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Tax Deductions Explained (and Common Ones You Could Claim)

Taxes

Tax Deductions Explained (and Common Ones You Could Claim)

Part of being an American is looking toward Tax Day with either dread or anticipation. Will you have to cut a check to Uncle Sam, or will you get a plump refund? Tax deductions can tip the scales — a lot — meaning you’ll end up sending less money to the IRS.

We all want that, right? 

Read on to understand which common tax deductions you could claim when you file your 2019 return. Note that we use 2019 numbers because these apply to the tax return that’s due April 15, 2020.

What Is a Tax Deduction?

Tax deductions, also known as tax write-offs, lower your taxable income so you’ll pay less overall. You can either go with the standard deduction, which is a predetermined amount that is subtracted from your income, or itemized deductions, which take into account your particular expenses such as charitable donations and some health care costs. 

Tax deductions are different from tax credits. A tax deduction decreases your taxable income, whereas a tax credit lowers the amount of taxes you owe the IRS.

Calculating Your Adjusted Gross Income

Deductions are typically calculated from something called your adjusted gross income, or AGI.

Do you know how much you make each year? What about the amount you contribute to retirement? The IRS uses this information and more to calculate your adjusted gross income (AGI), which is the starting point for figuring out your tax bill.

Your AGI includes your wages, alimony, dividends, retirement distributions and business income. If you’ve paid student loan interest, contributed to a traditional IRA or paid into a health savings account, those expenses are deducted. What’s left over is your AGI.

Changes From 2017 Tax Reform

In late 2017, Congress passed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, a sweeping overhaul of the federal tax code. The main change affecting everyday Americans was to the standard deduction; before 2018 it was $6,350 for single filers and $12,700 for married couples filing jointly. Under the new law, it nearly doubled: For 2019 taxes, it’s $12,200 for individuals and $24,400 for married people who file a joint return.

While the 2017 changes were good news for some people, they came at the expense of several popular deductions that were eliminated. These include:

  • Job-related moving expenses for non-military
  • Home equity loan interest deduction, unless the loan is used to improve the home
  • Alimony for the person paying spousal support
  • Job search expenses
  • Unreimbursed work expenses

Standard vs. Itemized Deductions

Still, a number of itemized deductions remain in play. Whether you choose the standard deduction or itemize them depends on your personal situation. 

If your potential deductions equal more than the standard deduction, itemizing will lower your taxable income and save you money. 

Here’s another way to think about it: If you’re a young, single person with a full-time job, you’re healthy and you rent rather than own a home, you will almost certainly take the standard deduction because your deductible expenses probably won’t total more than $12,200. 

But if your financial profile is more complex — think mortgage, property taxes, medical expenses — then you might benefit from itemizing.

Popular Tax Deductions for Itemizers

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If you’re thinking of itemizing, you need to know what is and isn’t tax deductible. Here are some common deductions.

1. Charitable Contributions

If you gave money or goods to a charity during the year, you could be eligible for a tax deduction. The organization must be designated as a nonprofit by the IRS. Usually these are religious, educational or charitable groups.

There are some limitations on what you can include in this deduction. For example, if you donated to your local PBS station and they sent you a “thank you” T-shirt, you can’t deduct the value of the shirt. So if your contribution was $100 and the T-shirt was worth $10, you can only deduct $90 on your tax return.

Additionally, you can only deduct charitable contributions up to 50% of your AGI. (Most people can’t donate half their income to charity anyway.) But there are additional limits depending on the organization. Donations to churches, hospitals and colleges qualify up to 50% of AGI, but contributions to veterans’ organizations and fraternal societies have a lower cap — only 30% of AGI.

You can deduct expenses from charitable work.

Pro Tip

For example, if you knit hats for a homeless charity you could deduct the cost of the yarn you used. Make sure you save your receipts in case you’re hit with an audit.

2. Mortgage Interest

The interest you pay on your home mortgage can total many thousands of dollars, particularly at the beginning of the loan. Luckily, you can deduct that interest from your taxable income. This is applicable for debt up to $750,000 or $375,000 if you’re married filing separately through 2025 . If you bought your home on or before Dec. 15, 2017, you can deduct mortgage interest on debt up to $1 million or $500,000 if you’re married filing separately.

