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Ways to Save on Taxes All Year Round

Filing your tax return is a once-a-year event but trimming your tax bill is something you can do right now.

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By Sandra Block

If you managed to claim every possible tax break that you deserved when you filed your return last spring, pat yourself on the back. But don't stop there. Those tax-filing maneuvers were certainly valuable, but you may be able to rack up even bigger savings through thoughtful tax planning all year round. The following ideas could really pay off in the months and years ahead.

Give yourself a raise. If you got a big tax refund this year, it meant that you're having too much tax taken out of your paycheck every payday. Filing a new W-4 form with your employer (talk to your payroll office) will insure that you get more of your money when you earn it. If you're just average, you deserve about $225 a month extra. Try our easy withholding calculator now to see if you deserve more allowances.

Boost your retirement savings. One of the best ways to lower your tax bill is to reduce your taxable income. You can contribute to up to $17,500 to your 401(k) or similar retirement savings plan in 2010 ($22,000 if you are 50 or older by the end of the year). Money contributed to the plan is not included in your taxable income. Haven't started one yet? Read Why You Need a 401(k) Right Away.

Switch to a Roth 401(k). But if you are concerned about skyrocketing taxes in the future, or if you just want to diversify your taxable income in retirement, considering shifting some or all of your retirement plan contributions to a Roth 401(k) if your employer offers one. Unlike the regular 401(k), you don't get a tax break when your money goes into a Roth. On the other hand, money coming out of a Roth 401(k) in retirement will be tax-free, while cash coming out of a regular 401(k) will be taxed in your top bracket. Just remember that you'll have to pay income taxes on the amount you convert.

Fund an IRA. If you don't have a retirement plan at work, or you want to augment your savings, you can stash money in an IRA. You can contribute up to $5,500 ($6,500 if you are 50 or older by the end of the year). Depending on your income and whether you participate in a retirement savings plan at work, you may be able to deduct some or all of your IRA contribution. Or, you can choose to forgo the upfront tax break and contribute to a Roth IRA that will allow you to take tax-free withdrawals in retirement.

Go for a health tax break. Be aggressive if your employer offers a medical reimbursement account -- sometimes called a flex plan. These plans let you divert part of your salary to an account which you can then tap to pay medical bills.
The advantage? You avoid both income and Social Security tax on the money, and that can save you 20 percent to 35 percent or more compared with spending after-tax money. The maximum you can contribute to a health care flex plan is $2,500.

Pay child-care bills with pre-tax dollars. After taxes, it can easily take $7,500 or more of salary to pay $5,000 worth of child care expenses. But, if you use a child-care reimbursement account at work to pay those bills, you get to use pre-tax dollars. That can save you one-third or more of the cost, since you avoid both income and Social Security taxes. If your boss offers such a plan, take advantage of it.

Ask your boss to pay for you to improve yourself. Companies can offer employees up to $5,250 of educational assistance tax-free each year. That means the boss pays the bills but the amount doesn't show up as part of your salary on your W-2. The courses don't even have to be job-related, and even graduate-level courses qualify.

Be smart if you're a teacher or aide. Keep receipts for what you spend out of pocket for books, supplies and other classroom materials. You can deduct up to $250 of such out-of-pocket expenses ... even if you don't itemize.

Pay back a 401(k) loan before leaving the job. Failing to do so means the loan amount will be considered a distribution that will be taxed in your top bracket and, if you're younger than 55 in the year you leave your job, hit with a 10 percent penalty, too.

Tally job-hunting expenses. If you count yourself among the millions of Americans who are unemployed, make sure you keep track of your job-hunting costs. As long as you're looking for a new position in the same line of work (your first job doesn't qualify), you can deduct job-hunting costs including travel expenses such as the cost of food, lodging and transportation, if your search takes you away from home overnight. Such costs are miscellaneous expenses, deductible to the extent all such costs exceed 2 percent of your adjusted gross income.

Keep track of the cost of moving to a new job. If the new job is at least 50 miles farther from your old home than your old job was, you can deduct the cost of the move ... even if you don't itemize expenses. If it's your first job,
the mileage test is met if the new job is at least 50 miles away from your old home. You can deduct the cost of moving yourself and your belongings. If you drive your own car, you can deduct 24 cents a mile for a 2013 move, plus parking and tolls. If you move in 2014, the rate is 23.5 center a mile.

Save energy, save taxes. Congress extended a $500 tax credit for energy-efficient home improvements, such as new windows, doors and skylights, through 2013. Be advised, though, that $500 is the lifetime maximum, so if you claimed $500 in energy-efficient credits before this year, you can't claim this credit. There are also restrictions on specific projects; for example, the maximum you can claim for new energy-efficient windows is $200.

