Tax planning: How to keep more of what you earn

Part of our build your own financial plan series

Photo of a man and a woman plugging in their electric vehicle.

Last month, you looked at your budget to find money you can to put toward goals you’ve set. Chances are, you need a few more ways to “find” money for those goals. That’s why tax planning for 2019 should be part of your financial plan.

A little tax planning now can go a long way toward helping you keep more of your money next year.

You can use our tax planning worksheet (PDF) to think through potential savings from tax credits and deductions. (And log the potential savings.)

Of course, every person’s situation is different and tax rules and laws can change in the blink of an eye. So it’s always good to consult a tax professional.

Here are a few things to consider doing in 2019 to help put a (bigger) smile on your face when you do your tax return in 2020.

Increase contributions to retirement accounts.

Any 401(k) or 403(b) contributions taken from your paycheck on a pre-tax basis reduce your taxable income. Dollar for dollar.

For example, if you make $50,000 and have $100 taken out of 26 paychecks in 2019, that’s $2,600. So your adjusted gross income (AGI) is $47,400. That may save around $312 in taxes for a married couple, depending on your tax bracket.

What’s the difference between a deduction and a credit?

A tax deduction reduces the amount of income your taxes are based on.

For example, if your taxable income is $50,000, a $2,000 deduction reduces it to $48,000. So, you pay taxes on a $48,000 income instead of $50,000. Your actual “savings” is a fraction of the $2,000 deduction.

A tax credit reduces the total amount of income tax you owe.

If you owe $10,000 in federal income tax, a $2,000 credit reduces the amount you owe to $8,000. With a credit, your actual savings is $2,000.

More about retirement accounts

Things to remember about your 401(k) or 403(b) plan:

  • You’ll pay taxes on that pre-tax money someday (darn) … when you withdraw funds in retirement.
  • The max you can contribute to most 401(k) or 403(b) plans increased to $19,000 in 2019.1 (Some have a lower limit, so check into your plan’s details.)
  • If you’re self-employed or have a business, your version of a 401(k) is a SEP or Simple IRA.

Contributions to a traditional IRA are also made on a pre-tax basis (for those eligible to deduct their contribution) and therefore lower your AGI, similar to 401(k) contributions. Whether or not you can take a tax deduction depends on how much you make and if you have access to a retirement plan at work. In 2019, the max you can contribute to an IRA increased to $6,000.1 Learn more about IRAs.

About catch-up contributions: If you’re age 50 or older, still working and your plan allows, you can contribute an additional $6,000 to a 401(k) or 403(b) plan, or $1,000 to an IRA beyond the standard limits.1 It’s another way to lower your AGI.

If you’re wondering about a Roth IRA, it’s a different animal. With a Roth, you pay taxes now, but enjoy tax-free withdrawals later.* Take this quiz (PDF) to help you decide if a Roth IRA could be right for you.

Take advantage of a Flexible Spending Account (FSA).

If an FSA is available through your employer, every dollar you put in for dependent care expenses and/or medical expenses lowers your taxable income. The money comes out of your paycheck on a pre-tax basis. Then you submit expenses for reimbursement as they occur.

There’s a max you can set-aside, of course—$5,000 for dependent care, and $2,500 for health care. If you have enough qualified expenses for both, you could reduce your taxable income by $7,500. This could save you $900 in federal taxes.

If an FSA is not available to you, consider looking at the Dependent and Child Care Tax Credit instead. (Some restrictions apply, so consult your tax professional.)

Tip: Why lower your taxable income? Less income. Lower taxes. And that can mean more money in your pocket.

More scoop about FSAs

So when you elect benefits at your employer, consider whether an FSA makes sense for you. Plan carefully how much you put into an FSA. What you don’t use, you’ll likely lose … it generally doesn’t carry over to the next year. And be sure to look at what is and isn’t eligible for reimbursement. You might be surprised by what’s on the list.

“People say they can’t take money out of their paychecks for an FSA. But it’s for expenses they expect to have anyway,” says Brandy Lamp, a senior financial consultant for Principal®. “Setting aside money from each paycheck spreads out the costs. And because it lowers your taxable income, it’s designed for saving money.”

Contribute to your Health Savings Accounts (HSAs).

This is another one tied to your employee benefits at work. If a high deductible health plan (HDHP) is offered and you choose it for your medical coverage, you can contribute to an HSA to save for out-of-pocket medical expenses not covered by your plan. There are lots of rules around HSAs, so visit the IRS website to learn more.

