Take Control Over Your Taxes Before It’s Too Late

MONEY TALKS – Congratulations, you finally finished your 2016 tax return (with 4 days to spare). If you, like most Americans, just sighed in relief and thought to yourself “thank goodness I don’t have to worry about my taxes for another eight months”; unfortunately, you couldn’t be further from the truth. This common line of thinking often gets taxpayers in trouble because waiting until January of 2018 leaves you with limited tax planning options and very little control over the size of the check you write, when filing your tax return. To get a jump start on the tax year, here are a few planning strategies you should be thinking about now so you can take control over your taxes before it’s too late.

Adjust Tax Withholdings – The majority of salaried employees receive a Form W-2 (Wage and Tax Statement) in early February showing their wages earned (Box 1) along with their Federal income tax withheld (Box 2). What you may not know is the amount withheld is generally dependent on two factors; your taxable wages and how you filled out Form W-4 (Employee’s Withholding Allowance Certificate) on your first day of work. If you owed money with your 2016 tax return, then you should consider adjusting your withholding so more tax is withheld. Rather than messing around with the number of allowances you are claiming, which confuses most people, the easiest way to increase the amount you want withheld from each paycheck is to simply write the dollar amount on Line 6. Conversely, if you received a large refund (over $1,000) then too much is being withheld from your paychecks. While it’s nice getting money back in April, if you are receiving a refund year over year then you are essentially giving the government an interest free loan. Lowering the amount of allowances you claim will reduce the amount withheld from each paycheck, giving you more money to invest throughout the year.

Manage Retirement Contributions – The easiest way to reduce your taxable income is by contributing to a qualified retirement plan such as a 401(k). The employee contribution limits for a 401(k) are $18,000 for those under 50 years old and $24,000 for those north of the border. Ideally, from a tax standpoint, you should be maxing out your contributions to lower the amount of income subject to taxation. If you aren’t sure how much you contributed last year, take a look in Box 12 of your W-2. You should see the letter D followed by a number, which was your 2016 401(k) contributions. If that number is below your respective contribution limit, increase your contributions to maximize your tax savings.

Spring Clean – Donating clothing and household items to a qualified charity is a great way to save on taxes because the fair market value of your contributions is tax deductible. Household items include furniture and furnishings, electronics, appliances, linens, and other similar items. Keep in mind that you can’t take a deduction for clothing or household items unless they are in good used condition or better. One area often overlooked is recordkeeping. Remember that the burden of proof is always on the taxpayer, not the IRS. If you gave property, you should keep a receipt or written statement from the organization you gave the property to, or a reliable written record, that shows the organization’s name and address, the date and location of the gift, and a description of the property.

As with most areas of life, proper planning is crucial to achieving your goals. Tax planning is a fundamental component of any good financial plan. The key take away here should be that it’s much more effective implementing tax strategies now rather than waiting until the next year’s W-2 shows up in the mail.

A Beginners Guide to Maximizing Your 401(k) Plan

MONEY TALKS – In today’s workplace environment, unless you are working as a teacher, police officer, firefighter, or state/federal employee, the chances are you do not have a pension plan. In other words, when it comes to funding your retirement YOYO (you’re on your own). For most private sector employees, defined contribution (DC) retirement plans are their primary savings vehicle. DC plans are a type of retirement plan where an employer and/or employee make regular contributions. They differ from a pension plan in that there is no guaranteed income stream at retirement. Instead, both the employer and employee contributions, plus any investment earnings, grow together in an account where the employee has control over the cash distributions during their retirement. The most common DC plan is the 401(k) plan which has grown to become America’s de facto retirement savings plan since its inception in the late 1970’s.

A 401(k) plan is a great savings vehicle for a number of reasons. First and foremost any contributions made by the employee are tax deductible. Secondly, any earnings in the account grow tax free until they are withdrawn. Unfortunately many Americans are not taking full advantage of the benefits a 401(k) plan has to offer. There are two primary culprits behind this underutilization; lack of participation and low contribution rates. In order to ensure you are getting the most out of your 401(k) plan, make sure to follow these guidelines.

Start Contributing Early
During your first week of work you will likely be given a large packet of information listing everything from your vacation accrual to your medical benefits. Included in this packet should be an enrollment form for your employer’s 401(k) plan. You should sign up for your 401(k) plan immediately. Some employers may have restrictions on when you can start contributing or an elimination period before the employer themselves match any contributions; however, these restrictions typically do not prevent you from enrolling in the plan.

If you have already been working but have yet to sign up, there is no time like the present. To borrow a line from a colleague of mine, “You will never be younger than you are today.” When it comes to investing, the longer the time horizon, the greater the growth potential.

Maximize Your Employer Match
Most employers will make a modest contribution to your 401(k) plan presuming you do one thing; contribute to the plan yourself. While there is a wide range of company match levels, a typical employer match policy might read something like this: XYZ agrees to match 50% of employee contributions for the first 6%-of-salary that an employee contributes. In this scenario, in order for an employee to maximize their employer match, they would need to contribute 6% or more of their salary into their 401(k) plan. Any contribution below 6% means the employer is not obligated to contribute the full match.

Maximizing your employer match is critical to building your retirement nest egg. Not contributing or under contributing to your own plan means you are essentially throwing money out the window. An employer match is a guaranteed return on investment which is rare if not impossible to find in this day and age.

Take It to the Limit
The most common way to contribute to a 401(k) plan is through automatic payroll deductions. Many plans allow you to designate a percentage of your gross income to be allocated to your 401(k) plan. A good rule of thumb is to contribute 10% or more of your salary into your 401(k) plan. Unfortunately, for many young or underpaid employees this figure is simply unrealistic. For those who can’t save 10% or more, start off by saving the minimum allowable contribution that enables you to maximize your employer match. Most employer plans require employee contributions between 4% and 8% to receive the maximum match.

Automatic contribution increases are another great way to get the most of your 401(k) plan. As the name infers, an automatic contribution increase is simply an election you make to annually increase your contribution percentage (typically by 1%). The beauty of this election is it forces you to save more each year and they typically coincide with a merit increase so the effects are negligible. If your company doesn’t offer this election then remember to manually adjust your contribution percentage each time you get a raise.

Keep in mind that the Internal Revenue Service regulates how much an employee can contribute to their 401(k) plan. In 2016 the contribution limit is $18,000. If you are lucky enough to be age 50 or older, the IRS has a special “catch-up” provision which allows you to contribute an additional $6,000 for a total contribution limit of $24,000.