Tax Credits: What They Are, How to Qualify

Tax credits can come in handy when April rolls around. Here are a few common ones for people raising kids, saving for retirement, or paying for college.

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Tax credits are the gold nuggets of the tax world. Qualifying for one feels better than finding $100 in your pants pocket. Here’s a brief look at how they work and an overview of the most common ones you may qualify for.

What is a tax credit?

A tax credit is a type of benefit that provides taxpayers with a dollar-for-dollar reduction of their tax bill. This differs from a tax deduction, which is a dollar amount the IRS allows taxpayers to subtract from their adjusted gross income (AGI) to lower their taxable income.

A variety of tax credits are offered on both the federal level and the state levels to incentivize certain actions (like, say purchasing an electric vehicle), or to offset the cost of certain expenses (raising or adopting a child, for example.) Tax credits are often surrounded by fine print — in order to qualify, taxpayers usually must meet a strict set of criteria relevant to that credit.

How does a tax credit work?

Tax credits come in three categories: nonrefundable, refundable and partially refundable. These classifications tell you how the credit will be applied to your tax bill. The majority of tax credits are nonrefundable. Good tax software should be able to walk you through which credits you may qualify for, and how to claim them.

Here's a breakdown of how each type works:

Nonrefundable

Nonrefundable tax credits reduce your tax liability by the corresponding credit amount. In other words, if you qualify for a $500 nonrefundable credit, you can apply that credit to your tax bill to lower your taxes owed by that same $500. The catch here is that this credit is most beneficial for people who expect to owe money — and that's because it can only lower or zero-out your taxes owed, but it won't result in a refund if the credit amount is larger than your tax bill.

Refundable

Refundable tax credits are highly sought-after tax benefits. And that's because claiming one can not only reduce your taxes owed but can also result in a refund. If you owe fewer taxes than the credit amount, the overage will be returned to you in the form of a refund after you file your tax return. For example, if you owe $500 and qualify for a $700 refundable credit, you probably will get that extra $200 refunded to you by the IRS.

Partially refundable

The last type of credit is a middle ground between the two mentioned above. Partially refundable credits can lower your tax bill by the corresponding credit amount, and if your tax bill is lower than the credit amount, you may be able to get a partial refund for any remaining overage — but only up to a certain amount. For example, if the credit is worth $1,000, but only $500 of that is refundable, you may either have your tax liability lowered by $1,000 or get up to $500 back as a refund if taxes owed are less than the credit amount.

Popular tax credits

Some of the most popular tax credits fall into three categories. These sections below are just summaries; tax credits have lots of rules, so it's a good idea to consult a tax professional.

1. Tax credits for people with kids

Child tax credit. For the 2022 tax year, the child tax credit could get you up to $2,000 per kid, with $1,500 being potentially refundable. The higher your income, the less you’ll qualify for. You may qualify for the full credit only if your modified adjusted gross income is under:

  • $400,000 for those married filing jointly and $200,000 for all other filers.

Child and dependent care credit. Generally, it’s up to 35% of up to $3,000 of child care and similar costs for a child under 13, spouse or parent unable to care for themselves, or another dependent so you can work — and up to $6,000 of expenses for two or more dependents.

  • The percentage of allowable expenses decreases for higher-income earners — and therefore the value of the credit also decreases.

  • Payments made out of a dependent-care flexible spending account or other tax-advantaged program at work may reduce your credit.

Earned income credit. This earned income tax credit will get you between $560 and $6,935 in tax year 2022 depending on your tax-filing status and how much you make.

  • If your AGI was around or less than about $59,000 in 2022, it’s something to look into, though if you had more than $10,300 of investment income, dividends, capital gains and a few other things in 2022 you won’t qualify.

Adoption credit. For the 2022 tax year, this covers up to $14,890 in adoption costs per child.

  • The credit begins to phase out at $223,410 of modified adjusted gross income, and people with AGIs higher than $263,410 don’t qualify.

  • Also, you can’t take the credit if you’re adopting your spouse’s child.

  • People who adopt children with functional needs can get up to the full credit even if their actual expenses were less.

  • Federal: $24.95 to $64.95. Free version available for simple returns only.

  • State: $29.95 to $44.95.

  • All filers get access to Xpert Assist for free until April 7.

Promotion: NerdWallet users get 25% off federal and state filing costs.

  • Federal: $39 to $119. Free version available for simple returns only.

  • State: $49 per state.

  • TurboTax Live packages offer review with a tax expert.

Promotion: NerdWallet users can save up to $15 on TurboTax.

  • Federal: $29.99 to $84.99. Free version available for simple returns only.

  • State: $36.99 per state.

  • Online Assist add-on gets you on-demand tax help.

2. Tax credits for investing in education or for retirement

The saver’s credit: The saver's credit runs 10% to 50% of up to $2,000 in contributions to an IRA, 401(k), 403(b) or certain other retirement plans ($4,000 if filing jointly). The percentage depends on your filing status and income, but generally it's something to look at if your AGI in 2022 was less than $68,000 if married filing jointly, $51,000 if head of household and $34,000 if single.

American opportunity credit: The American opportunity tax credit runs up to $2,500 per student for tuition, activity fees, books, supplies and equipment during the first four years of college. It is partially refundable, so if the credit lowers your tax bill to $0, you can get up to 40% (limited to $1,000) back as a refund.

  • The student must be enrolled at least half time and can’t have any felony drug convictions.

  • Parents can take the credit if they qualify and claim the student as a dependent on their return.

Lifetime learning credit: The lifetime learning credit can get up to $2,000 for tuition, activity fees, books, supplies and equipment for undergraduate, graduate or even nondegree courses at accredited institutions.

  • Unlike the American opportunity credit, there’s no workload requirement.

  • The $2,000 limit is per return, not per student, so the most you can get back is $2,000 regardless of how many students you pay expenses for.

  • You can claim both the American opportunity credit and the lifetime learning credit on the same tax return, but you can't claim both for the same student.

(Want another way to cut your tax bill?) You can reduce your taxable income by contributing to a traditional IRA up until the tax-filing deadline.

3. Tax credits for big-ticket 'green' purchases

Residential energy tax credit: This one gets you up to 30% of the cost of solar energy systems, including solar water heaters and solar panels for the 2022 tax year.

Electric vehicle credit: For 2022, the electric vehicle tax credit, also known as the clean vehicle credit, could get up to $7,500 for buying a plug-in electric vehicle. The purchased vehicle must have been new; used vehicles don’t count until 2023.

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