Personal Finance

Year-end tax moves you could easily overlook

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It's easy to get caught up in the holiday hype, but don't forget about Uncle Sam.

As the end of the year approaches, now is the time to make some tax moves that could lower your bill or increase the refund on your return come next April.

From making an early mortgage payment to paying next year's tuition today, click ahead for some often overlooked deductions and credits to take now before New Year's.

Go back to school

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It pays to get an education, at least according to the government. Families with children starting college, graduate school or even enrolling in a single class can prepay their tuition before the New Year to get the tax benefit in 2016, according to Lisa Greene-Lewis, a CPA and tax expert at TurboTax.

There's the American Opportunity Tax Credit of up to $2,500, the Lifetime Learning Credit of up to $2,000 and the tuition and fees education tax deduction of up to $4,000 (as long as your income is below a certain threshold).

Buy yourself some spectacles

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Santa may have left you some tax-free treats under the tree. Check what's left in your flex spending account and health savings accounts so you can spend that money before the end of the year. Those are tax-free dollars that you can put toward new glasses, filling prescriptions or dental care that isn't covered by insurance, like a replacing a filling, said Kathy Pickering, executive director of The Tax Institute at H&R Block.

And while you are looking at your medical expenses, add them up, Pickering said. You may have incurred enough to hit the medical expense threshold (which is 10 percent of your adjusted gross income if you are under 65), and in that case, you can deduct everything you spent over that figure — but you can't double dip. In other words, you cannot claim a tax deduction for medical and dental expenses you paid with funds from your flex spending account and health savings accounts.

Contribute to your retirement

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Most folks also make their retirement contributions around now, and much of what you put toward your nest egg is a tax savings too. "If you contribute to your 401(k), you lower your taxable income," said TurboTax's Greene-Lewis.

If you are 18 or older, you can contribute up to $18,000, and if you are over 50 you can contribute an additional $6,000 for a total of $24,000. With IRAs you can contribute $5,500, and if you are over 50 there's an additional $1,000.

Those who are self-employed can make tax-deductible contributions to a Simplified Employee Pension account, or SEP IRA. Those savers can contribute up to 25 percent of their net earnings for a maximum contribution of $53,000 this year.

Then there is the Saver's Credit, which can also be taken for contributions to a 401(k), traditional, Roth IRA or SEP, of up to $2,000 (or $4,000 if married and filing jointly), depending on your income. In this case, you can double dip, according to Greene-Lewis. That's what's called a "double benefit."

Make a mortgage payment

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You may not be thinking of January expenses before Thanksgiving, but "consider paying your mortgage payment early and get the deduction now, and incur the present value of the tax savings," said Scott Slabotsky, lead managing director at CBIZ in Kansas City, Missouri.

For example, if you have a mortgage on your house or condo and there's a payment due on Jan. 1, pay it a few days earlier — say, Dec. 28 instead — and you can take the interest expense as a deduction in 2016 (the year in which it's paid), Slabotsky said. Depending on your tax bracket, that could mean a 25 percent to 40 percent tax savings come April.

Picking up these types of deductions and credits are what Slabotsky calls "low hanging fruit."