There are always moves you can make to reduce your taxable income. Some of these tax-saving moves, however, must be completed by December 31. Here are several to consider:
- Tax loss harvesting. If you own stock in a taxable account that is not in a tax-deferred retirement plan, you can sell your underperforming stocks by December 31 and use these losses to reduce any taxable capital gains. If your net capital losses exceed your gains, you can even net up to $3,000 against other income such as wages. Losses over $3,000 can be used in future years. Just be sure you do not repurchase the same stock within 30 days, or the loss will be deferred.
- Take a peek at your estimated 2022 income. If you have appreciated assets that you plan on selling in the near future, estimate your 2022 taxable income and compare it to your 2021 taxable income. If your 2022 income looks like it may be significantly higher than 2021, you may be able to sell your appreciated assets in 2021 to take advantage of a lower tax rate. The opposite also holds true. If your estimated 2022 taxable income looks like it may be significantly lower than your 2021 taxable income, lower tax rates may apply if you wait to sell your assets in 2022.
- Max out pre-tax retirement savings. The deadline to contribute to a 401(k) plan and be able to reduce your taxable income on your 2021 tax return is December 31. See if you can earmark a little more money from each of your paychecks through the end of the year to transfer into your retirement savings accounts. For 2021, you can contribute up to $19,500 to a 401(k), plus another $6,500 if you’re age 50 or older. Even better, you have until April 18, 2022, to contribute to a traditional IRA and be able to reduce your taxable income on your 2021 tax return.
- Make cash charitable contributions. If you’re like 90% of all taxpayers, you get no tax benefit from charitable contributions because you don’t itemize your personal deductions. On your 2021 tax return, however, you may contribute up to $300 in cash to a qualified charity and deduct the amount whether or not you itemize your deductions. Married taxpayers who file jointly may contribute $600. You can make your contribution by check, credit card, or debit card. Remember that this above-the-line deduction is for cash contributions only. It does not apply to non-cash contributions.
- Bunch deductions so you can itemize. Are your personal deductions near the amount of the standard deduction for 2021: $12,550 for singles, $18,800 for head of household and $25,100 for married filing jointly? If so, consider bunching your personal deductions into 2021 so you can itemize this year. For most, the easiest way is to bunch two years of charitable contributions into a single year. These can include gifts of appreciated stock where you get to deduct the fair market value without paying capital gains tax.
There is still time to make a contribution to a traditional IRA or Roth IRA for the 2019 tax year. The annual contribution limit is $6,000 or $7,000 if you are age 50 or over.
Prior to making a contribution, if you (or your spouse) are an active participant in an employer’s qualified retirement plan (a 401(k), for example), you will need to make sure your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) does not exceed certain thresholds. There are also income limits to qualify to make Roth IRA contributions.
Maximum 2019 IRA Contribution amounts: $6,000 or $7,000 (with age 50+ catch-up provision)
Note: Married traditional IRA limits depend on whether either you, your spouse or both of you participate in a qualified employer-provided retirement plan. If married filing separate and either spouse participates in an employer’s qualified plan, the income phaseout to contribute is $0-10,000.
If your income is too high to take advantage of these IRAs you can always make a non-deductible contribution to an IRA. While the contributions are not tax-deferred, the earnings are not taxed until they are withdrawn.
There’s still time to reduce your potential tax obligation and save money this year (and next). Here are some ideas to consider:
- Estimate your 2019 and 2020 taxable income. With these estimates you can determine which year receives the greatest benefit from a reduction in income. By understanding what the tax rate will be for your next dollar earned, you can understand the tax benefit of reducing income this year AND next year.
- Fund tax-deferred retirement accounts. An easy way to reduce your taxable income is to fully fund retirement accounts that have tax-deferred status. The most common accounts are 401(k)s, 403(b)s and various IRAs (traditional, SEP and SIMPLE).
- Take your required minimum distributions (RMDs). If you are 70½ or older, you need to take required RMDs from your retirement accounts by Dec. 31. Don’t forget to make all RMDs because the fines are hefty if you don’t — 50 percent of the amount you should have withdrawn.
Keep in mind, even if you don’t have RMDs yet, removing a planned amount from your retirement accounts each year may be more tax efficient than waiting until you are required to do so.
- Manage your gains and losses. Rebalance your investment portfolio, and take any final investment gains and losses. When you have more losses than gains, up to $3,000 can be used to reduce your ordinary income. With careful planning, you can take advantage of this loss amount each year.
- Finalize your gift-giving strategy. Each year you may gift up to $15,000 without tax reporting consequences to as many individuals as you choose. Consider any gift-giving you wish to make up to the annual limit. This could include gifts of cash or property, and investments.
- Donate to charities. Consider making end-of-year donations to eligible charities. Donations of property in good or better condition and your charitable mileage are also deductible. Receiving proper documentation that acknowledges your contributions is important to ensure you obtain the full deduction. Have a plan by knowing your total deductions for the year to help you decide how much and when to donate. Pulling some donations planned for 2020 into 2019 may be a good strategy.
- Review your automated billing transactions. This is a good time to identify what automatic monthly expenses should be reviewed for reduction or elimination. You may also discover billing for services you thought were canceled. This specific review often catches errors that a simple account reconciliation may be missing.
- Organize records now. Start collecting and organizing your tax records to avoid the scramble come tax season.
- Develop your own list. Use these ideas as a jumping off point to create your own list of annual review items. It might also include reviewing college savings accounts, beneficiaries, insurance needs, wills, and going through an aging parent’s financial accounts.