Pay Down Mortgage or Put the Money in Stocks?

By Dr. Don Taylor, Ph.D., CFA, CFP,

Every tax season, frantic filers search for ways to reduce the checks they must write to Uncle Sam. A proven tax strategy is deducting as much as possible.

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But sometimes, technically deductible expenses are wasted because they don't meet other Internal Revenue Service rules. This is often the case for most of the miscellaneous deductions found on Schedule A.

The roadblock preventing the write-off of these assorted expenses is the requirement that they total more than 2% of the taxpayer's adjusted gross income, or AGI. That means a taxpayer with $50,000 in AGI must come up with more than $1,000 in miscellaneous deductions before they do him or her any tax good. Even then, just the amount over $1,000 is deductible. So the 50-grand filer with $1,750 in tax-allowable miscellaneous expenses can only deduct $750, not the full $1,750.

While the 2% limit is tough for many filers to reach, it's not impossible. You just need to know exactly what the IRS considers as allowable miscellaneous deductions. The expenses fall into three general categories: unreimbursed employee expenses, tax preparation fees and &quotother&quot expenses.

Unreimbursed Employee Expenses

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Remember that copier toner you bought that Saturday you had to work and the office machine ran dry? What about that fee you paid to become a notary public, a designation requested by your boss to speed up the flow of official documents? If you never got reimbursed for these costs, they could help reduce your personal tax bill as a miscellaneous deduction.

The IRS says you can deduct these expenses you paid out of your own pocket as long as they were required to do your job as an employee and were &quotordinary and necessary&quot to your business or trade. An expense is ordinary if it is common and accepted in your type of business; it's necessary if it is appropriate and helpful to you in doing your job.

Because you have that percentage target to meet, be thorough here. Most taxpayers know to count the price of professional journal subscriptions and business-related meals and entertainment, but other items the IRS says you can deduct are the costs of work-related classes, legal fees and licenses. Don't overlook the price of job-required uniforms that you bought (and that aren't suitable as general attire), as well as amounts you paid for employer-required medical examinations. Even the fee to obtain the passport you needed for that overseas business trip is deductible here.

Certain home-office expenses also might count, as long as the residential workspace is for the convenience of your employer and not just to save you some commuting time. And don't forget about depreciation on personal computers you use for work. These, too, must be for your boss's convenience and required as a condition of your employment.

What if you've had it with your job and all its ancillary costs? You can deduct as miscellaneous expenses the amounts you spent looking for other employment in the same field.

Some of these expenses require you to fill out an additional tax form, schedule or work sheet. But when you get the final amount that you can deduct, report it on line 21 of Schedule A.

Tax-Preparation Fees

If collecting all your potential work-related deductions prompted you to seek tax help, then the IRS has a tax break for you here. And you don't have to hire a CPA to get this deduction.

You can deduct the cost of tax-preparation software, tax publications and even costs for associated tax-filing duties, such as copying your returns or paying for return-receipt postage or overnight delivery when you mail them.