Should I Use Tax Credits or Deductions to Save on My Student Loans?

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As published on the Huffington Post.

It's understandable if your eyes are glazing over with tax talk, but it's time to wake up: you could save thousands of dollars each year by filing for the right tax benefits. If you graduated within the last tax year and have student loans, then you especially stand to gain from education tax benefits. Common benefits are the Lifetime Learning Tax Credit and the American Opportunity Tax Credit, and the Tuition and Fees Deduction. Also, if you're paying interest on your student loans, you may benefit from the Student Loan Interest Deduction.

However, you can't "double benefit," as the IRS calls it, by using the same education expenses to claim multiple credits and deductions. For example, if you paid $100,000 in graduate school expenses last year, that $100,000 cannot "count"for tax credits and deductions. It's up to you to select the filing method that will save you the most based on your personal situation.

First, here are the key differences between credits and deductions. Tax credits are money you get back on your tax payments, i.e., you will pay that much less in taxes. Tax deductions deduct from your taxable income, meaning they reduce the amount of income the government can tax.

So let's say that your income is currently at $100,000 and your effective tax rate is 25 percent. Without credits or deductions, you'd owe $25,000 in taxes. With a $10,000 credit, you'd owe $15,000 in taxes (your initial owed amount of $25,000 minus the $10,000 credit). With a $10,000 deduction in the same income scenario, you'd owe $22,500 in taxes (25 percent of $90,000, which is your income reduced by the $10,000 deduction).

Next, tax benefits do have certain income limitations. I've put together a chart to help you navigate these restrictions and determine which might be right for you.

If you're not restricted by the income requirements above, you're ready to make your plan of attack!

First question: did you pay qualified education expenses last year (either in cash or student loans)?

If yes, was last year within your fourth year of college education (including your undergrad degree)? If so, you should look into the American Opportunity Tax Credit, which offers a maximum tax credit of $2,500 annually. Meanwhile, the Lifetime Learning Credit maxes out at a $2,000 credit and is available during any year of your education, so long as you were enrolled for one academic period—for example, a semester—during the tax year.

On the deduction side, your option is the Tuition and Fees Deduction, which can reduce your taxable income by as much as $4,000 and provides a tax benefit structured similarly to the Student Loan Interest Deduction below. Note that at a tax rate of 25 percent, a $4,000 deduction yields $1,000 in terms of saved tax payments, so it's important to do the math for each option and determine your total potential savings.

Finally, regardless of whether you paid qualified education expenses last year, you could still benefit at tax time. If you made student loan payments—for instance, you graduated the year before last and have been repaying since—you can avail yourself of the Student Loan Interest Deduction. Its maximum benefit, explained by the IRS here, is that you can reduce your taxable income by up to $2,500. So if your tax rate is 25 percent, multiply $2,500 by 0.25 and you'll see you're effectively saving a maximum of $625 in taxes through this deduction.

Want to confirm your eligibility for these credits or deductions? The IRS has put together a FAQ to help you assess your personal situation.

If you're looking for other ways to save on your loans, consider refinancing your grad school loans to a lower rate, which can help you save thousands over the life of the loan.

Kaitlin Butler is not a tax advisor and the information in this article is general in nature and based on authorities that are subject to change. Consult your tax advisor for questions pertaining to your personal situation.

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