Most people never grow accustomed to the big chunk of federal income tax withheld in each paycheck. The more you make, the more the IRS withholds.
As the senior tax specialist at Personal Capital, I often get the question: Is it possible to reduce your taxable income to result in a $0 tax bill?
Careful tax planning could significantly reduce your tax burden to almost nothing even if you have a fairly high income. Here’s how.
Personal Capital’s team of dedicated advisors can help you form a tax-efficient financial and investing plan. Sign up for our free financial tools to schedule an appointment with an advisor.
How Much Do Americans Pay in Taxes?
During the fiscal year 2020, the IRS collected close $3.5 trillion, processed more than 240 million tax returns and other forms, and issued more than $736 billion in tax refunds (including $268 billion in economic impact payments).
The IRS has historically collected the most total tax from California, New York, and Texas; these states also had the largest total refunds issued.
Most of the tax burden fell on the highest income earners. According to the latest federal income tax data from the IRS, the top 50 percent of all taxpayers paid 97.1 percent of all individual income taxes, while the bottom 50 percent paid the remaining 2.9 percent in 2018.
Are you an investor? Learn how to potentially lower your capital gains tax, turn losers into winners with tax-loss harvesting, maximize after-tax returns, and more with our free downloadable guide 5 Tax Hacks Every Investor Should Know.
The State of the Tax Code
Tax code is complicated. However, the basic framework is simple. Your tax rate gets progressively higher as your income increases. The complexity arises from the various types of income as well as deductions and credits available to taxpayers that plan carefully.
Another layer of complexity arises when these deductions and credits phase out as incomes increase. The tax system is so complex for many reasons, from individuals who take advantage of loopholes in the code (prompting the creation of further rules), to government-driven initiatives and incentives. And the sweeping tax code changes that resulted from President Donald Trump’s 2017 Tax Reform and Jobs Act make things even more confusing.
How the Average American Can Reduce Their Taxable Income and Pay No Taxes
So, let’s get to the point! Can the average American pay no taxes? Indeed, some taxpayers, even those with investment income over $100,000, could pay zero tax. But regardless of your income or net worth, it’s financially prudent to take any available tax deductions and credits you qualify for.
John: 23 Year Old Recent College Grad
In the first example we have John, a 23-year-old who wants to keep his tax bill at zero. John just finished college and recently started full time employment at an entry level salary of $30,000. He managed to live frugally while in school and is willing to maintain the college student lifestyle for a few more years. Fortunately for him, he studied finance in college and knows the power of compounding investment returns. He knows that investment contributions made while he is in his twenties will grow for decades to come, thereby securing a safe retirement.
Since John has roommates that split the rent and utilities, John feels comfortable living on $1,300 per month total out of his $2,500 monthly paycheck. John participates in his employer’s 401k plan by contributing $1,000 per month. This leaves $200 from each paycheck to cover Social Security and Medicare tax withholding.
23 Year Old Single Person, No Children
Adjusted Gross Income
Retirement Savings Contributions Credit
Total 2021 Tax Bill
For tax purposes, what started out as a $30,000 salary becomes $18,000 in adjusted gross income after subtracting the $12,000 John contributes to his 401k during the year. For tax year 2021, an individual taxpayer with no dependents will owe $545 on $18,000 income. Since John funds his 401k account throughout the year, he is entitled to take the Retirement Savings Contributions Credit. John’s Retirement Savings Contributions Credit will be $545. This credit will reduce his tax bill to zero.
The Retirement Savings Contributions Credit, or Saver’s Credit, offers taxpayers a credit of 10%, 20% or 50% of contributions to retirement savings accounts such as a 401k or an IRA.
Here are the Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) limits for claiming the Saver’s Credit in for filing your taxes in 2021:
50% credit, or up to $1,000 for individuals or $2,000 for married couples filing jointly — AGI below $19,750 for individuals, $29,625 for heads of household or $39,500 for married couples filing jointly.
20% credit, or up to $400 for individuals or $800 for married couples filing jointly — AGI between $19,751 and $21,500 for individuals, $29,626 and $32,250 for heads of household and $39,501 and $43,000 for married couples filing jointly.
