Still haven’t done your taxes yet? Me either. Lucky us: we get an extra three days this year. But you should still get on that.
Of course, a big part of the procrastination is sheer laziness—amplified by the drudgery of virtual paperwork. But there also might be an element of fear—after all, it’s the government and your hard-earned money you’re dealing with, and you don’t want to screw that up.
If you aren’t freelance—or you’re a freelancer who pays quarterly taxes—you’re probably looking at getting some money back, which should make taxes a pretty exciting proposition if you know how to do them correctly. (If you are freelance and didn’t pay quarterly taxes ’cause no one ever told you that was a thing, you’ll likely owe some money, which makes getting yourself the best possible deal even more urgent.) You could pay someone to maximize your refund, but doesn’t that sort of defeat the purpose? Online tax automators like H&R Block and TurboTax have made it easy enough that it’s hard to justify outsourcing—even just to your parents.
So maybe do your own taxes like a responsible, upstanding citizen—but also, let’s try and get every penny you legally can back from the government. No shame in that.
It’s all about mastering the deductions, I say from a place of relative ignorance. But if there’s anything I have learned lately, it’s don’t be afraid of the IRS website. Their Credits & Deductions page is thorough, largely jargon-free, and augmented by a tool that will walk you through a series of questions to figure out if you apply for certain tricky items.
(Deductions lower your taxable income, while Credits come off your tax bill —nonrefundable ones apply up until you break even with the government, while refundable ones keep adding on even once you’re owed money back. Basically, if you are taxed at 30 percent, a $100 deduction is worth $30, while an $100 credit is worth the full $100. Credits are better—but harder to come by. Let’s focus on deductions.)
Still don’t know where to start? Let’s look at some common underutilized deductions; it’s unlikely all of these will apply to you, but a few might.
Pre-tax benefits. I asked Priya Malani, the founder of Stash Wealth, for help, and she emphasized taking advantage of any pre-tax opportunities offered through your company. You should already be contributing to a 401(k) if your company offers it, but since that money is taken out before taxes, it’s essentially being deducted from your taxable income. The same is true of any money contributed to an FSA/HSA. (Flex spending accounts and health savings accounts, respectively.) You have to already be contributing to these accounts for them to apply this year, but it’s something to keep in mind for 2016 if you’re looking to bolster your refund (and take care of Future You).
Non-working spouse IRA. If you don’t have a company 401(k) and instead contribute to an individual retirement account for both yourself and a non-working spouse, the money in both your account and your spouse’s (even though they’re not earning any money from which to “deduct” it) is deductible. This is a pretty specific scenario, but if it applies, it’s a generous deduction.
Education costs. Up to $2,500 of student loan interest is deductible on qualified loans, and the IRS has a designated tool for determining if your loan applies. You can deduct up to $4,000 on tuition if you or one of your dependents is currently a student. This only applies below a certain income level, so if you and your parents are jointly covering education costs, it’s more likely that you’ll be able to deduct it—but only if you’re not still listed as their dependent. There’s a tool for this, too.
Teachers’ costs. Are you a teacher? Great, this one is simple: You can deduct up to $250 in educational and classroom materials, even without having to itemize the rest of your deductions.
Networking while unemployed. Technically, you can deduct the cost of any business meeting (like the dinner you ate while talking to clients), but a good company will likely have already reimbursed you for this. But if you’re unemployed, the costs of finding business (networking events, taking a potential employer out to lunch) aren’t reimbursed, and are therefore deductible.
Moving expenses. If you have to relocate for a new job, you might be able to deduct moving expenses. The fine print here involves how far the new job was from your old home as compared to your old job, but assuming it’s a major move that definitely applies, go ahead and deduct. This falls under the itemized deductions, so you’ll have to decide if this (and any other itemized deductions) will outweigh the standard deduction, set at $6,300 for someone filing as a single person this year. If you employer reimburses your moving costs up to a certain amount, you can still deduct any fees incurred beyond that in the move.
Charitable donations. These are also itemized, so you’ll have to have been very generous last year (or else also moved, or incurred other itemized deductions) for this to really add up, but it never hurts to keep receipts from any contributions given throughout the year. This applies both to monetary gifts as well as donating items like clothing to Goodwill. For the latter, keep track of the market worth of anything you donated. One way this might have a major impact? If you donate something that has appreciated since you got it. So if you buy a piece of art for $100 and later donate it to a gallery at a time when it’s worth $1,000, you get to deduct the full grand—even though you never paid that amount out of pocket.
Home office, maybe. If you work from home, you likely want to deduct a portion of your rent or renovation costs, right? Well, be careful about that. According to Priya, a home office deduction is a red flag that often gets you audited by the IRS—and they’re not kidding about the exclusion clause. The space has to be for work only, and even if you just pass through it to get to other living spaces, it might not qualify.
Still confused? At least any money you spend hiring a tax consultant is also deductible.