Last month, we launched GOBankingRates’ Live Richer Speaker Series, an exciting opportunity for me to introduce the financial experts and influencers in my network to a wider audience, and get invaluable tips and advice about everything from taxes to investing. We kicked off the program with a presentation from Kathy Pickering, H&R Block’s vice president of regulatory affairs and executive director of The Tax Institute, who answered your most burning questions about taxes.
Here’s what Pickering had to say about getting the most deductions possible, lowering your taxable income and more.
31 tax credits and deductions that could save you thousands
31 tax credits and deductions that could save you thousands
That higher standard deduction makes it difficult to put together enough charitable deductions to make it worth itemizing. But if you do make large contributions, the threshold for deductions has jumped from 50 percent of adjusted gross income to 60 percent. While it's too late to make charitable donations for 2018, Kibler suggests tracking down receipts for donations made throughout the year, especially of cash or goods. Giving to eligible nonprofits, religious organizations, and government organizations (such as a school or public library) are deductible. "If you dropped off a bag of clothing at a local charity or gave them $5 at the cash register of your grocery store, make sure to track these contributions so you get the highest tax benefit possible," Kibler says.
The passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act in 2017 almost doubled the standard deduction in 2018, pushing it from $9,350 for those filing as head of household to $18,000. But it also eliminated a bunch of helpful credits and deductions, including the personal exemption, which was $4,050 in 2017.
AMERICAN OPPORTUNITY TAX CREDIT
While tuition and fees deductions have dried up, the American Opportunity Tax Credit remains an option for eligible students — not grad students or long-term undergrads; it's available only during the first four years of college — with at least half-time status at an accredited school. It covers all of the first $2,000 in expenses and 25 percent of the next $2,000 (for a total $2,500). Schools will send students a 1098-T showing the amount paid last year in tuition and fees, but even expenses including books, supplies, and equipment such as computers can be offset. If the 1098-T does not max out the allowed credit, hold onto those receipts for supplies.
LIFETIME LEARNING CREDIT
This is the tax credit for the older student. Anyone taking classes at an eligible educational institution to acquire or improve job skills is eligible, even students taking just one class well after four years of undergraduate education. There are limits: Students are credited for only 20 percent of $10,000 in expenses ($2,000 is the maximum), though it can be applied to tuition, fees, books, supplies, and equipment. Individuals with an adjustable gross income between $56,000 and $66,000 (or between $112,000 but less than $132,000 for married filing jointly), will get a reduced amount. If it's over those thresholds, you can't claim the credit at all.
MORTGAGE INTEREST DEDUCTION
If you bought a home and had the mortgage in place before Dec. 15, 2017, you are still eligible to deduct interest on up to $1 million in mortgage debt. If you happened to sign on that date or later, though, your threshold drops to $750,000.
PREMIUM TAX CREDIT
If you or your family have health insurance from a government-run marketplace built through the Affordable Care Act, you may be eligible for this credit. Income is limited to up to $48,560 for individuals and up to $100,400 for a family of four, but the credit is usually equal to the cost of the second-lowest silver plan. Taxpayers can get this credit in advance to offset monthly premium bills, but claim too much and it must be paid back when filing. Those who get too little can claim the remainder when submitting returns.
DEPENDENT CARE CREDIT
If a child does not qualify for the Child Tax Credit because they are over 17, they may still be eligible for a $500 credit under new tax laws. The credit also applies for dependents who are elderly or disabled.
CHILD TAX CREDIT
Those who took advantage of the child tax credit in 2017 could claim a $1,000 credit on their income tax return for each child under 17 who qualified. In 2018, that doubles to $2,000 per qualifying child. The credit was also nonrefundable in previous years, but can now be refunded to 15 percent of earned income over $2,500, or up to $1,400. To qualify, children have to be 16 years or younger on the last day of 2018, be related to you, claimed as a dependent, be a documented U.S. citizen or resident, have lived with you for half of the tax year (though absences related to school, vacation, military service, and medical care are exempt) and must not provide more than half of his or her own support. The credit phases out for married taxpayers filing jointly with an income of $400,000 (or $200,000 for all other taxpayers).
EARNED INCOME TAX CREDIT
The Earned Income Tax Credit is for low- and moderate-income taxpayers with "earned income" such as wages, salaries, or self-employment pay (but not Social Security, unemployment, or investment income). The limits are strict, ranging from $15,270 for a single person with no children to $54,884 for a married couple with three children or more. The credit's value is worth $519 to $6,431 depending on filing status and number of dependents, but requires recipients to have less than $3,500 in investment income for the year.
