Although many strategies to save on your income taxes must be locked in before the end of the year, there are still numerous ways you can reduce your tax bill right up until the filing deadline, which has been pushed back to Monday April 18th due to a holiday on April 15th. Some of these strategies are time tested and available every year, but with all of the legislative changes made during the past two years to deal with the pandemic, there are also a few opportunities that won’t be around much longer, with some only available this year. While there are dozens of potential tax breaks you may qualify for, here are 7 of the leading moves you can make to save big on your 2021 tax return.
1. Max Out Your Retirement Account Contributions
The lower your income is, the lower your taxes will be, and tax-advantaged retirement plans, such as 401(k)s, 403(b)s, and individual retirement accounts (IRAs), are a great way to reduce your taxable income and save for retirement at the same time. And you have until the April tax-filing deadline to add money to your plan for the previous tax year, so you still have time to contribute.
For those with workplace retirement plans, such as a 401(k), 403(b), and most 457 plans, you can contribute up to $20,500 in 2022, up from $19,500 in 2021. For those 50 and older, you can make an extra catch-up contribution up to $6,500 in 2022 (no change from 2021) for a total contribution of $27,000.
For those with IRAs, both traditional IRAs and Roth IRAs, you can contribute up to $6,000 in both 2021 and 2022, or $7,000 for those 50 or older. However, the ability to deduct your traditional IRA contributions from your taxes comes with certain limitations, depending on whether you or your spouse is covered by a retirement plan at work and your adjusted gross income (AGI). Roth contributions are not tax deductible, since they are made after taxes are taken out; however, withdrawals from a Roth in retirement are tax-free.
Note: RMDs Reinstated For 2021
Although you are typically required to take an annual required minimum distribution (RMD) from your traditional IRA, 401(k), or other tax-advantaged retirement account starting in the year you turn 72, the CARES Act waived the RMD requirement for 2020 due to the pandemic. The waiver also applied if you reached age 70 ½ in 2019, but waited to take your first RMD until 2020.
However, RMDs were reinstated in 2021, so if you are 72 or older, you were required to make a withdrawal from your retirement account before the end of 2021. Similarly, if you reached age 70 ½ in 2019 and your RMD in 2020 was waived, your 2021 RMD was also required to occur by Dec. 31, 2021. And if you reached age 72 in 2021, your 2021 RMD is required to occur by April 1, 2022.
If you failed to distribute the RMD, you may owe a 50% penalty on the amount not distributed. That said, you may be able to avoid the penalty by requesting a waiver from the IRS. You can request a waiver if your failure to take the RMD is due to a reasonable error, and you take steps to make the required distribution. To request a waiver, submit Form 5329 to the IRS, with a statement explaining the error and the steps you are taking to correct it.
2. Contribute To A Health Savings Account As with tax advantaged retirement plans, if you have a high-deductible health insurance plan, you may be able to reduce your taxable income by contributing to a health savings account (HSA), which is a tax-exempt account you can use to pay medical expenses. The deadline for making a 2021 contribution to your HSA is April 15, 2022.
HSAs offer three different tax breaks: Contributions are tax-deductible, they allow for tax-free growth, and withdrawals are tax-free if they are used to pay for qualified medical expenses.
For 2021, if you had self-only health coverage, you could have contributed up to $3,600. For 2022, the individual coverage contribution limit is $3,650. If you have family coverage, the limit was $7,200 in 2021 and is $7,300 in 2022. And if you're 55 or older, you can add an extra $1,000 catch-up contribution to your HSA.
To be eligible, you must have a high-deductible health insurance plan with a minimum deductible of $1,400 for self-only coverage or $2,800 for family coverage. The maximum out-of-pocket expenses cannot exceed $7,000 for a self-only plan or $14,000 for a family plan.
3. Claim The New Expanded Child Credit
The American Rescue Plan’s expanded child tax credit was made fully refundable in 2021, and it was increased up to $3,600 per child through age 5, and up to $3,000 per child aged 6 to 17. Dependents who are 18 can qualify for $500 each. Dependents aged 19 to 24 may also qualify, but they must be enrolled in college full-time.
