3 Back-to-School Tax Tips for Parents

By Markets Fool.com

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It might be hard to believe, but we're already getting close to back-to-school time. And, as most parents can tell you, that can be an expensive time of year. Fortunately, there are some expenses that may be deductible on your tax return. Here's a rundown of two potential deductions, along with one way to save money on your future tax returns.

Donations to your kid's school

If you make annual donations to your kid's public school, then you may be able to deduct the donation amount from your taxable income. In a nutshell, it depends on who benefits from your donation. If your donation of money or equipment is for the benefit of all students or a group of students, then it qualifies as a charitable donation. For example, if you contribute to a fund to buy sports uniforms for the entire soccer team, then it can be considered tax-deductible.

On the other hand, anything bought directly for your child is not deductible. For instance, the purchase of school uniforms or new athletic shoes for your child cannot be used as a write-off.

Fundraisers and raffles are tricky when it comes to taxation. Raffles (where you can win prizes) are never tax-deductible, but fundraisers can be.

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If you contribute to a fundraiser and don't receive anything in return, then it can be used as a charitable donation. If you doreceive something in return for your donation, then the reasonable value of the property you receive must be subtracted before you take the deduction. Let's say you donate $100 to your child's sports team, and in return, you get a t-shirt that would otherwise sell for $15 and a program that sells for $5. In this situation, you would subtract the $20 value of the goods received and use the remaining $80 as a charitable deduction.

After-school activities and the child care credit

Many children attend back-to-school programs, and your child's program may qualify for the child care credit if it meets certain criteria.For one thing, the child must be attending the program so that you can work, look for work, or go to school. The program must also be considered "child care," so hour-long tutoring sessions don't qualify. Finally, the credit is only available if your child is under 13 years old.

Admittedly, there is some gray area here, so if the situation is not clear, it's best to consult a tax professional. However, it's worth looking into. The child care credit is worth between 20% and 35% of the first $3,000 in qualifying expenses for one child, or $6,000 for more than one child, depending on your income.

It's also worth mentioning that tuition at the kindergarten level or above never qualifies for a child care credit.

It's never too early to start thinking ahead

As a final thought, a great way to set yourself up for future tax savings is to start a college fund for your child. Two great options for college saving are a 529 savings plan and a Coverdell ESA (education savings account).

529 savings plans are run by the states and are similar to 401(k)s as far as investment options go. Depending on your plan, you can choose from a selection of mutual funds, including stock- and bond-based options, as well as target-date funds, which gradually reduce investment risk as your child gets closer to college age. Contribution limits are high; many 529 plans allow for balances of up to $400,000. Depending on your state of residence, you may be able to deduct your contributions on your state tax return (but not on your federal taxes).

Coverdell ESAs are a little different. Contributions are limited to $2,000 per year, but you have a much wider variety of investment options. In fact, in a Coverdell, you can invest in any stocks, bonds, or mutual funds you'd like. Plus, Coverdell funds aren't limited to college expenses -- you can use the account for any level of education.

As far as tax advantages go, both plans work like a Roth IRA: Contributions are not federally tax-deductible, but any withdrawals used for qualified education expenses are 100% tax-free. Here's an in-depth look at both options, if you're interested.

It's never too early to start saving, and the earlier you start, the more time your investment will have to grow.

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