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Which Shares Should I Sell When Using the Specific Identification Cost Basis Method?

A reader writes in, asking:

“With regard to selecting a ‘cost basis method’ for a brokerage account, Vanguard and others say that the specific identification method may allow for ‘greater tax efficiency’ than other methods. I get that the specific identification method lets me choose which shares to sell, so I have more control. But how should I actually decide which shares are the most tax efficient ones to sell?”

As a bit of background, selecting a cost basis method is important when investing in a taxable brokerage account, because it affects how your capital gains/losses are calculated whenever you sell shares of any of your holdings.

Example: You have a taxable brokerage account in which you own 1,000 shares of Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund, purchased over several years, at various prices. Now you place an order to sell 200 shares. For the purpose of reporting capital gain or loss on the sale, which 200 shares (out of the 1,000 that you own) will be sold? It depends on which cost basis method you are using.

The three options for cost basis method are:

  • Specific identification, in which you tell the brokerage firm which specific shares you are selling;
  • First-in-first-out, in which it is always assumed that you are selling your oldest shares of the holding in question; and
  • Average cost, in which, for each holding, the total cost basis of all of your shares is added together, then divided by the number of shares you own, for the sake of calculating an average basis per share. And then each share is considered to have that average basis. (In other words, for a given holding, all of your shares are considered to be the same as each other.)

The specific ID method requires the most work, because you have to choose which shares to sell. In addition, you have to keep records of all of your purchases and sales in order to track the basis for each of the shares you own. (For shares purchased after 2011 the brokerage firm will track this for you, as long as you have told them you want to use the specific identification method. But it’s wise to keep records yourself as well.)

But the upside of the specific ID method is that whenever you sell shares, you can sell the shares that are most tax-efficient to sell at that time.

In most cases, that means selling the shares with the highest cost basis — with the reasoning being that doing so results in the smallest capital gain (and therefore the lowest tax cost) or the largest loss (and therefore the greatest tax savings).

However, there are two important exceptions.

First, if selling the shares with the highest cost basis would mean realizing a short-term capital gain (because you’ve held those shares for 1 year or less), then you might want to sell other shares instead. Short-term capital gains are taxed at ordinary income tax rates, whereas long-term capital gains are taxed at lower tax rates. So instead of selling your highest-basis shares, you might want to sell your highest-basis shares out of the shares that you’ve held for longer than one year.

Second, if your taxable income including capital gains is below (for 2018) $38,600 if single or $77,200 if married filing jointly, long-term capital gains have a 0% tax rate. So you may want to sell the shares with the lowest cost basis. That is, you may want to “harvest” the largest gain possible.

For More Information, See My Related Book:

Book6FrontCoverTiltedBlue

Taxes Made Simple: Income Taxes Explained in 100 Pages or Less

Topics Covered in the Book:
  • The difference between deductions and credits,
  • Itemized deductions vs. the standard deduction,
  • Several money-saving deductions and credits and how to make sure you qualify for them,
  • Click here to see the full list.

A testimonial from a reader on Amazon:

"Very easy to read and is a perfect introduction for learning how to do your own taxes. Mike Piper does an excellent job of demystifying complex tax sections and he presents them in an enjoyable and easy to understand way. Highly recommended!"

What *Didn’t* Change as a Result of the New Tax Law?

Quick book-related update: The 2018 edition of Social Security Made Simple is now available (print version here, Kindle version here). The changes are minor, so I’m using the same ISBN as the 2017 edition, which means that the Amazon page will still show the 2017 publication date.

And the writing is finished for the 2018 edition of Taxes Made Simple. My estimate is that the book will be available in roughly 2-3 weeks.

The single topic that readers have asked about most often over the last month or so has been the new deduction for pass-through business income. To my surprise though, there has been another type of email that has been even more common: questions about various things that haven’t changed at all. That is, people want confirmation that certain things weren’t changed by the broad new tax law.

“Is Social Security taxation changing?” (Nope.)

“Has the premium tax credit changed?” (Nope.)

And so on.

So, with that in mind, here’s a non-exhaustive list of things that are essentially unchanged as a result of the new law. (I say “essentially” unchanged, because many of these these deductions/credits/etc. involve dollar amounts that are inflation-adjusted each year. And, going forward, they will be adjusted based on chained CPI-U rather than CPI-U.)

