Ladies and gentlemen, we are in the thick of tax season. Over the next two weeks tens of millions of Americans (aka, the procrastinators) will be preparing their 2016 calendar year taxes and likely e-filing them with the Internal Revenue Service.
Tax time is, for most Americans, a bittersweet process. On one hand, preparing your taxes makes watching paint dry or grass grow look appealing. Reviewing a mountain of your previous years' receipts and complying with what amounts to more than 10 million words of IRS tax code, according to the Tax Foundation, just aren't any fun.
On the other hand, for many taxpayers April 15, the traditional due date for federal income-tax filings, is like a second holiday season. Around three-quarters of all individual taxpayers wind up netting refunds from the federal government. Though this refund varies by year, thus far in 2017 the average refund is on track to be right around the $3,000 mark. That's enough cash to strengthen an emergency savings account, pay down debt, or perhaps augment a growing retirement nest egg.
Four tax moves you can make all the way up until April 18
However, tax time isn't a once-a-year event. Tax planning is a process that's ongoing year-round, and it gives taxpayers the opportunity to make moves to reduce their tax liabilities. The end of the year, Dec. 31, marks the point where practically all of your tax moves for the current calendar year need to have been completed.
But there are a few exceptions. In fact, there are four tax moves that can be made all the way up until April 18th of this year that'll retroactively apply to your 2016 calendar year taxes. (The recognition of Emancipation Day in Washington, D.C., is what's pushed the traditional April 15 tax day to April 18.)
Here are four tax moves you can make all the way up until Tax Day.
1. Contribute to a Traditional IRA
One of the smartest tax moves you can still make between now and April 18 is to contribute money toward a Traditional IRA. Regardless of whether you've contributed a little or nothing at all toward your Traditional IRA in 2016, you still have time to max out your annual contribution of $5,500 (for those aged 49 and under) or $6,500 (for those 50 and up).
A Traditional IRA is funded with pre-tax dollars, meaning if you fall under the IRS-set modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) limits, it can reduce your taxable income and therefore lower your tax liability. For single and joint filers, you can earn up to $61,000 and $98,000 in respective MAGI and still receive a full deduction up to your contribution limit. A phase-out begins between $61,000 and $71,000 in MAGI for individuals, and $98,000 to $118,000 for couples. MAGIs above $71,000 for individuals and $118,000 for couples receive no deduction, but it doesn't preclude you from making a full contribution nonetheless.
Another prime advantage is that money invested in a Traditional IRA grows on a tax-deferred basis -- though eventually Uncle Sam will come after the tax he's owed, and you'll pay ordinary income tax on your distributions during your golden years.
2. Contribute to a Roth IRA
Another tax move you can consider is making or maximizing your contribution to a Roth IRA, the sister retirement plan of the Traditional IRA. The contribution limits for a Roth IRA are exactly the same as those of the Traditional IRA, as is the contribution deadline of Tax Day, April 18.
There are, however, two very big differences between a Roth IRA and Traditional IRA. First of all, Roth IRAs have no upfront tax benefits. This means adding extra money into a Roth between now and April 18 isn't going to impact your current-year tax liability whatsoever, unlike a Traditional IRA.
But the other major difference between these two IRAs is a doozy. Roth IRAs are funded with after-tax dollars, which means no upfront tax benefits, but it also means no additional taxation on the account as long as no unqualified withdrawals are made. In other words, your Roth IRA nest egg can grow completely free of taxation for life. There are other differences between these plans, but this is by far the biggest advantage of the Roth IRA.
Just imagine maxing out your contribution of $5,500 in 2016 at age 35 and having it grow by an average of 7% annually (compounded daily) for 35 years. By age 70, your single-year Roth IRA contribution would be worth $63,900, and the federal government wouldn't be able to tax a red cent.
3. Contribute to a health savings account
Thirdly, taxpayers may be eligible to open and contribute to a health savings account (HSA) all the way to April 18.
In order to qualify to contribute to an HSA you need to be enrolled in a high-deductible health plan with a minimum deductible of $1,300 as an individual, or $2,600 for family coverage; not be enrolled in Medicare; and not be claimed as someone else's dependent. Should you qualify, the 2016 contribution limits are $3,350 for individuals and $6,750 for families under the age of 54. Persons aged 55 and up can add a $1,000 catch-up contribution to the individual or family coverage contribution limit. Since the money contributed is considered pre-tax, an HSA may help reduce your tax liability in 2016.
The advantage of an HSA is that it allows the user to take funds from the account and use those funds to pay for qualified medical expenses. The funds withdrawn can be taken at any age on a penalty-free and tax-free basis.
Also noteworthy, HSAs funds can be carried over one year to the next, meaning they're actually a lot like a standard retirement account, such as a 401(k). Money within an HSA can grow on a tax-free basis until retirement, at which point you'll pay ordinary income tax on the withdrawals as you would with a 401(k) or any tax-deferred retirement plan.
4. File an extension
Last but not least, you'll still have an opportunity to file Form 4868, or as it's more commonly known, a tax extension. You can do this all the way up till April 18.
For millions of taxpayers, filing an extension is a smart move. For instance, there are taxpayers who have missing or inaccurate information, and therefore would be unable to complete their returns by the April 18 deadline. Additionally, if taxpayers take a long vacation or are out of the country, filing an extension might make sense.
However, taxpayers considering an extension for their 2016 calendar year taxes need to be aware of a few things. First, they're still required to hand over 90% of what they're expected to owe in federal tax to Uncle Sam by Tax Day, April 18. An extension doesn't mean you get an extension on paying what you're estimated to owe. It just means you'll have more time (six months) to refine and complete the preparation of your taxes.
Also, be prepared to possibly owe interest and fines. If you fail to pay the full balance on Tax Day, the IRS typically charges interest, which is the federal short-term rate plus 3%, on the remaining balance.
Filing a tax extension doesn't give you a free ride by any means, but it may be a smart tax move for persons without all of their needed tax info.