4 min

What is a Tax Credit?

Aug 18, 2022
in a nutshell
  • A tax credit is an easy way to lower your taxes, offered by the government to taxpayers who meet specific criteria.
  • Tax credits reduce the amount of tax you owe. So credits actually save you more money than deductions.
  • Most tax credits are non-refundable, meaning they allow you to reduce your taxes but they don’t allow the government to pay you back for an overage.
Image of Learn how you can reduce your tax bill and save money to keep more of your earnings for yourself.
in a nutshell
  • A tax credit is an easy way to lower your taxes, offered by the government to taxpayers who meet specific criteria.
  • Tax credits reduce the amount of tax you owe. So credits actually save you more money than deductions.
  • Most tax credits are non-refundable, meaning they allow you to reduce your taxes but they don’t allow the government to pay you back for an overage.

A tax credit is an easy way to lower your taxes. Tax credits are offered by the government to taxpayers who meet specific criteria and reduce the amount of income tax you owe. 

If you qualify for a tax credit, you can subtract a specific amount of money from the total taxes you owe. For instance, the Child Tax Credit allows you to reduce your tax bill by $2,000 for each child younger than 17 as long you meet certain criteria.

Here, we explain the difference between tax credits and tax deductions and which credits can help you reduce your taxes.

How is a tax credit different from a tax deduction?

Tax deductions reduce your taxable income, or the amount of income that is subject to tax. Tax credits, however, reduce the amount of tax you owe. So credits actually save you more money than deductions.

Say your taxable income is $60,000. If you have a deduction worth $10,000, your taxable income is reduced to $50,000. If you’d been taxed on that $10,000 at your normal tax rate, say 20 percent, then the deduction saves you $2,000. But if it you had a tax credit of $10,000 instead of a deduction, your tax savings would be $10,000 rather than $2,000.

Tax deductions are applied before figuring your tax bill, as they affect your taxable income. Tax credits are applied after figuring your tax bill and they reduce it directly. So if you owe $2,000 in income taxes and you qualify for a $2,000 tax credit, your tax bill goes to zero. 

What if your tax credits take your tax bill below zero?

Yes, it’s possible to have tax credits that equal more than your taxable income. In that case, it’s rare to get paid back for that deficit—but it does happen. 

Most tax credits are non-refundable, meaning they allow you to reduce your taxes but they don’t allow the government to pay you back for an overage. However, there are a few tax credits that are refundable.

For example, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) reduces tax liability for working people with low to moderate income and can provide a refund. (And if you earn less than about $55,000, you may qualify.) For people who qualify, the amount of this credit ranges from $529 to $6,557 in 2019, depending on a person’s filing status and how many children they have. So if you owe $4,000 in taxes and you qualify for the full EITC, you’d get a refund of $2,557. 

Which credits might help reduce my taxes?

Aside from the EITC, there are a number of other tax credits you may be qualified to take. The credits taxpayers take most often focus on raising children, saving for retirement, investing in education, and going green. 

Raising a family

If you have kids, you probably qualify for the Child Tax Credit. It used to be nonrefundable but starting in tax year 2018, it became partially refundable. If you meet certain qualifications, you can take a credit of up to $2,000 for each eligible child. And if your credits equal more than your total tax liability, you can get a refund of up to $1,400 for each qualifying child.

Additionally, if you adopt a child (or more than one), you may qualify for the adoption credit, which helps offset the costs of adopting children. The credit is nonrefundable (limited to your tax liability for the year) but any credit in excess of your tax liability can be carried forward for up to five years. The maximum amount for 2018 was $13,810 per child.

Saving for retirement

If you’re socking away money for retirement, you may qualify for the saver’s credit. This credit can be worth up to 50 percent of your contribution to your IRA, employer-sponsored retirement plan or ABLE account (which allows people with disabilities to save for their future without affecting their benefits). You may qualify if you and your spouse earn $64,000 or less, or if you earn $32,000 or less as an individual.

Investing in education

If you or your dependent is attending college at least half time, you may be able to claim the American Opportunity Tax Credit. This allows you a credit of up to $2,500 of qualified education expenses during the student’s first four years of college. To qualify, your adjusted gross income must be no more than $90,000 for individuals or $180,000 for joint filers. This credit is refundable up to 40 percent.

For students who are enrolled in college less than half time, the Lifetime Learning Credit may save you on taxes. It allows a credit of up to 20 percent of the first $10,000 paid toward college expenses, or up to $2,000. To qualify, the student must be you, your spouse or a dependent, and your income can’t be $67,000 or more (or $134,000 if you file a joint return). 

Going green

Because the government wants to encourage more citizens to conserve energy and make more environmentally friendly choices, it offers tax credits when you purchase energy-saving appliances for your home or electric vehicles. The residential energy tax credit allows you a credit of up to 30 percent of the cost of solar energy systems such as solar panels and solar water heaters.

If you purchase a plug-in electric-drive motor vehicle, you could get a minimum tax credit of $2,500 and a maximum credit of $7,500. The amount you get increases based on the car’s battery capacity. But the car must be new: There’s no tax credit for purchasing a used electric vehicle.

What about state income taxes?

If your state charges income tax, it may also offer tax credits to help you reduce the amount of tax you owe. For example, some states offer a tax credit if you make contributions to an account in the state-run college savings fund or 529 plan, a tax-advantaged savings plan to encourage saving for future education costs. Some states offer a renter’s credit, allowing you to reduce your tax liability if you rent housing and meet other qualifications. And some states offer a credit that is similar to the federal EITC for low- and moderate-income earners.

Everybody has a responsibility to pay taxes. But if you qualify for credits that can reduce your tax bill, don’t neglect the opportunity to save money and keep more of your earnings for yourself. 

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.

Nancy Mann Jackson

Nancy Mann Jackson is an award-winning journalist who specializes in writing about personal finance, real estate, business and other topics. 

Acorns Logo
Acorns
Over 11 million sign ups
Get started Get the app