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Tax time can be stressful for many people, for two reasons — the filing process itself and the knowledge that if you’d made different decisions the year before, you might be facing a smaller tax hit this year. Let’s explore ways to lower the stress level — and the tax burden — at this time of year.
Make the process easier
Getting organized and filing your return can be a chore. Even just pulling together your information to get started can be overwhelming. Here are a few tips to ease the process:
Organize your paperwork
The first step is to gather your information and receipts. I recommend you keep these in a paper or electronic folder organized by category. Your main categories should include:
• Business income and expenses, which can be exported from financial software such as QuickBooks.
• Personal income, from forms such as W-2s and 1099s.
• Rental and other income.
• Charitable deductions.
• Taxes paid on property, vehicles or purchases.
• 529 plan contributions and distributions.
• Investment income (dividends, interest, sale info).
• Retirement contributions or distributions.
Decide on your method
Next, decide whether you want to do your taxes yourself using an online tool or seek the help of a tax professional. If you have rental property, real estate investments or a complex investment portfolio, if you own a business, or if you don’t have the desire to take this on, it’s wise to turn to a professional.
Take your time
If you’re going to do it yourself, don’t try to rush through the task in one day. I find it’s best to break it up over a few days. Give yourself plenty of time to gather all of the information you need and complete the process.
Some years it takes until mid-February to get the necessary documents for your various investment holdings. For example, Vanguard issues tax documents for mutual funds much earlier than for funds on the brokerage platform. If you rush through your return and file early, you might inadvertently exclude some of your funds, forcing you to amend your return.
You’ll also want to take the time to review your return thoroughly for accuracy before you file.
Finally, save your return and all of the backup documentation in a safe place for at least three years in case you are audited.
Keep an eye on your withholding
If your tax liability is too high or you’ll be receiving a large refund, consider adjusting your withholding. Also, try to determine how your income and deductions will change in the coming year so you can adjust further.
Lessen your tax burden
At tax time, it’s easy to see that decisions you made the year before have a major impact. Here are some things you can do that will pay off next tax season:
Max out your retirement contributions
Contributing the maximum to your retirement savings accounts is the simplest way to reduce your tax burden, but many people are not doing it. For 2015 and 2016, you can contribute 100% of your salary, up to $18,000, to your 401(k), with a $6,000 “catch-up” for people 50 and over.
You can still contribute to a traditional IRA for 2015 up to the tax filing date, which is April 18. Check the IRS website to see if you’re eligible to deduct your IRA contribution based on your income. You can contribute $5,500 to an IRA with an additional catch-up of $1,000 for those 50 and over.
If you’re in a high tax bracket, say 28% or higher, consider increasing your 401(k) contributions, because these pretax contributions will reduce your taxable income. If you are in the 25% tax bracket or lower, consider increasing your contributions to a Roth 401(k) or contributing to a Roth IRA if you are eligible, as those contributions are made after taxes. The deadline for Roth contributions for 2015 is April 18.
With Roth plans, although you will be taxed on the income now, your investment will grow tax-free and you will be able to withdraw it without paying taxes, if you meet certain conditions. This can be a powerful way to avoid paying taxes on future income, especially if you are young and have time on your side.
Document your charitable donations
Make sure you have documentation for all cash and noncash donations. Make an itemized list for noncash items and their condition before you make the donation. Remember that you can also deduct mileage for your volunteer work.
If you have substantial charitable donations, say $10,000 a year or more, you might want to consider donating appreciated stocks or mutual funds. This can provide a triple tax benefit — you can deduct the amount of the donated securities, you can eliminate future capital gains on the sale of the securities, and you can buy back the same shares at the higher current market value, resulting in a lower tax bill when you sell the securities in the future.
Track college education expenses
Deduct only qualified expenses and make sure that any distributions from your 529 college-savings plans coincide with expenses incurred in the same calendar year. I use an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of this for my son’s education. It itemizes tuition, books, and room and board fees offset by scholarship amounts.
Don’t forget to deduct your annual contributions to your state 529 if you get a state tax break. I often notice that clients forget to tell their CPA about these contributions or forget to include this info when they prepare their own return. Since South Carolina, where I live, provides a dollar-for-dollar tax deduction for contributions to the Future Scholar 529 plan, this results in a 7% instant return on your money, for example. (I recommend the Future Scholar Direct program, which is no-load and includes index funds with low expense ratios.)
Optimize your investments
Capital gains: Review the capital gain distributions for your funds to see if you can improve the tax efficiency of your investments. It may make sense to sell one of your funds if it continually throws off high capital gains. Replacing an active high-expense fund with a more tax-efficient index mutual fund or exchange-traded fund will reduce your taxes and will likely give you better performance over time due to lower expenses.
U.S. bonds: If you have taxable bond funds in your after-tax (nonretirement) accounts, don’t forget to adjust for U.S. government bond income. You can contact the fund, or it may mail you a sheet that breaks down income by source. The interest from Treasury bills and bonds as well as U.S. government agency securities is taxable at the federal level only.
Municipal bonds: Likewise, adjust your municipal bond dividends and interest for “in state” income as you are not taxed on municipal bond income from your state. This should also be provided by the mutual fund or broker where the bonds are held.
Foreign mutual funds: If you invest in foreign mutual funds, you can take a foreign tax credit or deduction for income, such as dividends, that you received from outside the U.S. The tax credit is generally more beneficial than the deduction. Contact the mutual fund company to find out the percentage of the dividends that are from foreign holdings and adjust accordingly.
By following these steps, you’ll make next tax season a more pleasant, less stressful one.
Image via iStock.