Determining taxable income

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You know your filing status, you have the forms and instructions, the pencils are sharpened and the calculator has new batteries. Now it’s time to do the math and see exactly what your earnings will cost you in taxes.

Although it may be hard to believe, the government doesn’t tax every cent you make. Instead, taxes are assessed only on your taxable income.

So what is taxable income? Basically, it’s your total, gross income minus allowable personal exemptions and deductions. The individual tax forms — 1040EZ, 1040A or 1040 — act as filters here to help you to reach the smallest taxable income level.

Gathering your gross income

The first step in the taxable income computation process is to add up all your income. There are two types of income: earned and unearned.

Earned income is money you are paid for work. This includes your salary, wages, tips, commissions and bonuses. But it also includes money that you collected in other forms, such as unemployment benefits and sick pay. And some noncash fringe benefits your employer provides — a company car, discounts on property or services, country club memberships, tickets to entertainment or sporting events, life insurance coverage of more than $50,000 — also are considered earned income.

Unearned income is the money you get from interest and dividend payments, as well as the profit from assets you sold, business and farm income, rents, royalties, gambling winnings and alimony payments. Earnings from your retirement fund are considered unearned income, as are Social Security payments. The sum of your earned and unearned income is your gross income. Once you get that figure, it’s time to whittle it down.

Tallying your taxable income

The IRS allows you to use various adjustments, or subtractions, depending on your filing status and the form you choose to file. When these amounts are subtracted from your gross income level, you’ll arrive at as your adjusted gross income (AGI).

But there’s more. After you’ve got your AGI, you can reduce it further by taking deductions, certain expenses the IRS allows you to subtract from your income. The IRS sets a standard dollar amount each year for the five filing categories. You can use this preset amount (called the standard deduction) or, if you have tax-allowable expenses (such as mortgage interest, charitable contributions, large medical expenses) that are greater than the standard deduction amount, you’ll want to use Form 1040 and itemize these deductions on Schedule A and then subtract that amount from your AGI.

You also get to reduce your income one more time using exemptions. Exemptions represent those people who depend upon you for financial support, such as your spouse, your kids, possibly your parents and yourself. The IRS allows you to multiply this number of people by a dollar amount (adjusted for inflation annually) and then subtract it from your income.

At the end of this mathematical process, you’ll have your taxable income. This is the dollar amount you look for in the tax tables to see what your tax bill is.

If you file Form 1040EZ, you’ll see that this is the end of the tax line. However, filers of 1040A or 1040 are only about halfway through. These two forms also include several tax credits (coming up shortly in another Tax Basics) that could ultimately reduce your final tax amount or even give you a refund.

Just what is taxable?

While it’s true that some income items do escape IRS attention, for most of us there’s not much the IRS doesn’t consider taxable income. Of course, there are the standbys: salaries, wages, tips, commissions, interest and dividends, rental payments and all the money you made from that photography business on the side.

Bartering your services won’t help, either. The value of noncash items must be determined and then counted as income. Putting your money in a foreign bank to earn interest won’t cut your tax bill either. If it’s in your name and you can get to it, it’s considered income. Even that $50 bill you found at the bus stop counts.

And don’t think for a minute you can get away with some underhanded ways to make a few extra bucks without paying up. The IRS says that embezzlement and swindling proceeds are taxable, too. The tax folks don’t care if you steal it, as long as they get their piece of the action.

Taxable/Nontaxable Income
Items that add to your tax bill
  • Administrator and executor fees
  • Rent and deposits received as security from a tenant
  • Alimony
  • Some annuities
  • Awards, prizes and contest winnings
  • Back pay, including back pay for age and job discrimination
  • Bad debts recovered if previously deducted
  • Bonuses
  • Capital gains
  • Commissions
  • Proceeds from a condemnation award
  • Cost of living allowances
  • Credit protection insurance proceeds that exceed any premiums paid
  • Crop damage payments
  • Debts canceled
  • Director’s fees
  • Disability, salary payments during
  • Discounts on interest received
  • Gambling, lottery, raffle, sweepstakes and other drawing winnings
  • Embezzlement proceeds, in the year of embezzlement
  • Exchanges of property
  • Executor’s fees
  • Foreign income
  • Foster-care payments for adult care from charitable organizations
  • Found money
  • Fringe benefits
  • Independent contractor’s income
  • Some insurance proceeds
  • Interest and dividends
  • Jury fees
  • Notary public fees
  • Patent, royalties, license receipts and any infringement compensation
  • Professional services, fees received for
  • Profit on sales between family members
  • Punitive damages
  • Raffle winnings
  • Rents
  • Royalties received by authors, musicians, inventors, lessors of property
  • Salaries
  • Sale of property
  • Severance pay
  • Strike benefits
  • Swindling proceeds
  • Tips
  • Trust income
  • Trustee fees
  • Unemployment benefits
  • Wages

Items that don’t add to your tax bill

  • Accident and health insurance proceeds
  • “Black lung” benefits
  • Casualty insurance and other reimbursements
  • Child support payments
  • Compensatory damages awarded for physical injury or physical sickness
  • Federal Employees’ Compensation Act payments
  • Housing allowance for members of the clergy
  • Interest on state or local obligations
  • Meals and lodging provided by employer
  • Military allowances
  • Moving expense reimbursements
  • Scholarship and fellowship grants
  • Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
  • Veterans’ benefits
  • Welfare benefits
  • Workers’ compensation