How To Get a Bigger Tax Refund: 7 Ways to Keep More of Your Money

Most people don’t want to pay more taxes than what the government requires. Having to unnecessarily hand over more money to the IRS or your state’s tax department makes it harder to achieve your financial goals. If you count on your annual tax refund to pay off debt or cover another significant expense, maximizing your tax credits and deductions will help to increase your payout. Figuring out how to get a bigger tax refund can be easy when you follow these suggestions.

Table of Contents
  1. How To Calculate Your Tax Refund
  2. Check Your Filing Status
  3. Claim Above-the-Line Tax Deductions
  4. File an Itemized Return
  5. Claim Tax Credits
  6. Contribute to Retirement Accounts
  7. Health Savings Accounts
  8. Look for COVID Tax Breaks
  9. Summary

How To Calculate Your Tax Refund

Here is a quick refresher of some of the factors that can determine whether you get a tax refund or owe a tax liability:

  • Filing status: Single; Head of Household; Married, Filing Jointly; Married, Filing Separately.
  • W-4 Tax Allowances: Not withholding enough during the year may require you to owe a liability. A higher withholding reduces your take-home pay but you’re more likely to get an end-of-year tax refund as you pay too much tax during the year.
  • Tax deductions: These items reduce your taxable income and finalize your adjusted gross income (AGI).
  • Tax credits: Minimize the amount of tax you owe but do not reduce your income subject to taxation.

Here is the difference between a tax credit and a tax deduction.

Check Your Filing Status

Did you know? You can adjust your tax allowances to withhold more or less of your paycheck for income tax. Your tax filing status can also impact your potential refund amount. Most people either file Single or Married, Filing Jointly. If you’re married or have dependents, an alternative filing status can be more beneficial under special circumstances.

Married couples can use the “Married, Filing Separately” instead of the default “Married, Filing Jointly.” Filing separately can allow one spouse to itemize their tax deductions with the standard deduction ($12,550 in the tax year 2021 for individuals), but you won’t qualify for as many tax credits and deductions. Here are some of the deductions you may miss out on:

  • Earned income tax credit
  • Student loan interest deduction
  • Child and dependent care expenses
  • Adoption credit

You may also consider claiming “Head of Household” instead of single to be eligible for more tax benefits potentially. Your tax advisor can help you decide if switching your tax status is advantageous.

Claim Above-the-Line Tax Deductions

Above-the-line tax deductions are one of the easiest ways to increase your tax refund amount as you don’t have to file an itemized return. In addition to automatically qualifying for the standard deduction, you might be eligible for these deductions:

  • Student loan interest deduction: Up to $2,500 in paid student loan interest
  • Educator expenses: Teachers can deduct $250 ($500 for joint tax returns.)
  • Self-employed business expenses: You might be able to deduct business-related expenses if you have a side hustle or earn self-employment income.
  • Alimony: Only alimony payments from 2018 or earlier are tax-deductible.
  • Medical insurance premiums: Most employers let you pay the employee portion of health insurance with pre-tax income. You can deduct your premium if you pay with after-tax dollars if you’re self-employed or have an exchange-provided plan.
  • Tax-advantaged accounts: Contributing to tax-advantaged investment and health savings accounts can reduce your taxable income. However, you may need to pay income taxes
  • Investment losses and expenses: You can report realized investment losses to offset your capital gains. In addition, if you own investment properties, you can deduct property taxes and ongoing expenses to reduce your taxable income.
  • Online tax software will help you find which deductions you’re eligible for with an extensive tax interview.

You can also see which pre-tax deductions your employer offers for employee benefits. These benefits can include:

  • Health insurance
  • Group-term life insurance
  • Commuting expenses
  • Childcare
  • Retirement plans

With these deductions, your employer deducts the amount from your gross income and reduces your taxable income. Then, you pay taxes on the remaining amount of your paycheck.

File an Itemized Return

Below-the-line deductions are only available if you can file an itemized return. Some of the itemizable deductions include:

  • Home mortgage interest
  • Charitable contributions
  • Medical expenses
  • State and local taxes (SALT)
  • Property losses from a federally declared disaster

The deduction limits are different for each one. For example, you may only deduct up to $10,000 in state and local taxes ($5,000 for single filers). In addition, qualifying medical expenses must exceed 7.5% of your modified adjusted gross income. Your combined balance in itemized deductions must exceed the standard deduction for your filing status to apply these deductions.

The deduction amount for each filing status is the following in 2021:

  • Single or Married, Filing Separately: $12,550
  • Married, Filing Jointly: $25,100
  • Head of Household: $18,800

These deduction minimums are high, and most taxpayers will claim the standard deduction instead.

Claim Tax Credits

Tax credits can also boost your refund amount by reducing your tax liability dollar-for-dollar. However, you will need to distinguish between refundable and non-refundable credits:

  • Non-refundable tax credits: These credits reduce your income tax down to $0. Unfortunately, you don’t receive any excess credit as a refund but might be able to carry over some of the remaining balance to next year’s taxes.
  • Refundable tax credits: You receive any remaining balance as a tax refund in addition to canceling out your tax liability.

