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If my adjusted gross income is $1000, and I make a donation of $100, then it seems that I'm still going to have to pay a tax on the $1000. The donation is deductible, so I don't pay any tax on that, but it hasn't reduced my tax bill. From saving on taxes perspective, what is my incentive to donate?

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How about doing some good with your money as an incentive? – JohnFx Jan 3 '11 at 3:22

If you itemize your deductions (I'm assuming USA here) then qualifying charitable donations (say, $100 to your church) can be deducted, which means they're effectively an offset to your taxable income.

Your adjusted gross income already takes into account any deductions, including charitable contributions. So, after all is said and done, if your AGI is $1,000, your tax is calculated on $1,000. If you didn't make that $100 contribution, your tax would be calculated on $1,100. That's where the tax savings you smell is located.

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This answer is correct in spirit but wrong in many details. AGI has a specific meaning, and taxable income is AGI minus exemptions minus deductions. Charitable donations are part of the deductions and do not affect your taxable income or the tax due unless you itemize your deductions on Schedule A. People whose itemized deductions total less than the standard deduction usually choose the Standard Deduction (except for Married Filing Separately where both spouses must itemize or both must use the Standard Deduction) and their charitable donations do not affect their taxes. (continued) – Dilip Sarwate Mar 10 '12 at 21:39
The Standard Deduction is set based on the assumption that you did make some charitable contributions, and you use the Standard Deduction,you get the benefit of the assumption even if you never gave a dime. If you made a $100 charitable contribution, you get no direct reduction in taxes from it unless the total of your itemized deductions exceeds the Standard Deduction. But tax savings should be the least of your concerns in deciding on whether or not to make a charitable contribution. As JohnFx suggested, doing some good with your money should be your incentive. (continued) – Dilip Sarwate Mar 10 '12 at 21:50
If your marginal tax rate is 20% and your itemized deductions exceed the Standard Deduction, then you can (a) make a $100 contribution and get back $20 in tax savings because your taxable income is smaller by $100. You are out of pocket by $80, or (b) do not make a charitable contribution at all in which case you pay $20 to the IRS and so you are out of pocket by $20 instead of $80. Clearly, alternative (b) leaves you richer while alternative (a) leaves you a little poorer than alternative (b) but might, just might, make the world a slightly better place. What choice you make is up to you. – Dilip Sarwate Mar 10 '12 at 22:01
Dilip, needing the space of 3 comments means to me that you had details to offer a full answer. You are right, non-itemizers (save for the charitable RMD) have no deduction. – JoeTaxpayer Mar 2 '14 at 22:48

Let's imagine you're in the US, there's a flat tax of 20% on all your income, and you're itemizing your deductions.

If you made $100,000 and didn't do anything deductible, your adjusted gross income would remain $100,000, and then you'd pay $20,000 in taxes, so you'd be left with $80,000 after taxes.

If you made $100,000 and donated $10,000 to a qualifying charity, your adjusted gross income would be $90,000, and then you'd pay $18,000 in taxes. So after the donation and taxes, you'd be left with $72,000.

The net result is the charity got $10,000, but your take-home only dropped $8,000, with the government picking up the $2,000 difference. You're still worse off, in terms of your personal cash, than if you hadn't made the deduction. It's just that the bite isn't as bad as it might have been.

It's a little more complicated in the real world where you have marginal tax rates that vary with your income level, but the principle is still the same. If you donate $X, your tax bill will drop by something less than $X.

So I make charitable donations for my own reasons. The tax deduction is icing on the cake, and it can affect how much I donate because the government is picking up part of the tab, but it doesn't affect whether I donate or to whom.

I've heard claims of wealthy people making donations of $X to drop their tax bill by more than $X, but every one I've heard of was something really complicated, used obscure tax loopholes, and involved a donation of art, a building, or securities rather than just money or a check. If you're in that world, you really should retain a tax accountant.

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The donation is deductible, so I don't pay any tax on that, but it hasn't reduced my tax bill

Why would you expect to pay taxes on a donation? It's not income. That fact that it is tax deductible does not mean that you do not owe taxes on it. You do not owe taxes on it because it is not income.

The tax deductible donation impacts your adjusted gross income, but only if you itemize deductions. If you take the standard deduction, a tax deductible donation has no impact on your tax liability.

From the horse's mouth, with emphasis added:

Whether to itemize deductions on your tax return depends on how much you spent on certain expenses last year. Money paid for medical care, mortgage interest, taxes, charitable contributions, casualty losses and miscellaneous deductions can reduce your taxes. If the total amount spent on those categories is more than your standard deduction, you can usually benefit by itemizing.


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Charitable contributions that exceed the standard deduction are deductible. I believe the 2010 Standard Deduction is $5,700 for an individual and $11,400 for a married couple.

Typically, you don't get a deduction unless you own a home, since the mortgage interest and local taxes are generally deductible. YMMV.

How much you save by deducting income is specific to each individual. For me, my combined Federal and State tax savings are about 30%. So if I donate $100, I effectively reduce my tax obligation by around $30.

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In 2010 $5700/$11400 was right, I edited in for you. – JoeTaxpayer Jan 2 '11 at 21:22

Please correct me if I erred, but I thought to reproduce this post on (which I modify lightly) that exemplifies how a donation CAN reduce your tax bill.

Agreed with all the answers before that in general: you don't "save" money by donating to charity, but there are a couple of corner cases.

Suppose the following:

  1. You have no salaried income.

  2. You choose to realize long-term capital gains on the order of $35,000 after your other deductions.

  3. The standard deduction is a wash vs. itemized deductions (regardless of which you use, you're at $35,000 of income).

Now, the capital gains tax rate jumps from 0 to 15% at $33,951, but you're paying a flat 15% across your entire capital gains, unlike the way the rest of taxable income in the US works . As a result, you owe Uncle Sam $5,250 in capital gains taxes at the 15% rate.
So if you don't donate anything, you pay Uncle Sam $5,250 and walk away with $29,750 in your pocket.

Now, if you were to donate $2,000 of your money and claim that as a deduction, then your taxable income decreases to $33,000, your capital gains tax rate decreases to 0%, and your new tax liability becomes $0. So if you donate $2,000, you pay Uncle Sam $0, and walk away with $33,000 in your pocket, profiting $3,250 by moving yourself into a lower long-term capital gains tax bracket.

The numbers in this example are carefully selected to highlight an edge case, and many taxpayers will never find themselves in this situation; but there are many other situations where carefully donating will certainly result in an amplified donation effect, even if you don't necessarily "save" money.

posted by onalark at 3:13 PM on September 25, 2014 [7 favorites]

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