Tax Deductions vs. Tax Credits: What’s the Difference?

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What we’ll cover:

  • Deductions and credits can reduce the amount of taxes you owe, but they work in different ways
  • A deduction reduces taxable income, while a credit directly reduces your tax liability
  • The availability of any deduction or credit is always subject to change

It’s easy to confuse tax deductions and credits since they could both reduce the amount of money you owe in taxes. 

But there are important differences between deductions and credits – specifically, in how they work to reduce your tax liability. Don’t worry, we’ll break it down for you in plain English.

By the end of this article, you’ll be a little more knowledgeable about taxes and have another conversation starter for your next gathering. Just kidding. 

If you lower your taxable income, you could reduce the amount of tax you have to pay for a given year.

Tax deductions

A tax deduction reduces your taxable income (translation: the amount of your income that’s taxed by the federal government). If you lower your taxable income, you could reduce the amount of tax you have to pay for a given year.

One popular deduction is the standard deduction. The amount is adjusted each year and is based on your filing status (e.g., single, head of household, etc.). The Joint Committee on Taxation estimates that 139 million taxpayers will claim the standard deduction for the 2019 tax year. 

But the standard deduction isn’t the only game in town. You can find a trove of deductions listed on IRS Schedule A (Form 1040) and Schedule 1 (Form 1040). Some common deductions you may already be familiar with include:

Keep in mind that many deductions come with certain restrictions and eligibility rules. So just because a deduction exists doesn’t mean you can automatically claim it on your tax return. Always confirm the qualification rules with the IRS or a professional tax preparer.

A closer look at how a tax deduction works

A tax deduction lowers your taxable income. But by how much? It depends on the limit or size of the particular deduction you’re claiming. A $6,000 deduction, for instance, would lower your taxable income by $6,000. 

Deduction amounts vary across the board. Let’s look at the deduction limits for traditional IRA and HSA contributions as an example. If you’re qualified to take the full deduction for both during the 2019 tax year, the full deductible amount for contributions to a traditional IRA is $6,000. And the full deduction for HSA contributions is $3,500 (for individuals). 

Unlike a tax deduction, the value of a tax credit is not tied to your income tax bracket.

Tax credits

Remember how a deduction lowers your taxable income? Well, a tax credit directly lowers your tax liability, dollar-for-dollar. So let’s say you end up owing $5,000 in taxes this year, and you’re eligible for a $2,000 tax credit. The tax credit would lower your tax bill to $3,000. Nice! 

Unlike a tax deduction, the value of a tax credit is not tied to your income tax bracket. So a $2,000 tax credit is worth exactly $2,000 in terms of how much it can save you on your taxes. 

Similar to tax deductions, you might not qualify for every tax credit you come across while doing your taxes. So be sure to get the details for any credits you wish to claim from the IRS or a professional tax preparer. 

A closer look at how a tax credit works

That said, there are two different types of tax credits: nonrefundable and refundable.

A nonrefundable tax credit can only reduce the amount of taxes you owe up to the amount of your tax credit. Any unused portion of the credit won’t be refunded to you. 

Say you owe $500 in taxes and you qualify for a $2,000 nonrefundable credit. You could use $500 of that $2,000 credit to bring your tax bill to zero, but you wouldn’t get the $1,500 that’s left over in the credit ($2,000 - $500). In short, any unused amount of a nonrefundable credit is forfeited. Bummer. 

Some examples of a nonrefundable credit include the following:

  • Saver’s credit
  • Foreign tax credit
  • Adoption tax credit

With a refundable tax credit, however, any unused amount of the credit will be refunded to you. So sticking with the previous example: If you qualify for a $2,000 refundable credit and you owe $500 in taxes, the credit could bring your tax bill down to $0 and the remaining $1,500 ($2,000 - $500) would be refunded to you. A common example of a refundable credit is the Earned Income Tax Credit. 

Parting thoughts

Because most tax deductions and tax credits are subject to eligibility requirements, the IRS typically expects certain documentations with your tax return to show that you’re qualified to claim them. This is why good tax recordkeeping is important (try not to use the “receipts-in-a-shoebox” method).

Also keep in mind that the availability of any tax deduction or credit, along with their eligibility rules, is always subject to change, as Congress has the power to modify or eliminate them. So it’s a good idea to check in with the IRS or a tax professional if you’re unsure about a certain deduction or credit.

This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for individualized professional advice. Individuals should consult their own tax advisor for matters specific to their own taxes and nothing communicated to you herein should be considered tax advice. This article was prepared by and approved by Marcus by Goldman Sachs, but does not reflect the institutional opinions of Goldman Sachs Bank USA, Goldman Sachs Group, Inc. or any of their affiliates, subsidiaries or division. Goldman Sachs Bank USA does not provide any financial, economic, legal, accounting, tax or other recommendation in this article. Information and opinions expressed in this article are as of the date of this material only and subject to change without notice.  Information contained in this article does not constitute the provision of investment advice by Goldman Sachs Bank USA or any its affiliates. Neither Goldman Sachs Bank USA nor any of its affiliates makes any representations or warranties, express or implied, as to the accuracy or completeness of the statements or any information contained in this document and any liability therefore is expressly disclaimed.