New per diem rates were recently announced by the IRS and are effective for per diem allowances on or after Oct. 1, 2023. These updated rates include changes for the transportation industry, incidental expenses as well as the high-low substantiation method. Before we dive into the detailed changes impacting per diem rates, let’s revisit the concept of the per diem in general.
To Per Diem or Not to Per Diem
There are two basic ways that employees can be reimbursed for business travel expenses. The first is a direct reimbursement of the actual expenses. The second is the per diem method.
Direct actual expense reimbursement is exactly what it sounds like. For example, a sales employee pays for a plane ticket and meals during a customer visit and then submits an expense report with the receipts as backup. Typically, a company will have a travel and expense policy that limits the expenses allowed – no Michelin star restaurants or first-class flights, for example. Other than this, direct expense reimbursement is simple and straightforward.
The second expense reimbursement method is called the per diem method. The per diem method is basically a pre-package policy of controls for both spending and tax purposes.
Fundamentals of Per Diems
Per diem is Latin for the term for each day. In practice, it is a daily allowance granted to each employee. It covers travel and related business expenses, allowing a fixed amount to cover business travel expenses.
Per diem policies can cover only three types of expenses: lodging, meals, and incidentals (anything else must be directly reimbursed). A per diem policy does not need to cover all three, however. An employer can use the per diem only for meals, for example, and deal with lodging under the direct actual expense reimbursement method. Also, the per diem method cannot cover transportation expenses or mileage reimbursement.
Taxation of Per Diems
Per diems are generally not taxable, and no withholding tax on the payments is necessary. The exception to this is if an employee does not provide or provides incomplete expense report information – or if you give the employee a flat amount that is in excess of the maximum allowance (with the excess being taxable).
Two Types of Per Diems
Per diem rates can be determined in one of two ways: either the standard rate or using the high-low method.
The standard rate is a fixed rate, whereas the high-low method is based on the cost of living being higher or lower in different locales. Under the high-low method, for example, Boston gets a higher reimbursement than Des Moines to account for this.
2023-2024 Rate Updates
- Travel to high-cost locations is $309 ($297 prior year)
- Travel to other locations is $214 ($204 prior year)
- Incidental expense stay is the same at $5 per day, regardless of location
*Taxpayers in the transportation industry are subject to special rates