Yearend planning can make April income tax season less daunting |

Yearend planning can make April income tax season less daunting

Associated Press

NEW YORK – Taking some simple tax and financial planning steps in the next few weeks can save you money next spring.That’s because things you do now – like donating money to a charity or topping off your retirement account – can lower your state and federal income tax bills when you file by April 17. (You’ll have a couple extra days to do your taxes next year because the usual filing day of April 15 falls on a Saturday.)One of the easiest steps to take is to make sure you’ve contributed the maximum allowed to your retirement plan. Contributing to a company-sponsored 401(k) plan packs a double wallop because you’re saving for your future and you’re doing it with pretax dollars, which reduces your taxable income.This year, the limit on 401(k) account contributions is $14,000. Those 50 and older can add an additional $4,000. The same limits apply to 403(b) retirement accounts for workers in nonprofit organizations and 457 accounts for government employees. Next year, the ceilings go to $15,000 for most workers, with a $5,000 “catch-up” provision for those 50 and older.”We’re certainly not over-saving as a nation,” Rande Spiegelman, vice president of financial planning at the Schwab Center for Investment Research, said of the nation’s low savings rate. “There’s a big worry that millions of baby boomers will be retiring without adequate resources.”Those who don’t have employer-sponsored accounts can set up their own Individual Retirement Accounts or Roth IRAs at banks, brokerages and other financial institutions.The contribution limit for IRAs this year is $4,000, with an additional $500 allowed for those 50 and older. Next year, the basic contribution limit stays at $4,000, but the catch-up contribution rises to $1,000.Traditional IRAs are funded with pretax money, so they can help reduce taxable income – and taxes – now. Roth IRAs don’t get a tax break now, but grow tax-free forever.When it comes to tax planning, the first decision you need to make is whether you’re going to claim the standard deduction or itemize, said attorney Bob D. Scharin, who edits the Practical Tax Strategies newsletter for tax information publisher RIA.The standard deduction for the 2004 tax year is $5,000 for individuals, $10,000 for couples filing jointly and $7,300 for heads of household. According to the Internal Revenue Service, about two-thirds of the more than 130 million Americans who file taxes claim the standard deduction each year.Scharin said there are many people who could save on taxes if they itemize their deductions. The best way to determine if you would do better itemizing than taking the standard deduction is to “look at the big items like mortgage interest, real estate taxes, and state and local income taxes,” he said. “If they add up to more than the standard deduction, you know you should be itemizing,” he said.People who live in states with low income taxes may want to consider opting for a sales tax deduction, he added. The sales tax alternative expires at the end of the current tax year, although there have been proposals in Congress to extend it, he noted. IRS Publication 600, “Optional State Sales Tax Tables,” has charts taxpayers can use to determine the deduction.Scharin suggested that workers who decide to itemize should think about several steps before year’s end:- Make those contributions to charity.- Call your stock broker or take a hard look at your online brokerage account. If you expect capital gains distributions on your mutual funds or you’ve sold stocks at a profit, perhaps you can find some losing investments to sell as an offset. And “excess” losses can be used to offset up to $3,000 of ordinary income.- If you suffered major property losses, perhaps because of this year’s series of hurricanes, you can amend your 2004 tax filing or claim a deduction next spring for unreimbursed casualty losses. The formula for calculating losses can be complicated, so it’s a good idea to consult a tax professional.There also are some tax breaks for people who don’t itemize, Scharin pointed out. These include:- $250 for teachers to cover supplies for their classrooms.- $2,000 for people who purchased a hybrid vehicle – one with an electric motor and a gas-powered engine such as a Toyota Prius, Honda Insight or Ford Escape Hybrid – in 2004. A similar deduction will be allowed for hybrids put on the road for the first time in 2005, but the deduction will fall to $500 in 2006 and disappear the following year.As a final step, you should check your pay stub to see how much money is being withheld. If it looks like you’re going to get a big refund, perhaps you should reduce the amount – and divert that money into your retirement account. For withholding worksheets, see IRS Publication 919, “How Do I Adjust My Tax Withholding?”—On the, Colorado

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