What Is “AGI”? Learn This Term And More Before You File Your Taxes

AGI terms

As the saying goes, there are only two certainties in life: death and taxes. This saying dates all the way back to 1716, and the word tax is even older than that.

Tax, meaning “a sum of money demanded by a government,” comes from the Latin taxare, meaning “censure, charge, tax with a fault,” and dates to around the 1200s.

For centuries, taxes have been a cause of dread for most people. So if you’ve got a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach right about now, you’re not alone.

In most countries, the government essentially does your taxes for you. But in the United States, there is a unique system with its own vocabulary that residents and citizens have to navigate every year, between the beginning of January and April 15, which is Tax Day.

The Internal Revenue Service, or IRS, is the agency in charge of processing tax returns, and they don’t mess around. To help make this process a little less dreadful, we’ve broken down some of the lingo you’re likely to come across if you file your taxes in the United States.

tax return

A tax return is the form(s) on which a person or company reports income, wages, deductions, exemptions, expenses, and any other important tax information. Your tax return is the form you file with the IRS that tells you (and them) what your tax payment is or how much of a refund the IRS owes you. In the United States, everyone who makes more than a certain amount of money is required by law to file a tax return. All of the forms you will soon read about either make up the tax return or help accurately complete it.

What is "AGI" on a tax return?

Confused about the term AGI? You’re not the only one. The concept of adjusted gross income or AGI stumps plenty of taxpayers every year—and yet, it’s one of the most important numbers on your tax form. Gross doesn’t mean “disgusting,” although that would be a good joke for the IRS. Simply put, the adjusted gross income is “the total of an individual’s wages, salaries, interest, dividends, etc., minus allowable deductions.”

Read on for a more complete explanation of AGI and how to calculate it.

federal income tax

Income tax is a tax paid on incomes, which for most people means the money they earn from their employer or money they earn from their business. Other forms of income that can be taxed include rents, capital gains, and winnings from gambling and the lottery. Federal income tax is the income tax a person pays to the federal government. Federal income tax is what most people refer to when they generally talk about paying “taxes.”

Federal income tax is calculated by a number of factors, including a person’s filing status, taxable income, deductions, credits, and exemptions.

Form 1040

The key form needed to complete an annual tax return is the Form 1040, or 1040 for short. To this main document, additional forms, known as forms or schedules, may be added, depending on the situation.

Every year, the IRS issues a new version of the Form 1040 for that year.

adjusted gross income (AGI)

In business, gross means “the amount of salary or profit before deductions or expenses.” So, your gross income refers to how much money you made before taxes and other deductions.

The adjusted part is a little more complex. The IRS has a complicated system of allowances, exemptions, and credits that we will get into in a minute. But, basically, there is a list of things that you’re allowed to deduct from your gross income before you even get into any of those other options.

For example, if you are a teacher, you can deduct up to $300 spent out-of-pocket on classroom expenses from your gross income. There are other adjustments available including health savings accounts (HSAs), self-employment health insurance premiums, and IRA deposits.

So, if you are a teacher who made $50,000/year before taxes, and you spent $250 on your classroom that year, and then you put $750 in your health savings account, your AGI would be $50,000 – $250 – $750 = $49,000.

Where does the name Tax Day come from, and what is its history? Learn more about its meaning and uses.


As you can see, withholding, also known as tax withholding or withholding tax, is a portion of an employee’s wages that an employer takes from their pay and gives directly to the government. Most employees will already have had money taken out of their pay before they receive their paycheck. How much money a company withholds from an employee depends on how much the employee makes and the employee’s completed W-4 form.


Deduction means “to take away from or reduce,” which is exactly what deductions do to the amount of taxes you owe. The word might make you think of the way Detective Holmes solves mysteries, but it has less to do with logic and more to do with simple math.

There are two kinds of deductions that you can take: standard and itemized. These are different from the adjustments we mentioned earlier, because these deductions are taken from your adjusted gross income, not your gross income.

standard deduction

Every year, the IRS sets amounts known as the standard deduction. There are different amounts of standard deductions depending on whether you file as single, married, or head of household.

itemized deductions

If you are a real devil for the details and appreciate precision, you probably like itemized lists of things. Your best friend may think she has “makeup and stuff” in her purse, but you would be happy to give her an itemized list of all the items she has: two lipsticks, a lip balm, tissues, floss, and three peppermints.

Itemized deductions are also a list. But instead of a list of a purse’s contents, it’s a list of what you are deducting. There are many things that can be considered itemized deductions, and it changes every year. Some examples of things that can be itemized are medical and dental expenses and charitable contributions.

