Years ago, the fellow who was running the IRS at the time told Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine that he figured millions of taxpayers overpaid their taxes every year by overlooking just one of the money-savers listed here.
See our Slide Show: The Most-Overlooked Tax Deductions
We’ve added several new reminders this year and updated key details throughout this item for 2014.
State sales taxes
You may hear that this tax break expired . . . which it does regularly, only to be just as regularly revived by Congress.
That’s exactly what happened for purposes of 2015 returns. The break expired at the end of 2014 and then was revived retroactively in December 2015 to cover 2015 returns. But this time, Congress actually found the courage to make this break permanent. This is particularly important to you if you live in a state that does not impose a state income tax. You see, Congress offers itemizers the choice between deducting the state income taxes or state sales taxes they paid. You choose whichever gives you the largest deduction. So if your state doesn't have an income tax, the sales tax write-off is clearly the way to go.
In some cases, even filers who pay state income taxes can come out ahead with the sales tax choice. The IRS has tables that show how much residents of various states can deduct, based on their income and state and local sales tax rates. But the tables aren't the last word. If you purchased a vehicle, boat or airplane, you may add the sales tax you paid on that big-ticket item to the amount shown in the IRS table for your state. The IRS even has an online calculator that shows how much residents of various states can deduct, based on their income and state and local sales tax rates.
This isn't a tax deduction, but it is an important subtraction that can save you a bundle. And this is the one that former IRS commissioner Fred Goldberg told Kiplinger millions of taxpayers miss . . . costing them millions in overpaid taxes.
If, like most investors, you have mutual fund dividends automatically used to buy extra shares, remember that each reinvestment increases your tax basis in the fund. That, in turn, reduces the taxable capital gain (or increases the tax-saving loss) when you redeem shares. Forgetting to include reinvested dividends in your basis results in double taxation of the dividends—once in the year when they were paid out and immediately reinvested and later when they're included in the proceeds of the sale.
Don't make that costly mistake.
If you're not sure what your basis is, ask the fund for help. Funds often report to investors the tax basis of shares redeemed during the year. In fact, for the sale of shares purchased in 2012 and later years, funds must report the basis to investors and to the IRS.
Out-of-pocket charitable contributions
It's hard to overlook the big charitable gifts you made during the year, by check or payroll deduction (check your December pay stub).
But little things add up, too, and you can write off out-of-pocket costs incurred while doing work for a charity. For example, ingredients for casseroles you prepare for a nonprofit organization's soup kitchen and stamps you buy for a school's fund-raising mailing count as charitable contributions. Keep your receipts. If your contribution totals more than $250, you'll also need an acknowledgement from the charity documenting the support you provided. If you drove your car for charity in 2015, remember to deduct 14 cents per mile, plus parking and tolls paid, in your philanthropic journeys.
Student-loan interest paid by Mom and Dad
Generally, you can deduct interest only if you are legally required to repay the debt. But if parents pay back a child's student loans, the IRS treats the transactions as if the money were given to the child, who then paid the debt. So as long as the child is no longer claimed as a dependent, he or she can deduct up to $2,500 of student-loan interest paid by Mom and Dad each year. And he or she doesn't have to itemize to use this money-saver. (Mom and Dad can't claim the interest deduction even though they actually foot the bill because they are not liable for the debt.)
If you're among the millions of unemployed Americans who were looking for a job in 2015, we hope you were successful . . . and that you kept track of your job-search expenses or can reconstruct them. If you were looking for a position in the same line of work as your current or most recent job, you can deduct job-hunting costs as miscellaneous expenses if you itemize. Qualifying expenses can be written off even if you didn't land a new job. But such expenses can be deducted only to the extent that your total miscellaneous expenses exceed 2% of your adjusted gross income. (Job-hunting expenses incurred while looking for your first job don't qualify.) Deductible costs include, but aren't limited to:
- Transportation expenses incurred as part of the job search, including 57.5 cents a mile for driving your own car plus parking and tolls
- Food and lodging expenses if your search takes you away from home overnight
- Cab fares
- Employment agency fees
- Costs of printing resumes, business cards, postage, and advertising.
Moving expenses to get your first job
Although job-hunting expenses are not deductible when looking for your first job, moving expenses to get to that job are. And you get this write-off even if you don't itemize. To qualify for the deduction, your first job must be at least 50 miles away from your old home. If you qualify, you can deduct the cost of getting yourself and your household goods to the new area. If you drove your own car on a 2015 move, deduct 23 cents a mile, plus what you paid for parking and tolls. For a full list of deductible expenses, check out IRS Publication 521.
Military reservists' travel expenses
Members of the National Guard or military reserve may write off the cost of travel to drills or meetings. To qualify, you must travel more than 100 miles from home and be away from home overnight. If you qualify, you can deduct the cost of lodging and half the cost of your meals, plus an allowance for driving your own car to get to and from drills. For 2015 travel, the rate is 57.5 cents a mile, plus what you paid for parking fees and tolls. You may claim this deduction even if you use the standard deduction rather than itemizing.
Deduction of Medicare premiums for the self-employed
Folks who continue to run their own businesses after qualifying for Medicare can deduct the premiums they pay for Medicare Part B and Medicare Part D, plus the cost of supplemental Medicare (medigap) policies or the cost of a Medicare Advantage plan. This deduction is available whether or not you itemize and is not subject to the 7.5% of AGI test that applies to itemized medical expenses for those age 65 and older. One caveat: You can't claim this deduction if you are eligible to be covered under an employer-subsidized health plan offered by either your employer (if you have a job as well as your business) or your spouse's employer (if he or she has a job that offers family medical coverage).
A credit is so much better than a deduction; it reduces your tax bill dollar for dollar. So missing one is even more painful than missing a deduction that simply reduces the amount of income that's subject to tax. In the 25% bracket, each dollar of deductions is worth a quarter; each dollar of credits is worth a greenback.
You can qualify for a tax credit worth between 20% and 35% of what you pay for child care while you work. But if your boss offers a child care reimbursement account—which allows you to pay for the child care with pretax dollars—that’s likely to be an even better deal. If you qualify for a 20% credit but are in the 25% tax bracket, for example, the reimbursement plan is the way to go. (In any case, only amounts paid for the care of children younger than age 13 count.)
You can't double dip. Expenses paid through a plan can't also be used to generate the tax credit. But get this: Although only $5,000 in expenses can be paid through a tax-favored reimbursement account, up to $6,000 for the care of two or more children can qualify for the credit. So if you run the maximum through a plan at work but spend even more for work-related child care, you can claim the credit on as much as $1,000 of additional expenses. That would cut your tax bill by at least $200.