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How Tax Credits Work

A tax credit is a dollar-for-dollar reduction of the income tax you owe. Learn about the tax credits you may be eligible for and how tax credits work.

By Kristina Russo | American Express Credit Intel Freelance Contributor

6 Min Read | January 24, 2021 in Money



Tax credits can reduce your tax bill and sometimes get you money back even if you didn’t pay taxes.

Many taxpayers miss out on credits they’re eligible for because they’re unaware of them.

Here’s how tax credits work, plus a list of common tax credits and what you need to claim yours.

My husband and I are both CPAs, yet we still groan when it comes time to do our joint tax return each year. The paperwork. The forms. All of that supporting documentation – the kitchen table is cluttered from end to end. I always wonder how “regular folks” – who aren’t trained accountants – feel at tax time. Based on stats from the IRS about the enormous number of returns that go unfiled (uh-oh), misfiled (oops), and under-filed (huh?), it seems you all feel just like me. 


When tax credits are involved, these filing snafus mean hardworking people may be leaving real money on the kitchen table! To help you avoid that fate, I’ll look at how tax credits work from a process perspective, to help make it easier for you to claim what’s legally, rightfully yours.


Tax Credits Can Reduce Your Taxes – and More

Tax credits are payments offered by the government that shave money off your tax bill, dollar-for-dollar. Some tax credits are refundable which means you can get the money back even if it is more than the taxes you owe. Other tax credits are nonrefundable, which means they can only reduce your tax bill to zero, but they are still much more valuable than tax deductions, which only lower your taxable income. 


Think about this: even if your earnings are lower than the threshold to file for income taxes, by not filing you could be missing out on a tax credit that might refund you money. That’s what I call “under-filing.” For example, the IRS estimates that 20% of taxpayers who are eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit don’t claim it, even though it might get them a refund worth thousands of dollars.1


Here’s How Tax Credits Work

In general, how tax credits work is simple. You look up the requirements for a particular tax credit – the most common ones are listed below – and see if your circumstances match the eligibility requirements. If so, you fill out Schedule 3 of Form 1040, which is required for all tax credits, plus the appropriate form for that credit. You can apply for as many tax credits as you’re eligible for, and they’re all combinable.


Steps to Follow to Claim Common Tax Credits

To help get you started, I’ve listed some common tax credits, the IRS forms you’ll need to claim them, and the supporting documents to have handy as you go through the steps. Even if you’re not a do-it-yourselfer, like my husband and me, it helps to get organized for your meeting with your preparer or for your afternoon date with online tax software.  


Earned Income Tax Credit: This fully refundable $6,660 maximum credit is for working people who earn less than $56,844.2 You get more from it if you’re married and/or have kids.

  • Form needed: Schedule EIC
  • Supporting documents: Social Security numbers for each qualifying child, the amount of time any child lived away from you during the year, the amount of any investment income, Schedule E if you have supplemental income/loss and Schedule SE if you have self-employment income
  • For more, read “What Is the Earned Income Tax Credit?"

Health Care Tax Credit (aka Premium Tax Credit): A fully refundable credit meant to help you pay monthly health insurance premiums.If you have a Health Reimbursement Arrangement, new guidelines may limit your ability to claim this tax credit, beginning in 2020.5

  • Form needed: Form 8962
  • Supporting documents: Form 1095, which is a Health Insurance Marketplace statement confirming your insurance, Social Security numbers for your dependents
  • For more, read “What Is the Health Care Tax Credit?

Child Tax Credit: A partially refundable credit of up to $2,000 meant to offset costs of raising a child. Up to $1,400 is the refundable portion (called the “Additional Child Tax Credit”).Recent updates allow you to use the greater of your 2019 or 2020 income when calculating the amount of the 2020 Additional Child Tax Credit, as a way to potentially increase the refundable tax credit for those whose taxable earnings declined during 2020.      

  • Form needed: The worksheets in IRS Publication 972 will help you determine if you’re eligible, and if so use Form 8812
  • Supporting documents: Social Security or Taxpayer Identification Numbers for each child, W2s for you and your spouse
  • For more, read “What Is the Child Tax Credit?

American Opportunity Credit (aka Education Tax Credit): This credit for qualified higher education expenses maxes out at $2,500, 40% of which is refundable (up to $1,000 per eligible student).6     

  • Form needed: Form 8863
  • Supporting documents: Form 1098-T (tuition statement from your educational institution), Social Security numbers for each qualifying student
  • For more, read “What Is the Education Tax Credit?

Lifetime Learning Credit (another Education Tax Credit): This nonrefundable credit is broader than the American Opportunity Credit but is worth less. It maxes at $2,000 per tax return, for expenses from many different levels of education and job training.7

  • Form needed: Form 8863
  • Supporting documents: Form 1098-T, Social Security numbers for the qualifying student(s)
  • For more, read “What Is the Education Tax Credit?

Electric Vehicle Credit: This nonrefundable credit is worth up to $7,500 for purchasers of qualifying electric cars.8

Credit for Child and Dependent Care Expenses: A nonrefundable credit for costs paid for dependent care so that you can work, up to $1,050 per dependent.9

  • Form needed: Form 2441
  • Supporting documents: Social Security numbers for each qualifying dependent, Form W-10 Dependent Care Provider Identification and Certification from each care provider or name, address and Social Security numbers of any providers, W2s if you or your spouse received dependent care benefits from your employer
  • For more, read “What Is the Childcare Tax Credit?

Retirement Savings Contribution Credit: A nonrefundable tax credit up to $2,000 for making eligible contributions to a retirement account.10

  • Form needed: Form 880
  • Supporting documents: Statements from your IRA, ABLE or employer-sponsored retirement accounts


Resources That Can Help You Claim Tax Credits

All the forms and instructions you need can be found on the IRS’ website plus many libraries, post offices, copy centers, and office supply stores. If you use a paid tax preparer, make sure you discuss tax credits as part of your filing. If you use an online filing service, their embedded tools lead you through sets of questions to help identify if you’re eligible for any tax credits and populate the appropriate completed forms. 


The IRS offers a free tool on its website, the Interactive Tax Assistant (ITA), that can determine if you’re eligible for any tax credits by asking some very easy, guided questions. At the end the ITA provides links to the appropriate forms or you can take advantage of IRS Free File and Fillable Forms. Free File is free tax software and electronic filing programs for taxpayers with income below $72,000.11 Fillable Forms are electronic versions of all the IRS paper forms that does all the math automatically and are available to everyone.


For free, full-service, tax return preparation, consider the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance or Tax Counseling for the Elderly programs if your income is below $57,000 or if you’re older than 60, respectively.12


The Takeaway

Understanding how tax credits work can help you maximize your eligible tax benefits, and may get you money “back” from the IRS even if you didn’t pay any taxes. The process for claiming tax credits is made easier with paid and free resources, plus a bit of organization. So clear off that kitchen table and start saving.

Kristina Russo

Kristina Russo is a CPA and MBA with over 20 years of business experience in firms of all sizes and across several industries, including media and publishing, entertainment, retail, and manufacturing.


All Credit Intel content is written by freelance authors and commissioned and paid for by American Express. 

The material made available for you on this website, Credit Intel, is for informational purposes only and is not intended to provide legal, tax or financial advice. If you have questions, please consult your own professional legal, tax and financial advisors.