The primary 2013 tax-filing season is over. Hallelujah!
But some folks got an extention to file (guilty!) their 2012 returns. And the savviest taxpayers, whether they're done with last year's taxes or still tweaking their 1040s, know that you can't simply wait until April and hope that you won't owe Uncle Sam.
So welcome to the 2013 edition of the Weekly Tax Tip.
Each Wednesday from now, April 17, through Dec. 25 (yes, no rest for the tax wicked!) and possibly into early 2013, you'll find a new tax tip posted atop the ol' blog's right column.
I know, I know. Right now you're sick of taxes. But hey! You're still coming to the ol' blog. That means you're still looking for tax-cutting strategies.
Some weekly tips will help those of you (us) who postponed 2012's return filing until Oct. 15. Other tips will recommend ways to cut your impending 2013 tax bill.
And sometimes the tips will offer general tax advice, information and even humor.
If you miss a weekly tip or simply want a refresher, bookmark this page and come back at your leisure to check out ways to pay fewer taxes.
- Dealing with a wrong refund -- Your tax refund finally arrived and it's wrong! Now what? First, figure out why you didn't get as much money -- or in some cases more money -- from the Internal Revenue Service than you expected. Common reasons for different final refund amounts are math errors that the IRS corrects, erroneously claimed credits or deduction or offsets to pay other government obligations such as a federal student loan or state-mandated child support. The IRS usually will send you a notice explaining the discrepancy. If you just can't wait, call the IRS with questions about the different refund amount. And find out what the deal is before you spend any of your unexpected tax refund money. (April 17, 2013)
- Filing and tracking an amended tax return -- You finally finished your tax return and then, blam! There it was. How did you miss that mistake on your 1040? Don't panic. You still have time to take care of it. Either way, the Internal Revenue Service offers you a second chance to get your tax return right by filing an amended return. The Form 1040X is definitely not an X-file. In fact, it's not that hard to fix your filing mistake. Basically, the IRS wants to know what you originally reported, what your corrected numbers are and why you are making the changes. There are a few things to note, though. You can't change a jointly filed tax return to two married filing separately 1040s. If your changes involve a schedule or other document you filed originally, attach that document to your 1040X. And you must file your 1040X on paper; e-filing is not yet available. You can, however, check the status of your amended return electronically. The IRS has an online Where's My Amended Return search tool. (April 24, 2013)
- Tax record-keeping tips -- You're done with your taxes for another year. Now it's time to get your tax records in order. Some folks, aka hoarders, insist on keeping every last scrap of paper in case an Internal Revenue Service auditor every has questions. But that's not necessarily necessary. The rule of thumb is to hold onto tax papers until the chance of audit passes. Usually, this is three years after filing. But if the IRS suspects you underreported your income by 25 percent or more, it gets six years to check into your tax life. You also should keep tax records related to assets, such as stocks or real property, until you sell them. Records of your retirement contributions also are critical and need to be held at least until you start taking distributions, especially when you have a tax-deferred traditional IRA and claimed a deduction on some of the contributions. IRA statements also help track the tax-deferred earnings that compound year after year. These documents can help you make your case to the IRS when it comes time to pay the tax bill, so hang on to them all for as long as you have the account. The key with any record keeping system is to pick one and stick with it. (May 1, 2013)
- Beware scams when cutting property taxes -- There are plenty of tax breaks for homeowners, but to claim them residential taxpayers must spend money first, such as paying mortgage interest and property taxes. And when it comes to property taxes, most of us would give up some of that tax deduction in exchange for a smaller real estate tax bill. It's not that hard to protest the property value appraisal upon which your local tax bill is based, but some folks opt to get help in the process. If you go that route, make sure the assistance is legitimate. Property tax appraisals are an easy market for con artists. Look out for letters from private companies that look like they are from government agencies; up-front fee demands; and companies that request a certified copy of your property deed. (May 8, 2013)
