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Dressing up, down or for a tax deduction

It's mid-afternoon and I'm sitting at my desk wearing a T-shirt and shorts.

Working from home_iStock_000005195546XSmall_1Why am I sharing today's attire choice, which actually is what I wear every summer day? Because of an online conversation I've been having with some other home-based business people about dressing for success.

Most of my fellow work-from-home colleagues admit to dressing down on the job. Thank you all for your honesty.

Not worrying about what to wear is right up there with no commute on the list of why I will never get another "real" job.

But according to many career counselors, we sartorially challenged freelancers are doing it all wrong.

We should dress like we're going to work.

Thank goodness for Susannah Breslin, a fellow journalist and blogger. In a recent Forbes' piece, she busted 3 Myths About Working From Home, starting with the independent worker's much maligned dress code.

"Dress like you're going to work" is absurd. At this moment, I'm wearing a pair of sweatpants shorts, a heather gray T-shirt with "Indians" on the front that I stole from my husband, and no shoes.

They will tell you that you feel more professional if you fantasize that you're at work and dress the part. I'd suggest that if your confidence level is that low, you have deeper issues to plow than the ones at the bottom of your hamper.

Conclusion: Wear whatever the hell you want.

Bonus: It's cheaper.

Exception: Skype meetings. (Pants not required.)

As Breslin points out, a smaller clothes budget is part of the icing on the work from home cake.

You only need a few "outside" outfits to get you through client meetings, professional association gatherings and the occasional public appearance, either in real life or electronically as I did when I talked taxes with a nerd earlier this week.

Workplace wear hassles: Being in control of what to wear is something you sacrifice if you opt for a regular paycheck from an employer. Staff at the world-famous Mayo Clinic recently were reminded of that.

To the dismay of many of the 900 desk employees at the Rochester, Minn.-based medical facility, they no longer are allowed to wear scrubs. Instead, the clinic decided that beginning in early July they now must don clinic approved outfits.

Mayo administrators thought the new black slacks and light blue shirts would present a more professional look that would be easy for patients to recognize. But problems with just one provider of the uniforms, as well as the unexpected costs to workers, prompted a revision in the policy.

Clinic staff now will have a choice of vendors and a variety of styles from which to choose. 

Even better, instead of having to pay for the new clinic clothing, employees will receive a one-time payout of $500 from Mayo to offset the initial cost.

That added cash will be taxable income, but it still should help employees who didn't have a "new work clothes" line item in their budgets.

Writing off uniform expenses: If you, like the newly-uniformed Mayo Clinic employees, have to wear special clothing for your job, you might be able to deduct the costs.

As you might expect, you and your closet contents must meet certain requirements before the Internal Revenue Service will OK your claim.

First, there's the claim process itself. You must itemize expenses instead of taking the standard deduction.

Then you must meet an expense threshold. A uniform deduction claim is made in the "miscellaneous itemized deduction" category of Schedule A. But you can only count unreimbursed employee expenses that exceed 2 percent of your adjusted gross income.

That limit makes a lot of uniform-wearing workers ineligible. If you do, however, meet the dollar restrictions, there are other claim considerations.

Generally, the clothing can't be suitable for everyday use. In today's wear-what-you-want world (to which I and my work from home friends contribute), that's a pretty loose guideline. Folks show up in public wearing all sorts of things my mother would never let me be seen in, but times have definitely changed.

And while the new Mayo outfits probably would be fine just about anywhere, the fact that the clinic refers to them as uniforms and requires workers to wear them should help them pass IRS muster as an allowable clothing claim.

You also must show the IRS (if it asks) that the uniform is an ordinary expense. That means the outfit is what others in your same line of work usually wear.

And you must prove that it's a necessary piece of apparel for your employment.

Once you've purchased the uniform, keep track of cleaning costs. Laundry or dry cleaning expenses you shell out to maintain the required workplace attire also are deductible as miscellaneous expenses.

Be realistic: Finally, whether you work from home in your pajamas or put on a nice suit to head to a downtown office, be realistic in what you wear. You don't want to end up like @IncrediblyRich on Twitter:

Job attire advice uh-oh Batman

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