11/28/2012 8:45 PM ET|
Your year-end financial cheat sheet
It's also the season for taking stock financially and reviewing what you should do with your money. Don't overlook these key tasks.
It's not as if you don't have enough to do this time of year. Unless you're one of those people who finishes her holiday shopping in June (the rest of us hate you, you know), you're probably gasping at all that lies ahead -- the gifts, the decorating, the entertaining, the travel.
Still, some important financial deadlines are looming; plus, it's a good time of year to take stock. Make some time for these key financial tasks, and you could have a richer 2013:
To get to where you want to be, you have to know where you are now. Among the things you should check:
● Your net worth. This is what you own, minus what you owe. You'll find net worth calculators all over the Web. If you use an account aggregation site such as Mint.com, your net worth is tracked automatically. Compare your net worth now with what it was last year at this time. Are you happy with your progress, or do you need to make some changes? You can boost your net worth by paying down debt, increasing your assets or both.
● Your investment performance. Check how your retirement accounts and other investments have performed compared with relevant benchmarks. Your brokerage, mutual fund company or 401k provider may make this easy by providing built-in benchmarks (look for the "performance" tab or link on their sites). To give you one benchmark: A typical balanced fund invested 60% in stocks and 40% in bonds returned about 20% between Sept. 30, 2011, and Sept. 30, 2012. If your portfolio significantly lagged that benchmark, or hasn't kept up with its peers for several years in a row, it might be time to make some changes.
● Your progress toward retirement.MSN Money's Retirement Calculator can help you play with the numbers to see when you might be able to quit working. It may be time to step up those retirement contributions.
Stuff money into an IRA
Individual retirement accounts are a nifty way to save for retirement, either as a supplement to a workplace plan such as a 401k or as a substitute if your employer doesn't offer retirement accounts. If you don't have a workplace retirement plan, you can deduct your contributions to an IRA when doing your taxes. Even if you do have a plan at work, you're allowed to contribute to an IRA, although you can deduct the contribution on your taxes only if your income is below certain limits. You can contribute up to $5,000 a year ($6,000 if you're 50 or older).
If you can't deduct your contribution, consider putting the money into a Roth IRA. Roth contributions aren't deductible upfront, but the money comes out tax-free in retirement. If your income exceeds the limits for making a direct Roth contribution, you can contribute the "back door" way -- by putting the money first into a traditional IRA and then converting it to a Roth. (The income limits on Roth conversions disappeared in 2010.) You could owe taxes on this conversion if you've previously made deductible contributions to a non-Roth IRA, so consult a tax professional first.
Use up your flexible spending account
The pretax money you set aside in your company's FSA to pay for medical expenses or child care is "use it or lose it" -- if the money you contributed is not spent before the end of the plan year, you lose it for good. Many plan years end on Dec. 31, but some extend to March 15, 2013. You can no longer use FSA money to pay for over-the-counter medicines without a prescription, but you have plenty of other ways to spend it. Among them: Opt for a new pair of glasses, get dental work done, visit a chiropractor, see a nutritionist or start a smoking-cessation program. If you have money left in a dependent-care FSA, you could spend it on day camps or other child care during school holidays while you work.
Have big medical bills this year? Incur more
Right now, if your medical expenses total more than 7.5% of your adjusted gross income, you can deduct the amount above that 7.5% level. Next year, though, that limit rises to 10% for most people under 65. (The old 7.5% limit still applies in tax years 2013 through 2016 if either spouse is 65 or older.)
If you're close to the limit, consider incurring some additional medical expenses before Dec. 31. Dental work, elective surgeries and other medical procedures could push you over the threshold.
Tax target? Talk to a pro
Traditional year-end tax advice says it's a good idea to "accelerate" deductions into the current year while delaying income into the next year. Another common tip: Sell losing investments to offset winners and to lower overall taxes.
The prospect of the so-called fiscal cliff has set the traditional advice on its ear. If Congress fails to reach a compromise and tax rates rise dramatically next year, it would make sense to accelerate income into this year and delay deductions instead. The prospect of higher capital gains rates, plus a 3.8% surcharge on net investment gains for singles with modified adjusted gross incomes above $200,000 and couples with AGIs above $250,000, makes selling winning investments before Dec. 31 a more attractive idea.
Another big change: The current $5.12 million exemptions for estate and gift taxes are scheduled to crash down to $1 million in 2013. So if you're wealthy, now might be a very good time to transfer some money to your heirs.
How much you need to fret depends on your individual tax situation. If you make a moderate income, don't itemize your deductions, don't own a business and don't have investments outside your retirement funds, there's not much tax planning you can do anyway. Otherwise, you might want to make an appointment with a tax pro immediately to discuss your situation. It's not as if you'll get a definitive answer unless and until Congress acts, but at least you'll know your options.
Be aware of senior deadlines
Two important deadlines lurk at year's end if you're an older American. Open enrollment for Medicare ends Dec. 7, and people who are above 70 1/2 need to take their required minimum distributions from their IRAs by Dec. 31. Failure to take those distributions can incur a 50% penalty. Ouch.
Make a plan for big bills in 2013
Open a calendar and think about any major, non-monthly expenses you're likely to face next year.
Will you be taking vacations? Arranging summer camps for your kids? Facing property tax or insurance bills? Making a down payment on a home or a car? Paying tuition bills? Celebrating the holidays again next year?
Estimate the costs and set up individual savings accounts earmarked for each expense at an online bank that doesn't require minimum balances or charge account fees. Then arrange regular transfers from your checking account to the appropriate savings account. For example, if you expect to spend $2,400 on a summer vacation and $1,200 next Christmas, you'd need to transfer $400 a month between January and June to your vacation fund, plus $100 a month between January and December to your Christmas fund. Making a plan can help you have the money you need, when you need it, without sweating the cost.
Liz Weston is the Web's most-read personal-finance writer. She is the author of several books, most recently "The 10 Commandments of Money: Survive and Thrive in the New Economy" (find it on Bing). Weston's award-winning columns appear every Monday and Thursday, exclusively on MSN Money. Join the conversation and send in your financial questions on Liz Weston's Facebook fan page.
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