Home > Taxes > Tax Tip: Credits v. Deductions

Tax Tip: Credits v. Deductions

Credits and deductions will reduce your tax liability, but credits provide a bigger bang for the buck.  Tax credits provide a dollar-for-dollar reduction in your tax liability, whereas deductions reduce your taxable income.  Thus, the economic benefit of a particular deduction is determined by your tax rate. 

The following is a simple illustration.  In 2010, each individual is granted a $3,650 personal exemption.  A personal exemption can only be claimed by one taxpayer and requires a valid Social Security Number.  Assuming that your marginal tax rate is 25%, you save $912.50 in taxes as a result of your personal exemption. Thus, your tax rate determines your tax savings.  Contrast this with the $400 making work pay credit, which will reduce your tax liability by $400.  Thus, all else being equal, a credit is more valuable than a deduction.

Although credits are more valuable than deductions, you usually don’t have a choice of which benefit you will take.  With few exceptions, the rules define if you get a credit or a deduction.  One exception relates to higher education expenses.  You may choose to take an education credit or a tuition deduction.  Depending upon your situation, you may find the deduction generates a greater benefit.

How can this be?  Well… in the world of tax credits, not all credits are created equal.  There is a distinction between refundable credits and nonrefundable credit.  A refundable credit (e.g., the earned income credit) can actually pay you money, even if you owe (or paid) no taxes.  A nonrefundable credit (e.g., child and dependent care credit) can only reduce your tax liability to a certain threshold (even zero).  Thus, a nonrefundable credit will only refund money that you previously paid, but a refundable credit can actually put dollars in your pocket that you didn’t pay.  You probably aren’t surprised that most credits are nonrefundable.

To make matters worse, many credits are limited to the dreaded alternative minimum tax (AMT).  When utilizing these credits, you can’t reduce your tax liability below the alternative minimum tax (e.g., education credits).  As a result, you may qualify for an education tax credit, but not be able to realize the full benefit of it, because of your AMT liability.

As you can imagine, there are more potential deductions than credits, and more nonrefundable credits than refundable ones.  It may seem rather obvious, but it’s helpful to understand the distinction.  You might be disappointed if you equate a deduction with a nonrefundable credit that is subject to AMT.   It can be confusing, so if you have questions or are unsure, consult a tax professional for further guidance.

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