  • The calculation that determines how much of your Social Security benefits are taxable
  • Retirement accounts (aside from the new inability to recharacterize — undo — a Roth conversion)
  • Cost basis tracking/reporting (i.e., the proposed change that would have forced people to use the FIFO method for identifying shares did not occur)
  • The step-up in cost basis that occurs when property is inherited
  • The 3.8% net investment income tax
  • The 0.9% additional Medicare tax for high earners
  • Medicare and Social Security taxes in general (including self-employment tax)
  • Health Savings Accounts (HSAs)
  • Deduction for self-employed health insurance
  • Deduction for student loan interest
  • Itemized deduction for charitable contributions
  • American Opportunity Credit
  • Lifetime Learning Credit
  • Child and dependent care credit (not to be confused with the child tax credit, which has changed, and which in some cases can now be claimed for dependents other than your children)
  • Retirement savings contribution credit
  • Premium tax credit
  • Earned income credit
  • Credit for purchasing a plug-in electric drive vehicle
  • Residential energy credit (for purchasing solar panels or a solar hot water heater for your home)

Hopefully, this should wrap up our discussion of the new tax law — at least for now. I’m looking forward to discussing some non-tax topics in upcoming articles.

For More Information, See My Related Book:

Book6FrontCoverTiltedBlue

Taxes Made Simple: Income Taxes Explained in 100 Pages or Less

Topics Covered in the Book:
  • The difference between deductions and credits,
  • Itemized deductions vs. the standard deduction,
  • Several money-saving deductions and credits and how to make sure you qualify for them,
  • Click here to see the full list.

A testimonial from a reader on Amazon:

"Very easy to read and is a perfect introduction for learning how to do your own taxes. Mike Piper does an excellent job of demystifying complex tax sections and he presents them in an enjoyable and easy to understand way. Highly recommended!"

How Do I Calculate My Income Tax Refund?

The following is an excerpt from my book Taxes Made Simple: Income Taxes Explained in 100 Pages or Less.

Many taxpayers in the U.S. have come to expect a sizable refund check every tax season. To some people who don’t prepare their own tax returns, it’s a mystery how the refund is calculated.

The idea is really quite simple. After calculating your taxable income, you use the information in the tax tables to determine your total income tax for the year. This amount is then compared to the amount that you actually paid throughout the year (in the form of withholdings from your paychecks). If the amount you paid is more than your tax, you are entitled to a refund for the difference. If the amount you paid is less than your tax, it’s time to get out the checkbook.

Withholding: Why It’s Done

If you work as an employee, you’re certainly aware that a large portion of your wages/salary doesn’t actually show up in your paycheck every two weeks. Instead, it gets “withheld.”

The reason for this withholding is that the federal government wants to be absolutely sure that its gets its money. The government knows that many people have a tendency to spend literally all of the income they receive (if not more). As a result, the government set up the system so that it would get its share before taxpayers would have a chance to spend it.

The amount of your pay that gets withheld is based upon an estimate of how much tax you’ll be responsible for paying over the course of the year. (This is why you are required to fill out Form W-4, providing your employer with some tax-related information, when you start a new job.)

Withholding: How It’s Calculated

At this point you may be thinking, “OK. Well I just learned that I’m in the __% tax bracket, and it’s obvious that my employer is withholding way more than that!”

You’re probably right. That’s because your employer isn’t just withholding for federal income tax. They’re also withholding for Social Security tax, Medicare tax, and (likely) state income tax.

The Social Security tax is calculated as 6.2% of your earnings, and the Medicare tax is calculated as 1.45% of your earnings. Before you’ve even begun to pay your income taxes, 7.65% of your income has been withheld.

Your refund is determined by comparing your total income tax to the amount that was withheld for federal income tax. Assuming that the amount withheld for federal income tax was greater than your income tax for the year, you will receive a refund for the difference.

EXAMPLE: Nick’s total taxable income (after subtracting deductions) is $32,000. He is single. Using the tax table for single taxpayers, we can determine that his federal income tax is $3,649.50.

