Q: My wife and I just owed a ton of money for taxes because we had to take the standard deduction. How in the world to people accumulate enough deductible expenses to be able to itemize? I refuse to believe that the average individual makes thousands of dollars of deductible purchases or donates thousands to charity.
A: Well, you’re right on that score. About two-thirds of the nation’s taxpayers take the standard deduction, typically because they don’t have enough deductible expenses to itemize.
What usually allows people to itemize is mortgage interest, often combined with property taxes and state and local taxes. (For years, only state and local income taxes qualified as deductible expenses, but now you can choose to deduct sales taxes instead.)
So it follows that people who live in areas where real estate is expensive and taxes are high are more likely to itemize than those who don’t. Someone who buys a house in Amarillo, Texas–where the median house price is $97,100, according to the National Association of Realtors, and there is no state income tax–may not have enough deductions to itemize, whereas someone who buys a home in Orange County, California–median home price $627,300–almost certainly does.
AmarilloÂ homeowners who put 10% down on median-priced homes would pay just $4,777 a year in interest during the first year of ownership, assuming a 30-year loan at 5.5%. That’s well short of the $9,700 standard deduction in 2004 for a married couple filing jointly.
San FranciscoÂ homeowners, by contrast, would pay $30,862 in mortgage interest during the first year.
Some commentators have used these differences to asset that folks in many parts of the Midwest and South are subsidizing those on the coasts and in the Northeast, thanks to the mortgage interest deduction. While that might be a bit of a stretch, it is true that the ability to itemize isn’t evenly distributed.
You may never have enough deductions to itemize, but you have a few other ways to avoid a big bill on April 15. Making contributions to a 401(k), if available, is one such way. If you’re not covered by a workplace retirement plan, or you are but your income is below certain limits, you can make deduction contributions to an individual retirement account.
You also should take time now to estimate your taxes for 2005 and adjust your withholding accordingly so you don’t face such a big bill next year. The IRS has a withholding calculator on its site,Â www.irs.gov, thatÂ can help.