Tax-filing season may be over, but there's still work to be done for those who hope to lessen their liability for 2014. Opportunities abound between now and Dec. 31 to maximize deductions, capture credits and offset taxable income.
"Professional sports coaches always say that planning for next year starts the day after they win the championship game," said Michael Velazquez, a certified public accountant with U.S. Wealth of California. "It's the same with tax planning. The best time to plan is when the numbers are still fresh in your mind—when you remember what you wish you would have done earlier, better or differently."
There's no time like the present, he said, to put tax-planning strategies into play. Here are five ways to lower your tax liability next year.
1. Fund your retirement
One of the best ways to lower your tax bite—and simultaneously ensure a comfortable retirement—is to maximize contributions to your 401(k) or traditional IRA. Both are funded with pretax dollars, meaning the amount you put in is taken out of your income before your taxes are calculated.
The tax-deferral limit for 401(k)s in 2014 is $17,500, but those 50 or older can make an additional $5,500 catch-up contribution.
Current-year contributions, however, must be made by Dec. 31, so it's important to determine now how much you'll need to contribute monthly to meet your savings goal.
If you can't afford to max out your plan, you should at least contribute enough to collect the employer match and resolve to apply any upcoming bonuses or raises toward your plan.
The traditional IRA contribution limit in 2014 is $5,500, or $6,500 for those 50 and older, but current-year contributions can be made all the way up to next year's filing deadline.
2. Opt for HSAs and FSAs
Health savings accounts (HSA) and flexible spending arrangements (FSA) may also save you some bucks, assuming you are eligible, said Velazquez.
Contributions to your HSA are deductible even if you don't itemize your deductions, and any additional contributions made by your employer may be excluded from your gross income as well. Unused amounts can be carried forward for use in future years, and the interest or other earnings on assets in the account grow tax-free. Distributions are also tax-free if used to pay for qualified medical expenses, including surgery and prescriptions.
The maximum HSA contribution in 2014 is $3,300; for families it is $6,550.
To be eligible for an HSA, however, you must be covered by a high-deductible health plan (HDHP) and have no other health coverage. In addition, you cannot be enrolled in Medicare or be claimed as a dependent on anyone else's tax return.
Similarly, a health flexible spending arrangement (FSA) allows you to pay for medical bills, with pretax money, which reduces your gross income.
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FSAs are funded through voluntary salary-reduction agreements with your employer. No employment or federal income taxes are deducted from your contribution. Contributions made by your employer can also be excluded from your gross income. As with the HSA, withdrawals may be tax-free if used to pay for qualified medical expenses.
The contribution limit for FSAs is $2,500, but the IRS changed the "use it or lose it" rule last year, allowing account holders to carry over up to $500 of unused money in their account toward future years. In prior years, you would lose any money in the account not used by Dec. 31.
"One of the things that makes the HSA more desirable in the last year is that the threshold for itemized deductions of medical expenses is now 10 percent of adjusted gross income, up from 7.5 percent," said Velazquez.
Be aware, however, that any distributions from an HSA not used for qualified medical expenses are treated as taxable income and subject to a 20 percent penalty.
3. Boost charitable deductions
You can also reduce your taxable income by putting your charitable aspirations to work.
John Napolitano, a certified financial planner, public accountant and chairman of U.S. Wealth Management in Braintree, Mass., suggests donating appreciated property that qualifies for capital gains treatment (stocks, real estate, antiques and artwork) to charity to avoid the gain on the sale.
Such strategy yields double the benefit, because the charity receives the fair market value of your donation, and the donor gets to deduct that amount from their federal income tax.
Velazquez agrees that charitable donations can deliver a valuable tax break, noting that one of his clients last year decided to sell a second home and planned to contribute a significant sum from the sale to their son's nonprofit organization.
"They were going to get clobbered in taxes, so we worked with an attorney to guide them into setting up a charitable remainder trust," he said.
4. Reevaluate your investment allocation
Investors should also look to their portfolio for opportunities to reduce their taxable gains.
Municipal bonds, for example, which are debt securities issued by a state or local government, are exempt from federal taxes and from most state and local taxes, while master limited partnerships (MLPs), which invest in domestic energy production companies, also deliver benefits, since distributions to investors are treated as a "return of capital" rather than taxable income.
But Velazquez stressed that investment decisions should never be dictated by tax implications. Your portfolio picks and allocation must match your time horizon, risk tolerance and return objectives.
Long-term bonds are vulnerable now, he added, with interest rates threatening to rise, so those who opt for muni bonds should stick to short-term offerings. "Any security you buy should fit within your investment profile and pass the suitability test," he said.
Mark Luscombe, principal federal tax analyst for tax services firm CCH in Riverwoods, Ill., noted asset location—not just allocation—can also impact after-tax gains.
Generally, investments that produce higher taxable income (like actively managed mutual funds, corporate bonds and real estate investment trusts) are best held in tax-deferred accounts, like traditional IRAs.
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Investments that kick off less income and earnings (like index funds, dividend stocks and tax-favored municipal bonds) should be held in taxable brokerage accounts.
"Look at your 1099s," said Luscombe. "Were some of your dividends nonqualified and not eligible for the lower capital-gain rate? Maybe those investments would be better held in tax-deferred retirement accounts."
Retirees should also look to their IRA. If required minimum distributions (RMDs) are driving up your taxable income, said Napolitano, consider making Roth conversions to minimize future RMDs.
5. Claim those credits
Finally, never leave tax credits on the table for which you are eligible. Tax credits are more valuable than deductions, because they reduce your income tax dollar for dollar.
A number of credits exist for energy-efficient purchases, including plug-in electric cars and home appliances. "If you need any home improvements, consider making green improvements," said Napolitano.
If you paid someone to care for your child, spouse or dependent last year so that you could work or look for work, you may also be eligible for the Child and Dependent Care Credit for up to 35 percent of qualifying expenses.
Depending on your adjusted gross income, you can claim up to $3,000 for the care of one person and $6,000 for two or more.
There are also credits to help offset the cost of higher education, depending on your income.