As we approach the end of another year, there is still time to improve your financial position with a few well placed year-end moves.
Maybe because we are working against a deadline, many year-end planning opportunities seem to be tax related. Tax moves, however, should be made with your overall long-term financial and investment planning context in mind. Make sure to check in with your financial and tax advisors.
Here are seven important moves to focus your efforts on that will help you make the best of the rest of your financial year.
1. Harvest Tax Losses in Taxable Accounts
You might have a number of items in your portfolio that show up in red when you view the unrealized gains and losses column on your brokerage statement.
You can still make an omelet out of these cracked eggs by harvesting your losses for tax purposes. The IRS individual deduction for capital losses is limited to a maximum of $3,000 for 2018. If you only dispose of your losers, you could end up with a tax loss carryforward - tax losses you would have to use in future years. This is not an ideal scenario.
You can also offset your losses against gains. For example, if you were to sell losers and hypothetically accumulate $10,000 in losses, you could then also sell winners. If the gains in your winners add to $10,000, you have offset your gains with losses, and you will not owe capital gain taxes on that joint trade.
This could be a great tool to help you rebalance your portfolio with low tax impact. Be aware, though, that you have to wait 30 days before buying back the positions that you have sold in order to stay clear of the wash-sale rule.
2. Reassess Investment Plan
Tax-loss harvesting is a great tactic to use for short-term advantage. It also allows you to focus on more fundamental issues. Why did you buy these securities that you just sold? Presumably, they played an important role in your investing strategy. And now that you have accumulated cash, it’s important to re-invest mindfully.
You may be tempted to stay on the sideline and see how the market shakes out. We may have been spoiled into complacency since the Great Recession, but the last month has reminded us that volatility happens.
No one knows when the next bear market will happen, if it has not started already. It is high time to ask yourself whether you and your portfolio are ready for a significant potential downturn.
Take the opportunity to review your goals, ensure that your portfolio risk matches your goals and that your asset allocation matches your risk target.
3. Max Out Retirement Plan Contributions
It is not too late to top out your retirement account. In 2018, you may contribute a maximum of $18,500 from your salary, including employer match to a 401(k), thrift savings plan, 403(b) or 457 retirement plan, subject to the terms of your plan. Those who are age 50 or over may contribute an additional $6,000 for the year.
If you have contributed less than the limit to your plan, there may still be time. You have until December 31 to maximize contributions for 2018, reduce your 2018 taxable income (if you contribute to a traditional plan), and give a boost to your retirement planning.
Alternatively, you may be able to contribute to a Roth account if that is a plan option for your employer. As with a Roth IRA, contributions to the Roth 401(k) are made after tax, while distributions in retirement are tax free. Many employers have added the Roth feature to their employee retirement plans. If yours has not, have a talk with your HR department.
Although the media has popularized the Roth account as tax free, bear in mind that it is merely taxed differently. Check in with your certified financial planner practitioner to determine whether electing to defer a portion of your salary to on a pre-tax basis or to a Roth account on a post-tax basis would suit your situation better.
4. Roth IRA Conversions
The current tax environment is especially favorable to Roth IRA conversions. Under the current law, income tax rates are scheduled to go back up in 2026. Roth conversions could be suitable for more people until then.
With a Roth conversion, you withdraw money from a traditional retirement account where assets grow tax deferred, pay income taxes on the withdrawal, and roll the assets into a Roth account. Once in a Roth account, the assets can grow and be withdrawn tax free, provided certain requirements are met. If you believe that your tax bracket will be higher in the future, you could be a good candidate for a Roth conversion.
5. Pick Health Plan Carefully
The end of the year is health insurance re-enrollment season, the annual time to pick a health insurance plan. This could be one of your more consequential financial decisions for the short term. Not only is health insurance expensive, it is only getting more so.
First, you need to decide whether to subscribe to a traditional plan that has a “low” deductible or to a high deductible option. The tradeoff is that the high deductible option has less expensive premiums. However, should you have a lot of health issues you might end up spending more. High deductible plans are paired with Health Savings Accounts (HSA).
The HSA is a unique instrument. It allows you to save money pre-tax and to pay for qualified healthcare expenses tax free. Unlike Flexible Spending Accounts (FSAs), balances in HSAs may be carried over to future years and invested to allow for potential earnings growth. In the right situation you could end up saving a lot of money.
If you pick a high deductible plan, make sure to fund your HSA to the maximum. Employers will often contribute also to encourage you to pick that option. If you pick a low deductible plan, make sure to put the appropriate amount in your Flexible Spending Account. FSAs are used to pay for medical expenses on a pretax basis. Unlike with an HSA, you cannot rollover unspent amounts to future years.
6. If Past Age 70, Plan Your RMDs
If you are past 70, make sure that you take your required minimum distributions (RMDs) each year. The 50% penalty for not taking the RMD is steep. You must withdraw your first minimum distribution by April 1 of the year following the year in which you turn 70.5 years old, and then by December 31 for each year after.
If you don't need the money from the RMD, you may want to redirect the money to another cause. For instance, you may want to fund a grandchild’s 529 educational account. 529 accounts are tax-advantaged accounts for education. Although contributions are post tax, growth and distributions are tax free if they are used for educational purposes.
Or, you may want to plan for a qualified charitable distribution from the IRA and take a tax deduction. The distribution must be directly from the IRA to the charity. It is excluded from taxable income and can count towards your RMD under certain conditions.
7. Plan Charitable Donations
Speaking of charitable donations, they can also be used to reduce taxable income and provide financial planning benefits. However, as a result of the Tax Cut and Jobs Act of 2017 (TCJA), it may be more complicated than in previous years. One significant difference is that standard deductions went up to $12,000 for individuals and $24,000 for married couples filing jointly. This means that you need to accumulate $12,000 or $24,000 of deductible items before you can feel the tax savings benefit.
In other words, if a married couple filing jointly has $8,000 in real estate taxes and $5,000 of state income taxes for a total of $13,000 of deductions, they are better off taking the standard $24,000 deduction. They would have to donate $7,000 before they could start to feel the tax benefit of their donation. One way to deal with that is to bundle your gifts in a given year instead of spreading them over many years.
For instance, if you plan to give in 2018 and also in 2019, consider bundling your donations and giving just in 2019. In this way, you are more likely to be able to exceed the standard deduction limit.
If your thinking wheels are running after reading this article, you may want to check in with your wealth manager. There may be other things that you could or should do before the end of the year.
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