Published August 01, 2012
It's summer, the best time of the year to think about your taxes. Really.
A lot of people wait until December to start thinking about their tax bills. True, you can and should make some year-end moves by Dec. 31. Bankrate will be back with recommendations at that time.
But now, halfway though the tax year, is even better for tax planning.
You have a good idea of what your earnings will be. And there's still plenty of time to take steps that could cut the taxes you'll owe on that money.
So put down your putter or tennis racket. Step away from the pool. Take a quick break to check out these 10 midyear tax moves.
Then you can get back to your leisure pursuits and really enjoy them, knowing you're in better tax shape.
File Your 2010 Return
First things first. If you received an extension to file back in April, finish up your 2010 tax return now.
Sure, you have until Oct. 17 to get the forms to the Internal Revenue Service, but you don't have to wait until the last minute. Finishing up your taxes in a rush, whether in April or October, is a recipe for disaster.
Remember, too, that the IRS' Free File program is still operational. If your adjusted gross income last year was $58,000 or less, you can use the online system to prepare and file your taxes for, as the name says, free.
Adjust Your Withholding
Did you get a big refund? Are your work and tax circumstances about the same this year as last?
Then you probably should adjust your withholding so that you won't get a big tax refund next filing season.
Some people view tax refunds as forced savings accounts. That's not necessarily a good idea. It means Uncle Sam, not you, has control of your money for a year.
The ideal payroll withholding situation is to have just enough tax -- not too much, not too little -- withheld from your paychecks to meet your eventual annual tax bill.
In this way, you'll avoid writing the U.S. Treasury a check for tax due if you under-withheld. And if you over-withheld, you won't be waiting for a refund check.
Changing your withholding is easy. Just stop by your payroll office and submit a new W-4.
Evaluate Your Estimated Taxes
Estimated tax payments are required if you get income that isn't subject to withholding. It's the IRS' way of ensuring that you're paying as you earn on all your income.
By making the four extra tax payments a year, you'll help ensure you don't underpay your taxes. That's important because if you owe too much at filing time, you could face a tax penalty. But you don't want to overpay your estimated taxes.
Summer's a great time to reassess your estimated tax situation. Look at what you've paid via your April and June 1040-ES filings and see whether your schedule is still on track. If not, you can adjust your upcoming September and January estimated tax payments.
Hold on To Day Camp Receipts
Most working parents are well aware they can claim the child and dependent care credit to help cover day care expenses for the kids. But don't forget about day camp costs during summer.
When school's out, day camps are a good substitute for or supplement to regular child care options. The IRS thinks so, too. It allows you to count the day camp costs toward your child care credit claim.
Remember, only day camps qualify, no overnight kiddie retreats at the lake. But if you did take advantage of this short-term child care help, hang on to those receipts so you can count them when you file your taxes next year.
s your 2010 tax-filing material still in an unsorted stack? Straighten it out now. If the IRS has questions about your return, you'll be glad you put it in an easily accessible order.
Do the same for your 2011 taxes. It will make filing your return next year that much easier.
Your tax organization system doesn't have to be elaborate. An accordion file works wonders for many folks. But if you want a full file cabinet for your tax documents, go for it.
The key is to pick a system in which you can easily file and then find documentation such as business expense receipts, medical bills, charitable deduction substantiation and the like. And once you get it set up, stick with it.
Give to Charity
Your favorite nonprofit organization will happily take your money or unwanted household items any time of the year.
In fact, summer is when many charities are struggling, as most folks tend to spend this season thinking about their own recreational wants instead of other people's needs.
So help out the charities of your choice by donating now instead of waiting until the end of the year. If you itemize, your deduction is just as valid in July as it is in December.
Just be sure to get a receipt and put it in your newly created tax-filing system. The IRS now demands documentation for every monetary charitable gift, regardless of how small or large. Without it, the IRS could disallow your deduction.
Contribute to Your Retirement Plan
Earlier is better when it comes to your retirement plans. The sooner you contribute to your individual retirement account, either a traditional IRA or a Roth, the sooner the account starts earning money.
Don't forget your at-work account. If your employer offers a 401(k) and you haven't taken advantage, check on enrollment details. If you are already contributing, increase the amount of your contributions. This money comes out of your paycheck before taxes are calculated, meaning you'll get a small but immediate tax break on your earnings.
And if you decide you'd like to move from a tax-deferred traditional IRA to a Roth account with its tax-free distributions, go ahead. There's no longer any income limit on such conversions.
Buy a House
Yes, buying a home is a major life decision. Yes, banks are pickier about just who gets a mortgage nowadays.
But if you qualify, interest rates are at near-historic lows and there are lots of real estate bargains out there.
Homeownership offers many tax advantages. And although there's talk in Washington, D.C., about possibly cutting some of the tax perks of homeownership, that's not likely to happen soon. Even if homeowner tax breaks are eventually changed, they likely will be phased in over many years.
So if you're ready for a place of your own and have your financing in order, look for the perfect house and buy it this year so you can start enjoying it and its tax benefits.
Make Home Energy Improvements
If you're already in a house, make it more energy efficient. It could help reduce not only your utility bills, but also what you owe the IRS.
Home energy efficiency tax credits have been around for years. For 2010 taxes, the tax benefit was greatly enhanced. Taxpayers who made eligible energy upgrades could claim a credit of up to $1,500. If you got an extension to file your 2010 return and made qualified home energy improvements last year, be sure to claim them when you finally file.
The tax break is still around for the 2011 tax year, but it's not as generous. The maximum credit claim now is only $500. And if you previously claimed a home energy credit between 2005 and 2010 of that amount, you're not eligible for the credit on next year's tax return.
If, however, you make more ambitious home energy improvements, such as installing solar energy, wind power or geothermal systems, you qualify for an even better tax break. These upgrades could qualify for a tax credit equal to 30 percent of the cost, including installation, without any cap on the credit amount.
Hire a Tax Professional
Whether you need a tax expert's assistance to finally file your extended 2010 return or you're looking for help in getting your 2011 tax act together, now is the time to hire someone.
The filing season crunch is over, meaning that all types of tax professionals have a bit more time. They are much more likely to take on new clients now than early next year.
It also gives you time to determine exactly which type of tax preparer fits your tax needs. And you'll be able to thoroughly check out the tax professional before you turn over your tax life to him or her.