5 tax-filing tips to help you maximize your return

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Tax season is well underway. If you haven’t filed or at least started your preparation, now is the time.

Due to changes from the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, it’s important to carefully consider your tax strategy to make sure you take advantage of the credits and deductions that work best for your situation.

To help you stay on track, we asked a few experts to share their advice on everything from how to best handle changes in the tax law to preparation techniques, as well as planning for the year ahead.

Here are five things you should consider as you file.

1. Start early

If you usually procrastinate getting your documents in order until mid-April, save yourself the trouble this year and start the process early.

“Start your return as early as possible,” says Arielle Minicozzi, co-founder and executive financial planner at Sphynx Financial Planning. “Even if you don’t file right away, you’ll get the ball rolling and give yourself more time to finish.”

And if you do owe the IRS, filing earlier can give you more time to get your payments together. “Many people don’t realize you don’t have to pay immediately when you file; you have until the filing deadline,” Minicozzi says.

2. Weigh your preparation options

Choosing between hiring someone to prepare your taxes or doing it on your own largely depends on the complexity of your situation.

If your taxes are simple, you can easily file online using free software, says David Zaegel, president and co-founder of CWOs for Hire, a financial planning company. This is a good option, for example, if you have only a W-2, you’re a renter and you don’t have any self-employment income.

The IRS offers Free File Software for people whose income is under $66,000 and Free File Fillable Forms for those above $66,000. Other free online software offerings include FreeTaxUSA, H&R Block and TurboTax.

“Once you really get more complexity of starting to own a house and you have some more investments, maybe you have a side business, that’s really where you should go to a CPA to get some help and make sure nothing is missed,” Zaegel says.

Even if you don’t expect your filing to be complex, a certified tax professional can help you determine your best strategy.

3. Look into changes that affect you

One of the most significant changes to the tax law is the increased standard deduction: It’s now $12,000 for individuals and $24,000 for those married filing jointly (up from $6,350 and $12,700, respectively, in 2017) .

Plus, many deductions from previous years have disappeared, like personal exemptions and moving expenses for non-military taxpayers. State and local tax deductions are now capped at $10,000.

Many taxpayers should benefit most from taking the new standard deduction. But if you’re weighing both options, do your research or work with a CPA to make sure you understand how you’ll be affected.

Robert J. Falcon, founder and president of Falcon Wealth Managers, points to one change in particular that may stand out for many people.

“In addition to our itemized deductions, we used to also get an exemption of $4,050 for each parent and child,” he says. That exemption, which lowered your taxable income, is now gone, but many families can benefit more from this year’s expansion of the child tax credit.

For those who qualify, the expanded child tax credit now allows up to a $2,000 reduction in tax for each dependent child, Falcon says. The credit is also refundable now up to $1,400.

4. Evaluate changes with your employer

Fewer people are receiving refunds so far this year, according to the latest data from the IRS. Make sure your refund matches your expectations by adjusting withholdings to align with your needs.

It’s generally too late to change your tax liability for 2018, but you can start planning for next year. Adjust your 2019 withholding information by updating Form W-4 with your employer. You can use the IRS Withholding Calculator to ensure you’re making the correct number of allowances.

“After filing your taxes, adjust your paycheck withholding accordingly,” says Greg McBride, CFA, chief financial analyst at Bankrate. “If you’re getting a big refund, have less withheld so you get your money throughout the year instead of giving the government an interest-free loan. If you have to pay, then have more withheld from each paycheck so you’re not in a similar spot next year.”

Once you see how the new laws affect your tax liability, don’t hesitate to re-evaluate your strategy so you can continue to make the most of your money.

5. Look at your overall financial health

“Tax time is a great time to see the benefits of contributing to retirement savings accounts and health savings accounts, and it’s a great opportunity to change some numbers around or try to optimize your use of those accounts,” says Nathan Rigney, lead tax research analyst at the Tax Institute at H&R Block.

You still have until April 15 to make an IRA contribution for 2018 and possibly get a deduction on what you owe this year, McBride says. Otherwise, you can use your refund to contribute to your IRA or put it toward your other financial goals.

Max out your retirement accounts if you’re able, increase your emergency savings in a high-yield savings account and pay off any high-interest debts.

“It’s just a great time to think about your personal finances and if there’s a way that you can accomplish some of your financial goals while also reducing your tax liability,” Rigney says.

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Written by
Kendall Little
Kendall Little is a personal finance writer covering credit card news and advice at Bankrate. She is originally from metro Atlanta and holds bachelor’s degrees from the University of Georgia in both journalism and film studies. Before joining Bankrate in August 2018, Kendall worked in digital communications throughout various industries, including education, health care and television.
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