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All About Tax Credits

If you were unhappy with last year’s income tax bill, there are several ways to reduce your overall tax burden before April 15 arrives. You can try to qualify for as many tax deductions and exemptions as possible. Or, you can find out if you’re eligible to receive a tax credit. Taxpayers often work with a financial advisor to guide them through claiming different types of credits. Let’s take a look at the credits that you could be eligible for and how they work.

What Is a Tax Credit?

A tax credit lowers the amount of money you must pay the IRS. Not to be confused with deductions, tax credits reduce your final tax bill dollar for dollar. That means that if you owe Uncle Sam $5,000, a $2,000 credit would shave $2,000 off your total tax bill.

Unlike the value of tax deductions (which reduce your taxable income), the value of tax credits doesn’t hinge on marginal tax brackets. So the value of a tax credit for a wealthy person who pays a high marginal tax rate would be the same as the value to someone making a lot less money who pays a lower rate.

Tax deductions actually lower your taxable income, or the amount of your money that’s subject to taxation. You can get a deduction for your IRA contributions, for example. Instead of paying taxes on a $50,000 salary, you’d be paying taxes on a smaller amount once you deduct your IRA contributions.

Most Americans take the standard deduction rather than itemize their deductions. You should note that the Trump tax plan overhauled the tax code in 2017 to nearly doubling standard deductions in 2020. Therefore taxpayers who itemized their 2017 taxes will not benefit from itemizing their 2020 taxes, since they usually claim the option that lowers their tax bill the most.

Tax credits by comparison are a bit harder to come by. They usually take the form of incentives that encourage certain actions or serve as benefits for low-to-moderate-income individuals who meet certain requirements.

Find out now: How much do I need to save for retirement?

Types of Tax Credits

All About Tax Credits

Generally, tax credits can be refundable or nonrefundable. When you have a refundable tax credit like the Earned Income Tax Credit, you receive part of the credit as a tax refund if it reduces your tax bill to a negative number. In other words, if you receive a $1,000 refundable tax credit but your tax bill is only $500, you’ll get a $500 tax refund.

With a non-refundable tax credit, on the other hand, you won’t end up with a refund if your tax liability falls below zero. So if you have a $2,500 non-refundable credit (like the Adoption Tax Credit) but you only owe $1,000, the extra $1,500 won’t be accessible to you. Some tax credits are partially refundable, meaning that part of the credit can be added to your tax refund.

As an example of a tax credit, let’s break down the Saver’s Credit, which allows taxpayers to claim a percentage of their contributions (either 50%, 20% or 10%) based on their filing status and adjusted gross income. So for tax year 2020, which has to be filed by April 15, 2021, single tax filers who saved for retirement and had an AGI under $33,000 could qualify for a maximum credit of $1,000 ($2,000 if filing jointly).

Other credits benefit electric car owners or parents with childcare expenses. An exhaustive list is available on the IRS website, but the following are some additional federal tax credits you might be eligible to claim for the 2020 tax year:

  • Non-business Energy Property Credit
  • Residential Energy Efficient Property Credit
  • American Opportunity Tax Credit
  • Lifetime Learning Credit
  • Child Tax Credit
  • Premium Tax Credit
  • Health Coverage Tax Credit
  • Foreign Tax Credit
  • Mortgage Interest Credit
  • Low-Income Housing Credit
  • Qualified Fuel Cell Motor Credit
  • Credit for Tax on Undistributed Capital Gain

There are also state-specific tax credits such as California’s Renter’s Credit. You can find out more about these tax breaks by visiting your state government’s website for tax information.

Related Article: What Can You Deduct at Tax Time?

Tax Credit Cuts and Changes

From time to time, the government makes changes to tax credits. Some programs are extended or expire after a certain period of time. And some have income thresholds that go up or down from one year to the next.

With the Earned Income Tax Credit, for instance, the 2020 tax credit threshold is $15,820 if you’re single and you have no children. To get the credit, your earned income and adjusted gross income can’t be higher than that amount. For 2016, however, the threshold rises to $15,980.

Congress has the authority to keep or eliminate federal tax credit programs. Two examples include the elimination of the Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC) and the Employer Wage Credit for Activated Military Reservists. The former (WOTC) was a federal tax credit that benefited employers who hired veterans, ex-cons and other groups of people who have traditionally had a difficult time entering certain workplaces. The latter helped small businesses who paid National Guard and Reserve members part of their regular salaries even after they were called to serve.

Keep in mind that expiring or eliminated programs can be extended retroactively, letting taxpayers claim certain credits that have already expired. When changes are made, families and businesses are affected in a variety of ways. In some cases, they can be left at a financial disadvantage when there are major adjustments.

Bottom Line

All About Tax Credits

Tax credits help lower Americans’ tax burdens each year. Whether you receive a credit through the purchase of a first home or by making energy-saving adjustments, you can potentially save hundreds or thousands of dollars. By doing some research, you might discover some tax credits that you can use to cut your tax bill for the current tax year or the following one.

Tips for Planning Your Taxes

  • There are plenty of tax credits, and a financial advisor can help you find them to minimize your tax burden each year. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with financial advisors in your area in 5 minutes. If you’re ready to be matched with local advisors who can help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.
  • If you lost money on an investment, a financial advisor who specializes in tax planning can harvest your losses to offset your tax liability.
  • Tax software can also make filing easier. Our best tax software roundup will help you pick the right one for your needs.
  • If you want to get ahead of the tax filing deadline, SmartAsset’s free income tax calculator can help you figure out how much you will likely pay in income taxes.

Photo credit: ©iStock.com/jonas unruh, ©iStock.com/Alphotographic, ©iStock.com/DragonImages

Amanda Dixon Amanda Dixon is a personal finance writer and editor with an expertise in taxes and banking. She studied journalism and sociology at the University of Georgia. Her work has been featured in Business Insider, AOL, Bankrate, The Huffington Post, Fox Business News, Mashable and CBS News. Born and raised in metro Atlanta, Amanda currently lives in Brooklyn.
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