Can I Tell How Much I'll Get Back By Looking at My W-2s?

by Cynthia Gaffney ; Updated March 29, 2018

If you're trying to figure out your tax refund by looking at your W-2 form alone, you can come up with a rough estimate in a few ways. However, you'll have a much clearer idea of your tax refund after you go through the process of filing your federal income tax return to make sure you don't miss any opportunities to get some of your withheld taxes back. Your W-2 form gives you just part of the picture.

Use an Online Calculator

You can perform a rough estimate of your tax return by using an online income tax calculator. You can find one by doing a quick online search. You need to provide the information from your W-2 on income, taxes withheld and filing status, among other information. The calculators typically allow you to enter only a few adjustments to your income, such as income from interest, dividends and capital gains.

You can also enter a few deductions and credits for things like retirement plan contributions, mortgage interest or charitable donations, although you won't be able to capture every available credit or deduction. Some calculators don't have an option for taking the standard deduction. When you hit the "calculate" button, you'll receive an estimate of the amount you either owe or have coming as a refund.

Quick and Dirty Method

If your income and other financial characteristics are relatively the same this year as last year, you can review last year's return and make a reasonable guess as to your potential refund for this year. However, this doesn't factor in any changes that may have taken place, such as a salary increase, change in income tax brackets, fluctuations in investment income, or new tax credits and deductions that may have become effective for the current tax year.

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Lowering Your Taxable Income With Deductions

When you use IRS Form 1040, you'll have several reminders of different opportunities to reduce your taxable income. These include deductions for contributions you've made to a Health Savings or retirement plan, moving expenses in some cases, student loan interest, or payments for health insurance if you're self-employed.

Taking Every Credit You Deserve

Taking the time to research various tax credits and deductions can reward you handsomely. You can reduce what you owe by subtracting tax credits. Some give you a refund, only up to the amount of taxes you owe. Refundable tax credits, however, can reduce the tax you owe to less than zero, and you'll receive a tax refund.

Refundable tax credits currently include the Earned Income Tax Credit, but Congress changes the refundable credits each year, so researching may uncover new credits available as of the latest tax year. If you've spent any money on education, regardless of your age, you may qualify to take the Lifetime Learning credit. You can take this credit for more than one tax year and get up to $2,000 back if you spend up to $10,000 taking courses that give you improved or new job skills.

About the Author

Cynthia Gaffney has spent over 20 years in finance with experience in valuation, corporate financial planning, mergers & acquisitions consulting and small business ownership. She has worked as a financial writer and editor for several online finance and small business publications since 2011. A Southern California native, Cynthia received her Bachelor of Science degree in finance and business economics from USC.

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