Ways for Everyone to Save on Taxes Under the New Tax Law

By the editors of

| Photographs By Natnan Srisuwan

We’re living in a new tax world now, thanks to the overhaul passed by Congress last year. A number of breaks bit the dust, but some new ones were introduced, as well. Your 2018 return will be the first to be filed under the new rules, but the time to look for tax savings is now.

The following ideas could really pay off in the months — and years — ahead.

Max out your tax-deferred savings

One of the best ways to cut your taxes is to set money aside in a tax-deferred retirement account. Not only are you doing the wise thing by saving for a winning retirement — you also could trim your income enough to fall into a lower tax bracket.

So if your employer offers a tax-deferred program like a 401(k), make sure that you are:

  • Participating, so that you don’t miss out on any match your employer provides.
  • Putting in as much money as you can.

If you have your own business, you have several choices of tax-favored retirement accounts, including Simplified Employee Pensions (SEPs) and individual 401(k)s. Contributions cut your tax bill now while earnings grow tax-deferred for your retirement.

Since the contribution limits for these programs are high ($55,000 per year if you’re under 50, $61,000 if you’re 50 or over), they can be a substantial shelter for big earnings, if you’ve got them.

Tap into the good old IRA

Individual Retirement Accounts are a straightforward, easily accessible way to cut your taxes the same way the 401(k) does. But they do have strict rules.

If neither you nor your spouse participates in a workplace retirement plan, then you can contribute $5,500 ($6,500 if you’re 50 or older) to an IRA, and wham, take that off your taxable income — even if you don’t itemize deductions.

If either you or your spouse does have a plan at work, your deduction might be limited. It depends on your income. This IRS document has more details.

Take advantage of a Health Savings Account

See if your workplace offers an insurance plan that you could combine with a Health Savings Account, or consider opening one yourself if you buy your own coverage. An HSA lets you put away money pre-tax for a wide range of medical bills, including deductibles, co-pays, and other medical expenses that may not be covered by insurance, such as vision and dental care.

An HSA offers a triple tax break: The money you put in escapes all tax — no federal income tax, no state or local taxes, (and no FICA taxes), the balance grows tax-deferred (and can be invested in mutual funds), and withdrawals used to pay medical expenses are tax-free.

If you really want to swing for the fences with the tax-savings potential of an HSA, go ahead and fund it with pre-tax money, but pay for your out-of-pocket health costs with cash rather than drawing down HSA funds. It takes real financial discipline (and good health) to pull this off, but it will let your HSA money continue to grow tax-deferred.

Or, max out tax savings with a Flexible Savings Account

The Flexible Savings Account is a bit like the HSA’s little brother. Though it’s only available through employer-sponsored health-care plans, an FSA also lets you set aside money pre-tax, up to $2,550 a year, for qualified health expenses like deductibles. That’s $2,550 that you won’t pay any taxes on: no federal income tax, no state tax, no FICA. Nothing.

But unlike in an HSA, those funds don’t directly belong to you, and if you don’t spend them by the end of the year, they could revert to your employer. Still, most companies are offering grace periods into the following year for you to spend down the money. You may also be able to roll over up to $550 into the next year’s spending window.

Generally, you can’t use an FSA if you’re enrolled in an HSA (and vice-versa), but there are exceptions.

Give away money the tax-wise way

If you plan to make a significant gift to charity, consider giving appreciated stocks or mutual fund shares that you’ve owned for more than one year instead of cash.

Doing so supercharges the saving power of your generosity. Your charitable contribution deduction is the fair-market value of the securities on the date of the gift, not the amount you paid for the asset, and you never have to pay tax on the profit. However, don’t donate stocks or fund shares that lost money. You’d be better off selling the asset, claiming the loss on your taxes, and donating cash to the charity.

Remember, though, that for this to give you a tax advantage, you need to itemize your deductions. There are options if you want to maximize giving and tax benefits.

Get tax credit for your good works

Tote up out-of-pocket costs of doing good. Keep track of what you spend while doing charitable work, from what you spend on stamps for a fundraiser, to the cost of ingredients for casseroles you make for the homeless, to the number of miles you drive your car for charity (at 14 cents a mile). Add such costs with your cash contributions when figuring your charitable-contribution deduction.

Again, you’ll need to itemize your taxes to claim these.

Start up that business

Tax reform created a powerful incentive for people to hang out their own shingle and participate in the gig economy. Under the new tax law, sole proprietors who use Schedule C, as well as pass-through entities — such as S corporations, partnerships and LLCs — which pass their income to their owners for tax purposes, get to deduct 20% of their qualifying income before figuring their tax bill.

For a sole proprietor in the 24% bracket, for example, excluding 20% of income from taxation has the same effect as lowering the tax rate to 19.2%.

There are limitations, though: For many pass-through businesses, for example, the 20% deduction phases out for taxpayers with incomes in excess of $157,500 on an individual return, and $315,000 on a joint return.

Go ahead, set up that home office

If you use part of your home regularly and exclusively for your business, you can qualify to deduct as home-office expenses some costs that are otherwise considered personal expenses, including part of your utility bills, insurance premiums and home-maintenance bills.

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