Your guide to key tax terms
Knowing tax vocabulary can make filling out the paperwork less intimidating when it’s time to file.
Gross and taxable income
Gross income is your total income over the course of the year. This includes everything from wages and tips to any interest, dividends or capital gains you earned. Right off the bat, you are allowed to subtract certain things from your gross income—these are called above-the-line deductions. That will give you what’s called your adjusted gross income. From there, you may claim certain exemptions and deductions. Once those exemptions and deductions are taken, the number you are left with is called your taxable income. You calculate your taxes based on that amount.
You may deduct certain expenses when calculating your taxable income. For example, if you made $45,000 last year and have $5,000 in deductions, you effectively pay taxes on $40,000 of income.
• Above-the-line deductions. These are subtracted from your gross income right off the bat; they include qualified contributions to retirement accounts and alimony payments.
• Itemized deductions. Additional deductions are calculated using the IRS Form 1040 Schedule A. These deductions include certain medical expenses, charitable contributions and more.
• Standard deduction. If you choose not to itemize, you can generally qualify to take a standard deduction. This is available to most people, though certain restrictions apply, and the amount is determined by your filing status. You may choose to itemize if your itemized deductions would exceed the amount of the standard deduction.
A tax credit reduces the amount of tax you owe the government dollar for dollar. With some credits, if your credit exceeds how much you owe, you’re entitled to get the difference back as a refund.
One of the most popular credits is the Earned Income Credit (EIC), meant to reduce taxes for lower- and middle-income families. The amount of the credit is determined by your income and number of children.
A dependent is someone you support financially—for example, elderly parents or children. Claiming dependents may help qualify you for exemptions and credits. Children may qualify as dependents until age 19, or 24 if they’re full-time students.
Older children or adults who qualify as dependents may still file tax returns, and may even be required to file if their incomes exceed certain amounts.
Exemptions generally refer to the people in your household and usually reduce your taxable income. In 2014, each exemption translated to a $3,950 reduction.1 Usually, you can claim a personal exemption for yourself and, on a joint tax return, a second exemption for your spouse. You also get exemptions for any dependents you claim. On the other hand, if it’s possible for someone else to claim you as a dependent—even if they choose not to—you cannot claim a personal exemption.
Marriage penalty vs. bonus
Married couples can choose to file taxes together or separately. Depending on how much money you both make, and how that income is distributed, the amount you owe the government as a couple filing together may be higher or lower than if you file separately. If you owe more as a married couple, it is often referred to as a marriage penalty. If you owe less, it’s often referred to as a marriage bonus.
Tax brackets and rates
Because the U.S. tax system is progressive, different portions of your income are taxed at different rates. Income levels are divided into brackets with higher tax rates on higher brackets of income. Whatever tax bracket the highest dollar of your income falls into is known as your marginal tax rate. But because of the progressive system, your tax bill is likely smaller than that. What you actually pay is known as your effective tax rate.
- The value of an exemption may decrease if your adjusted gross income exceeds a certain amount.