Here are 12 easy moves to cut your tax bill

In many cases, you'll need to itemize rather than take the standard deduction in order to use these strategies, but the extra effort may be worth it.

Susan Walsh/AP/File
The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) building in Washington.

An unexpected tax bill can ruin anybody’s day. To help avoid that unpleasant surprise, here are 12 easy moves many people can make to cut their tax bills. In many cases, you must itemize rather than take the standard deduction in order to use these strategies, but the extra effort may be worth it.

1. Tweak your W-4

The W-4 is a form you give to your employer, instructing it on how much tax to withhold from each paycheck. If you got a huge tax bill this year and don’t want another surprise next year, raise your withholding so you owe less next April. (And if you got a huge refund, do the opposite and reduce your withholding — otherwise, you’re just giving the government a free loan.) You can change your W-4 any time.

2. Stash money in your 401(k)

Less taxable income means less tax, and 401(k)s are a popular way to reduce tax bills. The IRS doesn’t tax what you divert directly from your paycheck into a 401(k). For 2017, you can funnel up to $18,000 per year into an account, the same amount as for 2016.  If you’re 50 or older, you can contribute up to $24,000. These retirement accounts are usually sponsored by employers, although self-employed people can open their own 401(k)s. And if your employer matches some or all of your contribution, you’ll get free money to boot.

3. Contribute to an IRA

There are two major types of individual retirement accounts: Roth IRAs and traditional IRAs. You may be able to deduct contributions to a traditional IRA, though how much you can deduct depends on whether you or your spouse is covered by a retirement plan at work and how much you make. For the 2016 tax year, for example, you may not be able to deduct your contributions if you’re covered by a retirement plan at work, you’re married and filing jointly, and your modified adjusted gross income was $118,000 or more. There are limits to how much you can put in an IRA, too. For 2017, the limits are the same as they were in 2016: $5,500 per year, or $6,500 for people 50 or older. You have until the April tax deadline to fund your IRA for the previous tax year, which gives you extra time to take advantage of this strategy.

4. Save for college

Setting aside money for Junior’s tuition can save you a few bucks on your tax bill, too. A popular option is to make contributions to a 529 plan, a savings account operated by a state or educational institution. You can’t deduct your contributions on your federal income taxes, but you might be able to on your state return if you’re putting money in your state’s 529 plan. Be aware, too, that there may be gift-tax consequences if your contributions plus any other gifts to a particular beneficiary exceed $14,000 during the year.

5. Fund your FSA

If your employer offers a flexible spending account, take advantage of it to lower your tax bill. The IRS lets you funnel tax-free dollars directly from your paycheck into your FSA every year; the limit was $2,550 for 2016 and is $2,600 for 2017. Sure, you’ll have to use the money during the calendar year for medical and dental expenses, but you can also use it for related everyday items such as Band-Aids, pregnancy test kits, breast pumps and acupuncture for yourself and your qualified dependents. Some employers might let you carry up to $500 over to the next year.

6. Subsidize your Dependent Care FSA

This FSA with a twist is another handy way to reduce your tax bill — if your employer offers it. The IRS will exclude up to $5,000 of your pay that you have your employer divert to a Dependent Care FSA account, which means you’ll avoid paying taxes on that money. That can be a huge win for parents of kids under 13, because before- and after-school care, day care, preschool and day camps usually are allowed uses. Elder care may be included, too. What’s covered can vary among employers, so check out your plan’s documents.

7. Rock your HSA

Health savings accounts are tax-exempt accounts you can use to pay medical expenses. If you have a high-deductible health care plan, you may be able to lighten your tax load by contributing to an HSA. Contributions to HSAs are tax-deductible, and the withdrawals are tax-free, too, so long as you use them for qualified medical expenses. For 2017, if you have self-only high-deductible health coverage, you can contribute up to $3,400; the limit for 2016 was $3,350. If you have family high-deductible coverage, you can contribute up to $6,750 in 2017, the same as in 2016. Your employer may offer an HSA, but you can also start your own account at a bank or other financial institution.

8. See if you’re eligible for the Earned Income Credit

The rules can get complex, but if you earned less than $54,000, it might be worth looking into. Depending on your income, marital status and how many children you have, you might qualify for a tax credit of up to $6,269 for 2016 and $6,318 in 2017. A tax credit is a dollar-for-dollar reduction in your actual tax bill — as opposed to a tax deduction, which simply reduces how much of your income gets taxed. It’s truly found money, because if a credit reduces your tax bill below zero, the money may be refunded to you.

9. Give it away

Charitable contributions are deductible, and they don’t even have to be in cash. If you’ve donated clothes, food, old sporting gear or household items, for example, those things can lower your tax bill if they went to a bona fide charity and you got a receipt. Many tax software programs include modules that estimate the value of each item you donate, so make a list before you drop off that big bag of stuff at Goodwill — it can add up to big deductions. For example, a frying pan can get you a $10 deduction and a pair of women’s jeans $18, according to the TurboTax ItsDeductible program. An old portable basketball hoop could net almost $100. If you volunteer, there are a few options, too: You can deduct your out-of-pocket expenses for serving a qualified organization, as well as mileage or gas used going to and from the location.

10. Keep a file of your medical expenses

If you’ve been in the hospital or had other costly medical or dental care, keep those receipts. In general, you can deduct qualified medical expenses that are more than 10% of your adjusted gross income for that tax year. So, for example, if your adjusted gross income is $40,000, anything beyond the first $4,000 of your medical bills — 10% of your AGI — could be deductible. If you rang up $10,000 in medical bills, $6,000 of it could be deductible in this example. If you or your spouse is 65 or older, the 10% threshold dips to 7.5% for the 2016 tax year, giving you an even bigger deduction. (Note that this dip expired at the end of 2016. In the 2017 tax year it’s 10% for everyone.)

11. Sell those dogs weighing down your portfolio

Knowing you’re getting a tax deduction might make it a little easier to unload some of those bad stock picks that have been weighing down your portfolio. You can deduct losses on stock sales, which can offset any taxable capital gains you might have. The limit on that offset is $3,000, or $1,500 for married couples filing separately. One other note: Never let tax avoidance become a substitute for wise investing. Sell a stock only if it truly doesn’t work for your portfolio anymore. Don’t do it just to get a tax break, because if you decide to buy back your stock within 30 days, the IRS can take back your deduction.

12. Get the timing right

From a tax perspective, there’s a huge difference between doing something on Dec. 31 and doing it a day later. If you know an upcoming expense is going to be tax-deductible, think about whether you can pay for it this year rather than next year. Making January’s mortgage payment in December, for example, could give you an extra month’s worth of mortgage interest to deduct this year. Similarly, if you know you’re near the threshold for the medical-expenses deduction, moving that root canal up might make the pain more bearable if the cost suddenly becomes deductible, too.

Tina Orem is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website.

This story originally appeared on NerdWallet.

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