Over the course of the year, Nick’s employer withheld a total of $8,500 from his pay, of which $4,000 went toward federal income tax. His refund will be $350.50 (i.e., $4,000 minus $3,649.50).

Simple Summary

  • Every year, your refund is calculated as the amount withheld for federal income tax, minus your total federal income tax for the year.
  • A large portion of the money being withheld from each of your paychecks does not actually go toward federal income tax. Instead, it goes to pay the Social Security tax, the Medicare tax, and possibly state income tax.

For More Information, See My Related Book:

Book6FrontCoverTiltedBlue

Taxes Made Simple: Income Taxes Explained in 100 Pages or Less

Topics Covered in the Book:
  • The difference between deductions and credits,
  • Itemized deductions vs. the standard deduction,
  • Several money-saving deductions and credits and how to make sure you qualify for them,
  • Click here to see the full list.

A testimonial from a reader on Amazon:

"Very easy to read and is a perfect introduction for learning how to do your own taxes. Mike Piper does an excellent job of demystifying complex tax sections and he presents them in an enjoyable and easy to understand way. Highly recommended!"

Tax-Loss Harvesting

One useful thing you can do with your portfolio during market declines is check your taxable accounts for opportunities to tax-loss harvest. (Note: tax-loss harvesting does not apply to IRAs or other tax-sheltered accounts.)

To explain what tax-loss harvesting is, let’s look at an example.

Mary is in the 24% tax bracket. At the beginning of the year, Mary bought $100,000 of Vanguard Total International Stock Index Fund in her taxable account. And let’s imagine that as of today, it’s worth approximately $93,000. To tax-loss harvest, Mary would sell that fund, thereby recognizing a $7,000 capital loss. And Mary would use the proceeds from the sale to purchase another fund to serve as a replacement in her portfolio.

Mary can use the $7,000 capital loss to offset any capital gains she realized this year. And if Mary’s capital losses exceed her capital gains for the year, she can use up to $3,000 of her net capital loss to offset ordinary income, thereby reducing her income tax by $720 (i.e., $3,000 x 24%). If she still has remaining capital losses after that, they can be carried forward to be used in future years (subject to the same limitation).

What’s the Point?

You may have noticed, however, that when you eventually sell the replacement fund, your capital gain will be larger than it would have been had you not tax-loss harvested (because the replacement fund will have been purchased at a lower price than the original fund).

To return to our example above, if Mary uses her $93,000 to purchase Vanguard FTSE All-World Ex-US Index, which she sells a few years later for $130,000, her long-term capital gain will be $37,000 rather than $30,000.

So did Mary still come out ahead? Yes, for a few reasons.

First, if nothing else, she deferred her taxes for a few years — in essence getting an interest-free loan from Uncle Sam.

Second, if she was able to use any of her $7,000 capital loss to offset ordinary income (or short-term capital gains), then the capital loss saved her money at a rate of 24% (because she’s in the 24% tax bracket). When she sells the replacement fund, the long-term capital gain will be taxed at a lower rate (likely 15%).

Finally, if Mary had ended up dying before she sold the fund, the savings from tax-loss harvesting would be pure profit (because her heirs will receive the fund’s current market value as their cost basis when they inherit it).

When to Tax-Loss Harvest

Many investors check for tax-loss harvesting opportunities right before the end of the year — when they start thinking about taxes. While that’s perfectly fine, it can be advantageous to check several times throughout the year. Investments can be volatile, and it’s entirely possible that a tax-loss harvesting opportunity will arise early in the year, only to disappear before year-end.

Potential Pitfall: The Wash Sale Rule

The place where people often trip up is by accidentally triggering the “wash sale” rule. A wash sale occurs when you:

  1. Sell an investment for a loss, and
  2. Buy “substantially identical” securities within 30 days before or after the sale.

When a wash sale occurs, the loss is disallowed. Fortunately, the cost basis of your new shares is adjusted upward by an amount equal to the disallowed loss so that when you sell the shares in the future — assuming you don’t trigger the wash sale rule yet again — you’ll be able to claim the loss (or, depending on circumstances, a smaller capital gain).