10% credit, or up to $200 for individuals or $400 for married couples filing jointly — AGI between $21,501 and $33,000 for individuals, $32,251 and $49,500 for heads of household and $43,001 and $66,000 for married couples filing jointly.
The amount of the credit is limited to the total tax owed by the taxpayer. In John’s case, he qualifies to receive up to $1,000 for the Saver’s Credit. Since his tax bill without the Saver’s Credit is only $545, the Saver’s Credit is limited to $545. Unlike some credits (such as the Earned Income Credit and the Additional Child Tax Credit), the Saver’s Credit is not refundable if the credit exceeds the taxpayer’s tax liability.
John can keep his tax bill at zero even if he gets a raise. If he increases his 401k contributions by the amount of his raise each year, his adjusted gross income will remain at $18,000, and he will continue to receive the Retirement Savings Contributions Credit.
John’s tax bill: $0
The Smiths: Married Couple, 40 Years Old With Two Kids
The Smith family is our second example of a household that pays zero federal income tax. Mr. and Mrs. Smith are both 40 years old and they have two kids in elementary school. Together, the Smiths earn $103,250 per year from their full time jobs.
The Smiths put a strong emphasis on retirement savings by contributing the maximum to their 401ks ($19,500 each) and traditional IRAs ($6,000 each). In total, they contribute $51,000 to their retirement accounts.
Since the Smiths have two children in elementary school, they have to pay for after school care during the school year and some child care during the summer months. The total child care costs amount to $5,000 per year. The Smiths contribute $5,000 to their childcare flexible spending account provided by Mrs. Smith’s employer, and this amount is taken out of her paycheck pre-tax.
Similarly, Mrs. Smith contributes $2,750 per year to her healthcare flexible spending account, which is also deducted from her paycheck pre-tax. With the family’s typical medical and dental expenses, they are certain to use the $2,750 each year.
Married Couple, 40 Years Old, 2 Kids
401k Contributions (x2)
Traditional IRA Contributions (x2)
Healthcare Flexible Spending Account
Child Care Flexible Spending Account
Adjusted Gross Income (AGI)
Childcare Tax Credit
Refundable Child Credit
Total 2021 Tax Refund
After taking these deductions from their gross income, their $104,300 combined salaries are reduced to an adjusted gross income of $45,550. A married couple with two children will owe $2,056 income tax on $45,550 of adjusted gross income. The Smiths can take the child tax credit of $4,000 ($2,000 per kid). $2,056 of the credit is a non-refundable credit which offsets the income tax liability and they are also allowed to take $1,944 as a refundable credit.
Their tax credits totaling $2,056 completely offset the tax liability they would otherwise have on their $45,550 adjusted gross income. The Smiths will owe zero tax and receive a refundable tax credit. Even though the Smiths enjoy a six-figure gross income, they still manage to bring their federal income tax bill down to zero by taking advantage of several tax credits and deductions.
Mr. and Mrs. Smith’s Tax Bill: $0, and total tax refund of $1,944
The Jacksons: Married Couple, 55 Years Old, Empty Nesters
The Jackson family will serve as our third example of how ordinary households can avoid paying federal income tax. The Jacksons’ total annual salaries sum to $105,550.
Mr. and Mrs. Jackson raised two wonderful children and are now looking forward to retirement within five years. The two Jackson children have finished college and are no longer dependents of their 55-year-old parents. The Jacksons are also proud of recently paying off their 30-year mortgage on the house they bought when they were newlyweds.
With the kids out of the house and the house paid off, the Jacksons find themselves with more disposable income. Since Mr. and Mrs. Jackson are nearing retirement age, they want to put the disposable income to work for themselves by turbocharging their retirement savings.
Married Couple, 55 Years Old, No Dependents
401k Contributions (x2)
Traditional IRA Contributions (x2)
Capital Loss Carryforward
Health Savings Account Contribution
Adjusted Gross Income (AGI)
Retirement Savings Contribution Credit
Total 2021 Tax Bill
The Jacksons are in luck because IRS rules allow taxpayers age 50 or over to make “catch up” contributions to their 401k’s and IRAs. An individual age 50 or over can make an additional $6,500 catch up contribution to their 401k, and an additional $1,000 catch up contribution to their IRA. This means taxpayers age 50 or over can contribute a total of $26,000 per year to a 401k and $7,000 to an IRA. Spouses age 50 or over are also entitled to make these catch up contributions. The Jacksons contribute the maximum (including catch up contributions) to their 401ks and their traditional IRAs, which amounts to $66,000 for 2021.
