tolls and parking Vehicle maintenance Because the IRS sees semi-trucks as qualified nonpersonal use vehicles, you must deduct your actual auto costs instead of using the standard mileage method. Keep records of each purchase's amount, date, location, and business purpose. In addition to keeping records of your expenses, you should have documents that prove their validity, such as receipts, trip logs, and account statements. Keep these on hand for at least three years. That’s how much time the IRS typically has to audit you. Stay On Top Of Your Tax Obligations All business owners must make quarterly estimated tax payments to cover their income and self-employment taxes, and truck drivers are no exception. You'll incur penalties and interest if you don't meet your federal and state liabilities. Unfortunately, truck drivers often have additional tax obligations, depending on the lengths of their trips and the size of their vehicles. These include the International Fuel Tax Agreement (IFTA) and the Heavy Vehicle Use Tax (HVUT). The IFTA is a way to redistribute the fuel taxes truck drivers pay in the lower 48 states and the 10 Canadian provinces. It ensures your funds go to the areas where you used your fuel instead of the ones where you purchased it. IFTA applies to you if you drive a vehicle across multiple states or provinces that weighs more than 26,000 pounds or has at least three axles. To comply with IFTA, you must report your trips and fuel purchases quarterly. The IFTA office in your home state will allocate your payments to the proper jurisdictions and determine whether you owe more or deserve a refund. Meanwhile, the HVUT is an annual fee that truckers must pay if they drive a vehicle that’s at least 55,000 pounds for more than 5,000 miles on public highways. It equals $100 plus $22 for every 1,000 pounds over 55,000 pounds up to $550 and 75,000 pounds. To stay in compliance, file Form 2290 with the IRS and pay any applicable taxes by the last day of the month after the month you first used the vehicle on public highways. For example, if you place your truck into service in July, the due date is August 31. If you owed taxes in the previous year but not the current one, you must file Form 2290 to report the change and suspend your responsibilities. Best Practices For Trucking Accounting One of the primary problems with managing your small business accounting is the sheer amount of time and energy it takes. Running a trucking company alone is enough work to keep you busy, and trying to do both is a lot to handle at once. Here are some best practices you can follow that will help juggle all of your various responsibilities. Leverage Software The ever-expanding capabilities of modern software have made many aspects of business ownership significantly easier. You must be strategic about which tools you invest in to avoid wasting resources, but it’s worth utilizing in many areas. For example, transportation management software, also known simply as trucking software, is a must-have for owner-operators. It serves as a digital hub and tax center from which you can manage all of your paperwork and filing responsibilities. For example, you can use it to accomplish all of the following: Generate custom invoices and collect payments Store copies of records and supporting documents Generate and file your quarterly IFTA reports Dispatch other drivers and plan their trucking routes Extract driving data from an electronic logging device (ELD) An accounting solution is also essential for most small businesses, including trucking companies. If you link your trucking accounting software to your business bank account and credit card, it should track your every invoice and expense automatically. Use A Fuel Card IFTA compliance is one of the additional accounting responsibilities unique to trucking companies. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to take up too much time or energy if you plan ahead. One of the best ways to streamline your IFTA reporting is by using a dedicated fuel card. These work much like any other credit card, except they’re tied to a unique driver number and provide fuel discounts. Fuel cards can automatically track, organize, and display the information you need to fill out your IFTA expense reports. If you’re also using truck management software, you can usually link the two and automate your IFTA responsibilities completely. Get Expert Help Last but certainly not least, it’s always a good idea to hire a CPA for help with tax preparation and trucking accounting services. Trucking and accounting are full-time jobs, so don't try to do both. Fortunately, you don't need to hire an accountant for your business full-time. Outsourced accounting lets you select only the specialized accounting services you need, keeping your costs down. Make sure you choose a service provider carefully. The transportation industry has unique quirks and challenges, and it’s much better to work with a CPA who’s an expert in the applicable tax regulations than a generalist, even if it costs a little more. Common Mistakes Executing proper transportation accounting procedures requires as much training and expertise as the transporting itself. While there’s no substitute for experience, here are some common pitfalls you should know to avoid. Procrastination One of the most common mistakes small business owners make is putting their accounting responsibilities on the backburner for too long. That’s always problematic, especially for truck drivers. Remember, it can be surprisingly hard to catch up on trucking records once you’ve fallen behind. It becomes even worse if you also neglect to separate your business and personal transactions. In addition, ignoring your accounting for more than a couple of months means you’ll likely miss one or more tax due dates. If you fail to make estimated tax payments, submit your IFTA reports, or file Form 2290 on time, you’ll face penalties and interest. Misunderstanding Tax Deductions Tax strategies for truck drivers can be surprisingly complicated. Even some CPAs are unaware of the specifics of the industry, where unique rules and changing regulations can cause you to misreport your tax-deductible expenses. For example, most small business owners can only take 50% of meal expenses, but truckers are allowed to take 80% of either their actual costs or per diem allowances. That's another reason paying for tax services is essential for the transportation business. You don't want to leave money on the table or risk triggering an audit. FAQs What Records Should You Keep for A Trucking Business? As a trucking business owner, you should keep records of all your expenses and the documents that support them, such as receipts and account statements. You should have proof of each expense’s amount, date, location, and business purpose.In addition, hold onto all documents you need to comply with Department of Transportation and IRS requirements. For example, that includes data from your ELD, invoices, bills of lading, payroll statements, and tax payment receipts. How Do You Keep Track Of Trucking Expenses? You can document trucking costs manually, but connecting your business accounts to accounting software is much easier. It can track and categorize your expenses automatically, though you may need to keep some supplemental records. Are you looking for ways to expand your business or cover operating expenses? Learn more about trucking business loans.