Are you confident you are doing everything you can to minimize your income taxes? If not, now may be time for a fresh look. Your tax picture – and the tax law – changes from year to year. A year-end review can suggest new tax-saving opportunities and show you new ways to take advantage of various planning strategies. Since most tax-smart strategies take time to implement and come with a December 31 deadline, an early start can save you money and stress.
Many of the smart tax moves for 2014 are familiar ones – such as contributing to tax-advantaged retirement plans and increasing deductions – but there are a few new twists for 2014. The Affordable Care Act (ACA), for example, has tax implications for some people, as does the legal recognition of same-sex marriages.
Also, Congress hasn’t renewed several popular deductions, which could affect your year-end tax-planning decisions. The sales tax deduction, and the ability for people over age 70½ to give required IRA distributions directly to a charity and save on taxes, are two examples.
Regardless of your income or tax situation, one rule which applies to everyone is, the sooner you get started, the more effective you can be in managing your taxes.
Here are several tips you may which to review and consider.
Contribute to a tax-advantaged savings plan
Contributing to a 401(k) or an IRA may be the smartest tax move that most taxpayers can make. Not only does it reduce your taxable income for the current tax year and allow your potential earnings to grow on a tax-deferred basis, it also helps get you closer to achieving your retirement savings goal. Contributions to your 401(k), 403(b), or similar workplace retirement plan must be made by December 31, 2014, to impact your 2014 taxes, so you need to act quickly to increase your deferral. The 2014 401(k) contribution limit is $17,500 ($23,000 for people age 50 or older). With an IRA, you have until April 15, 2015, to make a potential 2014 tax-deductible contribution of up to $5,500 ($6,500 if you’re age 50 or older).
Other possibilities for tax-advantaged plan contributions are a Simplified Employee Pension plan (SEP), for self-employed individuals, or a Health Savings Account (HSA). Contributions to either of these plans can be made up until April 15 and still apply to 2014.
Adjust your withholding
Ideally, the amount of money withheld from your paycheck or sent to the IRS in quarterly payments should come very close to your actual tax liability. Withhold too little and you could have a big tax bill when you file your return. Withhold too much and you’re giving the IRS what amounts to a tax-free loan of money that you could be using to pay down debt or save for retirement (and, potentially, reduce your taxes).
There’s still time to adjust your withholding for 2014 by making changes to the W-4 you have on file with your employer, or, if you make quarterly payments, by increasing or decreasing your payments between now and when the last 2014 payment is due in January. Keep in mind that the longer you wait, the fewer pay periods you’ll have to reach your target.
“Harvest” your investment losses
If you have assets in your portfolio that have lost value, they could be a valuable tax tool. Capital losses can be used to offset any capital gains. If you have more losses than gains, you can use up to $3,000 to reduce your ordinary income amount. More than $3,000 can be carried forward to future tax years.
Capital losses could be especially helpful to higher income taxpayers facing the 3.8 percent Net Investment Income Tax. This surtax, part of the Affordable Care Act, applies to the unearned income of taxpayers with modified adjusted gross incomes of more than $200,000 if they are single or head of the household; $250,000 if married and filing jointly; and $125,000 if married and filing separately. High earners with investment income can reduce this new tax burden by using capital losses to reduce their taxable amount.
If you do face the 3.8 percent surtax, consult with your financial adviser and tax professional. In addition to figuring your modified adjusted gross income, you must take into account the different types of investment earnings that are subject to the tax and how to appropriately calculate losses within each category.
Contribute to charity
Contributing to charitable causes before the end of the year is a tried-and-true tax-reduction strategy. But remember to get a receipt for every contribution you make, not just those over $250. One strategy that offers two tax benefits is donating appreciated securities, such as stocks or bonds, to charity. The tax code allows you to use the current market value of the asset as a deduction without having to pay tax on the capital appreciation, so you get the charitable contribution deduction and avoid capital gains tax.
Use your annual gift tax exemption
An individual can give up to $14,000 a year to as many people as you choose ($28,000 if you and your spouse both make gifts) to help reduce the amount of your estate and help reduce or avoid federal gift and estate taxes. This may include cash, stocks, bonds, and portions of real estate. However, anything above $14,000 per person per year may be subject to gift taxes, so it’s important to keep track of this information.
