College Student's Guide to Winning the Tax Game
Unfortunately the IRS is not run by the Parker Brothers and taxes may be one of the least intuitive things ever created. But, after a few years of experience with different types of income and hours scouring the IRS website I will pass along what I've learned to help you nimbly navigate the forms, deductions and credits available to you as a college student.First, the basics: Single, under 65, and not blind? You must file if you earned more than $5,700, regardless of whether your parents claim you as a dependent. If you earned less than this, you may want to file anyway to get any refund due from taxes withheld by your employer. Some of the most common types of taxable income include wages reported on your W-2 by your employer, interest earned on savings accounts, and interest from a business you operated as a sole proprietor (i.e. freelance, entrepreneurship).
Next, make sure you are using the right form. As a full-time student under 24, your parents can claim you as a dependent (which can be of great benefit to them). You will then file a 1040EZ or a 1040A. Note that with the 1040EZ you cannot claim education credits or student loan interest reduction (which you could not do as a dependent anyway).
Scholarships and fellowships are tax-free if you a degree-seeking student at a qualified institution and you are using the scholarship/fellowship to pay for qualified education expenses. These include tuition, fees, books, supplies and equipment required for your program. These do NOT include room and board, travel or research expenses.
Say you have a $10,000 scholarship and $8,000 goes towards tuition. If you use the remaining $2,000 to pay your rent, that portion is considered taxable income and must be included on your 1040.
In my imaginary game of tax refunds, you would now be given the token to access your 1098-T. The IRS allows for certain tax benefits for education:
- American Opportunity Credit – This education credit is expanded to include higher income levels and to cover the cost of books. You may be eligible for up to a $2,500 credit if you (or your parents, if you are a dependent) have a modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) of less than $80,000. You can only do this for four years. Forty percent of this credit is refundable. This means that even someone who owes no taxes could get up to a $1,000 refund.
- Lifetime Learning Credit – This is a credit of up to $2,000 for qualified education expenses. Unlike the American Opportunity Credit, however, there is no limit to how many times you can claim this. Think about using it when in graduate school. You cannot take both credits in the same year.
If you or your parents have too high of an income to qualify for either of these, you may still qualify for a tuition and fees deduction, which would reduce the amount of your income subject to tax by up to $4,000. You also are entitled to deduct any interest payment you make on your student loans, up to $2,500. You cannot deduct money that goes towards paying the principal of your loans.
This article from Kiplinger explains the difference between a credit and a deduction and advises to take the credit, if you're eligible, because it is worth more.
My parting advice is to keep things simple. Or if you want, pretend the convoluted forms that you are staring at are part of an initiation to a secret society. As a student, you probably do not have to worry about things like "excess farm loss from an interest in a partnership" or the dozens of other arcane items. Don't get bogged down in more forms than you have to, but do make sure you get what you deserve as a student.
If this tax stuff sounds fun to you, the IRS has a student site with activities and simulations to teach you "the hows and the whys of taxes." Also, visit WalletPop's Tax Center for more advice, videos and links to all the forms you will need.
Sarah Smith is a junior at Loyola University Chicago majoring in international studies and visual communication. She writes for Money College about her personal finance experiences as a student.