The tax forms (or the extensions) have all been filed, the mad April rush has come to an end, and you can breathe a sigh of relief. You mutter to yourself, "Thank goodness... I don't have to think about taxes again for another year."
It makes me very sad that anybody would have such a view of things. The only way you can control and deal with your tax issues is to review them throughout the year. Was your refund too large? Why should you allow Uncle Sam to hold on to your money without paying you any interest? Fix it now! Did you have a large balance due with some penalties attached? There are methods that you can use to rid yourself of these penalties. Did you fail to take a credit or deduction because you didn't know about it? Or worse, didn't maintain the appropriate records? Now is the time to look forward to tax year 2004 so you don't make the same mistakes again. But it takes thought and planning and attention.
People often think that taxes are simply a chore, something to attend to once a year. Anyone with that attitude is likely leaving money on the table, though. This is particularly true for investors, because investing is much more than just deciding which stocks to buy or sell.
There are many tax-related matters that investors should learn about and consider in order to strategize effectively. For example, how long you hold a stock or security makes a difference, what with the lower taxes on dividends and long-term gains. Your cost basis for various securities may have to be adjusted on various occasions. If you're giving a gift to a child or a charitable donation to a cause, you should consider giving stock instead, as you could come out ahead.
If you're generating sizable capital gains this year, you might be expected by the IRS to file estimated taxes each quarter. If you use your computer for investment purposes, you might have some deductions available to you. If you sell a stock for a loss, you should think twice before repurchasing it within 30 days. Got employee stock options? You can minimize your taxes by exercising and holding them for certain time periods. Heck, even your home is an investment, and a big one at that. Learn about the massive tax benefits available to you if you plan your home sale properly.
But even if you're not an investor, there are a number of tax issues that should be important to you. Were you nicked by the Alternative Minimum Tax? Many more have been in the recent past. So, consider actions now that will reduce your AMT bite. And what about all of the recent tax changes? Are you familiar with how you can make them work to reduce your taxes? Concerned about an audit? Perhaps you should be.
In short, there are simply a myriad of tax issues that you should at least have a working knowledge of as you go through your day-to-day lives. Leaving things to a tax pro at the end of the year is just fine. But that tax pro can't follow you around every day of your life and help you with your financial, investment, and tax decisions. It's ultimately up to you to take advantage of the tax law and remove a bicuspid from your annual tax bite.
Or, as Ogden Nash put it,
Indoors or out, no one relaxes
In March, that month of wind and taxes,
The wind will presently disappear,
The taxes last us all the year.
Nash meant these words as a frivolous joke, but they're really quite true. If you take a businesslike approach to taxes, you'll tend to them all year long, a little at a time. In short, proper planning will make your 2004 filing much less "taxing" on you and your family.
And you are certainly invited to visit us and read the weekly tax article. In the weeks to come, we'll be discussing tax issues that will be of interest to you, your friends, and your family. And these issues will have a direct result on your tax lives. But it'll take some effort on your part to take the information and use it. Tax planning isn't a passive activity; it's something proactive that you can (and should) do to take control of your taxes and your tax outcomes throughout the year.
Remember: It's your money... and your taxes. And nobody is as concerned about your money and your taxes as you are (or at least should be). So get to it! It's never too early to deal with your tax issues. And we'll be here to help you through the process.
Roy Lewis lives in a trailer down by the river and is a motivational speaker when not dealing with tax issues, and he understands that The Motley Fool is all about investors writing for investors. You can take a look at the stocks he owns as long as you promise not to ask him which stock to buy. He'll be glad to help you compute your gain or loss when you finally sell a stock, though.