If you would like to contribute money toward a child’s education, consider a 529 plan account. Contributions are generally considered to be removed from your estate. You can also make a payment directly to an educational institution and pay no gift tax.
In addition to charitable contributions, other types of deductions offer some flexibility. If you make estimated state or local tax payments, for example, you could send in the January payment before the end of this year. And maybe you could do the same with a property tax bill that’s due near the beginning of the next year. Other possibilities include accelerating payments for medical services or purchasing work-related items, such as uniforms, for which you are not reimbursed. Recognize, however, that increasing your tax deductions only makes sense if you have enough of them to exceed the standard deduction of $6,200 for single taxpayers, $12,400 for married couples filing jointly, and $9,100 for heads of household.
Beware of deduction limitations
Thresholds and limits apply to many types of deductions, including medical expenses and charitable contributions, which could lower or even eliminate your deductions. If you’re a high earner, another concern is the Pease limitation, which affects single taxpayers with taxable income of $254,200 or more, and married couples filing jointly with income above $305,050. Finally, if you’ve been subject to the alternative minimum tax (AMT) in the past or think you might be this year, you should reevaluate your itemized deduction strategy.
On the flip side of accelerating deductions is deferring income. Not everyone has the option to push income into next year, but if you can, you might consider doing it. This may also keep your income below the level that would subject you to the net investment income tax this year. But take into account what you expect your tax situation to be next year. If you anticipate earning significantly more next year and moving up a tax bracket, deferring income might not make sense for you.
Know your Flexible Spending Account (FSA)
The standard advice for people with an FSA at work used to be to spend the money on medical expenses before the end of the year or lose the balance. A change in the law, however, now allows employers to offer either a 2½-month grace period to use up the money for the previous year or a $500 carryover per year to use in the following year. The new flexibility isn’t automatic, so make sure you know the rules for your employer’s plan, or you will run the risk of losing some of the money you deferred into an FSA.
Get health insurance or face a penalty
The Affordable Care Act (ACA) requires every individual, with some exceptions, to have qualifying health insurance coverage in 2014 or owe an “individual responsibility payment” of the greater of 1% of household income above the income tax filing threshold ($10,150 for an individual) or a flat amount of $95 for an adult and $47.50 per child under age 18, up to a maximum of $285. The payment will be due with your 2014 tax return. If you’re uninsured for just part of the year, 1/12 of the yearly penalty applies to each month you’re uninsured. If you’re uninsured for less than three months, you don’t have to make a payment.
Watch for last-minute Congressional action.
Several popular tax breaks that expired this year have yet to be reinstated by Congress. Among the most significant is the sales-tax deduction, which gave taxpayers in states with low or no income tax the option of deducting state and local sales tax instead of income tax. If you live in one of those states and were planning to accelerate a large purchase before the end of the year – a car or a boat, for example – to take advantage of the sales tax deduction, you might hold off to see what Congress plans to do. Other tax breaks that are up in the air are those for certain unreimbursed teachers’ expenses, tuition, mortgage insurance premiums, exclusion of employer-provided mass transit and parking benefits, and exclusion for debt forgiveness on foreclosed homes.
Starting your 2014 year-end tax planning now will give you more time to put strategies in place to achieve your tax-savings objectives. Your personal financial situation is unique. The strategies listed here may or may not be appropriate for you. As such, you may want to consider obtaining professional advice to assist with determining and implementing a plan specific to your unique situation, and to begin to put in place longer-term strategies for 2015 and beyond.
Paul Staib | Certified Financial Planner (CFP®), MBA, RICP®
Paul Staib, Certified Financial Planner (CFP®), RICP®, is an independent Fee-Only financial planner. Staib Financial Planning, LLC provides comprehensive financial planning, retirement planning, and investment management services to help clients in all financial situations achieve their personal financial goals. Staib Financial Planning, LLC serves clients as a fiduciary and never earns a commission of any kind. Our offices are located in the south Denver metro area, enabling us to conveniently serve clients in Highlands Ranch, Littleton, Lone Tree, Aurora, Parker, Denver Tech Center, Centennial, Castle Pines and surrounding communities.
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