- Allowable early IRA withdrawals -- You've done a good job saving for your retirement, but sometimes life just happens. And that could mean that you need to pull some money out of your IRA. But because of the tax advantages afforded these accounts, both traditional and Roth accounts, you need to be careful. The good news is that sometimes it's OK to tap your IRA. Two key instances when IRA withdrawals aren't penalized involve using the retirement funds to pay some schooling costs or to buy a first-home. There also are hardship situations where early IRA distributions are allowed. Remember, though, that even if you don't have to pay a 10 percent penalty for taking out your retirement money before you turn 59½, you still could face tax on withdrawal amounts where the tax was deferred. (May 15, 2013)
- Tax breaks when combining business, personal travel -- If you're planning a business trip this summer, consider tacking on a few personal days and let Uncle Sam cover some of your costs. The key to getting travel help from the tax code is to make sure that your main reason for hitting the road (or flying or taking the train) is work. That way those legitimate expenses, including transportation and lodging and some meals, can be deducted. Then when you stay a day or two to see the sights, you only have to cover those costs on your own. Remember to carefully track your trip, detailing the separate business and personal expenses. Good documentation will help you substantiate your legitimate business travel claims just in any IRS auditor questions whether you properly kept business and personal expenses separate. (May 22, 2013)
- Get disaster relief from Uncle Sam -- After a major disaster, special tax treatment could net you added tax refund money for repairs. The key requirement is that your area be designated by the president as a major disaster. When that happens, you get the option to file an amended return for the previous tax year. Such a refiling could get you a larger tax refund and sooner than if you waited until the next filing season. You'll need to total your actual damage costs and run the numbers for both an amended return now or waiting to claim the damage next filing season for the year in which it happened to see which way gives you better disaster-related tax relief. Yes, it's extra work, but if it could get you more money to help with immediate recovery efforts, it's probably worth it. (May 29, 2013)
- Adjust your payroll withholding -- Using your payroll withholding as a forced savings account is easy, but when you let Uncle Sam have your overpaid taxes, that's money you can't touch for months. So if you got a big refund this filing season, you should consider adjusting your payroll withholding amount so that it's closer to your eventual tax bill. The same strategy also holds true if you regularly end up owing the Internal Revenue Service at tax filing time. A withholding recalibration can fix that shortfall and protect you from any possible under-withholding penalty charges. The IRS' online withholding calculator can help you determine the precise amount of income tax you should have taken out of your paychecks. (June 5, 2013)
- Estimated tax time comes around four times a year -- When you have income that's not subject to payroll withholding, you must file estimated taxes. The extra payments made to the Internal Revenue Service via Form 1040-ES are due four times a year: April 15, June 15, Sept. 5 and the next year's Jan. 15. Yes, four extra tax filings -- and payments -- each year are a hassle. But owing a big tax bill in April, as well as interest and penalty charges for underpaying your annual tax liability, is a bigger pain. Estimated taxes are routine for folks with self-employment income, investment earnings or even gambling winnings. You can pay your estimated taxes by snail mailing the IRS a check or money order, or by making electronic payments via credit or debit card, electronic funds withdrawal or the IRS' Electronic Federal Tax Payment System (EFTPS). (June 12, 2013)
- Day camp costs count toward child care tax credit -- If the hot weather hasn't already tipped you off, all the kids roaming the streets make it clear that summer is here. And that is a big problem for a lot of working parents. Thank goodness for day camps. These popular summer programs are win-win-win for kiddos and their parents. Myriad day camps occupy, entertain and, in many cases, educate kids. Mom and dad can head to the office knowing that their youngsters are supervised for most of the work day. And the third win? That comes at tax time when parents can count day camp costs when they total expenses that can be claimed as part of the child and dependent care tax credit. This credit lets taxpayers count up to $3,000 for the care of one kid (or other dependent person) and $6,000 for two or more. Unfortunately, you don't get to use those dollar amounts as your credit claim. Instead, you get to claim a percentage of your dependent care expenses. Just how large a percentage -- a range from 35 percent to 20 percent -- depends on your income. So the maximum child and dependent care credit is $2,100. Yes, that's not much in the grand scheme of child care costs, but it's something. And because it's a tax credit, it reduces your tax bill dollar-for-dollar. So keep track of the day camp costs. They could come in handy at tax filing time. (June 19, 2013)
