The last thing that you probably want to think about this month is taxes, but now is actually the perfect time to tackle some key end-of-year tax planning that could save you beaucoup bucks come April.
Samantha Vient, a Certified Financial Planner (CFP®) with LearnVest Planning, recently clued us into something big that could impact you personally: the dreaded fiscal cliff.
We wrote a nuts-and-bolts story about the fiscal cliff, but here's what you basically need to know: Unless Congress stops fighting and comes to a compromise before New Year's to extend certain tax cuts and perks, you could end up paying thousands more in taxes next year--money you likely had earmarked for your IRA.
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"The bottom line is that taxes are supposedly going to go up," says our trusty financial advisor Samantha. "The government could certainly extend the cuts, but there’s this push and pull between cutting spending or raising taxes--and they are going to fight down to the wire."
Luckily, you've got LearnVest on your side. Although we can't fix this fiscal cliff mess for you, we can give you some sage and understandable advice to help you scale it.
There's just one catch: You gotta do it now. Ready? Let's go!
Why Making More Now Could Save You Money Later
In years past, an accountant would typically tell you to "defer" your income, which basically means pushing your income off so it hits your bank account in January 2013 instead of now. It's not hard to see why--the less income you make in 2012, the less you'll pay in taxes in April 2013.
This year, however, things are different. Since it's very possible that taxes will go up in 2013, you want to make sure that as much of your income as possible comes in now--known as accelerating income--so it's taxed at a lower rate. For example, selling stocks or collecting your freelance checks in December, instead of January, if possible.
What if the Fiscal Cliff Doesn't Happen?
You may be wondering right now if this is akin to gambling with your money. You're betting that taxes go up next year, but will you lose money if they don't?
Nah, this is actually a pretty safe bet:
- If taxes go up next year, a typical household would save about 5% of the income that's accelerated into 2012. For example, if you're able to shift your year-end bonus of $5,000 from January to December, you could save $250 in taxes.
- If Congress passes legislation to keep taxes in 2013 at 2012 levels, it's a wash--you'll pay the same amount overall, just a little more this April and less in 2014.
- If Congress lets some tax cuts expire, while keeping others in place, you'll save less than you would if they let everything expire, but you'll still save.
How You Can Accelerate Your Income
It's not like you can ask your employer to pay out your 2013 salary early, but there are ways to shift some of your income. (Just be aware that these are general guidelines, and you should always talk to your tax professional before making any big moves.)
- Sell stocks now. If you're planning to sell investments because, for example, you're going to use that money to buy a home, do it now instead of January. Capital gains taxes, which are applied to the profits that you make from buying and selling stocks and mutual funds, are 15% right now--but they might jump to 20% next year. Even if you're not planning to make a big purchase, you could still sell some investments that have been doing particularly well and lock in the gains, and then shift that money to another investment with better growth prospects. Just make sure that you've held all the investments you're selling for at least a year. Otherwise, you'll pay a higher short-term capital gains tax.
- Collect your freelance or contract income now. Try to convince a client or company to pay you in December instead of January, or complete a project earlier.
- Ask for your bonus now. This probably won't fly at a big corporation, but if you work at a smaller company, talk to HR to see if you can get your year-end bonus in 2012, noting that it could save you a lot in taxes.
- Convert your Roth now. If you're planning to convert your traditional IRA into a Roth IRA, it will be taxed--so do it before the end of the year.
Other Tax To-Dos Before It's 2013
Can't accelerate any income? You're not off the hook yet. We've got some more homework for you.
If you're having trouble motivating yourself to do this tax stuff, promise yourself a treat for every tax item you accomplish. That's at least three movie tickets if you follow our advice ...
- Contribute to your retirement fund(s). The more you contribute this year to your 401(k), IRA or other retirement funds, the bigger the deduction you get next April. If you have a more-than-adequate savings account, and you know you're behind on retirement, you could also dump the rest of your paychecks into your 401(k), or put your bonus in there to avoid being taxed on it. Added bonus: You'll be closer to a great retirement. (Be sure to consult a tax professional before taking any of these steps.)
- Schedule doctor appointments, and pay medical bills. If you've paid more than a few thousand in medical expenses this year, listen up! For 2012 taxes, the IRS allows you to deduct these expenses if they total more than 7.5% of your adjusted gross income. (Learn how to calculate your AGI.) Look, we know it's a little late in the game, but this could mean big savings. So if you're close to or over that threshold, schedule as many appointments and medical procedures as possible now, because you'll only be able to deduct medical expenses if they're 10% or more of your AGI in 2013. Note: This tip only applies if you itemize your taxes. (Take this quiz to see if you should).
- Contribute to your HSA. A health savings account lets you put money aside tax-free to pay for health expenses. (Find out how much you can contribute.) This means you'll pay less in taxes, and save on health expenses. Learn more about how an HSA works.
- Donate to charity. If you've been thinking about giving to charity, now would be the time because it could score you yet another deduction. You could take things to Goodwill (get a receipt!), or consider a donation in someone's name instead of a gift for the holidays. Just remember that this only applies if you itemize your taxes. (Take this quiz to see if you should).
- Consider hiring an accountant. You may be able to DIY your taxes, but if things are a little complicated, it might be worth it to get professional help. (Find out if you need an accountant.) And you should get in touch with that accountant now, especially if you own a business or hold more complicated investments, because an accountant will charge you accordingly to work overtime.
- Get organized. Start gathering all of your receipts, and go through bank and credit card statements to look for additional things that you can deduct, such as expenses for a freelance business or money spent towards job-hunting if you were laid off.
- Take care of freelance taxes. If you're a freelancer, you should be paying taxes quarterly. If you haven't, make sure you're paid up fully so you don't get hit with penalties starting on January 15th. (Learn more about taxes for freelancers.)
We're not saying that taxes are fun--unless you happen to save $1,000 or more by using these tricks. You just need to be proactive about it.
As our financial advisor Samantha says, "It's just like what we tell LearnVest readers about their budgets: Organization is totally key."'
Correction: The original version of this story equated an HSA with an FSA (flexible spending account). They are different, and for tax-saving purposes, the only tax-saving move you can make right now is contributing to an HSA.