Eligible families automatically received half the total of the payments in advance monthly payments between July and December 2021, unless they opted out. When eligible parents file their taxes in 2022, they'll get the remainder of the benefit they didn't receive through advance monthly payments. If you did not receive the advance payments because you opted out or didn’t receive them for some other reason, you can claim the full credit when you file in April.
Because the IRS based these payments on your 2020 tax return, a change in income or the number of qualifying dependents in 2021 could have resulted in an overpayment. If so, you’ll have to pay that back when you file in April.
Even if you made little to no income, you are still eligible for the child tax credit, though payments begin to phase out when your AGI reaches $75,000 for single filers, and $150,000 for joint filers. To find out where you stand with this credit, visit the Child Tax Credit Update Portal on the IRS website.
4. Take The Increased Deduction For Charitable Donations
The CARES Act allowed for up to a $300 deduction per tax return for charitable donations in 2020, even for those taxpayers who don't itemize. For 2021, this benefit expanded to up to $300 per person. This means if you are a married couple filing jointly, you could be eligible for up to a $600 deduction for your charitable giving last year, even if you take the standard deduction, which increased to $12,550 for single filers and $25,100 for joint filers in 2021.
5. Claim The Increased Child & Dependent Care Credit
If you care for a child under age 13, or a spouse, parent, or another adult dependent who is unable to care for themselves, you may be able to get up to 50% back as a tax break or refund for your care-related expenses. For 2021, the amount you can claim maxes out at $8,000 for one dependent and $16,000 for two or more.
For 2021 only, this credit is fully refundable, meaning that you can receive money even if you don't owe taxes. Note that this credit is different from the child tax credit mentioned above, and qualifying for the child tax credit does not affect your eligibility for this credit and vice versa. Learn more about the requirements for the Child and Dependent Care Credit on the IRS website.
6. Claim The American Opportunity Tax Credit
The American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC) provides undergraduate college students or their parents with an annual tax credit up to $2,500 for eligible education expenses incurred during the first four years of college. The credit can be used to cover 100% of the first $2,000 spent on tuition, books, school fees, and other supplies (excluding living expenses or transportation) plus 25% of the next $2,000 for a total of $2,500.
To qualify, the student must be pursuing a degree or credential and be enrolled at least half-time for one academic period (semester, trimester, or quarter) beginning in 2021 or the first three months of 2022. The credit can be claimed for a maximum of four years, and it can be claimed by the student or their parents provided they paid the expenses and the student is listed as a dependent on their tax return.
The full credit is available for individual filers with an AGI of $80,000 or less or $160,000 or less for joint filers. A reduced credit is available for individuals with an AGI over $80,000 but less than $90,000 or over $160,000 but less than $180,000 for joint filers. Taxpayers who earn more than that can’t claim the credit. The credit is partially refundable, so you can still receive 40% of the credit (up to $1,000) even if you had no income or owed no taxes.
7. Claim The Lifetime Learning Credit
The Lifetime Learning Credit (LLC) is another tax credit for qualifying educational expenses, but it’s slightly different from the American Opportunity Credit. The credit can be used to cover 20% of the first $10,000 spent on tuition and school fees for a maximum of $2,000. Unlike the AOTC, the LLC does not generally cover books or other supplies (unless those books or supplies were required to be purchased to take the course), and it also does not cover living expenses or transportation.
The LLC is not just for undergraduates; it applies to undergraduate, graduate, and non-degree or vocational students, and there’s no limit on the number of years you can claim it. To qualify for the LLC, the student must be enrolled in at least one course for an academic period beginning in 2021 or the first three months of 2022. The credit can be claimed by the student or their parents provided they paid the expenses and the student is listed as a dependent on their tax return.
The full credit is available for individual filers with an AGI of less than $59,000 or less than $118,000 for joint filers. A reduced credit is available for individuals with an AGI between $59,000 and $69,000 or between $118,000 to $138,000 for joint filers. Those who earn more than $69,000 or $138,000 can’t claim the credit.
The LLC is not refundable, so you can use the credit to pay any taxes you owe, but you won’t get any of the credit back as a refund. Additionally, you can't claim both the American Opportunity Tax Credit and the Lifetime Learning Credit in the same year.
Maximize Your Tax Savings for 2021 These are just a few of the tax breaks available for 2021. There are plenty of other deductions and credits that your family might qualify for depending on your circumstances.
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