3 min

How Much Do You Have to Make to Pay Taxes?

Sep 12, 2022
in a nutshell
  • Here are a few factors before you face a tax bill: your filing status, your age, and whether you’re being claimed as a dependent.
  • Gross income is all the money you’ve made in the tax year, including earned income from your salary, wages, tips or bonuses.
  • If you owe little to no taxes, you should focus on tax credits that are refundable so you’ll be able to cash them in.
Image of The IRS sets a minimum income at which it will collect taxes, but it is not a simple one-size-fits-all. Here’s how much you have to make to pay taxes.
in a nutshell
  • Here are a few factors before you face a tax bill: your filing status, your age, and whether you’re being claimed as a dependent.
  • Gross income is all the money you’ve made in the tax year, including earned income from your salary, wages, tips or bonuses.
  • If you owe little to no taxes, you should focus on tax credits that are refundable so you’ll be able to cash them in.

The upside of having to pay taxes? It means you make enough money to have Uncle Sam want a cut. Congratulations!

The Internal Revenue Service sets a minimum income on which it will collect taxes. Unfortunately, it’s not a simple one-size-fits-all threshold. In general, how much you can make in a year before you face a tax bill depends on a few factors: your filing status, your age, and whether you’re being claimed as a dependent.

How Much Do You Have to Make to Owe Taxes? 

If you’re not a dependent, here’s a cheat sheet for you. If your gross income is equal to or more than what’s listed in the table below, based on 2021 requirements, you’d need to file a tax return. (You can use the I.R.S.'s interactive tool to find out if you should file taxes. For state filings, TurboTax offers a list of states’ requirements; but, generally, if you file a federal return, you should also file a state return.)

Filing Status

Under Age 65

Age 65 and Older

Single

$12,550

$14,250

Married, filing jointly

If both spouses are under age 65: $25,100

If one spouse is 65+: $26,450

If both spouses are 65+: $27,800

Married, filing separately

$5

$5

Head of Household

$18,800

$20,500

Qualifying Widow(er)

$25,100

$26,450

The thresholds for dependents are based on the amount of your earned income, unearned income and gross income, as well as whether you’re married or single and blind or not. Note, too, that there are a number of special situations—other than being a dependent—that may require you to file a return, even if your income is less than the minimums. For example, if you’re self-employed and make just $400 or more, you have to file taxes.

You can use the Interactive Tax Assistant tool to figure out if you’re in one of those special situations and whether you need to file a return. You just have to answer a bunch of questions—mainly about your relationship and income—all of which the site estimates will take 12 minutes to answer.

What exactly is gross income?

Gross income is all the money you’ve made in the tax year. For most people, that mainly includes earned income from your salary, wages, tips or bonuses. It also includes unearned income, like dividends and accrued interest, as well as any gambling winnings. It does not include tax-exempt income, such as child support payments, most alimony payments, workers’ comp, and more.

Gross income should not be confused with your adjusted gross income (AGI) or your taxable income. You can determine your AGI by taking your gross income and subtracting certain deductions, including contributions to a traditional IRA, 401(k) and other qualified retirement plans, interest paid on student loans and contributions to a health savings account. Taxable income is your AGI minus your standard deduction or any itemized deductions you claim. (You cannot claim both the standard and itemized deductions. Post-tax reform, most people are better off taking the standard deduction, which for the 2021 filing year goes up to $12,550 for single filers and $25,100 for joint filers.)

So if my gross income falls below those minimums, I don’t have to file a tax return? Correct. But it might be a good idea to file anyway. That’s because you may qualify for certain tax credits and get a little extra cash from Uncle Sam, even if you owe nothing.

What tax credits are available to me?

If you owe little to no taxes, you should focus on tax credits that are refundable. That means you’ll be able to cash them in even if they’re greater than what you owe. Most tax credits are non-refundable, meaning they can reduce your tax bill, but won’t pay you anything extra. So, if you owe $300 in taxes, and you score a tax credit worth $500, if it’s refundable, you can pocket the $200 difference, whereas if it’s non-refundable, you’d just wipe away your $300 bill and call it a day.

One refundable credit you should see if you’re eligible for is the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), meant to benefit workers with low to moderate income. In general, you can claim it as long your total earned income is at least $1 and your AGI is less than specified limits, which depend on your filing status and how many qualifying children you claim on your return. For 2021, those limits range from $21,430 if you’re single with no kids to $57,414 if you’re filing jointly and have three or more kids. Also, your investment income must be $10,000 or less for the year. And the corresponding maximum amounts you can get with the EITC range from $1,502 to $6,728. 

A partly refundable option is the Child Tax Credit (CTC), worth up to $3,600 per qualifying child under age 17. The credit amount is reduced for single filers with a modified AGI (that’s your AGI plus certain deductions including student loan interest, half your self-employment tax and IRA contributions) of $75,000, or $150,000 for married couples filing jointly. 

The American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC) is also partly refundable. It’s worth up to $2,500 a year for each eligible student, and 40 percent of it—up to $1,000—can be refunded to you. To claim the full credit, your MAGI must be $80,000 or less, if you’re a single filer (or $160,000 or less, if you’re filing jointly), and to claim it at all, it must be $90,000 or less (or $180,000 or less for joint filers).

Do I have to claim the credits?

No, you never have to take advantage of tax breaks, but why wouldn’t you? Yes, filing taxes can be an intimidating hassle. But it can be well worth it. And taking advantage of any available tax breaks while minimizing your tax bill is a smart way to give yourself a financial boost.

This material has been presented for informational and educational purposes only. The views expressed in the articles above are generalized and may not be appropriate for all investors. The information contained in this article should not be construed as, and may not be used in connection with, an offer to sell, or a solicitation of an offer to buy or hold, an interest in any security or investment product. There is no guarantee that past performance will recur or result in a positive outcome. Carefully consider your financial situation, including investment objective, time horizon, risk tolerance, and fees prior to making any investment decisions. No level of diversification or asset allocation can ensure profits or guarantee against losses. Article contributors are not affiliated with Acorns Advisers, LLC. and do not provide investment advice to Acorns’ clients. Acorns is not engaged in rendering tax, legal or accounting advice. Please consult a qualified professional for this type of service.

Stacy Rapacon

Stacy Rapacon is a freelance writer and editor, who has specialized in personal finance topics— including investing, saving for retirement, credit, family finances and financial education—since 2007. 

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