If you're a hard-core procrastinator, then you'll probably want to bookmark this article and come back to it next Thursday around lunchtime. For the rest of us, though, April 15 is right around the corner -- and it's time to stop putting off the inevitable and start dealing with the hard reality of getting your taxes done.
Fortunately, it's not too late to take some steps to create some real tax savings. Moreover, once you've cut your 2009 taxes as far as you can, there are some additional steps you can take to make sure 2010 will look even better when it comes time to face the IRS.
Do it now and save $10,100
In large part, the 2009 tax year is in the books already. But there are two things you can still do to save money on the bill you have to pay next week.
The easier of the two is to open and fund an IRA for 2009. With an IRA, you can deposit up to $5,000 ($6,000 if you're 50 or older). Depending on your income and whether you're eligible for a retirement plan at your job, you may be able to deduct everything you contribute to an IRA. If you're in the 35% tax bracket, a $6,000 contribution means $2,100 in tax savings that you can get right now -- but you have to fund that IRA by April 15.
The other break that's still available is the homebuyer tax credit. Once seen as a potential saving grace for the homebuilding industry, the credit hasn't managed to stem losses from homebuilding stocks like Toll Brothers (NYSE: TOL ) and Pulte Group (NYSE: PHM ) , although it may have played a role in returning Hovnanian (NYSE: HOV ) and D.R. Horton (NYSE: DHI ) to profitability. Under current law, first-time buyers are still eligible for a credit of up to $8,000, but the newly expanded provisions also allow certain homeowners to claim as much as $6,500 toward the purchase of a new home. To qualify, you need to sign a binding contract by April 30 and close by June 30 -- but you can claim the credit on your 2009 taxes even if your purchase closes in 2010.
If you've already opened an IRA and don't expect to buy a house in the next month, then you've done as much as you can for 2009. But that doesn't mean you should give up in your quest for tax savings, because the biggest opportunities still lie ahead.
Getting your taxes in better shape for 2010 won't give you any immediate payoff. But you might end up with more savings. In particular, look for the following:
- Use your tax-favored accounts. If you own high-yielding dividend stocks like Vector Group (NYSE: VGR ) or Apollo Investment (Nasdaq: AINV ) in a regular taxable account, then you may be paying ridiculously high taxes on your distributions. Stash those stocks in an IRA, though, and you could cut your tax bill by hundreds.
- Boost your 401(k). You can save up to $16,500 in an employer-sponsored retirement plan in 2010; add an extra $5,500 if you're 50 or older. For those in the highest tax brackets, that kind of deferral is too good to pass up.
- Be smart about sales. With capital gains, you control your own destiny. Holding onto your investments rather than selling them can delay your day of reckoning with the tax man indefinitely. Also, making sure you own an investment for longer than one year could cut your tax rate by more than half. With so many stocks, such as General Growth Properties (NYSE: GGP ) , having risen dramatically in recent months, it's worth checking to see where your taxes stand before you sell.
- Take some credit. A wide variety of tax credits are still available for 2010, including provisions for energy-efficient home improvements, educational expenses, retirement savings, and much more. Find out about them now so you won't be scurrying next April to try to take advantage.
If taking your tax return down to the post office at the stroke of midnight is your idea of a good time, then don't let me stop you from enjoying your tax-day party. But if you'd rather be saving money, take steps now that will cut your tax bill both this year and in the future.
For more help with your taxes, check out the collection of useful resources at the Motley Fool's Tax Center.