Review your withholdings.

Check to see if you have too much, too little, or just the right amount taken from your paycheck for federal and state taxes. This can get a little tricky and confusing.

If you have too much withheld from your paycheck, you may end up with a bigger tax refund.

  • According to the IRS, the average refund tops $2,800. That’s around $233 a month. Would you rather have that money under your control, making interest in your accounts? Could you funnel the dollars toward one of the goals you’ve set?
  • If you have trouble saving money throughout the year, maybe you use the extra withholdings as your savings plan … and then pay down debt or fund your goals when you get your refund?

If you have too little withheld from your paycheck, you may end up owing more in taxes.

  • That can be an extra “ouch” at tax time.
  • Depending on the amount, Uncle Sam may charge you a penalty for underpayment. Double ouch.

Use the tax withholding calculator on the IRS site so you know where you stand, withholding-wise. It only takes a few minutes.

Buy a home.

If becoming a homeowner is one of your goals for 2019, you may be able to reduce your taxable income if you itemize deductions for mortgage interest and possibly a portion of the property taxes.

But … the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2018 may mean you take the standard deduction for your tax filing status versus itemizing deductions. Homebuying brings its own set of financial advantages and disadvantages outside of tax planning. Consult a tax professional to see if it adds any advantages when developing your tax plan.

Tip: Under tax reform, the standard deduction for each filing status increased significantly in 2018. But if your total itemized deductions are more than the standard deduction, you can still claim deductible expenses on your tax return. Calculate it both ways and do what works in your favor.

Make energy efficient improvements to your home.

There’s a federal tax credit for part of the cost of making qualified energy efficient home improvements. With the residential energy efficient property credit, homeowners can claim 30% of the cost of alternative energy equipment (including installation). Solar hot water heaters, solar electric equipment, wind turbines, and fuel cell property are examples of eligible equipment.

If you plan to make such improvements in 2019, hang onto your receipts. You can learn more about energy tax credits on the IRS site.

Consider adding money to a 529 college savings account.

A 529 plan is a tax-advantaged way to save for education-related expenses. You contribute with after-tax dollars, but earnings are tax-deferred while invested.

More than 30 states plus the District of Columbia offer state income tax deductions or credits for contributions to a 529 college savings plan. Tax benefits differ by state and how much you contribute to a 529 plan during a tax year. Learn more about Tax Benefits for Education (PDF) from the IRS.

Buy a car (not just any car though).

A plug-in electric vehicle, that is. The amount of this tax credit depends on the size of the vehicle and its battery capacity, up to a max of $7,500.

The credit is available until 200,000 qualified electric vehicles have been sold in the U.S. by each manufacturer. To check the status of that and learn more about tax credit amounts for specific cars, visit fueleconomy.gov’s pages about electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids.

Keep an eye on your investment portfolio.

If you have mutual funds and stocks, keep an eye on their performance during 2019. Selling some securities at a loss by year-end to offset capital gains may help reduce your taxes for 2019. It’s called “tax loss harvesting.”

But honestly, it’s complicated. Consult a financial advisor for guidance on this tactic.

Have a baby.

Oh, we’re just kidding! But have you heard of the Child Tax Credit? It’s a real thing that can decrease your tax bill.

If you add to your family in 2019, it’s worth $2,000 per child under the age of 17 … subject to a few income limitations and rules, of course. (Just call the kids “little tax credits.”)

Next steps

1 IRS annual limits for 2018 and 2019.

* Your account must be open for 5 years and you must be over age 59½ to be eligible for qualified tax-free withdrawals.

Investing involves risk, including possible loss of principal. Asset allocation and diversification do not ensure a profit or protect against a loss.

The subject matter in this communication is educational only and provided with the understanding that Principal® is not rendering legal, accounting, or tax advice. You should consult with appropriate counsel or other advisors on all matters pertaining to legal, tax, or accounting obligations and requirements.

Insurance products and plan administrative services are provided by Principal Life Insurance Company. Principal Funds, Inc. is distributed by Principal Funds Distributor, Inc. Securities are offered through Principal Securities, Inc., 800-547-7754, member SIPC. Principal Funds Distributor, Principal Securities and Principal Life are members of the Principal Financial Group®, Des Moines, Iowa, 50392.