Think green. A separate tax credit is available for homeowners who install alternative energy equipment. It equals 30 percent of what a homeowner spends on qualifying property such as solar electric systems, solar hot water heaters, geothermal heat pumps, and wind turbines, including labor costs. There is no cap on this tax credit, which is available through 2016.

Put away your checkbook. If you plan to make a significant gift to charity, consider giving appreciated stocks or mutual fund shares that you've owned for more than one year instead of cash. Doing so supercharges the saving power of your generosity. Your charitable contribution deduction is the fair market value of the securities on the date of the gift, not the amount you paid for the asset, and you never have to pay tax on the profit. However, don't donate stocks or fund shares that lost money. You'd be better off selling the asset, claiming the loss on your taxes, and donating cash to the charity.

Tote up out-of-pocket costs of doing good. Keep track of what you spend while doing charitable work, from what you spend on stamps for a fundraiser, to the cost of ingredients for casseroles you make for the homeless, to the number of miles you drive your car for charity (at 14 cents a mile). Add such costs with your cash contributions when figuring your charitable contribution deduction.

Time your wedding. If you're planning a wedding near year-end, put the romance aside for a moment to consider the tax consequences. The tax law still includes a "marriage penalty" that forces some pairs to pay more combined tax as a married couple than as singles. For others, tying the knot saves on taxes. Consider whether Uncle Sam would prefer a December or January ceremony. And, whether you have one job between you or two or more, revise withholding at work to reflect the tax bill you'll owe as a couple.

Beware of Uncle Sam's interest in your divorce. Watch the tax basis -- that is, the value from which gains or losses will be determined when property is sold -- when working toward an equitable property settlement. One $100,000 asset might be worth a lot more -- or a lot less -- than another, after the IRS gets its share. Remember: Alimony is deductible by the payer and taxable income to the recipient; a property settlement is neither deductible nor taxable.

The stork brings tax savings, too. A child born, or adopted, is a blessed event for your tax return. An added dependency exemption will knock $3,950 off your taxable income, and you'll probably qualify for the $1,000 child credit, too. You don't have to wait until you file your return to reap the benefit. Add at least one extra withholding allowance to the W-4 form filed with your employer to cut tax withholding from your paycheck. That will immediately increase your take-home pay.

Looking for more tips? Read the rest of the Kiplinger article to find more.

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Cities with the Lowest Tax Rates

The total amount of tax you pay reaches far beyond what you owe the federal government. Depending on where you live, most likely you're required to pay additional taxes, including property and sales tax. The disparity between the amount of tax you pay in a low-tax city and that in a high-tax city can be dramatic. Living in any of these 10 cities could save you a bundle, although the exact amount may fluctuate based on your income and lifestyle choices.

Cities with the Highest Tax Rates

Much ado is made in the press about federal tax brackets, but cities can carry a tax bite of their own. Even if you live in a state that has no income tax, your city may levy a variety of taxes that could eat away the entire benefit of living in an income tax-free state, including property taxes, sales taxes and auto taxes. Consider all the costs before you move to one of these cities, and understand that rates may change based on your family's income level.

Great Ways to Get Charitable Tax Deductions

Generally, when you give money to a charity, you can use the amount of that donation as a deduction on your tax return. However, not all charities qualify as tax-deductible organizations. While there are many types of charities, they must all meet certain criteria to be classified by the IRS as tax-deductible organizations. There are legitimate tax-deductible organizations in many popular categories, such as those listed below.

A Freelancer's Guide to Taxes

Freelancing certainly has its benefits, but it can result in a few complications come tax time. The Internal Revenue Service considers freelancers to be self-employed, so if you earn income as a freelancer you must file your taxes as a business owner. While you can take additional deductions if you are self-employed, you'll also face additional taxes in the form of the self-employment tax. Here are things to consider as a freelancer when filing your taxes.

Tax Deductions for Voluntary Interest Payments on Student Loans

Most taxpayers who pay interest on student loans can take a tax deduction for the expense ? and you can do this regardless of whether you itemize tax deductions on your return. The rules for claiming the deduction are the same whether the interest payments were required or voluntary.

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I took advice from Tom Geithner.

February 13 2014 at 5:02 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Funny, I thought the solution was to move out of the US to a country not supporting the non-working as well as others throughout the world.

February 13 2014 at 11:06 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

I stopped giving to charity/poor when I traced the funds and found it was being squandered by incompetency. For example, if you give money to homeless people, 98% of them spend it on cigarettes and alcohol- they are not poor because they don't have money, they are poor because they squander it.

Instead, I increased my taxes. Say what ? Yep. I pay more. The US Treasury is teetering on default. The US Gov faces shutdown on a daily basis. If the Gov defaults, all of your money will become worthless.

February 13 2014 at 8:13 AM Report abuse -5 rate up rate down Reply