Though many of us are still probably recovering from our holiday food comas, taxpayers should recognize that we're just two days away from the end of the 2016 calendar year. In other words, you're running out of time to reduce your tax liability come April.
The good news is that a majority of taxpayers do wind up netting refunds from the federal government. Last year's refund averaged more than $2,700 -- a tidy sum that could come in handy to boost a retirement nest egg, beef up an emergency savings account, or pay down debt. However, your refund could be even bigger. Just because there are only two days left in the year doesn't mean you're out of tax options. Here are five last-minute ways you can reduce your tax liability.
1. Take capital losses
One of the easiest ways to reduce your tax liability as an investor is to take a capital loss. Taking losses on an investment can reduce the long-term and/or short-term capital gains you've already accrued for the year by selling other investments at a profit; or, if you have more capital losses than gains for the year, you can use up to $3,000 of your capital losses to offset your ordinary income. Any remainder of the capital loss beyond $3,000 can be carried over to the following years to offset your ordinary income or future capital gains.
There are two important things worth noting about tax-loss selling. First, you'll want to be aware of what's known as a "wash sale." If you sell an investment at a loss, but you then repurchase the same asset or a "substantially similar" asset within 30 days, the IRS will disallow the loss for tax purposes.
The other factor to consider here is whether an investment is really worth selling. Sure, a realized loss could reduce your current-year tax liability, but tax-loss selling alone shouldn't be the only factor in your decision-making process. If your investment thesis no longer holds true, then selling may make sense. If you're only selling a stock or asset to save a few bucks on your taxes, but your investment thesis still holds water, then perhaps it's best to just hang on a little longer.
2. Request an income deferral from your employer
While it's far from a guarantee, another way you may be able to reduce your current-year tax liability is by asking your employer to defer some of your income to the following year. For example, if you're due a year-end bonus, ask if your employer can avoid paying that bonus until January. If you're self-employed, then recognizing earnings from a large project in January 2017 as opposed to December 2016 could also make a difference.
On the flip side, taxpayers have to be careful about deferring income, because they might be setting themselves up for tax problems the following year. For instance, if you can't get next year's year-end bonus pushed back to January 2018, then you'll be treated as if you recognized two bonuses during the same year, possibly moving you into a higher tax bracket.
3. Make a charitable contribution
One of the more fulfilling ways to reduce your end-of-year tax liability is to make a charitable contribution to a recognized nonprofit organization.
Donating has two primary benefits. First, it allows you to support a cause you believe in, which is especially great around the holidays. Secondly, it provides a tax deduction that grows based on your peak marginal tax bracket. In layman's terms, this means the higher your tax bracket, the fatter your charitable tax deduction. The wealthiest taxpayers who find themselves in the peak marginal tax bracket of 39.6% can receive a $0.396 deduction for every $1 they contribute to an eligible organization.
It's important for taxpayers to have complete documentation of any charitable contribution in case the IRS questions a donation. Additionally, you should double-check to make sure the IRS recognizes the organization you'd like to donate to as one that qualifies for a charitable tax deduction.
4. Contribute to a traditional IRA
Contributing to a traditional IRA is a fantastic way to not only reduce your current-year tax liability, but kick-start your retirement nest egg. For persons aged 49 and under, the maximum contribution limit is $5,500 in 2016, while those aged 50 and up can add an extra $1,000 for an aggregate maximum of $6,500.
As with the other last-minute tax tips mentioned above, there are some details you should know. First, the deadline to contribute to a traditional IRA actually extends all the way to Tax Day, which is April 15, 2017 for the 2016 tax year. So if you don't have the money to contribute now because of holiday spending, you still have a few months to save for your future and lower your 2016 tax liability by contributing to a traditional IRA.
Also be aware that not everyone qualifies for a traditional IRA deduction. If you're single or claim head-of-household status, your deduction begins to phase out at $61,000 in modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) and is eliminated at $71,000 in MAGI. For joint filers, the phase-out begins at $98,000 in MAGI and is eliminated at $118,000 in MAGI.
5. Contribute to a Health Savings Account
Finally, consider contributing to a Health Savings Account (HSA), which can provide a number of benefits should you require medical care. In order to qualify for an HSA, you'll need to be enrolled in a high-deductible health plan, not be enrolled in Medicare, and not be claimed by someone else as a dependent on their tax return. If you meet these qualifications, the HSA contribution limit in 2016 is $3,350 for individuals and $6,750 for family coverage.
Not only is a contribution to an HSA probably deductible, but money within an HSA can be used to pay for qualified medical care on a tax-free, penalty-free basis regardless of your age. If you don't use the money in your HSA for medical care, it can be invested and treated as a retirement account similar to a 401(k).
Oh, yeah, and one final thing: An HSA, just like an IRA, allows contributions made as late as Tax Day to count toward your tax return in the prior calendar year.
Sean Williams has no material interest in any companies mentioned in this article. You can follow him on CAPS under the screen name TMFUltraLong, and check him out on Twitter, where he goes by the handle @TMFUltraLong.
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