Do you know whether you should claim 0 or 1 on your tax return? Years ago when I was just a little sapling starting out in the professional world, I was given a W-4 form and asked to write down how many allowances I wanted.
I was told it was for tax purposes. But, I had no idea what it meant or how it would affect my paychecks.
Now that I know a thing or two about finances and how taxes come into play, I often hear people grappling with whether they should choose one or zero for allowances.
I’ll let you in on a little secret — the difference is not that big. However, there are a few things that are important to understand.
In This Article
What It Means to Claim a Smaller Number vs. Higher
I like to think of the amount you claim on your taxes (if you’re struggling between one and zero) as more of a preference than anything else.
Generally speaking, the less you claim, the more taxes are withheld from your monthly paychecks. This means your checks will be smaller.
The more you claim, the fewer taxes are withheld, and your paychecks will be bigger.
There are many reasons why people claim more or less on their W-4s.
If you need the extra money each month and are okay with owing at the end of the year (as this may be the case if you claim a high number), then it might make sense for you to do it this way.
However, if you’re okay with living with a smaller paycheck and having a lump sum come your way during tax season, then you may want to claim a smaller number such as 0 or 1.
For example, a friend of mine who wasn’t married or had kids claimed 10. She wanted more money from her monthly paychecks. When it was tax time, however, she ended up owing close to $4,000.
When you first start working at a place of employment, they usually ask if you to fill out a W-4. This requires you to put down how many you want to claim on your tax return.
If you’re grappling with the claiming one or zero, here’s what you should consider.
You’re entitled to one allowance for yourself of a dependent, but just because you are doesn’t mean you absolutely have to. You can still claim zero.
If you claim zero, it means the most amount of taxes will be withheld from your paycheck.
If you decide to claim zero, you should know that:
- The maximum amount of taxes will be withheld from each paycheck
- You’ll most likely receive a refund come tax time (in April)
- You should claim zero if someone else claims you as a dependent on their tax return (i.e. If you’re still in college and your parents claim you)
If you decide you want to claim one, you should know that:
- It may be a good option if you’re single and have only one job/source of income
- You’ll still have a chance to receive a refund during tax season
- You may also break even (get nothing back but owe nothing)
- You may also end up owing
Pros of Claiming One
If you decide to claim one, you will have fewer taxes taken out of your check. This means you’ll have more in your monthly paychecks to pay off debt.
Do you have high-interest credit card debt?
You should make it a priority to pay off debt before you start saving money in an interest-bearing savings account. The reason for this simply boils down to interest rates.
An online savings account has an interest of around 1 percent while your credit card’s interest rate may hover at 20 percent. That’s a big difference.
To illustrate that difference, let’s say you had an extra $500 each month because you claimed one instead of zero. That $500 could be put into savings.
Let’s say you’re starting from scratch and have nothing saved. This would mean you’d be able to earn $5 in interest from the bank.
That’s enough to buy a large cup of coffee. Not much.
If you have $1,000 in credit card debt that has an APR of 20 percent, you’d be paying $200 in interest.
Breaking it down this way shows that paying off your high-interest debt with your higher monthly paychecks makes more sense.
If you don’t have a lot of debt, you could use that money to put into a savings account. Or, you could even put it towards long-term investments.
So, Should You Claim Zero?
If you don’t have a lot of high-interest debt to pay off and you’re fine with having the maximum amount taken out for taxes, claim zero.
Your paychecks will be smaller each month. But, you’ll have a nice lump sum come tax season to be able to throw into an emergency fund or savings account.
Of course just because you claim zero doesn’t mean you’ll automatically get a lump sum back. If you have other streams of income, you may not qualify.
This assumption is if you only have one stream of income.
You can also use the refund money to fund some of your IRA for the following year.
Contrary to the example of the friend who claimed 10 on her W-4, I had a work colleague who always claimed zero on his taxes.
He did this because he felt it was the most simplistic way to “set it and forget it” to get a refund each year.
He was married and had two kids but still claimed zero. He never paid in on taxes at the end of the year and usually got a nice refund.
Other Forms of Income
If you have outside streams of income, you may want to claim zero to avoid owing income taxes at the end of the year.
This is exactly what I was advised to do from my tax accountant when I was launching my own company during the tail end of my employment with my last company.
However, it really depends on the amount of income and your overall financial situation as well. You should talk to a tax professional if you’re unsure how to proceed.
If You’re 1099
If you don’t work for an employer but do contract work or work for yourself, you may want to consider making estimated tax payments to lessen the amount of taxes you pay during tax time.
Estimated taxes allow you to “prepay” some of your taxes each quarter.
What To Do With Your Tax Refund
As I mentioned earlier, if you claim zero you have the largest chance of getting a refund come tax time. I’m sure we can all think of something to buy with tax refund money.
However, here are some other things you might want to do with your tax refund if you get one.
Beef Up Your Emergency Fund
Don’t be one of the majority of people who can’t pay for a $400 emergency. Instead, create a starter emergency fund of $1,000.
Then work on increasing that emergency fund to three to six months’ worth of expenses by making regular direct deposits to your emergency savings account.
Pay Off Debt
What if you’ve got your starter emergency fund in place and have consumer debt to pay off? Consider using some or all of your tax refund proceeds to pay off debt.
If you do, you’ll be paying less in annual credit card interest and you’ll have lower monthly payments as well. Not to mention you’ll be one step closer to achieving financial freedom.
Contribute To An IRA
If you’ve not maxed out your annual IRA contribution limit, you could consider putting your tax refund money into a Roth or Traditional IRA.
Then you’ll have more money working toward creating a cushy financial picture during retirement.
Pro Tip: If your retirement fund is fully stocked you could contribute money to a 529 plan or other college vehicle for your kids, grandkids, or other young people.
Give Money Away
Do you have a favorite charity you like to support? There are so many worthy causes and people in need you can support with your tax refund money if you don’t really need the cash.
Research charitable causes and find one or two that line up with your values. Find causes that mean something to you and support them with your tax refund cash.
So, before you decide between zero, one, or a higher number of allowances, think about how much debt you want to pay off in the year.
Having some extra wiggle room to help you alleviate that debt. It can also set you up for other financial goals to tackle, such as saving for an emergency fund or putting money towards your IRA.
If you’re still unsure what to do, talk to your accountant. You can also ask how many allowances your friends, family members, or colleagues claim.
Everyone seems to have a differing opinion about this, but make sure to do what’s right for you and adjust the numbers accordingly for the following year.