- Donating a vehicle to charity -- Giving away a clunker to a charity can still provide a nice tax deduction, but the process is not as easy as it once was. Years ago, you simply claimed the old car's fair market value, that is, the amount a willing buyer would pay a willing seller for the product. You make a quick check of an auto valuation service, such as the Kelley Blue Book, to get an idea of the donated car's value, gave it to your favorite nonprofit and then drove off with a tax break equal to that valuation amount. No more. Now the precise tax break depends on the donor's claimed value of the gift and how the charity uses the vehicle. When a donated vehicle has a claimed value of $500 or more, the charity to which it's given will let the donor know what it did with the car (or other motor vehicle) via Form 1098-C. You'll use that info to claim a charitable deduction for the gift on Schedule A. (June 26, 2013)
- Teens, summer jobs and taxes -- Summer jobs are great way for a teenager to develop a work ethic and make some pocket money. The jobs also are a good introduction to taxes. In addition to the shock of how much is withheld -- Hey, who the heck is this FICA guy and why is he getting so much of my money?! -- the young worker might learn more tax lessons at return filing time next year. Generally, the Internal Revenue Service gets its share of all workers' earnings, but there are some special tax rules for young workers. The key considerations are age and the amount of money earned. Typically, a teen who's a dependent on someone else's tax return doesn't have to worry about filing until he or she earns more than the standard deduction amount for a single taxpayer. For the 2013 tax year, that's $6,100. And even if the kid doesn't have to file, it's a good idea to send in a 1040-EZ to get a refund of any withholding the young worker is due. (July 3, 2013)
- Midyear tax moves -- It's summer, the perfect time to make some money-saving tax moves. At the year's halfway mark you have a good idea of what your earnings will be. And there's still plenty of time to take steps that could cut the taxes you'll owe on that money. Some easy moves everyone should consider include adjusting withholding, giving to charity and contributing to a retirement plan. Homeowners should look into energy-efficient improvements to their residences. Higher-income folks need to examine how the new 3.8 percent investment tax might affect them. And if you haven't yet filed your 2012 tax return, do it now. (July 10, 2013)
- Capital gains and your home sale -- What's the best tax break available to Jane and John Q. Public? If they're homeowners, it's selling their house. In addition to the many tax breaks available while you live in your house, when you sell it you can make up to $250,000 in profit -- twice that if you and your spouse are sellers -- and not owe any capital gains tax. Of course, there are some requirements you must meet to get this tax deal. First, the property you're selling must be your principal residence. You also must live in the residence for two of the five years before you sell it. If you have a vacation home, you might be able to convert it to personal use and avoid some taxes. But you'll still owe you'll owe tax on part of the sale money based on how long the house was used as a second, rather than your main, residence. (July 17, 2013)
- Summer 2013 sales tax holidays -- Everybody loves a bargain, especially when it's from the tax collector. Each year, several states offer their shoppers a chance to pick up certain items tax-free for a limited time. This summer, 18 states held these so-called back-to-school sales tax holidays; Massachusetts, as has been the case for the last few years, was late to get in on the action. The tax holidays began in July in Mississippi; the bulk were the first week of August; and Connecticut closed out this year's summer tax-related shopping events. Some denounce sales tax holidays as gimmicks, but shoppers -- and taxpayers -- love them, so expect them to stick around. (July 24, 2013)
- Tax breaks for life's big events -- Getting a job, getting married, having a family, even divorce are big life changers. They also all have tax implications. They started when the doctor slapped your fanny in the delivery room and your parents welcomed a spanking new tax break. In some cases, the involvement of the Internal Revenue Service is not such a good thing. In others, it offers breaks that can save you big bucks. The key is knowing the tax rules and following them. (July 31, 2013)
- Second home tax rental rules -- Your vacation home is a perfect retreat. Too bad you can't spend every day off there. So you rent it out when you're stuck at home. A second home rental can provide some nice pocket money as well as tax breaks, as long as you know, and follow, the tax rules. Track your expenses, as well as your days at the other property. When you split time between personal and rental use, the number of days used for each purpose determines how to divide your costs. Short-term rentals, however, could be tax free, at least at the federal level. (Aug. 7, 2013)
