At this festive time of the year, it’s easy to get caught up in holiday shopping, family get togethers and last minute vacation plans. But don’t let that distract you from key financial deadlines that creep up on Dec. 31. Miss them and you could get hit with substantial penalties or lose the opportunity to take advantage of some smart money moves. Here are key strategies to consider in the countdown to 2012.
1. Fund employer-sponsored retirement plans. For 2011 you can contribute up to $16,500 to a 401(k) plan, or $22,000 if you’re 50 or older. These dollars can be put in a pretax 401(k), cutting your current tax bill. Or if your employer offers the option and you believe tax rates will rise, put some of those dollars in a Roth 401(k). The money goes into a Roth after taxes, saving you nothing now. But the Roth grows tax free. You can withdraw from it tax free when you retire or before that if you leave the company, have had the account for at least five years and are 59 1/2 or older.
Think it’s too late to top up your 2011 contributions? Maybe not. Ask your employer to withhold extra dollars from your last paycheck.
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2. Set up a one-person 401(k) if you’re self-employed. So long as you set up a one-person 401(k) by Dec. 31 you can make contributions for 2011 until the due date of your 1040 with extensions—as late as Oct. 15, 2012.
3. Accelerate income tax deductions. The most obvious examples are property taxes and state and local income tax. That’s assuming, however, you’re not paying (or in danger of paying) the fiendishly complicated alternative minimum tax, which can turn that traditional advice on its head. For example, since state and local taxes aren’t deductible in AMT, you might delay the payment of your fourth-quarter state taxes until 2012—if you’re stuck in AMT this year but likely won’t be for 2012.
Warning: AMT planning usually requires help from a tax pro and is particularly tricky this December since an AMT “fix” that keeps 26 million middle-income families out of the AMT and reduces the AMT bill for millions more is set to expire at the end of 2011. (If history is any guide, Congress will eventually make that fix, retroactive to cover all of 2012.)
4. Convert a traditional IRA to a Roth. In this maneuver you take money out of a pretax IRA, pay tax on it and plop it into a Roth, where it can grow tax free. Essentially, you’re prepaying your taxes at today’s rates. Does that make sense when a rate-lowering tax reform is possible?
Yes, if your personal rate is unusually low for 2011, answers Cupertino, Calif. tax pro Claudia Hill. An example, she says, are baby boomers who have been laid off or pushed into early retirement and are dipping into savings for living expenses. They’re not yet taking Social Security, pensions or IRA withdrawals, and haven’t yet developed much self-employment income. But they still have mortgages and real estate tax bills to deduct. The idea is to convert enough IRA dollars to take full advantage of the low 15% tax bracket— in 2011, for a couple, up to $69,000 in taxable income (after all deductions and exemptions) is taxed at that rate. No matter who wins the next election and what happens with taxes, 15% should still look like a bargain.
5. Take required distributions from your own IRA. You are considered the owner of an IRA that you set up and funded – either through annual contributions or the rollover of a 401(k). Unless the account is a Roth, you must take yearly minimum distributions starting at age 70 1?2. You have until April 1 of the year after you turn 70 ½ to take the first one. After that, you must take distributions by Dec. 31 of each year.