4 Green Ways to Pay Less Tax

This month, Bridget Sullivan Mermel provides a guest post. Bridget is based in Chicago and specializes in socially responsible investing. The term and its applications are broader than you might think!

A lot of people think that green financial planning is all about investments.

I beg to differ. As a comprehensive planner, I love to talk about the good you can do without investing a dollar. One great way is to act green and save money is on your taxes. Here are four big opportunities:

1. Donate to charity
If you itemize, donating items that you don’t need is a great way to get a deduction.

When acting green, there are generally good, better and best alternatives. In this case, “good” is contributing your used clothing and household items to the charity of your choice rather than pitching it into the garbage stream.

Even better: you can also contribute used TVs and electronic items to charities that will recycle them.

And best is finding charities that will actually reuse your electronic items. Domestic violence shelters use cell phones. Other charities refurbish your old electronics and send them to schools and developing countries that need them. One time I even donated an old mountain bike to a charity that sends them overseas.

Here’s a nationwide website that connects you with local charity pickup services. You might have to scan the listings of each individual charity to figure out which accept items like mattresses and TVs that some charities won’t accept:

http://www.donationtown.org/

Here’s a Chicago charity that accepts electronics for re-use called FreeGeek. They have a resale shop and accept drop-offs:

http://freegeekchicago.org/donate

Here’s a handy list of Chicago charitable organizations that details what each organization is looking for and what they do with it:

http://www.chaostoorder.com/resources/donations/

And here’s where I donated my bike:

http://workingbikes.org/

Common sense caution applies. Donating a computer with a hard drive full of personal information? Make sure you are comfortable with programs that wipe it clean before setting up your pick-up. Even if you don’t want to donate your hard drive, giving away old printers, scanners and cords don’t offer security challenges.

2. Improve your home
These purchases get you a tax credit through 12/31/2013 if your purchases meet energy star criteria:

1. Insulation
2. Roofs (metal and asphalt)
3. Water heaters (non-solar)
4. HVAC systems
5. Windows and doors
6. Biomass stoves HVAC systems (I’ve got to admit that I didn’t even know what these were!)

Doing a more ambitious project to either your principal residence OR your second home? Consider following energy star guidelines and get a tax credit. The credit for these expires 12/31/2016:

1. Geothermal Heat Pumps
2. Small Wind Turbines (Residential)
3. Solar Energy Systems

Also for your principal residence (sorry, no second homes here) if you get one of these bad boys before 2016, you can get a credit:

1. Fuel Cells (Residential Fuel Cell and Microturbine System)

You can find more details about all the above credits here:

http://www.energystar.gov/index.cfm?c=tax_credits.tx_index

3. Buy a Plug-in Car
The credit for hybrid cars is gone, but there are still some credits left for buying a plug-in. Here’s the link:

http://www.irs.gov/Businesses/Qualified-Vehicles-Acquired-after-12-31-2009

4. Get money from your state
Finally, most states have green tax incentives. Here’s the website to help you look up your state:

http://www.dsireusa.org/

I looked over Illinois’ list and it seemed to be primarily incentives that relate to the construction industry. However Illinois is in a fiscal-crisis-mode, not a dolling-out-tax-incentives mode at the moment. Other states are more promising.

By Bridget Sullivan Mermel