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Ignore these 2016 tax lessons at your peril

  • If you want to save on taxes for the rest of the year, act now
  • Your 2016 filing is the key to proactive planning for 2017

Whether you got a giant refund or a big bill from the IRS this season, now is prime time to save on taxes for the remainder of the year.

Man collecting mail from mailbox
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It's tempting to put away your completed tax forms once you get them back from your accountant, but if you take a moment to review your results, you'll find plenty of tax planning opportunities.

"It's right in front of you, especially for people who owe money," said Barry C. Picker, co-founder of Picker & Auerbach CPAs in Brooklyn, New York.

"You're looking for ways to avoid that, but the answer is that you need to sit down and do your tax planning this time of year and not in December."

Revisit your withholding

Do you owe the IRS money, or did you get back a gigantic refund?

The answer is likely based on your withholding for income taxes at work. Look at your W-4.

Close to 60 percent of taxpayers have no idea what a W-4 is, according to a NerdWallet quiz of 2,223 adults in January.

Here's a hint: It's a document you fill out so that your employer knows how much federal income tax to withhold from your paycheck.

Your input on this form helps determine whether you end up with a refund or a tax bill at the end of filing season.

"You should always look at your W-4 during open enrollment because you'll have the complete attention of your HR department," said Cari Weston, director of tax practice and ethics at the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants.

"Do it after you file your return," she said. "If you find yourself saying, 'Wow, I got way too much money back' or 'How will I pay this tax bill?' then it's a good time to revisit."

Max out your 401(k)

Picker points out that filers miss out on the win-win of increasing their savings in a workplace retirement plan. The maximum you can contribute in 2017 is $18,000, plus $6,000 if you're 50 and over.

Wages you contribute to your retirement plan are not counted in your taxable income, which can lighten your tax load.

Businesswoman putting money into 401K jar at desk
Jamie Grill | Getty Images

Filers sometimes shy away from large contributions because they need those salary dollars. However, if you have other sources of income that are available — interest and dividends, for instance — you may want to sock away more in your retirement plan.

"You're rethinking your cash flow in order to get more money into the 401(k)," Picker said.

Plan for 2017's deductions

Were you scrambling for receipts to cover your itemized deductions this season? If you prepare now, you can avoid the panic next year.

For charitable deductions, employee expenses and business-related costs, try to keep a diary of these expenditures as they take place, said Picker.

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You can also do this electronically, too.

Apps like Shoeboxed and Expensify track your business expenses, while ItsDeductible tracks your charitable donations throughout the year.

Give intelligently

Separately, if you're charitably inclined and you happen to be retired, review the required minimum distributions out of your IRA for 2016.

A woman(R) makes a donation into a Salvation Army kettle outside a Giant grocery store in Clifton, Virgina.
Paul J. Richards | AFP | Getty Images
A woman(R) makes a donation into a Salvation Army kettle outside a Giant grocery store in Clifton, Virgina.

"A lot of retirees are taking required minimum distributions, but they don't know about the qualified charitable distribution, where you can satisfy charitable goals by using your IRA," said Gavin Morrissey, managing partner at Financial Strategy Associates in Needham, Massachusetts.

In this strategy, money coming out of your IRA to meet the required minimum distribution will go directly to a qualified charity instead.

The benefit is twofold: You support your charitable cause and the distribution doesn't inflate your adjusted gross income.

Think about this now, rather than pushing it back until December.

"This is a good time to take another look and see what we can do differently next year," Morrissey said.

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