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Ten year-end financial moves to make now

The end of the year is a perfect time to set yourself up for success. Follow this checklist of financial items to accomplish before January.

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    Marchers make their way down Boylston Street during a parade as part of New Year's Eve celebrations in Boston, Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2013.
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Like Yogi Berra famously said, "It ain't over, 'til it's over!" Although there are just a few weeks left in 2015, there's still time to set yourself up for success in 2016. From minimizing your tax bill to maximizing your retirement account contribution, there are a number of steps you can take now to strengthen your financial position for the coming year. The key is to do all of it before you get crazy busy with carving turkey, wrapping presents, or sipping eggnog.

Let's close 2015 strong — and start 2016 with a bang — by making these 10 year-end financial moves before the holidays.

1. Adjust Your Tax Withholding

Nearly eight out 10 Americans get tax refunds, averaging close to $2,800. And middle-income individuals making between $25,000 to $50,000 per year have a mean refund of $2,618. That means that people in this income bracket have to get by without an estimated 5.24% to 10.47% of their income for a whole year!

Recommended: Fifteen best entry-level jobs of 2015

Use the IRS Withholding Calculator to figure out if you have already withheld any taxes for the year. If you have withheld enough for the rest of the year, then adjust your withholding allowance downward using IRS Form W-4. Remember that the IRS pays you no interest on your current refund — that's money that could've been earning you interest elsewhere.

2. Prepare for a Year-End Bonus

Financial success is 80% preparation and 20% implementation. A year-end bonus or commission check is a great opportunity to pay down high-interest debt or build (or beef up!) an emergency fund. Plan now how you'll use that bonus in order to avoid spending it frivolously. (See also: 6 Smart Things to Do With Your Bonus)

Like Warren Buffett suggests, "If you buy things you don't need, soon you'll have to sell things you need." Have a plan for your year-end bonus.

3. Maximize Your Retirement Contributions

Here are the contribution limits in 2015 for some of the most common retirement accounts:

  • Traditional and Roth IRAs: $5,500 ($6,500 if you're age 50 or older);
     
  • SEP-IRA: lesser of 25% of compensation, or $53,000;
     
  • Traditional and safe harbor 401K plans: $18,000 ($24,000 if you're age 50 or older);
     
  • SIMPLE 401K plans: $12,500 ($15,500 if you're age 50 or older);
  • Solo 401K plans: $53,000 (not counting catch-up contributions for those age 50 or older).

If you haven't hit those contribution limits, there's still time to adjust your retirement contributions. Your employer may also establish a new retirement account for you by April 15th of the next year.

4. Rebalance Your Investment or Retirement Account

The natural ups and downs of the market may have caused the investment mix of your portfolio to shift a bit (or a lot!). For example, a big drop in the price of your mutual funds can lower your target of 90% in stocks to 80%. Take the time to review your the current mix of your accounts and shift money around to rebalance your portfolio holdings.

Before making any moves, watch out for any potential sneaky investment fees and sneaky 401K fees.

5. Make Charitable Contributions

Take these steps to lower your tax bill with charitable contributions:

  • Make a cash, check, or other monetary gift contribution to your favorite exempt organization (check the eligibility of the organization).
     
  • Clean out your closet, attic, garage, or storage by donating items that qualified organizations need. You can deduct the fair market value of any property you donate, but you need to keep a receipt from the exempt organization for contributions of $250 or more.
     
  • Fill out Form 8283, Noncash Charitable Contributions, and attach it to your tax return when your noncash contribution is more than $500.
     
  • Complete Section A of Form 8283 for noncash contributions with a fair market value less than $5,000, and Section B for noncash contributions larger than $5,000 (a qualified appraisal of the noncash property is required).
     
  • Consult Publication 561 to determine the fair market value of the property that you donate.

6. Take Your Required Minimum Distribution

If you're over 70½ years of age or have set up a required minimum distribution (RMD) schedule, you have to take your RMD from your 401K or IRA before December 31st. However, if you just turned age 70½ in 2015, you have until April 1st, 2016 to take your RMD.

Even when you have an IRA custodian or retirement plan administrator, it's a good idea to double check if you've met the RMD threshold, because you're ultimately responsible for calculating the amount of the RMD. To find out more, consult the Retirement Plan and IRA Required Minimum Distributions FAQs section of the IRS site.

7. Check for Open Enrollment Season From Your Employer

During the last quarter of the year, your employer announces open enrollment season for benefits. This is your chance to review all of your benefit options and make changes for 2016.

For example, given the Supreme Court's decision earlier this year to recognize same-sex marriage across the U.S., some carriers are amending their plans to exclude same-sex domestic partners' children from coverage eligibility (they'll now only cover legally married couples and their children). Another example is that your employer may have additional requirements to verify eligibility of your dependents.

Remember that after open enrollment ends, you can't make changes to your 2016 coverage without a qualified change, such as marriage or the birth of your child. Now is the time to act!

8. Update Your Passwords and PINs

There are two main reasons to update your passwords and PINs.

First, given that President Obama set an October 2015 deadline for U.S. businesses to comply with implementation of chip technology, financial institutions are rushing to mail out new debit and credit cards. This is a good opportunity to update your card's PIN, especially if you haven't done so in several years, or are planning to travel abroad. Remember that current implementation of chip cards is "dip-and-sign" in the U.S., while it's "dip-and-PIN" everywhere else. (See also: 4 Ways Chip Credit Cards Make Life Easier)

Second, updating your password is the single most important of the critical steps to protect your data in the cloud or anywhere else online. Weak passwords are among the top reasons why important data, online subscriptions, or bank funds are stolen by malicious hackers. The best practice is to build at least an eight-digit password that is a combination of numbers, uppercase and lowercase letters, and symbols (e.g. #, $, and %).

9. Use Up Flexible Spending Accounts

Check for any leftover balances in your flexible spending account (FSA), as well as their usage deadlines. With the exception of the $500 carry-over option, most FSA plans require you to use up any funds before December 31st, 2015.

If you need an extra pair of eyeglasses, a much-needed hearing test, or a chiropractic session, do it before you run out of time. Once the chance to do so is gone, it's gone! (See also: 8 Ways to Spend Your Last-Minute Health Care FSA Funds)

10. Book Your Holiday Airline Ticket

With the December holidays coming up and potential travel plans early in 2016 (spring break, anyone?), it's a good idea to purchase your flight in advance.

According to data from Expedia, the average ticket price of a domestic flight skyrockets when purchasing it fewer than 25 days away from departure date. The same report recommends booking your international flight between 150 to 225 days before the day of departure (the best time is 171 days).

By booking your holiday flight ticket in advance, you'll be able to make the most out of your budget, and open the door to even more fun during your break!

This article first appeared at Wise Bread.

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best personal finance bloggers out there. Our guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. To contact us about a blogger, click here. To add or view a comment on a guest blog, please go to the blogger's own site by clicking on the link in the blog description box above.

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