Thursday, August 28, 2014

IT'S YOUR MONEY: Tax planning doesn't have to be last minute

It's not April (or even late March). Why should you be thinking about tax planning? Because now may be a good time of year to do some planning that isn't reactionary, and that may be less painful than last-minute tax work.

If you're going to take it on, make an appointment with a tax professional who does tax planning in addition to tax preparation. That will involve taking your 2013 tax return with you along with your year-to-date paystub showing what you've been paid and what your withholdings have been.

Also, think through how your financial life has changed this year. Perhaps you bought or sold a home. Maybe one of your children is out of college and living away from home. Changing jobs may impact your tax situation.

Make a list of these financial life changes and take pertinent documents with you to your appointment.

A good tax professional can take all this information and do some calculations that will estimate if you're going to owe taxes or get a refund. You can make adjustments to your payroll withholdings or just be better prepared for the outcome.

If your tax planning doesn't give you good news, there may be some things you can do to reduce the taxes you might owe. Charitable giving is often a good way to lower taxes if you itemize your deductions. You can donate items you don't need any more. Goodwill, ARC and other nonprofit thrift stores are happy to take your used clothing, toys, furniture and other items. Make sure you get a receipt. Ideally, take a photo of the items before you donate them and attach that to your receipt. You can't deduct what you paid for the item, but you can deduct what the thrift store would probably sell the item for. Some of the larger thrift stores will have a list of common items and the prices they generally fetch.

Contributing to your employer's retirement plan might also save you taxes. That's a winning idea for most people beyond the immediate tax breaks. You save for retirement and, in many plans, the employer will match some of what you contribute. In that situation, you lose money by not contributing. The tax savings is just a bonus!

Don't be fooled into thinking that getting a big refund is a good deal. If it looks like you've overpaid on taxes so far for the year, don't intentionally pay in more so you can have a big refund. Would you want an investment that has no growth potential and will only give you your money back at a specific time? That's what a tax refund is.

You might not always be able to control your tax situation, but you can be informed about it.