Essential Year-End Tax Tips

As the clock winds down to the end of the year, there are a few last-minute money moves to make in order to lower your tax bill.

Maximize Your 401(k) and HSA Contributions

While tax deductible contributions can be made to traditional and Roth IRA accounts until April 15 of 2020, the deadline for 401(k)s and HSA accounts is December 31 of this year. You can contribute up to $19,000 to a 401(k), 403(b), most 457 plans, and federal Thrift Savings Plans (plus $6,000 in catch-up contributions for those who are 50 or older). As for HSA accounts, the maximum contribution for 2019 is $3,500 for individuals and $7,000 for family coverage. And if you’re 55 or older you can contribute an additional $1,000.

Start Thinking About Retirement Contributions for 2020

Retirement contributions to 401(k)s have increased for 2020. Individuals can contribute $19,500 next year, and those 50 or older can contribute an additional $6,500. If you prefer to spread out your contributions evenly throughout the year, you’ll need to adjust your monthly contribution amounts by January.

Take Advantage of Your Flexible Spending Account

Funds in a flexible spending account revert back to the employer if not spent within the calendar year. Some companies might provide a grace period extending into the new year, but others end reimbursements on December 31.

Prevent Taxes on an RMD with Charitable Donations

After seniors reach age 70 ½ they must take a required minimum distribution each year from their retirement accounts (an exception to this rule is a Roth IRA account). Seniors who aren’t dependent on this money for living expenses should consider having it sent directly from the retirement account to a charity as a qualified charitable distribution, effectively preventing the money from becoming taxable income.

Consider a Roth Conversion

Because withdrawals from traditional IRAs are taxed in retirement while distributions from Roth IRAs are tax-free, you might think about converting some funds from a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA. Just be sure this move doesn’t tip you into the next tax bracket. You’ll need to pay taxes on the initial conversion, but the money will then grow tax-free in the Roth IRA.

Take Stock of Losses

Sell any losses in stocks for a deduction of up to $3,000, but be aware that purchasing the same or a substantially similar stock within 30 days of the sale would violate the wash-sale rule. If that happens your capital loss would be deferred until you sell the new shares.

Meet with a Tax Advisor

If you’re unsure whether or not you’re ending the year in a favorable tax bracket, check in with an advisor who can identify actionable steps to reduce taxable income through retirement contributions or itemized deductions.

Holiday Spending: Make a Financial Plan and Avoid Going into Debt

With fall in full swing, it’s the perfect time to start drafting a financial game plan for the holidays in order to avoid overspending, plunging into debt, and piling stress on top of an already stressful season. Here’s how you can hatch a holiday plan for this year and start saving for next year.

Create a Holiday Budget

You’ll first need a solid understanding of your financial situation. How much do you have in savings, and how much of that can be allocated to holiday spending? Or maybe you don’t have enough in savings, or you don’t want to dip into savings, preferring to rely on your discretionary income after monthly bills have been paid? Once you have a full picture, create a budget that works with your current financial circumstances.

It also helps to be mindful of optional spending over the next couple of months. For example, cut back on dining out and retail therapy. You could even cancel some monthly subscription services until after the holidays.

Next, using your budget as a guide, make a list of the items that you’d like to get for everyone on your list along with a set price point for each item. This might take a little research, but having a specific gift in mind and knowing the average market price will help to avoid making impulse purchases. This will also help to cut through the noise of holiday ads and promotions and hone in on sales and discounts for only the items on your list.

Don’t Lose Sight of Additional Holiday Spending

Keep in mind that gifts aren’t the only expense that will cut into your budget. Plan to be frugal with holiday meal shopping, including extra treats and baked goods. Don’t purchase something simply for the sake of tradition and try instead to tailor your holiday meal planning around the actual likes of the people who will be attending your get-togethers. This cuts back on both food waste and money waste. Other often overlooked expenses include gift wrap, holiday cards, mailing costs, and travel expenses.