Whether it's through an employer or private plan, a traditional Individual Retirement Arrangement funded with pretax money — unlike a post-tax Roth IRA — is deductible up to a certain limit. Even if an account is opened and funded in 2019, any contributions made before the tax-filing deadline can be credited to the previous year. For 2018, the maximum contribution is $5,500 (or $6,500 for those 50 or older). There are also deduction limitations depending on the taxpayer's income and access to an employer-sponsored retirement account.
STUDENT LOAN INTEREST DEDUCTION
Students can still deduct up to $2,500 for interest paid on student loans — but get less if median adjusted gross income exceeds $65,000 ($135,000 for joint returns) and nothing if it's $80,000 or more ($165,000 or more for joint returns).
CREDIT FOR THE ELDERLY OR THE DISABLED
Taxpayers 65 or older — or younger but retired or on permanent and total disability — may be eligible for a credit. Taxable income must be below $17,500 (or $20,000 if married and filing jointly) and nontaxable Social Security, pension, or disability benefits must be below $5,000. If both partners qualify and file jointly, the income limits are $25,000 for taxable income and $7,500 for nontaxable benefits. The credit itself ranges between $3,750 and $7,000.
It isn't much, but the Savers Credit gives back to low- and moderate-income people who contribute to a qualified retirement account. Taxpayers can get a credit for 10 percent, 20 percent, or 50 percent of the first $2,000 contributed, depending on income and family size. To get the minimum 10 percent, the maximum allowed income is $31,500 for single filers, $47,250 for the head of a household, and $63,000 for joint filers. Also, beginning this year, beginning in 2018, if you're the designated beneficiary you may be eligible for a credit for contributions to your Achieving a Better Life Experience account for persons with disabilities.
A longtime friend to small-business owners and freelancers, the Simplified Employee Pension IRA offers higher contribution limits than a traditional IRA. As their own employer, business owners and freelancers can contribute up to 25 percent of their annual income or $55,000, whichever is lower. As with a traditional IRA, contributions made before the tax-filing deadline (without an extension) can be applied to the previous year.
MORTGAGE INTEREST CREDIT
Taxpayers who get a Qualified Mortgage Credit Certificate worth up to $7,500 from a local or state government may be able to claim the Mortgage Interest Credit. The home must be the taxpayer's primary residence, and interest payments can't go to a taxpayer's relative. The credit is worth up to $2,000, and unused portions may be carried forward to the following year.
MEDICAL EXPENSES DEDUCTION
You can get a larger deduction for medical expenses in 2018 by doing absolutely nothing. Until recently, taxpayers 65 years or older could deduct total medical expenses that exceeded 7.5 percent of their adjusted gross income. Even married couples that included one person 65 or older were eligible, but younger, single taxpayers could deduct only medical expenses that exceeded 10 percent of their AGI. For 2017, that threshold was slated to jump to the 10 percent of AGI for everyone, including those over 65; the recent tax reform set the threshold for everyone at 7.5 percent of gross income and made it retroactive to 2017. It stays in place for 2018, but will go back to 10 percent of AGI in 2019.
SOLO 401(K) CONTRIBUTIONS
Unfortunately, taxpayers can't just set one of these up before the tax deadline and save some cash. The one-participant 401(k), or solo or self-employed 401(k), requires you to file for a federal Employer Identification Number and set up the account by Dec. 31. But once a solo 401(k) is established, taxpayers can make contributions right up to the tax-filing date in April (or mid-October, with an extension). Total contributions can't exceed $55,000, but that's still nearly four times the maximum employee contribution to a standard 401(k) of $18,500.
If you bought new office furniture, computer servers, cranes, end loaders, cattle, trucks, or taxis for a business last year, you may be able to write off more from them than you thought. Even if you built oil derricks, warehouses, office space, or utility plants after Sept. 26, 2017, the bonus depreciation you could claim on the first year of owning those assets increased from 50 percent just a day before to 100 percent "expensing" from Sept. 27 onward. Recent tax changes also extended bonus depreciation from items bought or built new to both new and used assets. That "expensing" applies to productions (qualified film, television, and/or staged performances) and even certain fruit or nuts. The law also increased the maximum deduction from $500,000 to $1 million, with the phase-out threshold increasing from $2 million to $2.5 million.
Self-employed people can deduct 54.5 cents a mile driven for business purposes the previous year; the rate goes up to 58 cents in 2019. That said, detailed mileage logs are required. Writing down the miles driven (odometer readings at the beginning and end of the trip help), the date, the business purpose of the trip, and the destination should be adequate. Taxpayers can also take a 18-cent-per-mile deduction for eligible miles driven for medical purposes in 2018, up from 17 cents in 2017 (and it's 20 cents in 2019). The standard mileage rate for charitable activities is unchanged at 14 cents. Moving expenses, however, no longer qualify for a deduction.