You have to pick either the standard or itemized deductions when you file your Form 1040. Typically, unless you donate a lot of money to charity, it is more beneficial to take the standard deduction. Your deductions are taken from your AGI.


Certain assets or income are considered tax-exempt. Exempt means “to be free from obligation or duty.” If something is tax-exempt, you are free from the obligation or duty to pay taxes on it.

One common example of tax-exempt income is the interest earned on municipal bonds. Anything that is tax-exempt is yours to keep.


In order to encourage certain behaviors, like investing in green energy, or to help out certain populations, the government will offer tax credits. While we think of credit as recognition for something, in bookkeeping, credit has a slightly different meaning: it’s the amount of money received. Basically, tax credits are like the government giving you a check. Hooray!

The most common credit people will receive is the earned income tax credit, also known as EIC or EITC. One of the biggest economic support programs in the United States, the EIC is a sliding scale credit. If you earn no money, you get no EIC. If you make some money, you will get an EIC based on how much you earned and how many dependents (like children) you have. If you make more than a certain amount, you will no longer get an EIC.

taxable income

Taxable income is the portion of income that a government uses to calculate how much tax a person or company will owe. Speaking generally, taxable income is determined by taking a person’s or company’s AGI and subtracting all applicable deductions from it. After doing all of the searching, compiling, and calculating, taxable income is the magic number that you will finally be able to use when determining how much you actually owe in taxes.

filing status

A person’s filing status is the other main factor besides taxable income that determines their income tax rate, which is the percentage used to calculate federal income tax. Filing is based on a person’s marital status and whether or not they have any dependents living with them. The filing status determines how high a person’s taxable income needs to be before they owe a higher percentage of income as taxes. There are five different types of filing status: single, married filing jointly, married filing separately, head of household, and widow(er) with dependent.

When you’re dealing with money, shouldn’t you learn how to talk about it accurately? Learn the difference between economic and economical.

W-2 vs. W-4 vs. W-9

One of the things that makes filing your annual tax return so daunting is the confusing names of the forms, because they are so similar. Take, for example, the W-2, W-4, and W-9.

If you are a salaried employee, when you first started the job you filled out a W-4. That is where you help your employer figure out your withholdings.

At the end of the year, typically before the end of January, your employer will give you a W-2. On the W-2, you will find information about how much you were paid that year and how much was deducted for taxes. This information is critical for completing Form 1040.

If you are a freelancer or independent contractor, like an Uber driver, you filled out a W-9 when you first began working with the company. You will not get a W-2 at the end of the year, but you might get a 1099. Not sure what that is? Read on.

1098 vs. 1099

A 1099 is a statement of income other than wages. There are different types of 1099 forms, but they include income like contractual earnings or rental property earnings. Unlike your W-2, you may or may not receive a 1099, although you can always request one.

A 1098 is a statement that you can use for itemized deductions if you choose to. A 1098 is a statement of how much money was paid on the interest for a mortgage loan. Similarly, 1098-E statements are specific to student loans. Because if it’s not one loan in our life, it’s another…

refund vs. liability

After you get all your paperwork together and fill out your Form 1040 and all the other schedules you may or may not need, you’re left with one of two numbers at the end: either a refund or a liability.

If you’re lucky, you will get a refund. When you pay more than you owe in taxes, you will get a refund, a word dating back to the 1400s that means “to give back.” This refund includes tax credits that you are eligible for.

If you didn’t pay enough in taxes over the year, you will have a liability. Liability is a slightly fancy word for “what you owe.” If you end up with a jaw-dropping amount of liability when you file your taxes, don’t fret. Contact the IRS. They will work with you to create a payment plan so you can pay off your liability.


An audit is an official examination of financial accounts and statements. In the United States, tax audits are handled by the IRS. As part of the audit, the IRS will typically request documentation and conduct interviews so they can accurately determine what the correct tax payment or refund should be. A person or—more likely—a business can be selected for an audit for a variety of reasons, but it usually occurs due to inaccuracies or suspicious activity during the tax filing process. For example, the IRS may audit a business that is reporting unusually high losses, suspiciously high business expenses, or irregularly low income. Of course, nobody wants to ever go through an audit. Understanding all of the tax terms we are explaining here should go a long way in helping you avoid this unfortunate situation.

Take the quiz

With this tax lingo under your belt, you’ll be ready to tackle your US income tax return… or at least know enough to follow what your preparer is telling you. And if you think you’re ready to put your knowledge to the test, try our tax terms quiz. Happy filing!

You may owe the government, but it has its own accounts to settle, too. Learn US debt terms.

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