- Tax considerations for the unemployed -- Being unemployed presents a variety of financial considerations, including potential taxes. The bad news is that unemployment compensation is taxable income. Don't try to ignore it at tax filing time; the unemployment office will send you a 1099-G, with a copy going to the Internal Revenue Service. Your lower income, however, might make you eligible to claim the Earned Income Tax Credit, or EITC. You also might be able to write off job-search expenses. And if you decide to start your own business, you get a variety of new tax breaks. (Aug. 14, 2013)
- Writing off home loan refi points -- Did you refinance your mortgage? If you paid points, they could be a valuable tax deduction. Just not all at once. A point is 1 percent of your loan amount and often are paid to get a lower loan rate. When you get a first mortgage, you can deduct the points in the tax year that you paid them. However, on a refi the points must be amortized, that is paid off incrementally over the life of the loan. (Aug. 21, 2013)
- 10 states with highest gas taxes -- If you take a road trip over the Labor Day weekend, you'll pay more for gas if you're traveling in one of these 10 states: California, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, New York, North Carolina and Washington. California tops the list, alphabetically and with the top tax tally (federal and state levies) of 71.9 cents per gallon. Number 10 is Florida, with combined federal and state gas taxes of 53.8 cents per gallon. All states add to the pump price of fuel via state and local taxes and other fees, such as environmental charges, on top of the federal gas excise tax of 18.4 cents per gallon. The second quarter analysis of gas taxes nationwide by the American Petroleum Institute found that the national average of combined federal and state taxes is 49.4 cents per gallon. Nineteen states have federal, state and local taxes and fees that are greater than that average. (Aug. 28, 2013)
- Job hunting could help cut taxes -- Did you spend part of the Labor Day weekend looking for a job? Your expenses might be tax-deductible. Among the deductible costs are employment agency fees, resume services and travel expenses. To claim your eligible job hunting expenses, you must meet three key requirements. First, you must itemize rather than claim the standard deduction. Second, your job search costs are part of the miscellaneous deductions on your Schedule A. This means that those expenses and other allowable expenditures must be more than 2 percent of your adjusted gross income. Third, you must be looking for a job in the same field as the one you have or most recently held. (Sept. 4, 2013)
- Take advantage of education tax breaks -- School's back! So are the expenses. But your favorite relative, Uncle Sam, might be able to help. There are many tax breaks that can help students -- and their parents -- cover education costs. The choices include 529 and Coverdell savings plans, a couple of education tax credits (American Opportunity and Lifetime Learning) and the above-the-line deduction for tuition and fees. Do your homework. A good grade on these educational tax benefits could make a big difference. (Sept. 11, 2013)
- Same-sex marriage and state taxes -- Monday, Sept. 16, marked the day that same-sex married couples began filing their federal tax returns the same way as heterosexual married couples. Many had received filing extensions this tax season in anticipation of the change, which comes thanks to the Supreme Court invalidation of the Defense of Marriage Act definition of marriage. Federal tax filing is now easier for these gay and lesbian married couples thanks to the Internal Revenue Service decision to recognize same-sex marriages regardless of where they live. But now many of these couples are waiting on word from their state tax departments on how to file those state and local tax returns. Most tax watchers expect them to continue to face twice the tax work, but now it will be one federal joint return and two single state tax returns. (Sept. 18, 2013)
- Schedule C vs. C-EZ -- Sole proprietors have a choice of which business tax return to file with their Form 1040. In some cases, these small business filers can use the less complicated Schedule C-EZ, "Net Profit from Business," instead of the longer, more detailed Schedule C, "Profit or Loss from Business." As the names indicate, if you have a loss, which can offset your ordinary income on your Form 1040, you'll have to file the C. The choice also depends on the dollar amount and types of business expenses you can claim. It's always tempting to use the easiest form, but take a good look at your business' tax situation. You never want to trade tax savings for ease. And remember, regardless of whether you file C or C-EZ, you'll also have to submit Schedule SE to account for your self-employment taxes. (Sept. 25, 2013)