HOME OFFICE DEDUCTION
This one is tricky, as simply working on the couch or at a kitchen table doesn't cut it. A home office has to be a dedicated space for working and meeting clients and customers. Furthermore, office-related utilities including telephone, internet, and even heat and electricity have to be parsed out separately. You can try to determine which portion of a home's expenses, taxes, insurance, and depreciation is dedicated to a home office; a simplified version multiplies the square feet of the room by $5 (if the total size is 300 square feet or smaller). That said, you can only get this deduction if you're self-employed: It disappeared for employees in 2018.
STATE AND LOCAL TAX DEDUCTION
Under tax changes, deductions for state and local taxes (property tax and sales or income tax) are capped at $10,000 from 2018 through 2025. If your total state and local taxes and property taxes are typically more than the $10,000, there's no way to increase the deduction. The new tax law prohibited prepaying 2018 state and local taxes that were not imposed in 2017.
You may be able to take a tax credit of up to $13,810 for qualified expenses paid to adopt a child in 2018. Those expenses include adoption fees, court costs, attorney fees, travel expenses (including amounts spent for meals and lodging), and readoption expenses for a foreign child. Those credits apply to adoptions of anyone under 18 years old or physically or mentally incapable of taking care of themselves. If your modified adjusted gross income is more than $207,140, the credit is reduced; those with MAGI of $247,140 or more can't take the credit.
If you paid or accrued income tax in a foreign country or U.S. possession in 2018, you can use it as a credit against U.S. income tax. If you already exclude foreign earned income, foreign housing costs, foreign possessions, or income from Puerto Rico exempt from U.S. tax, you aren't eligible. Also, your foreign tax credit can't be more than your U.S. tax liability multiplied against a fraction made up of taxable income from outside the United States and total taxable sources.
HOME SALE EXCLUSION
Most people who sell a home know that, if they've sold at a gain, they may exclude up to $250,000 of it if single or $500,000 if married filing jointly. Granted, you actually had to live in that home for two of the past five years (military, foreign service, and intelligence personnel are exempt). What most homeowners don't realize is that the gain isn't only on the sale price of the home, but on improvements made, real estate agent sales commissions, closing costs, recording fees, and survey fees. Kibler suggests keeping clear records of all of it in case of an audit and to keep a big chunk of the gain tax-free.
FOREIGN EARNED INCOME EXCLUSION
If you live in a foreign country for at least 330 full days out of the year, you can have up to $104,100 of your salaries, wages, professional fees, and other amounts you get as an employee excluded from federally taxable income. You may also exclude amounts your employer pays for rent, furniture rental, parking, or other items.
HSA CONTRIBUTION LIMITS
The IRS will allow taxpayers to make tax-free contributions and withdrawals from Health Savings Accounts as long as they go toward qualifying medical expenses. High-deductible health plans — with premiums ranging between $1,350 and $6,650 for singles and $2,700 and $13,300 for families — allow taxpayers to contribute up to $3,450 for single filers or $6,900 for families to HSAs without any tax implications.
NONBUSINESS ENERGY TAX CREDIT
The Nonbusiness Energy Property Credit covers materials that meet the efficiency standards of the Department of Energy. This includes home insulation, exterior doors, exterior windows and skylights, some roofing materials, electric heat pumps, various water heaters, central air conditioning, biomass stoves, furnaces, boilers, and advanced circulation fans. You can claim 10 percent of the minor improvements or 100 percent of the big ones, but you'll get only a maximum $500 credit for all years of improvements combined. It also sets credit limits for windows ($200), boilers ($150), fans ($50), and bigger jobs ($300).
RESIDENTIAL RENEWABLE ENERGY TAX CREDIT
If you're thinking about going solar, installing a small windmill, looking into geothermal heat, or experimenting with fuel cells, there's tax incentive to do so. You can get a 30 percent rebate on any of the above, but act quickly. If you don't install it by the end of 2019, the rebate drops every year until 2022.
CASUALTY, DISASTER AND THEFT LOSSES
In previous years, a taxpayer could get a deduction for any mishap that occurred in their home. But starting in 2018, the damage must have occurred during a federally declared disaster for a taxpayer to get that same deduction. This deduction may return in full in 2025, but for now it's limited to disaster areas.
The self-employed, including those with freelance income, can write off educational expenses for workshops, webinars, books, or other material that maintain or improve skills. While educational expenses to meet the minimum requirements of a trade or business — or related to getting into a new line of work — don't qualify, refresher courses, courses on current developments, and academic or vocational courses would. The deduction is the amount by which qualifying work-related expenses is greater than 2 percent of adjusted gross income.
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When is it worth to pay someone to prepare your taxes?