Example: Catherine buys 100 shares of a stock at $38 per share. A few months later, Catherine sells the shares for $25 per share. Five days later, she buys another 100 shares of the same stock at $29 per share. Because she bought new shares within 30 days of the sale, the wash sale rule will be triggered, and Catherine’s loss of $13 per share will be disallowed. Her cost basis in the new shares, however, will be $42 per share ($29 purchase price + $13 from the disallowed loss), thereby allowing for a larger capital loss or smaller capital gain when she sells the shares in the future.

Wash Sales Due to a Spouse’s Transactions

Some investors hope to avoid the wash sale rule by having their spouse buy a particular investment at the same time that they sell it for a loss. But, as explained in IRS Publication 550this does not work. For the purpose of triggering a wash sale, your spouse buying or selling an investment has the same effect as you buying or selling the investment.

Wash Sales Due to Buying in an IRA

Other investors try to avoid a wash sale by selling an investment for a loss in their taxable account, then buying the same investment in their IRA — with the idea being that the IRA is titled differently than the taxable account, so it would not trigger a wash sale.

This doesn’t work either. Buying a “substantially identical” investment in your IRA (whether Roth or traditional) within 30 days of the sale will result in a wash sale.

Wash Sales Due to Buying Within 30 Days Prior to Sale

Finally, many investors think of wash sales as only occurring if you re-buy the investment shortly after selling it. That is, they forget that a wash sale can occur if you buy shares within 30 days prior to the sale.

Example: On January 1, Josh buys 100 shares of Vanguard Total Stock Market ETF in his brokerage account for $60 per share. On January 15, Josh buys another 100 shares for $58 per share. On January 20, Josh sells 100 shares, at a price of $56 per share. Josh has a wash sale. His loss will be disallowed and added to the cost basis of his remaining 100 shares.

Note, however, that you do not need to worry about wash sales if you liquidate all of your shares of a given investment and you do not repurchase substantially identical securities within 30 days.

Example: On January 1, Lucy buys 100 shares of Vanguard Total Stock Market ETF in her brokerage account, at a price of $60 per share. On January 10, Lucy sells her 100 shares for $55 per share, and she does not purchase substantially identical securities in any of her accounts within the next 30 days. Lucy will be able to claim her loss of $5 per share, despite the fact that a purchase occurred within 30 days prior to the sale.

Wash Sales from Buying in a 401(k)

Update: A few readers asked whether a wash sale can be triggered when, after selling an investment for a loss in a taxable account, substantially identical securities are purchased in a 401(k) or 403(b).

This answer is a bit trickier. Section 1091 of the Internal Revenue Code is the law that creates the wash sale rule. It doesn’t mention retirement accounts at all. The rule about wash sales being triggered from purchases in an IRA comes from IRS Revenue Ruling 2008-5. If you read through the ruling, you’ll see that it speaks specifically to IRAs and does not mention 401(k) or other employer-sponsored retirement plans.

To the best of my knowledge, there is no official IRS ruling that speaks specifically to wash sales being created by a transaction in a 401(k). In other words, I’m not aware of any source of legal authority that clearly says that a purchase in a 401(k) would trigger a wash sale.

However, in my opinion, it seems pretty clear that the line of reasoning in the above-linked revenue ruling would apply to employer-sponsored retirement plans as well as IRAs.

So, personally, I would not be comfortable taking a position on a tax return that’s based on the assumption that purchases in a 401(k) cannot trigger a wash sale. But that’s just my personal opinion. Others may disagree.

What Makes Two Mutual Funds “Substantially Identical”?

Update #2: Several readers also wrote in with questions about how to know whether two mutual funds are “substantially identical” for the purposes of triggering a wash sale.

Unfortunately, I’m not aware of any official IRS position providing a cut-and-dried test to determine whether two mutual funds are substantially identical. From what I gather, challenging people on the wash sale rule is just not a top priority from a tax enforcement standpoint.

Personally, my standard is this: If the IRS did challenge my position, and I ended up in court having to make the case that these two funds were not substantially identical, would I feel confident about my chance of success? Unless the answer is “yes, absolutely,” I’d choose a different (less similar) mutual fund.