- 10 overlooked tax breaks -- Are you still working on your extended 2012 tax return that's due Oct. 15? Remember, just because much of the federal government, including the Internal Revenue Service, is shut down, tax laws are still in effect. That means the IRS expects all taxpayers who haven't yet finished their tax filing taxes this year to do so by the upcoming extension due date. But don't get in such a hurry as Oct. 15 nears that you cheat yourself out of tax saving. Check out these 10 overlooked tax breaks -- some of which are for itemizers only, others that any filer can claim -- and be sure to take all you can. (Oct. 2, 2013)
- 10 common tax mistakes -- Still working on your extended 2012 tax return that's due Oct. 15 even if the federal government is still shut down? Don't get in such a hurry as the deadline nears that you make mistakes on your Form 1040. They could cost you, in lost refund money (yes, some filing procrastinators are due tax money back from Uncle Sam) or a bigger tax bill. Math mistakes are the most common, but also make sure you include all your income. Remember, the Internal Revenue Service gets copies of your W-2s and 1099s, but you also should add in other earnings even if you didn't get official paperwork reporting the money. And double check all entries, especially Social Security numbers and your bank account if you're asking for a refund direct deposit. (Oct. 9, 2013)
- Writing off worthless stock -- The stock market weathered the recent government shutdown and near debt ceiling breach, but you never know when stocks might tumble. But even when the market's moving up, you might have an asset that's no longer worth anything. In that case, you might be able to get a little use of it by claiming it as a tax loss. When the stock is totally worthless, and that means no dollar value and no hope of it recovering, treat it on your tax return as if it were a capital asset you sold for zero dollars on the last day of the tax year. Your worthless stock losses, either short-term or long-term, can offset capital gains dollar for dollar. Any excess capital losses can be used to reduce ordinary income, up to $3,000 per tax year. (Oct. 16, 2013)
- FSAs can save you tax dollars -- Does your company offer flexible spending accounts? If so, check it out during open enrollment season. This workplace benefit can be a tax saver. There are two types of accounts, usually referred to as FSAs, medical and child care. In each, you put away money before your income and payroll taxes are calculated. You then can use this untaxed money to pay for qualified medical and child care expenses. The only downside is that if you don't spend up your account by the end of your benefit year, you'll lose the money. Some companies offer a grace period until March 15 to use last year's money. And now a workplace can decide to let you roll over up to $500 of your unused medical FSA money. But both the grace period and the rollover option are at the discretion of your boss. So consider opening an FSA, but just be sure you come up with a good estimate of how much money you should contribute. (Oct. 23, 2013)
- 6 scary tax terrors and how to conquer them -- What's scarier than a Halloween monster? These six tax terrors. The include fear of doing your taxes yourself and being afraid that your tax preparer might be unscrupulous. Then there's the terrifying thoughts that you made a mistake or missed some tax breaks. And we can't miss worrying about being able to pay your tax bill and the biggie: being audited. But you can beat them. Check out the tip to find out how. (Oct. 30, 2013)
- Employee vs. contractor tax differences -- Looking for a seasonal job to bolster your holiday bank account? Be careful about your employment status. If you are classified as an independent contractor instead of an employee, you could face some tax troubles at filing time. As a contractor you have specific tax responsibilities. You must pay your income taxes via estimated tax filings, as well as your self-employment taxes. If you neglect these tax duties, you'll find yourself in a big hole at tax filing time. (Nov. 6, 2013)
- 8 costly tax breaks -- Congress is working on a new fiscal budget. Some lawmakers (and taxpayers) want tax reform to be part of the plan. But the big problem is dealing with the cost of popular tax breaks. Things such as the mortgage interest tax deduction, lower capital gains tax rates and the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) will cost Uncle Sam up to $3.7 trillion through fiscal year 2017. Will Representatives and Senators have the political courage to make hard tax break calls? Not likely with an election year on the horizon. (Nov. 13, 2013)
- Capital losses can help cut your tax bill -- Portfolios get lots of attention every year as Dec. 31 nears. The reason? There are are several year-end investment tax moves you can make that will affect -- and cut -- your coming tax bill. One of the most popular is harvesting tax losses. Here you sell assets that have lost value to offset any capital gains you might have incurred during the year. If you have no capital gains, you can use up to $3,000 of your losses to reduce your ordinary income. (Nov. 20, 2013)