There are several ways to qualify for a tax credit. Some are based on your earned income or the number of dependents. Other credits can partially reimburse some of your spending for education or energy-efficient home improvements like installing solar panels. Here are some of the most popular tax credits to keep an eye on:

  • Child Tax Credit (CTC): Up to $3,600 per child in 2021 (usually $2,000 per child).
  • Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC): Funds for low and moderate-income families
  • Child and Dependent Care: Up to $3,000 for one child or $6,000 with two or more children.
  • Adoption: Up to $14,300 in eligible adoption-related expenses per child.
  • American Opportunity Tax Credit: Parents or students can receive up to $2,500 for qualifying tuition and expenses
  • Lifetime Learning Credit: Up to $2,000 for tuition and other expenses.
  • Premium Tax Credit: Income-based tax credit that reduces your annual health insurance premiums for marketplace plans.
  • Solar Tax Credit: Up to 22% for home solar systems installed from 2020-2022. The credit reduces to 20% in 2023.
  • Saver’s Credit: Up to $1,000 for singles ($2,000 if filing jointly) when contributing to a tax-advantaged retirement plan. However, your annual income must be relatively low as it completely phases out at $33,000 for singles and $66,000 for couples in 2021.

It can be easy to overlook some of these credits. However, if you qualify, tax credits can be more beneficial than tax deductions, especially if it’s a refundable credit.

Contribute to Retirement Accounts

Traditional retirement plan contributions are another easy way to reduce your taxable income, and the contribution grows tax-deferred. But you will pay income taxes on the withdrawal amount in the future. Here are the annual contribution limits for 2022:

  • IRA: $6,000 ($7,000 if you’re age 50 or older) (no change from 2021)
  • 401k: $20,500 ($27,000 if you’re age 50 or older) (a small increase from 2021)

The contribution limit applies to your combined contributions for traditional and Roth accounts. So, for instance, if you contribute $6,000 to a traditional IRA, you cannot add to your Roth for that tax year. Also, the annual contribution limit is for each taxpayer.

If you’re married, you and your spouse can each contribute $6,000 into your IRA and $20,500 into an employer-provided plan to max out your retirement savings. As a result, retirement account contributions can be one of the easiest ways to get a bigger tax refund with no dependents.

The IRA funding deadline is the same as the federal income tax deadline (usually on or around April 15th) if you’re looking for a last-minute tax deduction. That’s April 15 most years, including in 2022 for your 2021 income taxes. Our 401k vs. IRA comparison can help you decide which retirement plan option is better.

Finally, when you make contributions to these accounts, make sure to read up on the Retirement Savings Contribution Credit because it can put even more money in your pocket. Based on your adjusted gross income, you could get a sizable credit.

Health Savings Accounts

Contributions to a tax-advantaged medical savings account can also help you get a bigger tax refund. If you have an eligible high deductible health plan (HDHP), your best option can be a health savings account (HSA). Your contributions are tax-deductible and most likely tax-free for most medical costs. Here are the annual contribution limits for 2022:

  • Individuals: $3,650 (+$1,000 if age 55 or older)
  • Families: $7,300 (+$1,000 if age 55 or older)

If you don’t qualify for an HSA, your employer may offer other tax-advantaged savings accounts that you can fund with pre-tax income contributions:

  • Flexible spending arrangements (FSAs)
  • Health reimbursement accounts (HRAs)
  • Medical savings accounts (MSAs)

Look for COVID Tax Breaks

For a limited time, you might be able to claim coronavirus-related tax breaks.

  • Non-itemized charity donation: Non-itemizers can claim a $300 charitable contribution tax deduction ($600 if married, filing jointly) for tax year 2021.
  • Itemize up to 100% of charity donations: For tax year 2021, you can itemize charitable contributions amounting up to 100% of your adjusted gross income. Usually, you can only deduct up to 60% of your taxable income.
  • Recovery rebate credit: You can claim the remaining amount when filing your taxes if you only received a partial stimulus check or an advanced child tax credit during the year. This is possible if you add a dependent in 2021 or your income is below the income phaseouts the IRS used to estimate your original credit amount.

Summary

Now that you know how to get a bigger tax refund, you may want to utilize some or all of the tactics I’ve covered in this article to improve your tax situation. Keep in mind, it’s never a bad idea to consult with a tax professional who can help you maximize any eligible tax deductions and credits.

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About Josh Patoka

After graduating in $50k with student loans in May 2008 from Virginia Military Institute with a B.A. International Studies and Political Science with a minor in Spanish (he studied abroad in Sevilla, Spain for 3 months), Josh decided to sell his soul for seven years by working in the transportation industry to get out of debt ASAP and focus on doing something else with a better work-life balance.

He is a father of three and has been writing about (almost) everything personal finance since 2015. You can also find him at his own blog Money Buffalo where he shares his personal experience of becoming debt-free (twice) and taking a 50%+ pay cut when he changed careers.

Today, Josh relishes the flexibility of being self-employed and debt-free and encourages others to pursue their dreams. Josh enjoys spending his free time reading books and spending time with his wife and three children.

Opinions expressed here are the author's alone, not those of any bank or financial institution. This content has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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