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Five Tax Strategies I use to Keep More of My Hard Earned Income

You work hard for your money and you deserve to keep it! Today I share five US tax strategies that allow me to keep more of what I’ve earned.

I don’t know if these tax strategies are suitable for you. You need to make your own decisions with the input and advice from a licensed tax professional and investment advisor.

I have a Master’s Degree in Human Resources and have studied employee benefits but I’m not a CPA or tax advisor. What I’ve written below is accurate and lawful to the best of my knowledge as of posting this article but I can’t guarantee that my understanding of the tax code is complete, accurate or up to date. Tax laws do change and in the future the below information could become outdated and/or incorrect.

I’m sharing what has worked for me!

Tax Strategy 1: Contribute to a 401k

A traditional 401k allows you to save money for retirement using pre-tax dollars. Your contributions are exempt from state and federal income tax. You do still have to pay social security and medicare taxes on 401k contributions.

Trivia: a 401(k) plan is the tax-qualified, defined-contribution pension account defined in subsection 401(k) of the IRS code.

When you retire and are eligible to make 401k withdrawals you do pay taxes on your withdrawals but your money will have (hopefully!) grown and if you’re retired you might be in a lower tax bracket then when you were working.

If my employer offers a 401k plan with company matching I contribute as much as I can to get the full company match but no more. That’s because the investment choices most companies offer are very limited. I do max out the company match so I’m not leaving money on the table.

I go with a Roth 401k if my employer offers it but they’re less common. With a Roth 401k you pay taxes up front but when you withdraw the money in retirement that income is tax free. I think taxes in the US are going to go up so I think it’s better to pay taxes now at the lower rates and get tax free retirement income later.

If your tax rate is the same during retirement as when you contribute to the 401k there is no advantage between a Roth 401k and 401k.

Two of my employers have offered Roth 401ks and company matching. When I left those employers, I rolled my Roth 401k into a Roth IRA and any 401k contributions into an IRA.

Tax Strategy 2: Contribute to an Individual Retirement Account (IRA)

The Roth IRA is one of my favorite tax strategies. Like 401k’s you get to pick your “flavor” of IRA: Roth or traditional. I favor Roth IRAs for the same reason I favor Roth 401k’s: because I believe tax rates will be going up in the future. Whether your employer offers a 401k or not you can open up an Individual Retirement Account (IRA) on your own.

To open a Roth IRA you just need some money and a custodian like Vanguard or TD Ameritrade. Once I’ve maxed out my employer matches for my 401k (if offered) I contribute additional retirement savings to my Roth IRA.

Through Vanguard I’m able to invest in many more securities and mutual funds than any employer offered investment options I’ve seen.

With a Roth IRA I will be able to enjoy tax free income during retirement, and it grows tax free while I wait. I’ve had a Roth IRA since I was 16 and it has been a great way to save for retirement.

If I gave investment advice I would implore everyone with $1,000 they could afford to set aside to open a Roth IRA today. I posit it is the most powerful of all five of these tax strategies.

Tax Strategy 3: Contribute to a Flexible Spending Account (FSA)

This is my second favorite of the five tax strategies. Your employer might offer a Flexible Spending Account. All of my employers have. Like a 401k, you use pre-tax dollars to set aside money for eligible medical expenses like doctor visits and prescription drugs.

In addition to the tax benefits are three nice perks to an FSA.

1) You can spend the money right away as long as it is an eligible medical expense

2) Not only do you not pay state or federal income tax on FSA contributions, but you don’t pay social security or medicare taxes either

3) If you stay at the company but don’t spend all the contributions you’ve made they roll over to the next year

One NOT so nice feature of the FSA is that if you leave your employer you lose it. You can’t take it with you.

But one crazy loophole that an HR representative once told me about was that you can spend all the FSA contributions you would have made for the year, even if you leave the company.

For example, lets say you’re set to contribute $20 per month to your FSA. That is $240 per year. Lets also say the company’s fiscal year starts on January 1 and you get paid on the first of each month. If you enroll in the FSA program and are set to contribute $20 per month, and you leave your employer at the end of March, before your last day of employment you can spend up to $240 on eligible expenses using your FSA, even though you’ve only contributed $60. Crazy!

If you have recurring medical expenses like prescription drugs, dental cleanings, doctor visits or eye exams an FSA is a no brainer if your employer offers one. Some employers will even match FSA contributions.

I’ve had an FSA at my last three employers and it’s a great way to save on medical expenses.

Tax Strategy 4: Contribute to a Health Savings Account

Not everyone qualifies for an HSA. The IRS tells us you’re eligible to open an HSA if you meet the following:

  • You must be covered under a high deductible health plan (HDHP)
  • You have no other health coverage except what is permitted under “Other health coverage”
  • You are not enrolled in Medicare

Plans with the following deductibles qualify as High deductible Health plans:

  • Self-only coverage minimum annual deductible $1,300 / Maximum annual deductible and other out-of-pocket expenses* $6,450
  • Family coverage minimum annual deductible $2,600 / Maximum annual deductible and other out-of-pocket expenses* $12,900

Having recently gained the status of unemployed and having bought a high deductible healthcare plan, I opened up an HSA through a company called Select Account. My very good friend who is self employed recommended them to me. Assuming I remain eligible for the HSA, I should be able to deduct my HSA contributions on my taxes.

I like HSAs because unlike FSAs they stay with you. What I don’t like about them is that you can’t invest the HSA contributions, so you’re stuck in depreciating dollars. The IRS is also very particular about who qualifies for an HSA, so when I start my next job, and that job offers health insurance, I might lose my eligibility for the HSA.

If you want to torture yourself you can read more about HSAs over at the IRS website.

Tax Strategy 5: Stop Getting a Tax Refund!

I don’t understand why people get excited about tax refunds. A tax refund means you overpaid on your taxes, you haven’t had that extra money all year and now the government is giving your money back to you that you loaned to them interest free.

I calculate/estimate what my taxes are going to be and then tweak the allowances and deductions on the W-4 worksheet so that I will owe about $900 in federal taxes at the end of the year.

Depending on the state you can do something similar for state income taxes.

By owing a small amount of money to the IRS on April 15 I’ve essentially got the refund through the year in the form of slightly higher paychecks. I’ve also held onto my hard earned money for as long as possible.

You do have to be careful with this because if you underpay by over $1,000 on your Federal taxes you get penalized. States that allow this will probably also penalize you if you underpay by too much, I know Illinois does.

Again I’m no CPA so consult a competent tax advisor before you try something like this. You can read more about the underpayment penalty over at the IRS website.

What do you think of these Five Tax Strategies?

These are five tax strategies I use to keep more of my hard earned income. I will say if you don’t have a Roth IRA you’d better have a darn good reason.

Do your own research, determine what is suitable for your situation and ask your tax advisor if one or more of these strategies is right for you.

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