To itemize or not is the question for 2018
As the new year begins and taxpayers contemplate another round of 1040s, many are pondering The Big Question: Do I take the standard deduction or spend time hunting for receipts and filling out extra forms to itemize?
The decision largely boils down to whether itemizing will reduce your taxable income more than the flat, no-questions-asked standard deduction will, thus saving you money.
But a major plot twist may make the issue even more vexing for some this tax season: The standard deduction nearly doubled in 2018 to $12,000 for single filers, $18,000 for heads of household, and $24,000 for joint filers.
Generally, that means that a married couple filing jointly, for example, would now need to cobble together at least $24,001 in various tax deductions for itemizing in order to lower their tax bill more than taking the standard deduction would.
It’s a change that’s sure to leave some longtime itemizers wondering whether the standard deduction is actually the thriftier option this year.
Here are four things tax pros say could indicate that it’s time to stop itemizing and take the standard deduction:
- You didn’t pay a lot of mortgage interest
The tax deductions for mortgage interest and property taxes have been boons to itemizers because they often add up to more than the standard deduction, said Andrew McCue, a certified public accountant at Weiss & Company in Glenview, Illinois.
But if you didn’t pay much in property taxes, had a small mortgage, or were at the tail end of your mortgage (where the payments were mostly toward principal and not much interest), these itemized deductions may not save you as much this year as the standard deduction could.
“If those are adding up to a substantial amount, that’s when you want to look at it and compare to the standard deduction,” he said.
- You used the deduction for state and local taxes
The federal deduction for state and local income taxes is popular among itemizers, but a new cap of $10,000 for joint filers this year means some people may be better off taking the standard deduction instead, McCue said.
But even with the cap in place, taxpayers who also have deductible mortgage interest might still save more by itemizing this year, he said. “In Illinois, it’s not hard for me to say I’ve got $6,000 of property taxes, but that varies a lot state to state,” he said. Add in another $6,000 for mortgage interest, and “just with those two items, you’re at the standard deduction for an individual,” he said.
- You didn’t donate a lot to charity
Charitable donations are a well-known tax deduction for itemizers, but if this year’s higher standard deduction gets you a bigger tax break, the tax-deductibility of your gifts may be a moot point, said Kasey Pittman, a CPA at Newport News, Virginia-based accounting firm PBMares.
“They’re not going to see that added benefit from donations, and I think once they figure that out, they’ll learn to plan their donations and to be more thoughtful about what year they give in and such,” she said.
For example, giving $5,000 to a favorite charity once every five years could save more money than giving $1,000 every year for five years. That’s because “bunched” donations, when combined with other itemized deductions, could get you over the higher standard-deduction threshold and make itemizing worthwhile financially, Pittman said.
- You didn’t have huge medical expenses
In general, unreimbursed medical expenses that are more than 7.5 percent of your 2018 adjusted gross income may be deductible if you itemize, said Travis McMurray, a CPA at accounting firm Blackburn, Childers & Steagall in Tennessee. But the higher standard deduction could still be a better option.
“Quite honestly, you’d have to have a pretty significant medical event for that to kick in, or your income must be pretty low,” he said.