Make a Plan for Next Year

To make a plan for next holiday season, start by tracking your spending during this holiday season to get a blueprint for average expenses. Then, decide on which strategies you’ll employ for next year’s savings. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Open a holiday savings account. These are typically offered by credit unions, and they are often locked so you can’t access them until the holiday season.
  • Set aside a portion of every paycheck specifically for holiday spending. You can even set up automatic transfers into a separate savings account, building the habit of saving in a “set it and forget it” way.
  • Try the popular 52-week savings challenge. Start by saving $1 the first week of December, then $2 the next week, $3 the following week, and so on. By next holiday season you’ll have nearly $1,400 saved.

With a little foresight and preparation, holiday expenses don’t need to add stress to the festivities of the season.

How to Avoid Paying Capital Gains Tax When You Sell Your Home

Before 1997, once a homeowner reached the age of 55, they had the one-time option of excluding up to $125,000 of gain on the sale of their primary residence. Today any homeowner, regardless of age, has the option to exclude up to $250,000 of gain ($500,000 for married couples filing jointly) on the sale of a home.

What Is Capital Gains Tax?

When you sell property for more than you originally paid, it’s called a capital gain. You need to report your gain to the IRS, which will then tax the gain. Home sales can be excluded from this tax as long as the seller meets the criteria.

Who Qualifies for Capital Gains Tax Exemption?

In order to qualify a seller must meet the minimum IRS criteria:

  • You’ve owned the home for at least two years.
  • You’ve lived in the home as your primary residence for at least two years.
  • You haven’t exempted the gains on another home sale in the last two years.

How to Calculate Gains and Losses

By keeping records of the original purchase price, closing costs, and improvements put into the home (you’ll need to present records and receipts when submitting your taxes), you can avoid being taxed on a significant amount of the profit you make when selling your property.

If, for example, you buy your home for $150,000 and put $20,000 into qualifying upgrades, your cost basis would be $170,000. If you sell the home ten years later for $300,000, the ‘gain’ on your house would be $130,000 (sale price – cost basis), which would have no tax implications because you’d have met the required criteria.

What If You Have More than $250k ($500k for married couples) of Gains?

You’ll be taxed for the amount of gains above $250,000 or $500,000 for married couples filing jointly. To help reduce this amount, keep detailed records of any improvements you put into the home as some improvements can be added to your cost basis, and will thus lessen the amount that needs to be reported.

How to Stop the Paycheck to Paycheck Cycle

According to a 2017 study from Career Builder, nearly 78% percent of people live paycheck to paycheck, with little to no money left over after financial obligations are paid. This means that nearly 8 out of 10 workers may not be able to handle even a $500 emergency. Here’s how to break the paycheck-to-paycheck cycle.

Build a Budget

Yes, this tired old budget thing is rearing its head again, but every financial plan needs to start here. You simply must know where your money is going. Start by creating a simple spreadsheet in Google Docs, which can be shared if you have dual contributors to your household income. If you’re ready for something a bit more sophisticated, Mint.com is a great online tool for budgeting. It will even send you notices and alerts, creating a more personal budgeting experience.

In order to know where your money is going, you need to also track your spending. Document every single purchase for two to four weeks. You’ll be surprised at how seemingly insignificant purchases can quickly add up. Typically, this exercise helps consumers to be more mindful of how they’re spending.

Establish and Emergency Fund

If you approach saving by promising to set aside whatever’s leftover after your financial obligations are paid, you’ll never make a dent in creating an emergency fund, let alone heftier savings goals. Funds intended for saving should come before any other spending. Aim to initially save the equivalent of one month’s paycheck.

Quick fix: put saving on autopilot. If your company offers a 401(k) plan, make sure you’re participating in it. You can also set up an automatic transfer on paydays to have some money automatically transferred from your checking account into a savings account.

Pay Down Debt

Nothing perpetuates the paycheck-to-paycheck cycle like having debt looming over your head. Control and monitor your spending by discontinuing the use of credit cards until you’ve paid them off. To streamline this process, you can consolidate your debt by transferring all your credit onto one card. While you’re focused on paying off debt, avoid taking out any kind of loan. If you can chip away at your debt while simultaneously building up an emergency fund, you can use that fund to pay for any unexpected expenses that may crop up instead of relying on credit cards.

