Yes, you can lower your taxable income and your tax bill by opening and contributing to an individual retirement account (IRA). But it depends, first and foremost, on the type of IRA you have.

Let's look at those, and then at some other ways to reduce your gross income, freeing up funds to contribute to an IRA for the maximum advantage.

Key Takeaways

  • Contributions to a traditional IRA can reduce your adjusted gross income (AGI) for that year by a dollar-for-dollar amount.
  • If you have a traditional IRA, your income and any workplace retirement plan you own may limit the amount by which your AGI can be reduced.
  • Contributions to a Roth IRA do not lower your adjusted gross income.

The Two Types of IRAs

If you contribute to a traditional IRA, it can definitely reduce your taxable income. However, some individuals may be ineligible to deduct these contributions based on their income level.

The money deposited into a traditional IRA reduces your adjusted gross income (AGI) for that tax year on a dollar-for-dollar basis, assuming it is within the annual contribution limits (see below). So a qualifying contribution of, say, $2,000 could reduce your AGI by $2,000, giving you a tax break for that year. This move is what is known as contributing with pretax dollars.

A contribution to a Roth IRA does not reduce your AGI in the tax year you make it. Roth contributions are funded with after-tax dollars, meaning there's no deduction at the time of your deposit. However, when the money is withdrawn from the account (presumably after you retire), no income tax is due on it.

But you do pay taxes on distributions—the sums you withdraw—from your traditional IRA in the year you take them. They count as taxable income. As a result, they may significantly boost the amount of tax you owe.

Of course, your funds grow tax-free while in the account with both types of IRAs.

IRA Contribution Limits

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) places limits on the amount you can invest annually in an IRA, whether you choose to go down the Roth or traditional IRA path. For 2021, the IRA limit for contributors is $6,000 plus a $1,000 catch-up contribution for taxpayers who are 50 and over. The contribution maximums apply collectively to all your IRAs, which means they are not per account.

The IRS imposes penalties if you contribute more than the allowable annual amount to an IRA.

Traditional IRA Limits

The IRS allows deductions on contributions to a traditional IRA, but the deduction may be reduced or phased out if you (or your spouse, if you file jointly) are covered by a retirement plan at work.

For the 2021 tax year, a single filer covered by a workplace plan can take a full deduction if their AGI is under $66,000 or a partial one if they make between $66,000 and $76,000. The deduction is eliminated above that amount.

A married couple in which the IRA-contributing spouse is covered by a workplace retirement plan can take a full deduction if their AGI is below $105,000 annually, a partial one if it's between $105,000 and $125,000, and none if their AGI is above that amount. If the other spouse has the workplace plan, the phase-out applies to a joint income between $198,000 and $208,000.

Roth IRA Limits

Your participation in a workplace plan doesn't affect your Roth IRA contributions. Your income, on the other hand, does. Specifically, your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) determines whether or not you can contribute to a Roth IRA and how much you can contribute.

Single taxpayers are good to go until their MAGI hits $125,000. If it falls between $125,000 and $140,000, they face a gradual reduction of the amount they can contribute. For joint filers, the phase-out applies to incomes between $196,000 to $206,000. Exceed those outer limits and you can't fund a Roth IRA at all.

Modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) is your AGI with certain tax deductions added back in, including those for traditional IRA contributions, interest on bonds and student loans, self-employment taxes, and foreign income.

How to Reduce Your MAGI

Here are some ways to reduce your income so you may contribute to a Roth IRA.

Contribute at Work

Pretax contributions you make to a workplace retirement plan such as a 401(k), 403(b), 457 retirement plan, or thrift savings plan are deducted from your taxable income. The contribution limit for employees who participate in 401(k), 403(b), most 457 retirement plans, and the federal government's thrift savings plan is $19,500 for both 2020 and 2021. The catch-up contribution limit for employees aged 50 and over who participate in these plans is $6,500.

Contribute to an HSA

In 2021 and 2022, if your health insurance policy has a deductible of at least $1,400 (single) or $2,800 (family), you may qualify to make pretax contributions to a health savings account (HSA).

There are limits to how much you can contribute in one year. In 2021, the maximum for HSAs is $3,600 for individual coverage and $7,200 for family coverage. For 2022, the amounts increase $50 and $100 respectively, bringing them to $3,650 and $7,300.

Individuals aged 55 and older can make an additional $1,000 in catch-up contributions to their HSAs each year.

Contribute to an FSA

A variation on the HSA is called a flexible spending account (FSA), which some employers offer. The contribution limit for 2021 remains the same as 2020—up to $2,750 to a health care FSA or limited-purpose FSA.

Typically, there’s an open-enrollment period in the fall, during which you must sign up. Normally, you can’t contribute to both an FSA and HSA in the same year, though there are some exceptions.

Contribute to a Dependent Care FSA

If you pay for childcare or adult daycare, in most years, you can contribute up to $5,000 in pretax earnings to a dependent care flexible spending account. However, for 2021, special rules apply (see below).

Like a regular FSA, this one typically requires you to sign up during an open enrollment period, unless you have a qualifying event (such as the birth of a child).

The 2021 dependent care FSA contribution limit was increased by the American Rescue Plan Act to $10,500 for single filers and couples filing jointly (up from $5,000) and $5,250 for married couples filing separately (up from $2,500).

Lower Your Schedule C Income

Self-employment income claimed on Schedule C is another area where you may be able to find deductions that lower your MAGI. In addition to normal business-related deductions, consider contributions to a simplified employee pension (SEP), solo 401(k), or some other tax-deductible retirement plan, if appropriate. While you’re at it, check for nonbusiness deductions, as well.

Claim Capital Losses

If you have capital losses that exceed capital gains, you can apply up to $3,000 against ordinary income. This strategy is often overlooked as a way to reduce MAGI. Claiming capital losses is complex, and the IRS has rules that you must follow. Consult your tax advisor to make sure you comply.

The Bottom Line

Individual retirement accounts are a great way to reduce your tax liability. But keep in mind, there are restrictions to which accounts you can own and how much you can contribute. You can also look at other options to reduce your taxable income, including HSAs and FSAs. When in doubt, always check with a financial professional in order to avoid making any mistakes.