What Is an Itemized Deduction?

An itemized deduction is an expenditure on eligible products, services, or contributions that can be subtracted from adjusted gross income (AGI) to reduce your tax bill. Such deductions permit taxpayers who qualify to potentially pay less in taxes than if they had opted to take the standard deduction, a fixed dollar amount that varies only by filing status. Allowable itemized deductions, sometimes subject to limits, include such expenses as mortgage interest, charitable gifts, and unreimbursed medical expenses.

Key Takeaways

  • An itemized deduction is an expenditure on eligible products, services, or contributions that can be subtracted from adjusted gross income (AGI) to reduce your tax bill.
  • Itemized deductions are listed on Schedule A of Form 1040, and the amount they lower your tax bill depends upon your filing status and tax bracket.
  • Most taxpayers have the option to either itemize deductions or claim the standard deduction that applies to their filing status.
  • The list of expenses that can be itemized is extensive, but there are limits and exclusions compared to deductions before the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act went into effect in 2018.

Understanding Itemized Deductions

Itemized deductions reduce your taxable income, with the actual tax relief conditioned on the tax bracket in which that income places you. As an example, consider a person filing single, unmarried, who has a gross income of $80,000 and is claiming itemized deductions totaling $15,000. Subtracting those deductions from gross income yields a taxable income of $65,000. The actual tax relief in this instance is the deducted amount, $15,000, times the tax rate for a single person in that income bracket, which is 22% in tax years 2020 and 2021.  The amount of tax saved through the deductions in this example is $3,300.

Tax deductions should not be confused with tax credits, which reduce your tax bill directly. If you calculate your taxes due to be $14,000, for example, and you are then eligible for a $1,000 tax credit, your bill is simply lowered by the $1,000 figure, to $13,000.

Itemized deductions are listed on Schedule A of Form 1040. You must save all receipts in case the IRS asks to see them in an audit situation. Additional proof of expenses could include bank statements, insurance bills, medical bills, and tax receipts from qualified charitable organizations.

Starting in 2018, the doubling of the standard deduction made itemizing tax deductions less advantageous for many taxpayers.

Standard vs. Itemized Deduction

The vast majority of taxpayers have the option to either itemize deductions or claim the standard deduction that applies to their status. (Exceptions are nonresident aliens, who must itemize, and married individuals who are filing separately, who must both claim the same type of deduction.) The decision should hinge on a calculation of which deduction type lowers your tax liability the most.

If you're filing as a single taxpayer in the 2020 tax year—or you're married and filing separately—you will likely be better off taking the standard deduction of $12,400 ($12,550 for 2021 tax filing) if your itemized deductions total less than that amount. The same applies to a married couple filing jointly who have no more than $24,800 ($25,100 when filing for 2020 taxes) in itemized deductions and heads of households whose deductions total no more than $18,650 ($18,800 for filing 2021 taxes).  (Remember that you file for 2020 income taxes by April 15, 2021.) These deductions doubled starting in 2018 after the passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.

Pros and Cons of Itemizing Deductions

Each year, you must actively choose between itemizing or taking the standard deduction. You should always research that choice since the allowable deductions and their amounts sometimes change from year to year.

Deductions You Can Itemize
  • Mortgage interest on the first $750,000 of indebtedness—or $1 million, if you bought the home before Dec. 16, 2017

  • Charitable contributions

  • Medical and dental expenses (over 7.5% of AGI in 2020)

  • State and local income, plus either personal property or sales taxes up to $10,000

  • Gambling losses

  • Investment interest

  • Up to $2,500 in student loan interest

  • Up to $250 for educators buying classroom supplies

Deductions You Cannot Itemize
  • Mortgage interest on loan amounts over $750,000—unless you bought your home before Dec. 16, 2017

  • State and local income, sales, and personal property taxes beyond $10,000

  • Alimony payments

  • Moving expenses (except active-duty military)

  • Unreimbursed employee expenses

  • Tax-preparation expenses

  • Natural disaster losses (unless in a federally declared disaster area)

The list of expenses that can be itemized is extensive, but there are new limits and exclusions compared to deductions allowed before the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act went into effect. You can, for example, deduct mortgage interest on a loan of $750,000 or less for any home bought on or after Dec. 16, 2017. Previously, you could deduct interest on a mortgage of $1 million or less. (You can still refinance a home under the old rules if it was purchased before Dec. 15, 2017.)

In 2020, due to the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting CARES Act, taxpayers who do not itemize are also allowed up to a $300 deduction for charitable contributions made in 2020. Additionally, the 50% AGI limitation is suspended for itemizing taxpayers who donate to charity in 2020.

In general, you can deduct charitable donations up to 50% of AGI; qualified, unreimbursed medical and dental expenses over 7.5% of AGI; state and local income plus either sales or personal property taxes up to $10,000 ($5,000 if married filing separately), gambling losses, investment interest less than investment income, up to $2,500 in student loan interest, and up to $250 if you are an educator who buys supplies for your classroom.      

Some formerly available itemized deductions went away as of 2018. Those include deductions for alimony payments (by the paying spouse), moving expenses (except for active-duty military moving due to military orders), unreimbursed employee expenses, tax preparation expenses, and natural disaster losses (unless a tax break for a specific event is authorized by the president).  There was previously no limit on deductions for state and local taxes (SALT). The current $10,000 limit has been a serious financial hit to taxpayers living in high-tax states.

Home-equity loan debt was also affected, in complicated ways: If you have a home equity loan or line of credit, check with your tax advisor about whether the interest is deductible.