3 Year-End To-Dos You Should Do Right Now

You might think that the beginning of October is a bit early to start worrying about taking care of year-end business. But with these three must-dos, getting an early start doesn't just let you cross a chore off your list -- it can actually put some extra money in your pocket.

Make a list, check it twice
Let's take a closer look at three of the most important things to take care of every year.

1. Making the most of your retirement accounts.
Retirement savers have a lot to keep in mind at year-end. Although you don't have to make current-year contributions to IRAs until next April 15, there's a laundry list of other tasks you have to take care of before December ends:

  • Contributions to 401(k)s and other employer-sponsored retirement plans are due by Dec. 31.
  • If you're required to take mandatory distributions from your retirement accounts -- either because you're age 70 1/2 or older or because you have an inherited IRA -- then you must do so by the end of the year.
  • The opportunity to convert your traditional IRA to a Roth and take advantage of special 2010 rules that allow you to put off the tax impact until 2011 and 2012 goes away on Jan. 1.

These things are easy to forget about in the year-end rush. There are big penalties for not taking required minimum distributions, but even more costly is the opportunity cost of not getting as much money as you can into your retirement accounts.

2. Taking tax losses.
If you've lost money on a stock, you can get a tax break by taking a capital loss on your tax return. To do so, though, you must sell the stock by Dec. 31.

The reason you might want to do so early, though, is to get a jump on everyone else doing the same thing. It's easy to see, for instance, which stocks are going to suffer from selling pressure related to tax-loss harvesting:

  • Monsanto (NYSE: MON  ) faces competition for its core Roundup product, as well as pressure over genetically modified food.
  • Research In Motion (Nasdaq: RIMM  ) has suffered as it's failed to keep up with innovation from Apple's iPhone and iPad and Google's Android-powered devices.
  • Although both BP (NYSE: BP  ) and Transocean (NYSE: RIG  ) have recovered a lot of lost ground from the Gulf oil spill, they're still facing uncertainty about the level of damages they'll owe -- and how they'll split that liability.

Another advantage is that if you want to take losses but still own the stock in the future, you have to wait 30 days after selling to buy it back. If you sell now, you can buy back in November or December, just as latecomers are selling, hopefully pushing the price down to let you get in more cheaply.

3. Rebalance your portfolio.
If you haven't done rebalanced in a while, you shouldn't put it off any longer. Whether it's getting your stock/bond mix back to normal or adjusting your sector exposure, rebalancing makes sure you're taking the right amount of risk.

For instance, say you have allocations to both financial stocks and real-estate investment trusts. REITs have had great returns, with mortgage REITs American Capital Agency (Nasdaq: AGNC  ) and Annaly Capital (NYSE: NLY  ) doing particularly well by jumping on low rates to milk huge profits.

In contrast, financial stocks have struggled. Even though Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS  ) settled its lawsuit over fraud allegations, its stock has yet to recover from the damage. Major banks Wells Fargo, Citigroup, and Bank of America have yet to demonstrate that they can make money in a post-meltdown, newly regulated world despite record low interest rates.

If you haven't rebalanced, the value of your REITs is much higher than your financials, leaving you overly exposed if REITs reverse course and fall. By rebalancing, you lock in some profits on your REITs while taking advantage of low prices to boost your financial exposure. It's not guaranteed to make you money, but over time, rebalancing has helped many people take advantage of the natural cycles within markets.

Do it today
Sure, you could wait on some of these things. But why wait? By acting sooner than later, you can get a jump on your peers -- and being first out of the gate may well mean more money in your pocket.

Tune in to every Monday and Wednesday for Dan's columns on retirement, investing, and personal finance.

Fool contributor Dan Caplinger always wrote his college papers long before everyone else was panicking. Google is a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation and a Motley Fool Rule Breakers pick. Apple is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendation. Motley Fool Options has recommended a synthetic long position on Monsanto, which is a former Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation. The Fool owns shares of Annaly Capital Management, Apple, and Google. The Fool's disclosure policy likes to count to three.

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