Money·4 min read

Credits & Deductions: The Fun (Tax) Stuff

tax credits and deductions
Design: theSkimm | Photo: iStock
December 29, 2021

Doing taxes probably isn't your idea of a good time. Deductions and credits are here to change your mind.

I'll bite. Tell me about tax deductions and tax credits.

We'll start with some definitions.

Tax deductions 

…indirectly lower your tax bill by lowering your taxable income — by subtracting eligible costs you've paid throughout the year.

Tax credits

…are even better. Because it's a dollar-for-dollar discount. Meaning a $1,000 tax credit lowers your tax bill by $1,000.

Say more about deductions.

It's a two-parter:

The standard deduction 

…is what the IRS lets you subtract from your taxable income, no questions asked. For single filers, the 2021 standard deduction is typically $12,550. Double that if you’re married and filing jointly. But it could be higher or lower based on your age, whether you’re blind or if someone claims you as a dependent. The IRS’s Interactive Tax Assistant can give you a final answer.

Itemized deductions

…require you to do some HW. As in, make a list of everything you paid for during the tax year that could qualify. You’ll find yourself asking ‘is this deductible?’ a lot. It could be a 'yes' to medical expenses that add up to a certain percentage of your income, mortgage interest, property taxes, certain biz costs, and charitable donations.

Am I more of a 'standard' or 'itemized' person?

Be a 'whichever saves more money' person. Taking the standard deduction is nice and easy. But itemizing could help you avoid leaving money on the table. Look back at your receipts and do the math.

A fun exception to the rule: "above-the-line deductions." Aka deductions you can claim without itemizing. Think: traditional IRA contributions; HSA contributions; up to $300 in charitable donations (given by December 31, 2021); and up to $2,500 in student-loan interest (if you’ve paid off interest on your federal student loans while they've been paused, that is).

Keep in mind that income limits often apply when it comes to tax breaks. Read: if you make above a certain amount, how much of a break you qualify for may be lowered — or, in tax-speak, "phased out." Earning more than the uppermost limit means no break for you.

I've heard something about a home-office tax deduction. Do I qualify since I've been WFH?

That tax break is currently reserved for the self-employed. So if you're still a full-time employee, no luck. But if you've turned to freelance/contract work or picked up a side gig, then maybe. It depends on if your home workspace is dedicated to biz only (meaning your kitchen-table-office-combo doesn't count...sorry). And if it's the primary place where you work.

Got it. Ready for tax credits.

Here are some commonly claimed credits:

  • The Child Tax Credit currently gets you $3,000 per kid age 17 and under (or 3,600 for kids under age 6). For 2021, half of your child tax credit started coming in monthly payments in July. You can claim the other half when you file your return. 

  • The American Opportunity Tax Credit helps offset the high cost of higher education. It’s worth up to $2,500 a year for each eligible student in your household. And 40% of it (up to $1,000) is refundable.

  • The Saver's Credit is Uncle Sam’s way of rewarding you for planning ahead. It gets you 10-50% of your qualified retirement contribution, worth up to $1,000 for single filers and $2,000 for joint filers. 

You might also qualify for state and local tax credits by doing things like installing an energy-efficient water heater or solar panels. Green recognize green. 


Credits and deductions are the MVPs of tax season — giving you the discounts you deserve, and keeping more money in your wallet.

Updated Dec. 29 to include details for 2021 tax filings.

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