Reduce Your Taxable Income: Tax Deductions and Tax Credits

It's all about reducing your taxable income as much as possible

Two women reviewing tax paperwork
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The idea behind tax planning is to arrange your financial affairs so you ultimately end up owing as little as possible in taxes. You can do this in three basic ways: You can reduce your taxable income with adjustments, you can maximize your deductions, and you can take advantage of tax credits.

These options aren't mutually exclusive. You can do all three for the best possible result.

Key Takeaways

  • You have three tools for reducing your federal income tax bill: take advantage of adjustments to lower taxable income; maximize deductions to shrink taxable income; take advantage of tax credits to reduce taxes owed.
  • For most taxpayers the standard deduction will reduce your tax burden more than itemizing deductions will.
  • Actions like early withdrawals from retirement accounts will boost your taxable income and require you to pay a penalty on top of the tax bill.

How To Reduce Taxable Income

Your adjusted gross income (AGI) is the key element in determining your taxes. It's the starting number for calculations, and your tax rate and various tax credits and deductions depend on it. You won't be able to qualify for certain credits or deductions if it's too high.


Your AGI can impact your financial life outside of taxes. Banks, mortgage lenders, and college financial aid programs all routinely ask for your adjusted gross income, which is is a key measure of your finances.

The more money you make, the higher your AGI will be, and the more you'll pay in income tax. Conversely, you'll pay less in taxes if this figure is lower. That's how the American tax system is set up, and it all begins with your AGI.

How Do You Find Your AGI?

Your AGI is your income from all sources, net of any adjustments to income you might qualify for. These aren't the same as deductions when they decrease income, because you don't have to itemize in order to claim them. You take them on Schedule 1 of your 1040, and the total can reduce—or even increase—your adjusted gross income, depending on the nature of the adjustment.

Schedule 1 reports deductions from gross income and additional sources of income as well. Your AGI will go up if you have only additional income and don't qualify for any adjustments. The flip side is that your AGI will shrink if you have adjustments but no additional sources of income.

Additional sources of income include but aren't limited to:

  • Taxable state tax refunds
  • Alimony received
  • Business income
  • Gambling income
  • Capital gains
  • Unemployment compensation

Adjustments to income that reduce AGI include but aren't limited to:

  • Contributions you made to an IRA or 401(k)
  • Student loan interest paid
  • Alimony paid
  • Contributions to health savings accounts (HSAs)
  • Moving expenses for certain members of the Armed Forces
  • The deductible portion of the self-employment tax, as well as self-employed health insurance premiums

Increase Your Tax Deductions

Your taxable income is what remains after you've determined your AGI. You have a choice here: You can either claim the standard deduction for your filing status, or you can itemize your qualifying deductions, but you can't do both.

Itemized deductions include:

  • Expenses for medical and dental expenses that exceed 7.5% of your AGI.
  • The total sum of state and local income taxes, real estate taxes, and personal property taxes, such as car registration fees, up to $10,000, or $5,000 if you're married and file a separate return. You can substitute sales taxes you paid for income taxes if this is more beneficial for you, but you can't include both sales and income taxes. You must choose one or the other.
  • Interest on mortgages taken out of up to $750,000, or $375,000 if you're married and filing a separate tax return.
  • Gifts to charity and cash donations of $250 or more.
  • Casualty and theft losses that result from a nationally declared disaster.

To Itemize or Not to Itemize?

One key tax-planning strategy is to keep track of your itemized expenses throughout the year using a spreadsheet or personal finance program. You can then quickly compare your itemized expenses with your standard deduction. You should always take the higher of your standard deduction or your itemized deductions in order to avoid paying taxes on more income than you have to.

The standard deductions for the 2022 tax year are:

  • $12,950 for single filers and married taxpayers filing separate returns
  • $19,400 for heads of household
  • $25,900 for married taxpayers filing joint returns

A single taxpayer who has $14,000 in itemized deductions would do better to itemize than to claim the standard deduction. That's an additional $1,050 off their taxable income, the difference between $14,000 and $12,950. But a taxpayer who has only $9,000 in itemized deductions would end up paying taxes on $3,950 more income if they were to itemize rather than claim their standard deduction.


Avoid taking early withdrawals from an IRA or 401(k) retirement plan before you reach age 59 1/2 if at all possible. The amount you withdraw will become part of your taxable income, and you'll also pay a 10% tax penalty.

Take Advantage of Tax Credits

Tax credits don't reduce your taxable income—they're even better than that. They subtract directly from any tax debt you end up owing the IRS after you complete your tax return and you've taken all the adjustments to income and tax deductions you're entitled to.

There are tax credits for college expenses, saving for retirement, adopting children, and child care expenses you might pay so you can go to work or attend school. For example, there is a credit for children under the age of 17, which is subject to income restrictions, and the earned Income tax credit (EITC) that can put some money back into the pockets of taxpayers with lower AGIs.

Tax credits are credited directly to the IRS as payments, just as though you had written a check for money owed. Most of them can only reduce or eliminate your tax debt, but some (i.e., the "refundable") credits can result in the IRS issuing a tax refund for any balance left over after your tax obligation has been reduced to zero.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How do I reduce my taxable income if I'm self-employed?

Anyone who pays self-employment tax is eligible to deduct half of this tax from their gross income. As a self-employed person, you're also eligible to deduct a variety of business-related expenses, along with the cost of your health insurance. You can also seek to lower your total net profits, as that will reduce your taxable income before any other deductions.

How can I reduce taxable income?

You can reduce your taxable income by taking advantage of as many "pre-tax" savings tools that are available to you. These could be retirement accounts like 401(k)s and IRAs, college savings plans like 529s, health savings accounts, and others. Another strategy is to maximize your deductions, although for most taxpayers the standard deduction will offer the most savings.

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  1. IRS. "Schedule 1 (Form 1040)." Page 1.

  2. IRS. "Topic No. 501 Should I Itemize?"

  3. IRS. "Instructions for Schedule A."

  4. IRS. "Topic No. 502 Medical and Dental Expenses."

  5. IRS. “IRS Provides Tax Inflation Adjustments for Tax Year 2022.”

  6. IRS. "Retirement Topics - Exceptions to Tax on Early Distributions."

  7. IRS. "About Schedule 8812 (Form 1040), Credits for Qualifying Children and Other Dependents."

  8. IRS. "Self-Employment Tax (Social Security and Medicare Taxes)."

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