You May Be Paying More in Taxes Than You Actually Owe


Ever felt like you’re paying too much in taxes? You may well be.

“If you don’t take the tax credits and deductions you’re entitled to, you’re throwing money away,” says Stephen Slater, a Certified Public Accountant and managing director at UHY Advisors in New York.

Problem is a lot of us aren’t even aware of all of the credits and deductions we might be able to take. There are well-known tax savers like the hefty home mortgage-interest deduction , but several lesser known ones, too. Services like TurboTax (at the paid tier) will search more than 350 credits and deductions to see what you may qualify for. The IRS also provides a pretty comprehensive list.

But here are nine big ones that can help you hold onto more of your money this year.

Tax Credits

A credit reduces your tax liability by an exact dollar value, and is the same for all taxpayers. For example, if you owe $2,000 in taxes and you’re eligible for a $1,000 credit, you’ll only owe $1,000. Some credits are valid even if they result in a negative tax bill, in which case you’ll actually get a refund.

1. Retirement Savings Contributions Credit

Whether you contribute to an employer-sponsored retirement plan, like a 401(k), or have an IRA, you can earn a credit of 10, 20 or 50 percent of your contributions, up to $2,000 ($4,000 if married filing jointly), depending on your adjusted gross income (AGI).

For 2016, qualifying incomes are capped at $61,500 for married couples filing jointly and $30,750 for singles and married people filing separately.

2. Earned Income Credit

If you’re relatively new to the workforce or if you’re in college or grad school but had a summer job, for example, you may be eligible for the earned income tax credit.

Those without dependent children who earned $14,880 or less in 2016 ($20,430 if you’re married filing jointly) can get a credit up to $506. (Income limits and credits go up if you have kids.)

3. Education Tax Credits

If you’re going back to school—whether it’s to earn a degree or acquire new job skills—you may be eligible for a big education credit.

The American Opportunity Tax Credit , available for students in their first four years of higher education, offers $2,500 for qualified expenses . And the Lifetime Learning Credit , which can be used for undergrad, grad and professional degrees, as well as other training, credits 20 percent of the first $10,000 spent on education for a maximum of $2,000 per year. (There are income limits, though.)

4. Child Care Tax Credit

If you pay for child care for kids under the age of 13 so you can work, you can score another credit , says Robert Charron, partner-in-charge of the tax department at New York-based Friedman LLP. The amount depends on how much you’re paying, your number of dependents and income.

The range is between 20 to 35 percent of up to $3,000 worth of care expenses for one dependent and up to $6,000 for two or more dependents—so a max of $2,100. (Note that for married couples to qualify, both spouses must work unless one is incapacitated or a full-time student.)

Tax Deductions

Unlike credits, deductions are subtracted from your taxable income, not directly from the amount you owe. But since they lower the income on which you’re taxed, they’ll also lower your tax bill.

Every taxpayer can take the standard tax deduction , which is $6,300 for an individual taxpayer in 2016. (If you’re married filing jointly, it’s $12,600.) But if you qualify for a number of deductions, you may save more than that by “itemizing”—or listing out each deduction—on Schedule A of Form 1040.

Aside from the standard deduction, deductions you can take without itemizing include student loan interest, tuition and fees, IRA contributions, moving expenses and alimony.

1. IRA Deduction

If you contribute to a traditional IRA, you may be able to deduct some or all of your savings, depending on your adjusted gross income and access to an employer-sponsored retirement plan.

If you do have access to an employer-sponsored retirement account, like a 401(k), you can deduct the full amount you contribute if you’re single and earn $61,000 or less, or you’re married filing jointly and earn $98,000 or less. Single people earning between $61,000 and $71,000, as well as married people filing jointly who earn between $98,000 and $118,000, are eligible for a partial deduction.

If you don’t have access to an employer-sponsored plan, you can deduct your full contribution, regardless of income. But if your spouse has a work-sponsored retirement account, you can only deduct the full amount of your contributions if your combined AGI is $184,000 or less. If your income falls between $184,000 and $194,000, you can take a partial deduction.

2. Employee Business Expense Deduction

Did you know you don’t have to be self-employed to deduct certain business costs, thanks to the Employee Business Expense Deduction ?

If you use your own cell phone, iPad or home office for work, those all represent deductible expenses, Charron says. And if you use your car for business purposes, the IRS allows you to take a deduction of 54 cents per mile.

The expenses just need to exceed 2 percent of your adjusted gross income to be deductible, Charron says, and “meticulous records” are important. “If you’re audited, the IRS will require you to prove the 5Ws: who, what, where, why, when—and also how much.”

3. Charitable Contribution Deduction

If you write a check to a church, synagogue or charity, you may realize that amount is tax deductible. But don’t forget that you can also generally deduct the fair-market value of in-kind donations, like old clothes, furniture and household items given to qualified nonprofits.

Again, remember to keep good records. If possible, ask for a receipt, including the name of the organization, date and donation amount.

4. Casualty, Disaster or Theft Loss Deduction

If you’ve suffered damage to your home, household items or vehicle—say, you had a break-in or you were rear-ended by an uninsured driver—you might find some relief through this deduction . “However, the loss must be reduced by any insurance proceeds,” Charron says.

To determine what you can deduct, add up how much you lost due to casualties this year and subtract $100. (If there were multiple events, subtract $100 from each.) Then reduce the entire amount by 10 percent of your adjusted gross income, and that’s what you can deduct.

5. Job Search Expense Deduction

Expenses of looking for a new job in the same line of work are deductible , as long as you’re not unemployed for a substantial length of time, in which case the IRS may disallow the deduction, Charron says. (Unfortunately, you can’t deduct if you’re looking for your first job, either.)

But you’re in luck if you’ve spent money on, say, travel expenses to interviews and fees to employment agencies. Like the deduction for employee-business expenses, these are considered “miscellaneous deductions,” so you’re required to itemize and the total amount must exceed 2 percent of your adjusted gross income.

This story was updated in January 2017.