Preparing for tax season often seems more like a sprint than a marathon. You receive your W2 forms in the mail in late January, and then it’s time to excavate your receipt shoe box and spend a stressful weekend trying to make sense of your tax return. All in all, it feels like a hurried, overwhelming, and nerve-wracking chore that you dread every year.
But what if filing your taxes didn’t have to be quite so stressful?
The trick to making your tax season a breeze is preparing for it early. As in, right now. If you want an easy and relaxed tax season, here’s what you can do now to get ready.
Make a list of the information you’ll need
One of the most frustrating moments in tax preparation is discovering you’re still missing one vital piece of information after you’ve gathered everything you thought you needed. And it’s even worse if you don’t know how to find the missing information.
So look over the specific info you need to file now, to give yourself time to gather all the items well before Tax Day. Specifically, you’ll need:
- A copy of last year’s tax return
- The Social Security or Tax ID number of every member of your household
- The income records of every member of your household
- Receipts for your deductible expenses
- Records of any taxes you’ve paid throughout the year
Putting together your list of necessary information and checking each item off as you gather it will ensure that you’re fully prepared when you finally sit down to file. (See also: The 7 Most Common Tax Questions for Beginners, Answered)
Organize your receipts
Keeping track of tax-related receipts throughout the year is one of the most difficult parts of handling your taxes. Many people throw all of their receipts for work-related expenses, charitable donations, mortgage payments, medical expenses, and interest statements in a single folder or box to deal with "later."
Now is an excellent time to dig out your receipts and start organizing them according to category. Having your receipts neatly separated now will make it easy to sort the last few that come in as the year comes to a close, and can help you get into the habit of putting them in order as you receive them.
Gather your paystubs together
Though the majority of filers will receive either a W2 or 1099 form from their employer(s), it’s still a good idea to gather your paystubs before the end of the year to get a rough idea of your income. That will help you identify any potential mistakes on your W2 or 1099 forms as soon as they arrive. It’s far better to catch a mistake early rather than find you need to request a corrected form close to the IRS deadline.
Plus, checking over your paystubs all at once gives you a chance to take a look at your federal and state tax withholding over the year, as well as any pretax contributions you’ve made to your 401(k) or IRA.
Review your W4
Another great reason to look at your paystubs now is that it gives you a chance to review your W4 with your employer.
The W4 form determines how much tax withholding is taken from each paycheck. If you expect to receive a large refund this year, you can adjust your withholding allowances now to ensure that more of your paycheck will come home with you in 2020. If, on the other hand, you worry that you may owe money because you didn’t have enough withheld, now is a good time to adjust your W4 to be sure you don’t have the same problem in the coming year. (See also: Are You Withholding the Right Amount of Taxes from Your Paycheck?)
Send more money to your retirement fund
If you have access to a tax-deferred retirement account like a 401(k) or an IRA, now is the time to see how much money you have set aside this year, and try to increase that number.
As of 2019, workers under 50 years old can save up to $19,000 in a 401(k) and up to $6,000 in an IRA. And every dollar you put into these kinds of accounts reduces the amount of income you have to pay taxes on.
Now is an excellent time to try to maximize your 2019 contribution. You have until the end of the calendar year to maximize your 2019 401(k) contribution, but you can continue contributing to your 2019 IRA until April 15, 2020.
Getting into the habit of increasing your contribution now can also help you reach the maximum in 2020, which is going up to $19,500 for 401(k) accounts, although the IRA maximum will hold steady at $6,000. (See also: 8 Tax Return Mistakes Even Smart People Make)
Plan ahead for your refund
If you expect to receive a refund this year, start thinking about the best way to use the money now. We tend to think of a tax refund as "free money," even though it’s just your own salary being returned to you. But with a free money mindset, it’s very easy to go overboard spending the refund on fun stuff, like a vacation or a new gadget.
There’s nothing wrong with enjoying your tax refund, but taking a hard look at your budget and finances now can help you to determine if having fun with your refund is the best use of the money. Is there some debt you could pay down (or pay off) with the refund instead? Or is there a major goal you’re saving toward — like a down payment on a house — that would benefit from an injection of cash?
Thinking through the best use of your tax refund before you have it in your hot little hands makes it more likely you’ll make good decisions with it. Once you have the money in your possession, it’s very tempting to make it rain instead of saving for a rainy day.
Make your tax season less stressful
Getting a jump start on your filing chores will not only make tax season much easier, but it can also help you prepare for your finances in the coming year. Start 2020 on the right financial foot by starting your tax season preparation early.
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