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Want a Big Tax Break? Get These 5 Things Done Now

By Dan Caplinger – Jan 20, 2019 at 7:06AM

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Don't miss the deadline.

Saving for retirement is important, and your biggest enemy is procrastination. The sooner you start investing, the better -- and it's even smarter to take advantage of the tax-saving opportunities that the federal government gives you in order to encourage greater retirement savings.

If you had a job or made money in a business or side gig during 2018, then you're eligible to save money for retirement using an IRA. It's not too late to open an IRA for the 2018 tax year and reap savings on your tax return right now -- but you only have until April 15, and there are several things you have to get done by then in order to claim your big tax break. Here's a simple checklist to follow in order to get the job done.

Tax refund check from U.S. Treasury, along with a 1040 form.

Image source: Getty Images.

1. Find a financial institution that'll let you open an IRA

Fortunately, you won't have much trouble finding a way to open an IRA. A host of financial institutions, including brokers, mutual fund companies, and banks, offer IRAs. To pick the best one, you'll want to focus on exactly what types of investments you want for your account.

Online brokerage companies give you the most flexibility in choosing investments. You'll be able to pick among stocks, bonds, exchange-traded funds, mutual funds, and many other types of investment assets with a brokerage account. That way, you won't get stuck with poor options that limit your ability to reach your financial goals -- and sometimes charge huge fees along the way that will drain your retirement savings rather than building it up.

2. Pick the type of IRA you want

Next, you'll need to figure out which type of IRA you'd like: Roth or traditional. The traditional IRA gets more love from investors, because it usually lets you take an immediate tax deduction that will boost the size of your refund check right now. The downside is that although you'll get tax-deferred growth while the money stays in the IRA, you'll have to pay taxes on withdrawals in retirement.

By contrast, a Roth IRA gives you tax-free treatment on most withdrawals. However, the price is that you give up the chance for an up-front tax deduction.

In some cases, you might not have a choice. If your income is too high, then Roth IRAs are off-limits. You're always allowed to contribute to a traditional IRA, although high-income taxpayers might lose some or all of the tax deduction for those contributions. You can get more information about these income limits here.

You can also choose to open two different IRAs, one Roth and one traditional. Just keep in mind that the annual maximum contribution applies to the total you contribute, so you'll need to split that amount between the two accounts if you go that route.

3. Figure out where the money will come from

If you want to take maximum advantage of an IRA for the 2018 tax year, it'll require a pretty big chunk of cash. Contribution limits for 2018 are $5,500 if you're younger than 50 or $6,500 if you're 50 or older. Those numbers are subject to reduction if your earnings from a job or business are less than the limits.

Of course, you don't have to max out your IRA. Some investors prefer to make regular contributions on a monthly basis, and that's a smart way to get a head start on your IRA for 2019. Just keep in mind that you only have a few months left before the window closes forever on 2018 contributions.

4. Get your account opened

It can take more time than you'd think to complete the paperwork necessary to open an IRA. Online providers have gotten pretty efficient about opening IRAs, with internet-based applications letting you get things in order in minutes. However, you'll need to make sure that you have required documentation available in order to use those online systems, and it might be necessary to follow up with additional documents after the initial application process.

Even if you visit a financial institution in person, leaving yourself plenty of time before the IRA deadline to get your account open is a smart move. That way, if some unexpected hiccup occurs, you won't be scrambling to get things done too quickly.

5. Get your money into your account

If you have your money ready and the account is officially open, the last step is to make the contribution. For the 2018 tax year, it must be done by April 15, and you can then move on to 2019 contributions.

You still have a few months before the deadline, but time has a habit of slipping away. Get moving on your IRA contribution now, and you'll have the peace of mind of knowing that you've secured a valuable tax break for the year.

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