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The Smartest Tax Move to Make in 2017

By Matthew Frankel, CFP® - Updated Dec 9, 2016 at 2:21PM

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There are plenty of lucrative tax breaks, but this is perhaps the best of all.

Image source: Getty Images.

There are literally thousands of moves you can make to lower your taxes and make your tax season easier. However, maximizing your tax-advantaged retirement accounts is perhaps the best tax move of all. Not only do these accounts get you a nice tax break at the end of the year, they can also set you up for financial freedom later in life. Here are your choices when it comes to tax-advantaged retirement saving.

Types of tax-advantaged retirement accounts

There are several types of tax-advantaged retirement accounts you may be able to take advantage of, depending on your employment status and income.

1. 401(k), 403(b), and most 457 plans: Contributions to these plans are generally made on a pre-tax basis, but some plans have an after-tax option (Roth) as well. Elective contributions to 401(k), 403(b), and most 457 plans are currently limited to $18,000 for 2017, with an additional $6,000 catch-up contribution allowed for participants aged 50 and older. Employers may choose to make matching contributions to these accounts as well, and total contributions for the year are limited to a maximum of $54,000 (or $60,000 for those aged 50 and up).

2. Traditional IRA: Traditional IRAs are designed to allow investors to save for their own retirement outside of employers' plans, and contributions are made on a pre-tax basis. The maximum contribution to a traditional IRA is $5,500 for the 2016 and 2017 tax years, with an extra $1,000 catch-up contribution allowed if you're over 50. It's also important to mention that IRA contributions for 2016 can be made until the April 2017 tax deadline.

3. Roth IRA: As with a traditional IRA, contributions to a Roth are capped at $5,500 (plus a $1,000 catch-up allowance). Unlike a traditional IRA, however, contributions are made on an after-tax basis. Instead of getting a tax deduction in the current year, Roth investors can withdraw their savings in retirement 100% tax-free, and they can also take advantage of some other benefits of this account type.

4. Simple IRA, SEP-IRA, Solo 401(k): These options are available to small-business owners and self-employed individuals, and they each have their own contribution limits and rules. To contribute, you must 1) be employed by a small business that uses one of these accounts or 2) earn some of your income from self-employment. For more information on these accounts, here are thorough discussions of SIMPLE IRA, SEP-IRA, and solo 401(k) accounts.

Tax deductions for retirement saving

Contributions to pre-tax retirement accounts are generally deductible on your tax return. 401(k), 403(b), and 457 contributions are deductible up to the limits mentioned earlier, as are contributions to the self-employment retirement plans discussed above.

Contributions to a traditional IRA are deductible for single individuals who do not have access to an employer's retirement plan, regardless of their income. If you or your spouse have access to an employer's plan, the ability to deduct your contributions to a traditional IRA may be limited by your income.

To put the value of the retirement savings deduction in perspective, let's say that you open a traditional IRA and contribute the maximum of $5,500 in 2016. If you're in the 25% tax bracket, this translates into tax savings of $1,375. For an even bigger deduction, if you max out a traditional IRA and your 401(k), the tax savings can potentially be well over $5,000, depending on your tax bracket. As you can see, the savings can be huge.

On top of that, low- to middle-income individuals may be eligible for an additional tax credit for retirement savings, commonly referred to as the Saver's Credit.

The long-term financial benefits are even better

As nice as the short-term tax benefits are, the biggest reason this is the smartest tax move to make in 2017 is its long-term effects on your retirement savings.

Using the example of a traditional IRA, let's say that you're 30 years old and open an account. We'll say that you contribute the maximum of $5,500 every year. As I mentioned, this translates into a tax savings of $1,375 per year if you're in the 25% bracket.

Over the next 30 years, you will have contributed a total of $165,000. Assuming the historical returns of the stock market, your account could grow to more than $820,000 by the end of those three decades. So, not only would you have gotten thousands of dollars in tax saving along the way, but you would also be sitting on a large retirement nest egg, $655,000 of which would be profit. (And considering that the maximum IRA contribution is occasionally raised to adjust for inflation, your contributions, and thereby your gains, would likely be even greater than that.)

Which retirement account should you use?

It depends. If your employer offers matching contributions, then it almost always makes sense to contribute your employer's plan first, at least to the extent they are willing to match. Beyond that, it's up to you. Putting all your contributions into your employer's account can simplify your retirement savings and keep everything in one place. On the other hand, an IRA gives you more control over your investments and opens your choices up to virtually any stock, bond, or mutual fund you desire.

More important than the type of account, however, is that you contribute early and often. Your money will never have any more long-term compounding power than it does right now, so do yourself a favor and make the smartest possible tax move you can make in 2017.

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