For example, I would not be comfortable making the case that the following are not substantially identical:

  • The ETF version and the mutual fund version of a given Vanguard index fund,
  • Two index funds or ETFs that track the same index (even if their holdings are not identical), or
  • Two “total market” index funds, even if they track slightly different indexes.

In short, I would probably not want to use a given fund as a tax loss harvesting partner for another fund unless I could not only show that the underlying portfolios are different, but also provide a chart showing that the two funds really do perform noticeably differently. But, as with the previous question, this is one in which other people could rationally reach a different conclusion.

Finally, as author Taylor Larimore often reminds investors at the Bogleheads forum: If you want to tax loss harvest with a particular fund, and you don’t want to worry about finding a replacement fund that’s similar but not substantially identical, you can always just wait 31 days after the sale, then re-buy the original fund.

For More Information, See My Related Book:

Book6FrontCoverTiltedBlue

Taxes Made Simple: Income Taxes Explained in 100 Pages or Less

Topics Covered in the Book:
  • The difference between deductions and credits,
  • Itemized deductions vs. the standard deduction,
  • Several money-saving deductions and credits and how to make sure you qualify for them,
  • Click here to see the full list.

A testimonial from a reader on Amazon:

"Very easy to read and is a perfect introduction for learning how to do your own taxes. Mike Piper does an excellent job of demystifying complex tax sections and he presents them in an enjoyable and easy to understand way. Highly recommended!"

Tax Deduction and Credits for College Expenses

The following is an excerpt from my book Taxes Made Simple: Income Taxes Explained in 100 Pages or Less.

Given that the tax law is (usually) set up to reward things that Congress has decided are beneficial to our country, it’s no surprise that there are tax breaks available to people paying for higher education expenses.

Education Credits

If you pay higher education expenses for yourself, your spouse, or your dependent, you may be entitled to one (or both) of two credits: the Lifetime Learning Credit or the American Opportunity Credit.

Lifetime Learning Credit

The Lifetime Learning Credit may be available to you if you pay postsecondary education expenses for a student. The credit is calculated as 20% of the first $10,000 of qualified education expenses that you pay in a given year. (Note that this means that the maximum credit per tax return is $2,000.)

Your eligibility to claim the Lifetime Learning Credit begins to decrease as your modified adjusted gross income exceeds $57,000 for 2018 ($114,000 if married filing jointly). Once your MAGI reaches $67,000 ($134,000 if married filing jointly), you’ll no longer be eligible to use the credit.

There is no limit to the number of years that the Lifetime Learning Credit can be used for a given student.

In order to qualify for the Lifetime Learning Credit, the expenses must be paid to a university, college, vocational school, or other postsecondary educational institution. Eligible expenses include tuition, fees, and other course-related expenses that are required to be paid to the institution as a condition for enrollment or attendance. The course must be part of a postsecondary degree program or taken by the student to acquire or improve job skills.

EXAMPLE: Jack is attending school to be a filmmaker. In addition to his tuition, he’s required to pay $500 per semester for use of the school’s film studio. Because he is required to pay the $500 to the school in order to attend classes, the expense can be included as a qualifying education expense.

EXAMPLE: Lee is attending school for a degree in Spanish. Each semester, he is required to buy several textbooks and DVDs to use for his courses. However, because his school doesn’t require him to buy the materials from the school — he could buy them online on Amazon, for instance — the cost does not count as a qualifying education expense.

Two more points of note about qualifying expenses:

  1. Room and board does not count as a qualifying education expense.
  2. It doesn’t matter whether or not the money used to pay the expenses was obtained with a loan.

American Opportunity Credit

The American Opportunity Credit (a modification of what used to be called the Hope Credit) is available for students who are in their first four years of postsecondary education and who are enrolled at least “half-time.” The amount of the credit is the sum of the first $2,000 of qualified education expenses paid for the student, plus 25% of the next $2,000 of qualified expenses. (Note that this means that the maximum credit per student is $2,500.)

Your eligibility to claim the American Opportunity Credit begins to decrease as your modified adjusted gross income exceeds $80,000 ($160,000 if married filing jointly). Once your MAGI reaches $90,000 ($180,000 if married filing jointly), you’ll no longer be eligible to use the credit.