Read More: Retirement Planning
Mr. and Mrs. Jackson don’t have any significant health issues right now, but they want to ensure they have adequate savings to pay for healthcare expenses in retirement. Mr. Jackson contributes the maximum of $8,200 to his Health Savings Account offered by his employer.
Most families can contribute a maximum of $7,200 to a Health Savings Account (or HSA). However, the catch-up provisions for taxpayers age 55 or over allow an additional $1,000 contribution for a total maximum contribution of $8,200. Amounts contributed to an HSA remain in the account year after year if they are not spent (in contrast to flexible spending accounts whose remaining balances are mostly forfeited at the end of the year).
The Jacksons have some investments in a brokerage account that they manage on their own. Mrs. Jackson enjoys overseeing the individual holdings and she “tax loss harvests” at least $3,000 per year from these taxable investments.
Read More: Guide to Tax-Loss Harvesting
After deducting the 401k and IRA contributions, the health savings account contributions, and the capital loss deduction, the Jacksons manage to reduce their $113,750 earned income down to an adjusted gross income of $36,550!
For a married couple with no additional dependents, the tax liability on $36,550 income (after the standard deduction) is $1,145. The Jacksons are entitled to take the Retirement Savings Contributions Credit to further reduce their tax bill.
At an adjusted gross income up to $36,550, married couples can take a credit of 50% of up to $4,000 of retirement contributions. This would allow the Jacksons a $2,000 tax credit. The credit is limited to the tax owed by the taxpayers, which is $1,145 for the Jacksons. The Jacksons take the $1,145 Retirement Savings Contributions Credit and reduce their tax bill to zero.
The Jackson’s Total Tax Bill: $0
The Millers: 30-Something Married Couple, 3 Young Children
The Millers, a couple in their 30s with three young children will earn approximately $150,000 in 2021 between salaries and some moderate investment income.
In this table, their gross salaries are shown along with all the deductions from their salary for retirement savings, child care, flexible spending account, health savings account, health insurance, and dental insurance. After all the deductions, their $150,000 combined gross salaries are reduced to a net of $83,700 (almost a 56% reduction):
Salaries & Deductions
Health Savings Account (HSA)
Remaining Gross Salaries
In this second table, the earned income and investment income is shown along with another series of deductions including the capital losses from tax loss harvesting. Since the Millers have three children, they received $4,714 of child non-refundable tax credits. They also had $300 foreign tax withheld on their investment income, hereby generating a $300 foreign income tax credit. There was also a $1,286 refundable child tax credit.
Additionally, because their taxable income was less than $80,800, the 15% capital gains bracket, their qualified dividends were taxed at zero percent.
In this situation because of both the non-refundable and refundable Child Tax Credit, they were not only able to zero out their tax liability, they received a refund of $1,286.
2021 Taxes, 30-Something Married Couple, 3 Children
Dividends ($6,500 qualified dividends)
Current year long-term capital gains
Capital loss carryover
Net capital loss
Capital loss limitation and carried forward to the next year
Allowable capital loss for current year
IRA Contribution (x2)
Adjusted Gross Income
Child Tax Credit
Foreign Income Tax Credit
Refundable Child Tax Credit
Total tax credits
Total Tax Refund
Effective Tax Rate
Tax on $6,500 of Qualified Dividends
How to Reduce Taxable Income
With some planning, it isn’t impossible to file a 1040 that shows zero tax liability. The four examples highlighted in this article show taxpayers at different stages of life who managed to significantly reduce their tax burden. Three of the example households reduced their tax bill to zero despite earning six figure salaries.
How did these taxpayers reach a zero dollar tax bill and how could you reduce your taxes?
Contribute significant amounts to retirement savings plans
Participate in employer sponsored savings accounts for child care and healthcare
Pay attention to tax credits like the child tax credit and the retirement savings contributions credit
Careful tax planning can slash your tax bill to almost nothing even if you have a fairly high income.