It's a calming thought: owing nothing on your federal tax return. And you can make it happen if you handle your withholding strategically. Here's how.

The W-4 form that you fill out for your employer when you start a new job determines how much income tax will be withheld from your paycheck and, ultimately, how much tax you will either owe or get back as a refund at the end of the year.

What you may not know is that it's not a one-time thing. You can submit a revised W-4 form to your employer whenever you want. Managing how much your employer withholds through your W-4 form will give you a better shot at owing no taxes come April.

You also should avoid having too much withheld, of course. That would be giving Uncle Sam an interest-free loan all year.

Here's how to get your tax bill closer to zero before tax time arrives.

Key Takeaways

  • The W-4 form that you fill out for your employer determines how much tax is withheld from your paycheck throughout the year.
  • An online calculator can help you estimate your tax liability for the year and determine whether you're having too little or too much withheld.
  • Once you know that, you can submit a new W-4 to get you closer to owing zero at tax time.

Estimate What You'll Owe

If you are a salaried employee with a steady job, it's relatively easy to calculate your tax liability for the year. You can predict what your total income will be.

Millions of Americans don't fall into the above category. They work freelance, have multiple jobs, work for an hourly rate, or depend on commissions, bonuses, or tips. If you're one of them, you'll need to make an educated guess based on your earnings history and how your year has gone so far.

From there, there are several ways to get a good estimate of your tax liability:

Use an Online Check Calculator

There are a number of free income tax calculators online. If you enter your gross pay, your pay frequency, your federal filing status, and other relevant information, the calculator will tell you your federal tax liability per paycheck.

You can multiply that by the number of pay periods in a year to see your total tax liability.

This method is easy, and the result will be reasonably accurate, but it may not be perfect since your actual tax liability may depend on some other variables, such as whether you itemize deductions and which tax credits you claim.

Use a Tax Withholding Estimator

The tax withholding estimator on the Internal Revenue Service website is particularly useful for people with more complex tax situations.

It will ask about factors like your eligibility for child and dependent care tax credits, whether and how much you contribute to a tax-deferred retirement plan or health savings account, and how much federal tax you had withheld from your most recent paycheck.

Based on the answers to your questions, it will tell you your estimated tax obligation for the year, how much you will have paid through withholding by year's end, and you're expected overpayment or underpayment.

Fill Out a Sample Tax Return

Another option is to complete a sample tax return for the year, either by using tax software or by downloading the forms you need from the IRS website and filling them out by hand.

This method should give you the most accurate picture of your annual tax liability.

If you're using last year’s tax software or IRS forms, make sure there haven't been significant changes to the rules or the tax rates that would affect your situation.

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How To Get The Most Money Back On Your Tax Return

Adjust Your Tax Withholding

Once you know the total amount you will owe in federal taxes, the next step is figuring out how much you need to have withheld per pay period to reach that target but not exceed it by Dec. 31.

Then fill out a new W-4 form accordingly.

You don't have to wait for your employer's HR department to hand you a new W-4 form. You can print one yourself from the IRS website.

If Not Enough Is Being Withheld

The W-4 form has a place to indicate the amount of additional tax you'd like to have withheld each pay period.

If you've underpaid so far, subtract the amount you're on track to pay by the end of the year, at your current level of withholding, from the amount you will owe in total. Then divide the result by the number of pay periods that remain in the year.

That will tell you how much extra you want to have withheld from each paycheck.

You could also decrease the number of withholding allowances you claim, but the results won't be as accurate.

If You've Been Overpaying

Unless you're looking forward to a big refund, try increasing the number of withholding allowances you claim on the W-4.

Deciding on the exact number can be tricky. The best method is to plug different numbers of withholding allowances into a paycheck calculator until it hits the amount closest to the federal tax you want to have withheld for each pay period going forward.

Note that the IRS requires that you have a reasonable basis for the withholding allowances you claim. It doesn't want you fiddling with its form just to avoid paying taxes until the last minute.

If you don't have enough tax withheld, you could be subject to underpayment penalties.

Bear in mind that you need to have enough tax withheld throughout the year to avoid underpayment penalties and interest. You can do that by making sure your withholding equals at least 90% of your current year's tax liability or 100% of your previous year's tax liability, whichever is smaller.

You'll also avoid penalties if you owe less than $1,000 on your tax return.

Other Considerations

If it's so early in the year that you haven't received any paychecks yet, you can just divide your total tax liability for the year that just ended by the number of paychecks you receive in a year. Then, compare that amount to the amount that's withheld from your first paycheck of the year once you get it and make any necessary adjustments from there.

If you adjust your W-4 to make up for any underpayment or overpayment partway through the year, you'll want to fill out a new W-4 in January or your withholding will be off for the new year.

Of course, if your income fluctuates unpredictably, this is all a lot harder. But following the steps above should help you get close to a reasonable number.

And remember: You can redo your W-4 several times during the year if necessary.