The 4 Tax Moves You Must Make Before The End Of 2012

By Martin R. Cantor
November 08, 2012

Let's face it. The so-called fiscal cliff has us all worried.

It is nothing to trifle with; it will be driven by the expiration of almost every tax cut enacted since 2001, as a whole commonly referred to as the Bush-era tax cuts. This would raise the average tax paid by the U.S household by $3,500 and reduce spending by $1.2 trillion over 10 years in more than 1,000 government programs including defense, Medicare, social programs and economic stimulus initiatives. But that doesn't mean you should sit back and do nothing. There are ways to save those hard-earned dollars.

One example of the fiscal cliff's impact is that 2013 single taxpayers earning between $35,350 and $85,650 -- as well as married, filing jointly taxpayers earning between $59,045 and $142,700 -- will now be in a 28% tax bracket, up from 25% in 2012. This means single taxpayers will pay additional taxes of between $1,060 and $2,570, with married filing jointly taxpayers paying between $1,771 and $4,281 more.

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Got your attention? While the "cliff" sounds like an immediate calamity, it doesn't have to be. As 2012 draws to a close, there are tax strategies that will help you keep more of your money. Here are four ways to save on your 2012 taxes.

Keeping More Of Your Year-End Bonuses

Assuming the Bush-era tax cuts will be eliminated, consider finding out whether your employer allows taking bonuses and payments for unused accrued vacation and personal days in 2012. This will save you the 5% in taxes that you would pay if the income was taken in 2013. (Two percent of that is from the 2013 increase in the Employee Social Security Tax from 4.2% to 6.2%, and 3% would come from the increase in the 2013 tax rate.) For example, if you received a bonus, unused accrued vacation and personal days of $20,000 in 2012 rather than in 2013, you would save $1,000 in additional 2013 taxes.

Hanging Onto Your Capital Gains

Capital gains are the income received on the sale of investment assets, including real property and stocks and bonds. They are categorized as short-term and long-term. Short-term are assets held for a year or less, and long-term assets are held for more than a year.

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In 2012, short-term capital gains will be taxed as ordinary income with rates of between 10% and 35%, increasing in 2013 to between 15% and 39.6%. Long-term capital gains on assets held for more than a year will be taxed at 15% if sold in 2012, with the capital gains tax rate increasing to 20% in 2013. Thus a $10,000 capital gain taken in 2012 will save $500 in capital gains taxes compared to the 2013.

However, if your 2012 ordinary tax rate for short-term capital gains is more than the 2013 long-term capital gains tax of 20%, don't sell in 2012. For a $10,000 capital gain, waiting for the year holding period, and selling in 2013 could save up to $1,960 in taxes.

Saving Taxes On Retirement Investments

It's never too early to invest in Individual Retirement Accounts (IRA) for you and your spouse, even for your non-working spouse. For the entire IRA contribution to be deductible, the combined contribution can't exceed the taxable wages on your tax return and neither spouse can be participating in an employer-provided retirement plan.

If you are a single or single head of household taxpayer making less than $58,000 ($92,000 for married taxpayers filing jointly and qualifying surviving spouses) make sure you maximize your contribution into your IRA. That's $5,000 if you are under 50; $6,000 if you are over. Depending on your tax rate, the savings are between $750 and $1,980. For higher earning taxpayers with workplace retirement plans, the 2012 IRA tax deduction phases out.

Making Your Health Insurance Premiums Deductible

You can save money by using a Health Savings Account (HSA). Here's how it works. For those who have high-deductible health insurance plans and can't be claimed as a deduction on someone else's tax return, an HSA through an employer-sponsored Section 125 Cafeteria Plan can save tax dollars while providing for your medical expenses.

To be deductible, 2012 contributions must be made by April 15, 2013, into an account maintained by a bank, credit union or insurance company. The HSA is deducted from your paycheck and deposited into your HSA account before withholding taxes are computed.

If your employer doesn't have a Cafeteria Plan, contributions can be made with after-tax income to an HSA, with these payments deducted from your taxable income on your personal income tax return.

Interest earned on HSA contributions grows tax-deferred is not taxed when used for eligible medical expenses. And unused funds roll over from one year to the next so any contributions are not forfeited.

The Investing Answer: After 2012 tax planning is completed, calculate any taxes that are due. Make a provision to pay any federal taxes due by January 15, 2013. By doing this, if you owe $1,000 in taxes you will avoid as much as $250 in penalties and $5 per month for each month that the tax remains unpaid. Pay any state tax due by December 31, 2012, to deduct them in 2012.

Martin R. Cantor is a certified public accountant, has a doctorate in Education Administration and is director of the Long Island Center for Socio-Economic Policy.