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Do The Math: Understanding Your Tax Refund

Updated for Tax Year 2015


For most people, tax is collected by an employer at a rate that estimates your tax for the year. Your actual earnings and the deductions that you’re allowed to claim might cause you to pay too much tax, which leads the Internal Revenue Service to issue you a refund. "The idea behind a tax refund is quite simple," says James Windsor, a certified public accountant from Ann Arbor, Michigan. "When you pay more tax than you owe, the Internal Revenue Service returns the overpayment as your refund."

Income tax withholding

When you start a new job, you’ll complete Form W-4. This is the Employee's Withholding Allowance Certificate, from which your employer determines your rate of tax withholding. It’s based on the personal allowances you declare or calculate, your income and any additional tax you wish to withhold. The IRS recommends that you complete a new W-4 annually or whenever your life circumstances change, to prevent having tax deducted at an unrealistic rate. If you regularly owe taxes when you file your return, or if you have other income sources or deductions that may affect your tax rate, adding an additional withheld amount on line 6 of your W-4 may put you in a refund position.

understand your tax refund

Using tax deductions

There are ways to get a refund when you file your return. You need to reduce the taxable portion of your income to swing your tax return toward the refund side. Tax deductions you qualify for will reduce your taxable income. The standard deduction offered by the IRS is a simple way to reduce your taxable income, but you have the option to calculate your own itemized deductions, using your actual deductible expenses. If you have a qualifying home office or other business expenses that you pay for under terms of your employment you may be eligible to deduct those expenses from your income. If you own a home, the interest on your mortgage and your property taxes are generally deductible. TurboTax can guide you through the process of itemizing your deductions.

Using tax credits

While tax deductions reduce your income, the effect is that they only reduce your tax by a portion of the amount deducted. Tax credits, on the other hand, reduce taxes dollar-for-dollar and frequently address hot-topic expenditures, such as energy efficiency initiatives. Other high-return credits include:

  • The Earned Income Tax Credit
  • The Child and Dependent Care Credit
  • The Child Tax Credit
  • The Retirement Savings Contributions Credit
  • The American Opportunity Tax Credit

Even the Affordable Care Act spawned the Premium tax credit, to assist modest income earners who purchase health insurance coverage through state and federal health insurance marketplaces.

Savings plans and deferred tax

Tax deferral is another way to increase this year’s refund, while providing for yourself down the road. Individual retirement accounts are a common way to accomplish this. Deductible contributions to a qualifying plan reduce your taxable in the year you make them, and income tax is paid when you withdraw funds. Ideally, your tax rate after retirement will be lower than when contributions are made, so you end up paying less tax down the road, as well as increasing your tax refund in the current year. Not all IRAs are alike. A Roth IRA, for example, takes after-tax contributions and pays out tax-free at retirement. That’s a good idea if you expect tax rate to be higher in retirement. Contributions to health and education savings plans can also reduce taxable income and increase your refund the year made, and, if used for the intended purpose, may be tax-free upon withdrawal.

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The above article is intended to provide generalized financial information designed to educate a broad segment of the public; it does not give personalized tax, investment, legal, or other business and professional advice. Before taking any action, you should always seek the assistance of a professional who knows your particular situation for advice on taxes, your investments, the law, or any other business and professional matters that affect you and/or your business.

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