If you believe that tax breaks are for millionaires and
companies with offshore subsidiaries, you're probably paying too
much to the IRS.
In recent years, lawmakers have enacted dozens of tax
incentives targeted at middle-class families. Taking full
advantage of these tax breaks is particularly important for
dual-income couples because there's a good chance they'll get hit
by the marriage penalty--when two individuals pay more in taxes
as a married couple than they would pay if they were both
The tax code offers a slew of incentives for starting a
family, saving for retirement and educating yourself and your
Take a look at these nine options and make sure you're not
Breaks for Saving for Retirement
Anyone with earned income (meaning income from work rather
than investments) can contribute to a traditional IRA, but not
everyone who contributes can claim a tax deduction. That's a
no-no for the rich if they're covered by a retirement plan at
Here's how the deduction rules operate for traditional IRAs:
First, there's a limit on how much you can contribute each
year--$5,500 ($6,500 if you'll be at least 50 years old by the
end of the year) or 100% of your earned income, whichever is
less. If you're not enrolled in a 401(k) or some other workplace
retirement plan, you can deduct your IRA deposits no matter how
high your income. But if you're enrolled in such a plan, the
right to the IRA deduction is phased out as 2014 income rises
between $60,000 and $70,000 on a single return or between $96,000
and $116,000 if you're married and file jointly with your
Spouses with little or no earned income can also make an IRA
contribution of up to $5,500 ($6,500 if 50 or older) as long as
the other spouse has sufficient earned income to cover both
contributions. The contribution is tax-deductible as long as
income doesn't exceed $173,000 on a joint return. You can take a
partial tax deduction if your combined income is between $181,000
and $191,000. The limits only apply if one spouse participates in
an employer plan. If neither does, there are no income limits for
taking a deduction.
The limits only apply if one spouse participates in an
employer plan. If neither does, there are no income limits for
taking a deduction.
The IRA deduction is an "above the line" adjustment to income,
meaning you don't have to itemize your deductions to claim it. It
will reduce your adjusted gross income dollar for dollar,
lowering your tax bill. And your lower adjusted gross income
(AGI) could make you eligible for other tax breaks, which
disappear at higher income levels. See other
above the line deductions that have extra
Of course, no one gets to deduct contributions to Roth IRAs.
That's the trade-off for getting tax-free withdrawals in
retirement, rather than the taxable cash that comes out of
traditional IRAs. (Folks with incomes over $129,000 on a single
return or $191,000 on a joint return can't even contribute to a
Roth IRA, although there are no income limits on Roth
Save and Be Credited
If you are single and have adjusted gross income of $30,000 or
less, or you are married and have AGI of $60,000 or less, you can
make out even better on a retirement contribution through the
Saver's Tax Credit.
The credit is a potential bonanza for part-time workers who
fall within the income limits. You can claim a tax credit worth
10% to 50% of the amount you put in, up to a maximum credit of
$1,000 ($2,000 for joint filers). Contributions to a workplace
plan, such as a 401(k) or 403(b), as well as contributions to a
traditional, Roth or SEP IRA, are eligible for this credit.
The lower your income, the higher the percentage you get back
via the credit. Some key exceptions: Taxpayers under age 18,
full-time students and those claimed as dependents on their
parents' returns are not eligible, regardless of their
And here's the beauty of a credit compared with a deduction:
While deductions reduce the amount of your income that can be
taxed, credits reduce the amount of tax you owe--dollar for
dollar. You'll need
IRS Form 8880
Get Paid (More) for Working
The government provides an incentive for people to work: the
Earned Income Tax Credit.
For 2014, the maximum EITC ranges from $496 to $6,143, depending
on your income and how many children you have. This program,
originally conceived in the 1970s, has been expanded several times,
and some states (and even municipalities) have created their own
This program, originally conceived in the 1970s, has been
expanded several times, and some states (and even municipalities)
have created their own versions.
Part of what makes it popular: When the federal EITC exceeds the
amount of taxes owed, it results in a tax refund--a check back to
you. In essence, you're no longer a taxpayer. But, you have to act
to claim the credit by filing--a step many don't take.
The income limits on this program are fairly low. If you have no
kids, for example, your earned income and adjusted gross income
(AGI) must each be less than $14,590 if you're single and $20,020
if you're married filing jointly. If you have three or more kids
and are married, though, your earned income and AGI can be as high
as $52,427. The exceptions are considerable--more complicated than
we can list here--but the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities
helpful online calculator
to help you determine eligibility.
Your Child, Your Credit
With a new baby also comes a $1,000 child tax credit to lower-
and middle-income earners, and this is a gift that keeps on
giving every year until your dependent son or daughter turns
You get the full $1,000 credit no matter when during the year
the child was born (which is why people make gags about speeding
deliveries as the New Year approaches).