- 10 tax moves to make by Dec. 31 -- Everyone knows the big day for taxes is April 15. But to ensure that your tax bill is as low as possible then, you need to make some moves by Dec. 31. High earners who could face a top 39.6 percent ordinary income tax rate, along with a 20 percent rate on capital gains and an added 3.8 percent on investment income need to look at ways to defer income. Everyone with a 401(k) should add to that company-sponsored retirement plan. And if your home needs some winterizing, get the work done before the year ends and you might be able to claim a home energy efficiency tax credit of up to $500. Other tax moves to look into before year's end include reviewing ways to spend your medical flexible saving account (FSA), harvesting tax losses, bunching deductible expenses, maximizing the sales tax deduction, being generous, paying college costs early and adjusting your withholding. (Nov. 27, 2013)
- Use, don't lose, your FSA money -- Do you still have money in your medical flexible saving account? Don't waste it. If your workplace benefits year ends on Dec. 31 and your employer doesn't offer you the Internal Revenue Service allowable grace period (until next March 15) or the new FSA rollover option, you need to spend all your medical account money or you'll lose it. Here are some things to put on your FSA shopping list: new prescription eyeglasses or contact lens, dental work, acupuncture and chiropractor treatments and refills of your prescription drugs and over-the-counter meds as long as you get an Rx from your doctor. Your FSA administrator should have a complete list of items for which you can be reimbursed with account funds. Most of them are based on the list of deductible medical expenses, which begins on page 5 of IRS Publication 502. Also check with your local pharmacy or its website; these retailers usually tout FSA-eligible items this time of year. Happy medical shopping! (Dec. 4, 2013)
- Home-related December tax moves -- Pay your January mortgage by Dec. 31, as well as your property taxes, and you have extra itemized deductions for tax return next year. A word -- actually, three words -- of warning about accelerating some tax payments: alternative minimum tax. This parallel tax system, known as the AMT, was devised in 1969 to guarantee that wealthy filers paid their fair share to the IRS. Under the AMT, some usually acceptable tax breaks aren't allowed. Mortgage interest on your main and second home is still AMT-deductible, but real estate and personal property taxes aren't deductible under the AMT. So run the numbers. And if paying these home-related items will cut your tax bill, write the checks by Dec. 31. (Dec. 11, 2013)
- Popular tax breaks ending Dec. 31 -- Do you deduct state sale taxes on your Schedule A? How about itemizing your private mortgage insurance (PMI) payments? Or claiming the tuition and fees above-the-line deduction direct on Form 1040 or 1040A? Enjoy them on your 2013 tax return filing. They and more than 50 other tax provisions expire at the end of the year and might not be reinstated. These are known as the extenders. They're technically temporary tax provisions that Congress has repeatedly renewed, or extended into future tax years. Most of these tax breaks are expected to be renewed retroactively when the next session of Congress convenes in 2014. But as lawmakers look to save federal money, some of the extenders could be left for dead. (Dec. 18, 2013)
- Charitable donation tax rules -- Donations to a charity can help lower your tax bill if you know and follow the Internal Revenue Service rules. The key donation tax deduction requirement is that instead of taking the standard deduction, you must itemize. If you don't file a Schedule A with your Form 1040, then your donation will help your charity, but it won't do you any tax good. If you can claim a charitable tax deduction, make sure you donate in time. You must give your cash (which, under Internal Revenue Service rules, includes checks and credit card donations), by Dec. 31 of the tax year in which you want to claim your charitable contribution. Make sure the charities to which you give are qualified; that is, they meet IRS standards. Use the IRS online charity search tool to make sure your favorite nonprofit makes the cut. And be sure to get a receipt for your donation, regardless of how large or small. In most cases you don't need to send the documentation to the IRS when you claim your charitable deduction, but if you're every audited and don't have documentation, the IRS can automatically disallow your deduction. (Dec. 25, 2013)
- The tax joys of parenthood -- Do your New Year's resolutions include adding to your family? Congratulations! Having a baby brings much joy, along with many costs, even more challenges and several child-related tax breaks. They include an added dependent exemption, help with child care (even in the summer), a possible change in filing status and a variety of education-related tax deductions and credits. You might even be able to shift some of your higher-taxed income to your youngster, either as a straight gift or as salary if you hire your kid to do legitimate work for the business you own. (Jan. 1, 2014)
And when the 2014 tax filing season arrives in full force, the Daily Tax Tip will resume.