In addition to the expenses that can be used when calculating the Lifetime Learning Credit, expenditures for “course materials” can be used for purposes of calculating the American Opportunity Credit. “Course materials” includes books and supplies needed for a course, whether or not the materials are purchased from the educational institution as a condition of enrollment or attendance.

How the Credits Work Together

For a given student, you can claim either the Lifetime Learning Credit or the American Opportunity Credit in a given year, not both.

EXAMPLE: Katie and Alex are siblings. Alex is a freshman in college, and Katie is a senior (in her fifth year of college). With the help of some student loans, their family spends $20,000 for tuition for each of them for the year.

The family should probably claim the American Opportunity Credit for Alex, because it will allow for a credit of $2,500, as opposed to the $2,000 that would be allowed via the Lifetime Learning Credit. Also, by not using the Lifetime Learning Credit for Alex, the family can still use the Lifetime Learning Credit for Katie. (Katie is ineligible for the American Opportunity Credit, because she is in her fifth year of college.) In total, the family will be able to claim $4,500 of education-related credits.

Student Loan Interest Deduction

If you pay interest on student loans, you may be able to deduct that interest (up to $2,500 per year) as an above the line deduction. In order to qualify:

  1. The loan must be taken out solely to pay for qualified higher education expenses,
  2. You (and your spouse, if you’re married) must not be claimed as a dependent on another person’s return, and
  3. If married, you must file jointly.

The $2,500 limit for the deduction is reduced as your modified adjusted gross income exceeds (for 2018) $65,000 ($135,000 if married filing jointly). Once your modified adjusted gross income reaches $80,000 ($165,000 if married filing jointly), you will no longer be eligible for the deduction.

Simple Summary

  • If you pay postsecondary education expenses for yourself, your spouse, or your dependent, you may be eligible for the Lifetime Learning Credit (of up to $2,000). Only one Lifetime Learning Credit can be claimed per tax return per year.
  • If you pay higher education expenses for yourself, your spouse, or your dependent, you may be eligible to claim the American Opportunity Credit (of up to $2,500 per student).
  • For a given student’s expenses each year, you can use either the American Opportunity Credit or the Lifetime Learning Credit, not both.
  • If you pay student loan interest, you may qualify for an above the line deduction for the amount of interest paid, up to $2,500.

For More Information, See My Related Book:

Book6FrontCoverTiltedBlue

Taxes Made Simple: Income Taxes Explained in 100 Pages or Less

Topics Covered in the Book:
  • The difference between deductions and credits,
  • Itemized deductions vs. the standard deduction,
  • Several money-saving deductions and credits and how to make sure you qualify for them,
  • Click here to see the full list.

A testimonial from a reader on Amazon:

"Very easy to read and is a perfect introduction for learning how to do your own taxes. Mike Piper does an excellent job of demystifying complex tax sections and he presents them in an enjoyable and easy to understand way. Highly recommended!"

The Difference Between Exemptions, Deductions, and Credits

The following is an excerpt from my book Taxes Made Simple: Income Taxes Explained in 100 Pages or Less.

In short, the difference between deductions, exemptions, and credits is that deductions and exemptions both reduce your taxable income, while credits reduce your tax.

Exemptions

For 2017, you were entitled to an exemption of $4,050 for yourself, one for your spouse, and one for each of your dependents.

EXAMPLE: Kevin and Jennifer are married, with a combined income of $80,000 in 2017. They have four children, whom they claim as dependents. They will be allowed six exemptions of $4,050 each. As a result, their 2017 taxable income will be reduced by $24,300.

For 2018 and future years, however, exemptions will no longer exist. (This is one of the big changes from the new tax law.)

Deductions

Deductions generally arise from your expenses. For example, a deduction is allowed for interest paid on student loans.

EXAMPLE: Carlos is in the 12% tax bracket. Over the course of the year, he paid $2,000 in student loan interest. This $2,000 decrease in his taxable income will save him $240 in taxes ($2,000 x 12%).

Types of Deductions

Deductions are often grouped into two categories:

  1. “Above the line” deductions, and
  2. “Below the line” deductions (also referred to as “itemized” deductions).