Examine Your Lifestyle

Sometimes fixing the paycheck-to-paycheck cycle is as simple as taking a hard look at your lifestyle and making adjustments where necessary. Is your monthly car payment too high? Does your monthly mortgage payment exceed 28% of your monthly gross income? Are you paying for subscriptions or memberships you don’t use? You get the idea. Examine your monthly costs and find ways to scale back.

Stop Treating Raises and Bonuses as Fun Money

If you’re stuck in the paycheck-to-paycheck cycle, upticks in earnings such as raises, bonuses, and tax returns should be stashed away in savings, not spent on wants and splurges. Likewise, you shouldn’t rely on bonuses as part of your budget. These earnings should be used to increase your emergency savings or retirement funds.

If you have questions or would like to talk about how the information in this article may impact you personally, please reach out to me at jmiller@mkrcpas.com and we’ll schedule a time to talk.

Financial Regrets: A Tale as Old as Time

Mismanaged money, investment duds, a blown budget (or no budget), bad habits, the proverbial hole in your pocket. If financial regrets weren’t a thing, we wouldn’t need the Dave Ramseys of the world, but there’s a difference between splurging on an artisan cup of coffee and making a financial blunder that could have ramifications for years to come.

Some red flags that you’re about to jump into a bad financial decision include needing to justify your rationale, a lack of thorough research and homework, depending on a payment you haven’t received, falling for a too-good-to-be-true scheme, and not paying attention to that internal tugging known as instinct. You might say that you’re effectively ignoring these red flags if you’re tempted by any of the following common financial mistakes that could cause long-term consequences.

Taking a Loan from a 401(k)

Yes, you usually have five years to pay it back, and yes, it’s your money after all, but those who borrow from their 401(k) usually reduce or suspend contributions while they’re repaying the loan. This means they’re going months or even years without contributions, missing out on investment growth and company matches. Not to mention the interest on the 401(k) loan. It’s also a gamble because if you leave your company, the loan must be repaid within 60 days.

Claiming Social Security Early

Waiting until age 70 to tap into your Social Security is your best bet, but it’s generally recommended to wait at least until your full retirement age (currently 66-67). The earliest age to withdraw benefits is 62, but your monthly check would be reduced by approximately 25% for the rest of your life.

Making the Minimum Payment on Credit Cards

With mounting interest costs, it can take years to pay off credit card debt, especially if consumers continue to spend with credit cards while only paying the minimum payment. If possible, transfer the balance to a lower-rate card, and always try to pay more than the minimum payment due. Even a small increase in monthly payments can save you on interest.

Not Saving for Retirement

Unless you’re fresh out of college, you should start saving for retirement yesterday. Don’t think you can wait until you start making more money. According to Morningstar, and assuming a 7% annual rate of return, someone who starts saving for retirement at 25 years old would need to save $381 a month to hit $1 million by the time they turn 65. Compare that to someone who starts saving for retirement at 35 ($820 a month) or 45 ($1920).

Foregoing Professional Advice

Do you have a valid will? Have you legally appointed beneficiaries for your retirement accounts? Financial advisors will help with this as well as anything from taxes and insurance to retirement savings and estate planning.

Refraining from Investing

Sure, there’s risk involved, but by diversifying your investment in a mix of large, small, domestic, and foreign stocks, you reduce the possibility of getting hit with a big loss. Perplexed on where to begin? See “Foregoing Professional Advice” above.

And while your nest egg should keep growing after retirement, most financial planners recommend decreasing risk by gradually pulling away from investing in stocks.

Falling for Scams and Raw Deals

According to the FTC, Americans lost a collective $765 million to telephone, text, mail, email and face-to-face scams in 2015. Requests to wire money; or pay fees before receiving anything; or provide personal information, bank information, or sensitive financial information should be met with extreme skepticism. If you suspect a scam, conduct a quick Google search with any information you have on the product or company, including key words like “scam” or “review”. If your suspicion is confirmed, be sure to file a complaint with the FTC and your local consumer protection office.