Unlike a deduction that reduces the amount of income the
government gets to tax, a credit reduces your tax bill dollar for
dollar. So the $1,000 child credit will reduce your tax bill by
$1,000. The credit begins to disappear as income rises above
$110,000 on joint returns and above $75,000 on single and
head-of-household returns--although there's no limit to how many
kids you may claim on a return, as long as they qualify.
And for some lower-income taxpayers, the credit is
"refundable," meaning that if it's worth more than your income
tax liability, the IRS will issue you a check for the difference,
as with the EITC.
Get Credit for That Child's Care
You may also qualify for a tax credit that will reduce the
cost of child care. If your children are younger than 13, you're
eligible for a 20% to 35% credit for up to $3,000 in child-care
expenses for one child or $6,000 for two or more. The percentage
decreases as income increases. Eligible expenses include the cost
of a nanny, preschool, before- or after-school care and summer
Another way to reduce child-care expenses is to participate in
your employer's flexible spending account for dependent-care
expenses. With these accounts, money is deducted from your gross
salary before income, Social Security and Medicare taxes. You can
contribute up to $5,000 per year.
You can't claim the child-care credit for expenses covered by
a flexible spending account. In general, families that earn more
than $43,000 will save more with a flexible spending account,
says Laurie Ziegler, an enrolled agent in Saukville, Wis.
However, even then, you may be able to use the child-care credit
to offset expenses not covered by your flex account. If you paid
for the care of two or more children and contributed the maximum,
you can use the dependent- care credit to cover up to an
additional $1,000 in child-care costs.
Zero Tax on Capital Gains
For most people, long-term capital gains (and qualified
dividends) are taxed at 15 or 20%--a bargain by historical
That's why some people get so exercised about a rule that
allows hedge-fund managers to pay tax at the capital-gains rate
rather than at rates for ordinary income, which top out at
But investors in the two lowest income tax brackets pay no tax
at all on their capital gains and dividends. That could be a boon
to retirees, who have a higher standard deduction than younger
taxpayers and who are not taxed on some or all of their Social
Security benefits, and the unemployed, who may have had to tap
their investments to make ends meet.
To take advantage of the 0% capital-gains rate for 2014, your
taxable income can't exceed $36,900 if you are single; $48,600 if
you are a single head of household with dependents; or $73,800 if
you are married filing jointly. Note that this is taxable income.
That's what's left after you subtract personal exemptions--worth
$3,950 each in 2014 for you, your spouse and your dependents--and
your itemized deductions or standard deduction from your adjusted
American Opportunity Credit
This tax credit, which has been extended through 2017, is
available for up to $2,500 of college tuition and related
expenses (but not room and board) paid during the year. The full
credit is available to individuals whose modified adjusted gross
income is $90,000 or less ($180,000 or less for married couples
filing a joint return). The credit is phased out for taxpayers
with incomes above those levels.
The American Opportunity Credit is juicier than the old Hope
Credit--it has higher income limits and bigger tax breaks, and it
covers all four years of college. And if the credit exceeds your
tax liability (whether derived from the regular income tax or the
alternative minimum tax), up to 40% of it is refundable. For
example, suppose you owe $1,900 in federal taxes and qualify for
the full credit. The nonrefundable portion of the credit will
reduce your tax bill to $400, and the first $400 of the
refundable portion will lower your bill to zero. You'll receive
the remaining $600 as a tax refund.
Lifetime Learning Credit
If you want to get additional education--for virtually any
reason and at virtually any school--you can tap the Lifetime
Learning Credit. The credit is calculated as 20% of up to $10,000
of qualified expenses, so you can get back $2,000 per year.
The income limits for the Lifetime Learning Credit are $63,000
if single and $127,000 if married, and you can't claim both this
credit and the American Opportunity Credit for the same student
in the same year. Also, no double dipping allowed: Expenses paid
with funds from other tax-favored tuition programs, such as a
Coverdell ESA, don't count when figuring either credit.
More Education Breaks for Middles
If neither the American Opportunity Credit nor the Lifetime
Learning Credit breaks your way, there are still other ways the
government offers favorable tax treatment for learning--and
limits the breaks to the middle class and below.
1) Got a student loan around your neck? You can deduct up to
$2,500 of interest paid on the loan each year, so long as your
modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) is less than $75,000
($155,000 if filing a joint return). The former student can
deduct this even if it's actually Mom and Dad who are paying the
2) Interest on savings bonds is usually subject to federal
income tax. However, interest on Series EE and I bonds issued
after 1989 can be tax-free when used to pay for qualified
education expenses, if you meet certain requirements. This
benefit phases out when your 2014 MAGI is between $113,950 and
$143,950 for those filing jointly, and between $76,000 and
$91,100 for single filers.
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