From my perspective, it’s always worth it to pay somebody to prepare your taxes. That said, whenever you’re going through a significant life change, that’s the time when you want to consider getting help with your taxes. So, if it’s the first time you’re filing, you want to work with a professional and get that objective advice and get educated on what are the things that you need to know. Then, whenever you have a big change like buying a house, getting married, having a baby, those kinds of things really have a lot of tax implications, and you don’t want to miss out. So that’s a great time to get help.
States where Americans pay the highest in state income taxes
States where Americans pay the highest in state income taxes
State income tax: 1% to 13.3%
State income tax: 5.8% to 10.15%
State income tax: 5% to 9.9%
State income tax: 5.35% to 9.85%
State income tax: 0.36% to 8.98%
State income tax: 1.4% to 8.97%
State income tax: 3.55% to 8.95%
State income tax: 4% to 8.95%
State income tax: 4% to 8.82%
State income tax: 1.4% to 8.25%
State income tax: 4% to 7.65%
State income tax: 1.6% to 7.4%
State income tax: 0% to 7%
State income tax: 3% to 6.99%
State income tax: 0.9% to 6.9%
State income tax: 1% to 6.9%
State income tax: 2.46% to 6.84%
State income tax: 2.2% to 6.6%
State income tax: 3% to 6.5%
State income tax: 1% to 6%
State income tax: 2% to 6%
State income tax: 2% to 6%
State income tax: 1.5% to 6%
State income tax: 3.75% to 5.99%
State income tax: 2% to 5.75%
State income tax: 5.75%
State income tax: 2% to 5.75%
State income tax: 0.5% to 5.25%
State income tax: 5.1%
State income tax: 2% to 5%
State income tax: 3% to 5%
State income tax: 5%
State income tax: 0.495% to 4.997%
State income tax: 1.7% to 4.9%
State income tax: 4.63%
State income tax: 2.7% to 4.6%
State income tax: 2.59% to 4.54%
State income tax: 4.25%
State income tax: 3.75%
State income tax: 3.3%
State income tax: 3.07%
State income tax: 1.1% to 2.9%
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How can I lower my taxable income?
For lowering your taxable income, you still have one more thing that you can do before April 15, and that’s contribute to an IRA. That’s a really cool thing. [You can contribute] up to $5,500 if you’re under 50, up to $6,500 if you’re over 50, and that’s taking that money off the top, so it’s lowering your taxable income — and you’re saving for retirement, which is really good thing to do.
What are the most common tax deductions that everyone should take advantage of?
Some of the most common tax deductions are dependent on where you are in your life. If you have kids, you need to be looking at all of the opportunities to claim, [including] childcare expenses and the child tax credit. If your child is older than 17, there’s now the new other dependent credit. There are a lot of child and family credits that are available. If you’re in school, there’s the American Opportunity Credit for the first four years of college. That’s up to $2,500 to help offset your tuition expenses. And now with tax reform, there’s this new 20 percent business income deduction that’s available for self-employed, freelancers and small business owners. There are a lot of different things that you need to get smart on depending on what your situation is, because you don’t want to miss out.
What’s the no. 1 thing you should not do when filing taxes?
The no. 1 thing that people should not do when it comes to their taxes is not file. We hear so many times, “I didn’t make enough money,” or “I think I’m going to owe,” or “I’m afraid so I’m not going to file my taxes.” The penalty for failing to file your taxes is so much higher than failing to pay your taxes. Even if you can’t pay, go ahead and file your tax return. You can always make up a payment plan later, and it will help keep those penalties low.
What is the main thing full-time employees with some freelance income should know when it comes to taxes?
If you are a full-time worker, you’re getting your payroll taxes withheld from your main job from your main employer. If you’re doing some freelance on the side, what you may not know is that you’re also going to have to pay taxes on that freelance income. So either you want to bump up what you’re getting withheld from your regular paychecks so that you don’t have to balance out your freelance, or start making some estimated projections and payments on your freelance income. That money that you’re getting on the side isn’t having taxes withheld, so you’ve got to plan for that.
Be sure to watch the video above for even more of Pickering’s best advice.
Cashing out or taking a loan on your 401(k) are two viable options if you're in need of funds. But, before you do so, here's a few things to know about the possible impacts on your taxes of an early withdrawal from your 401(k).
The IRS considers unemployment compensation to be taxable income—which you must report on your federal tax return. State unemployment divisions issue an IRS Form 1099-G to each individual who receives unemployment benefits during the year.
Say you happily filed your tax return by the end of February and were the envy of all your friends, but in June you realized you forgot to include income from last summer's freelance job. Don’t worry, all you need to do is file an amended return using Form 1040X.