For the second year in a row, Christina Routon and her husband owe federal and state taxes, despite adjusting their withholding last year. “We’re looking at paying about $1,000 in federal and $500 to the state of Alabama,” says Routon, 42, who lives in Opelika, Ala. “We’ll need to adjust again for 2014.”
If you’re staring down the barrel of a large tax bill this year, it may be time to ask yourself: Are you withholding enough? In other words, is your employer holding enough taxes out of your paycheck to satisfy what you owe the IRS each year? Unless your tax bill is due to some surprise income last year—you got a bonus, for instance, or received an inheritance—the answer is probably no.
Should You Withhold More?
Ideally, tax professionals want to see you get money back. In 2013 the average tax refund was more than $2,600, according to the IRS. But that may be a little on the high side. “I like for people to hit about $1,000 in refunds,” says Bob Wheeler, a CPA in Santa Monica, Calif., and author of "The Money Nerve: Navigating the Emotions of Money." “That gives me a little bit of a cushion if they forget about an extra bit of income they forgot they had. I don’t like them to owe anything.”
Think about it this way: If you wind up getting a big refund, that probably means you were paying the government too much, and that money could have been earning interest throughout the year, if you were able to invest it. However, some people prefer to get a refund, because they might have otherwise spent—not saved, or invested—the cash. On the other hand, owing a big sum of money at year's end isn't pleasant, especially when many Americans don't have adequate emergency savings. Your best bet is to consider adjusting your withholdings so you come out more or less even.
Of people who filed tax returns in 2013 that were processed, slightly more than one in five owed money. If you owe more than $1,000 (or you’d rather not owe at all), it’s probably time to go back to the drawing board. You can do this in two ways. First, do you have an accountant? That should be your first step—particularly if you are in a slightly less basic tax situation, such as making some freelance income. “If you’ve got multiple things going on, it probably makes sense to get with a tax adviser to project out next year’s tax,” Wheeler says.
To DIY—or Hire an Accountant?
It’s also a good idea to check with your accountant regarding tax law changes, which may make it difficult to use last year’s tax liability as an estimate. This is especially true if you're a high earner. “For our clients who are in the higher tax brackets, we recommend that they meet with us and their CPA each year in the October to December time frame to do a tax projection, so there are no major surprises when they file their return,” says Bill Cleveland, a CPA and financial adviser in Augusta, Ga. “And it still gives them time to do some tax planning before year-end.”
If you receive a W2 from your employer each year (read: You have a job and your employer takes taxes out of your paycheck), you may be able to do your own calculations using the IRS’s Withholding Calculator. The IRS’s web page describes it as “easy to use,” but be forewarned: You will need to know a fair amount about your tax situation, such as federal income tax withheld to date, dependent care totals, and the amount of tax credits you expect to receive. It may be most helpful to try the calculator after you’ve just done your taxes, so you have all of that information at your fingertips.
The IRS doesn’t recommend using this calculator if you’re subject to the alternative minimum tax (AMT), self-employment tax or other taxes. Instead, try the IRS’s Pub 505 on Tax Withholding and Estimated Tax. (May we mention that it’s 61 pages long? Again, maybe you should start with your accountant.)
At the most basic level, adjusting your withholding means submitting a new W4 form to your employer. On that form you’ll note whether you are single or married and how many allowances you claim (such as your dependents). The more you claim, the less money your employer will take out for taxes. There is also a spot to have your employer withhold additional taxes, which could be useful if you’re trying to cover the tax burden from a side job.
RELATED: 9 Ways to Make Money on the Side
You should consider revisiting your withholding after a major life change, such as having a baby, moving to another state (or out of a tax-withholding city), buying a residence or starting a business, recommends Howard Samuels, a CPA in New York City.
And once you adjust it, you should check out your next pay stub to make sure the changes have been processed. (Compare it to the previous pay stub.) “You can’t assume that everybody’s going to be on top of this for you,” Wheeler says. “You have to stay on top of it yourself.”
LearnVest Planning Services is a registered investment adviser and subsidiary of LearnVest, Inc. that provides financial plans for its clients. Information shown is for illustrative purposes only and is not intended as investment, legal or tax planning advice. Please consult a financial adviser, attorney or tax specialist for advice specific to your financial situation. Unless specifically identified as such, the people interviewed in this piece are neither clients, employees nor affiliates of LearnVest Planning Services, and the views expressed are their own. LearnVest Planning Services and any third parties listed in this message are separate and unaffiliated and are not responsible for each other’s products, services or policies.