Every year, you can claim all of the above the line deductions for which you qualify, as well as:

  1. The itemized deductions for which you qualify, or
  2. A fixed amount known as the “standard deduction.” (In 2018, the standard deduction is $12,000 for a single taxpayer or $24,000 for a married couple filing jointly.)

Here’s how it looks mathematically:

Total income (sum of all your income)
Above the line deductions
=  Adjusted gross income ← “The Line”
Standard deduction or itemized deductions
=  Taxable income

A key point here is that above the line deductions are always valuable, whereas itemized deductions are only valuable if and to the extent that they (in total) exceed your standard deduction amount. That is, if your itemized deductions in a given year are less than the standard deduction you’ll simply claim the standard deduction in that year rather than using your itemized deductions. And your itemized deductions will therefore not provide you with any tax savings.

Some common above the line deductions include contributions to a traditional IRA, contributions to a Health Savings Account (HSA), and interest paid on student loans.

Common itemized deductions include charitable contributions, the interest on a home mortgage, and medical/dental expenses.

EXAMPLE: Eddie is a single taxpayer. During the year he contributes $3,000 to a traditional IRA, and he makes a charitable contribution of $1,000 to the Red Cross. He has no other deductions, and his income (before deductions) is $50,000.

The IRA contribution is an above the line deduction, and the charitable donation is an itemized deduction. Using our equation from above, we get this:

$50,000 total Income
$3,000 Above the line deductions
= $47,000 Adjusted Gross Income ← “the line”
$12,000 Standard deduction
= $35,000 Taxable Income

Important observations:

  1. Eddie’s itemized deductions ($1,000) are less in total than his standard deduction ($12,000). As such, Eddie’s charitable contribution doesn’t provide him with any tax benefit, because he’ll elect to use his standard deduction instead of his itemized deductions.
  2. Eddie’s above the line deduction provides a tax benefit even though he’s using the standard deduction.

Again, itemized/below the line deductions only help when they add up to an amount greater than your standard deduction. Above the line deductions, on the other hand, are always beneficial.

Credits

Unlike deductions, credits reduce your taxes directly, dollar for dollar. After determining the total amount of tax you owe, you then subtract the dollar value of the credits for which you are eligible. This makes credits particularly valuable.

Credits arise from a number of things. Most often, they are the result of the taxpayer doing something that Congress has decided is beneficial for the community. For example, you are allowed a credit of up to $2,500 for paying “qualified education expenses” for one of your dependents. If you meet the requirements to claim the maximum credit, your tax (not taxable income) will be reduced by $2,500.

“Pre-Tax Money”

You’ll often hear the term “pre-tax money,” generally used in a context along the lines of, “You can pay for [something] with pre-tax money.” This means one of two things:

  1. The item is deductible, or
  2. The item can be paid for automatically in the form of a payroll deduction.

The reason these situations are sometimes referred to as “pre-tax” is that you get to spend this money before the government takes its cut. This makes it more cost-effective for you.

You may, from time to time, run across people who are under the impression that something is free simply because it’s deductible or because they were allowed to spend pre-tax money on it. This is a severe misunderstanding. Being able to spend pre-tax money on something is more akin to getting a discount on it than it is to getting the item for free.

Simple Summary

  • Deductions reduce your taxable income. Aside from the standard deduction, deductions generally arise from your expenses.
  • Each year, you can use either your standard deduction or the sum of all your itemized (below the line) deductions.
  • Above the line deductions are particularly valuable because you can use them regardless of whether you use your standard deduction or itemized deductions.
  • Credits, unlike deductions, reduce your tax directly (as opposed to reducing your taxable income). Therefore, a credit is more valuable than a deduction of the same amount.

For More Information, See My Related Book:

Book6FrontCoverTiltedBlue

Taxes Made Simple: Income Taxes Explained in 100 Pages or Less

Topics Covered in the Book:
  • The difference between deductions and credits,
  • Itemized deductions vs. the standard deduction,
  • Several money-saving deductions and credits and how to make sure you qualify for them,
  • Click here to see the full list.

A testimonial from a reader on Amazon:

"Very easy to read and is a perfect introduction for learning how to do your own taxes. Mike Piper does an excellent job of demystifying complex tax sections and he presents them in an enjoyable and easy to understand way. Highly recommended!"
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