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An unexpected tax bill can ruin anybody's day. To help avoid that unpleasant surprise, here are 12 easy moves many people can make to cut their tax bills. In many cases, you must itemize rather than take the standard deduction in order to use these strategies, but the extra effort may be worth it.
The W-4 is a form you give to your employer, instructing it on how much tax to withhold from each paycheck.
If you got a huge tax bill this year and don’t want another surprise next year, raise your withholding so you owe less when it's time to file your tax return.
If you got a huge refund, do the opposite and reduce your withholding — otherwise, you could be needlessly living on less of your paycheck all year.
You can change your W-4 any time. (How it works.)
Less taxable income means less tax, and 401(k)s are a popular way to reduce tax bills. The IRS doesn’t tax what you divert directly from your paycheck into a 401(k).
For 2020 and 2021, you can funnel up to $19,500 per year into an account.
If you're 50 or older, you can contribute an extra $6,500 in 2020 and 2021.
These retirement accounts are usually sponsored by employers, although self-employed people can open their own 401(k)s. And if your employer matches some or all of your contribution, you’ll get free money to boot.
» MORE: Try our 401(k) calculator
You may be able to deduct contributions to a traditional IRA, though how much you can deduct depends on whether you or your spouse is covered by a retirement plan at work and how much you make.
For the 2020 tax year, you may not be able to deduct your contributions if you’re covered by a retirement plan at work, you’re married and filing jointly, and your modified adjusted gross income was $124,000 or more. In 2021, that number rises to $125,000.
There are limits to how much you can put in an IRA, too:
For 2020 and 2021, the limits are $6,000 per year, or $7,000 for people 50 or older.
You have until the tax-filing deadline to fund your IRA for the previous tax year, which gives you extra time to take advantage of this strategy. (How it works.)
Setting aside money for Junior’s tuition can shave a few bucks off of your tax bill, too. A popular option is to make contributions to a 529 plan, a savings account operated by a state or educational institution. You can’t deduct your contributions on your federal income taxes, but you might be able to on your state return if you’re putting money in your state’s 529 plan. Be aware, too, that there may be gift tax consequences if your contributions plus any other gifts to a particular beneficiary exceed $15,000. (How it works.)
The IRS lets you funnel tax-free dollars directly from your paycheck into your FSA every year, so if your employer offers a flexible spending account, you might want to take advantage of it to lower your tax bill.
In 2020 and 2021, the limit is $2,750.
You’ll have to use the money during the calendar year for medical and dental expenses, but you might also be able to use it for related everyday items such as bandages, pregnancy test kits, breast pumps and acupuncture for yourself and your qualified dependents.
Some employers might let you carry money over to the next year. (How it works.)
This FSA with a twist is another handy way to reduce your tax bill — if your employer offers it.
The IRS will exclude up to $5,000 of your pay that you have your employer divert to a Dependent Care FSA account, which means you’ll avoid paying taxes on that money. That can be a huge win for parents of kids under 13 (14 in 2020 due to special rules for coronavirus), because before- and after-school care, day care, preschool and day camps usually are allowed uses.
Elder care may be included, too.
What's covered can vary among employers, so check out your plan's documents. (How it works.)
If you have a high-deductible health care plan, you may be able to lighten your tax load by contributing to a health savings account, which is a tax-exempt account you can use to pay medical expenses.
Contributions to HSAs are tax-deductible, and the withdrawals are tax-free, too, so long as you use them for qualified medical expenses.
For 2020, if you have self-only high-deductible health coverage, you can contribute up to $3,550. For 2021, the individual coverage contribution limit is $3,600.
If you have family high-deductible coverage, you can contribute up to $7,100 in 2020 and $7,200 in 2021.
If you're 55 or older, you can put an extra $1,000 in your HSA.
Your employer may offer an HSA, but you can also start your own account at a bank or other financial institution. (How it works.)
The rules can get complex, but if you earned less than $57,000, the earned income tax credit might be worth looking into.
Depending on your income, marital status and how many children you have, you might qualify for a tax credit of up to almost $7,000 in 2020 and 2021.
A tax credit is a dollar-for-dollar reduction in your actual tax bill — as opposed to a tax deduction, which simply reduces how much of your income gets taxed. It’s truly found money, because if a credit reduces your tax bill below zero, the IRS might refund some or all of the money to you, depending on the credit. (How it works.)
Charitable contributions are deductible, and they don’t even have to be in cash.
If you’ve donated clothes, food, old sporting gear or household items, for example, those things can lower your tax bill if they went to a bona fide charity and you got a receipt.
If you’ve been in the hospital or had other costly medical or dental care, keep those receipts.
In general, you can deduct qualified medical expenses that are more than 7.5% of your adjusted gross income for that tax year.
So, for example, if your adjusted gross income is $40,000, anything beyond the first $3,000 of your medical bills — 7.5% of your AGI — could be deductible. If you rang up $10,000 in medical bills, $7,000 of it could be deductible in this example. (How it works.)
Knowing you’re getting a tax deduction might make it a little easier to unload some of those bad stock picks that have been weighing down your portfolio.
You can deduct losses on stock sales, which can offset any taxable capital gains you might have. The limit on that offset is $3,000, or $1,500 for married couples filing separately.
One other note: Never let tax avoidance become a substitute for wise investing. Sell a stock only if it truly doesn’t work for your portfolio anymore. Don’t do it just to get a tax break, because if you decide to buy back your stock within 30 days, the IRS can take back your deduction. (How it works.)
From a tax perspective, there’s a huge difference between doing something on Dec. 31 and doing it a day later. If you know an upcoming expense is going to be tax-deductible, think about whether you can pay for it this year rather than next year. Making January’s mortgage payment in December, for example, could give you an extra month’s worth of mortgage interest to deduct this year. Similarly, if you know you’re near the threshold for the medical-expenses deduction, moving that root canal up might make the pain more bearable if the cost suddenly becomes deductible, too.