3. Property Taxes

The 2017 tax reform put new limits on property tax deductions. Beginning in 2018, you can deduct state and local taxes up to $10,000 or $5,000 if you’re married filing separately. Those caps are for state and local income, property and sales taxes combined. 

Let’s say you paid $8,000 of state income tax, $7,000 of property taxes and $6,000 of sales tax. Your deduction is limited to $10,000. Prior to tax reform, you could have deducted each of these expenses in full. 

4. Medical Expenses

If you had significant medical expenses last tax year that weren’t reimbursed by insurance, you could get a deduction. The bills must equal 10% or higher of your AGI to qualify for the deduction in 2019. Even then, you can only deduct the amount above 10% of AGI.  For someone with an AGI of $50,000, that means you can’t deduct medical expenses until they exceed $5,000, or 10%.

Pro Tip

If your state has an income tax, you may be able to deduct a percentage of medical expenses from your state taxes as well, though the amount will vary.

Qualified medical expenses include:

  • Bills paid to doctors, dentists, chiropractors and more
  • Hospital visits or stays
  • Nursing home care
  • Some weight loss programs
  • Addiction programs
  • Prescription medications
  • Transportation to and from medical appointments
  • Acupuncture
  • Dentures, crutches, hearing aids, wheelchairs and service animals
  • Reading or prescription glasses or contact lenses

Deductions You Can Claim With the Standard Deduction

Even if you don’t itemize, there are some valuable deductions you can still claim. They’re known as “above-the-line” deductions.

1. Educator Expenses

In an ideal world, teachers wouldn’t have to pay out of pocket for school supplies. In reality, most teachers routinely dip into their own funds to buy pencils, paper, glue and other items for their classrooms. The IRS allows K-12 teachers to deduct up to $250 for educator expenses such as classroom materials. 

2. Student Loan Interest

If you paid interest on your student loans, you can deduct up to $2,500 in interest payments if you earned less than $$70,000 for single filers or $140,000 if you’re married filing jointly. Above that, the deduction phases out, but those earning up to $85,000 as single filers or $170,000 for those who are married filing jointly can get a reduced deduction. 

This only applies for people filing their own tax returns; if you’re still listed as a dependent on your parents’ tax return you can’t claim the student loan interest deduction. You also can’t claim this deduction if your loan isn’t in your name. So, if your parents took out the loan on your behalf, they will get the deduction instead.

3. Moving Expenses for Military

Members of the military are eligible to deduct moving expenses from their taxable income. In previous years, civilians could also deduct moving expenses, but the deduction is now limited to military personnel.

4. Health Savings Account Contributions

Health savings accounts, or HSAs, are accounts you can use to save for medical expenses if you have a high-deductible health insurance plan. A high-deductible plan is defined as one that has a minimum deductible of $1,350 for a single person or $2,700 for a family. 

You can deduct contributions of up to $3,500 if you’re single or $7,000 for a family in 2019. 

5. Self-Employment Expenses

If you’re self-employed, you can deduct quite a few expenses. These include:

  • Home office: You can deduct the space devoted to your home office at a rate of $5 per square foot for up to 300 square feet of space. However, you must use this room exclusively as your home office, so you can’t set up a desk next to your spare bed and claim that as your office. You also must use that room regularly for business.
  • Education: As a self-employed individual, you can deduct things like tuition, books and lab fees for education that “maintains or improves skills needed in your present work,” according to the IRS.
  • Car: If you use your car for business, such as driving to meetings with clients or vendors, you can deduct 58 cents per mile as of 2019. You can also deduct things like gas, licenses, tolls and parking fees.

6. Health Insurance Premiums

If you are self-employed, you can deduct your health premiums.

You can also take the deduction, minus any subsidies you received, if you get your health insurance through a state or federal marketplace.

7. IRA Contributions

You could get a tax deduction if you contribute to a traditional IRA as part of your retirement savings portfolio. The maximum contribution for 2019 is $6,000, and $7,000 for those over age 50, and it’s fully tax deductible. But your eligibility also depends on how much money you make and whether you or your spouse has an employer-sponsored retirement plan. Consult the IRS guidelines for those income limits.

Catherine Hiles is a contributor to Codetic.

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