The end of 2019 is in sight, but there is still plenty of time left to make a number of financial moves that will help improve your retirement savings, reduce your tax bill and benefit your community.
You don’t have to be wealthy to get tangible benefits. If you have a job, you can contribute to a retirement savings plan, while any parent or grandparent can contribute to a child’s college education plan. And each group can receive tax breaks.
Here are 10 ways that you can improve your financial condition between now and Dec. 31. Some of these ideas involve transactions with third parties, so it’s best to move ahead as quickly as you can to reap the most benefits.
Written by Lisa Brown, CFP®. Brown, author of “Girl Talk, Money Talk, The Smart Girl’s Guide to Money After College,” is the Chief Strategy Officer for corporate professionals and executives at wealth management firm Brightworth in Atlanta. Advising busy corporate executives on their finances for nearly 20 years has been her passion inside the office. Outside the office she's an avid runner and supporter of charitable causes focused on homeless children and their families.
Contribute the Maximum Amount into a 401(k) Retirement Plan.
It’s probably the easiest and smartest way to save for retirement. Federal law allows workers under 50 years old to contribute $19,000 to their company plan. If you are 50 and older, you can contribute $25,000.
In all, more than 4.6 million taxpayers contributed the during the 2016 tax year, the latest data available from the IRS. If you are not on track to maximum fund your plan, you still should have a few pay periods left before the end of the year, so make the most of them. And remember, if you elect your contribution to go into the before-tax 401(k), those funds will not be taxable as part of your 2019 federal tax return. The more you put in, the less in taxes you will pay this year.
Make the Most of Your Health Savings Account.
For those with a high-deductible health insurance plan, try to contribute the maximum amount into this account. Individuals can contribute $3,500 for 2019, and those with family plans can contribute up to $7,000. And people 55 and older can contribute an extra $1,000. The maximum amount you can put in includes any employer contributions, so be sure to understand whether your company is making deposits on your behalf.
Be aware that once you reach age 65 and are eligible for Medicare, most people can no longer contribute to a health savings account, so there is a limited window to take advantage of this incredible savings plan. Many experts refer to the tax benefits as the “triple tax play” — save taxes on the money going in, no taxes on the interest earned inside the account, and withdrawals are tax-free when used for qualified medical expenses.
The good news here is that you have until April 15, 2020, to contribute money into the HSA for 2019. However, it’s best to make those contributions by Dec. 31. This will give the person preparing your tax return all of the information and forms they need to document your contribution. And you won’t have to remember to take care of this task after the New Year.
Fund an Individual Retirement Account or Roth IRA.
While you may not get a tax deduction for this, it's a good discipline for anyone who is working to fund their IRA or Roth IRA. The limit on the amount of money a person can contribute to either account increased by $500 this year. This means people under age 50 can contribute up to $6,000 and those 50 and older can contribute $7,000 assuming they made at least this amount in wages.
Speak with Your Certified Public Accountant.
If you earned more money in 2019 than in previous years, ask your CPA to project the amount of taxes due in the fourth quarter. This will enable you to determine if you need to make an estimated tax payment before year’s end to avoid penalties. Even if you don’t believe you will have a large tax bill, I encourage people to have this conversation. There’s no need for an unpleasant surprise when your CPA prepares your 2019 return and hands you a larger-than-expected tax bill this spring.
Find Out If You Qualify for Tax Credits.
Some states allow individuals to buy tax credits that support feature film production, low-income housing, energy and other initiatives. In my home state of Georgia, a television or movie production company receives a tax credit for its expenses incurred in my state. If they can’t use all of their credits, they are allowed to sell their unused credits to Georgia taxpayers.
Business owners, professionals and others with large tax bills can go to the market and buy these credits to reduce the amount of state income taxes they pay. It’s also another reason to find out the amount you may owe in 2019 state income taxes and make sure you have enough cash available over the next few months to buy those credits.
Contribute to Your Children's or Grandchildren's 529 College Savings Plan.
It takes time to save for a college education, and contributing to a college savings account each year is a great way to make a dent in this big future expense. Over 30 states and the District of Columbia currently offer a state income tax credit or deduction up to a certain amount. For example, contributions to a New York 529 plan of up to $5,000 per year by an individual or $10,000 per year by a married couple filing jointly are deductible in computing state income tax.
Also, if you have been contributing to a plan for several years, review the asset allocation of the 529 plan and make sure it's not too aggressively invested, especially if your child is going off to college in the next few years.
Investors, Beware of Paying Capital Gains Taxes.
The Standard & Poor’s 500 index is near record highs and has risen by approximately 24% through Nov. 1. Many stock investors have experienced gains in their portfolio this year, so if you have sold stock this year, you may incur higher capital gains tax this year than last year.
Most taxpayers will pay between 15% and 23.8% in federal long-term capital gains taxes. State income taxes are in addition to these rates, which could quickly bump the long-term capital gains tax rate to 30% or more. If you sold a stock held less than one year, short-term capital gains tax rates apply, which for most taxpayers are higher than their long-term gain tax rate.
On the Other Hand, Sell the Stragglers.
The stock market’s success in 2019 means many of your stocks are worth more today than last year. But not every company has experienced gains! Some department stores, such as The Gap, have lost more than 20% so far this year, while Kraft Heinz, DXC Technology and Trip Advisor are all down by double digits as of Nov. 1. When you sell investments that have gone down in value, you can report the tax loss on your tax return to offset other capital gains. If your losses are large, you can use up to $3,000 annually to offset other types of income.
Reduce Taxes by Donating Stocks or other Appreciated Assets to a Charitable Organization.
The jump in stock prices can signal a good time to donate some of these stocks to your favorite charity, especially if you are looking for some extra deductions to offset higher income or capital gains this year.
A financial tool that can help accomplish your charitable giving goals while also reducing taxes is a Donor Advised Fund. The fund allows individuals to donate several years of charitable contributions up front, liquidate stock inside the account that has appreciated and pay no capital gains tax, then disperse those contributions to charities over multiple years. If you are married and file a joint return, you may need to donate more than $15,000 to the fund in order to be able to itemize your deductions in 2019. (The standard deduction for married couples is $24,400 so your total eligible deductions need to exceed the standard deduction to get the extra tax benefit from your charitable giving.)
Because nonprofit organizations and donor advised fund custodians are swamped with these requests at year’s end, I recommend transferring any stocks to charity or a donor advised fund by Thanksgiving. This will ensure your contribution is recorded in order to get a deduction on your 2019 taxes. If you are donating real estate, business interests or other sophisticated assets, jump on this today.
Use the Gift Tax Exclusion to Spread the Wealth Among Family.
You can give $15,000 annually by Dec. 31 to an unlimited number of people without having to report this on a gift tax return. And, the beneficiary of the gift does not report it as income either. Married couples can gift $30,000 to an unlimited number of people each year, which is $15,000 from each spouse to the same person.
Lisa Brown, CFP®, CIMA®, is author of "Girl Talk, Money Talk, The Smart Girl's Guide to Money After College” and “Girl Talk, Money Talk II, Financially Fit and Fabulous in Your 40s and 50s". She is the Practice Area Leader for corporate professionals and executives at wealth management firm CI Brightworth in Atlanta. Advising busy corporate executives on their finances for nearly 20 years has been her passion inside the office. Outside the office she's an avid runner, cyclist and supporter of charitable causes focused on homeless children and their families.
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