5 things you can learn from your tax return

5 things you can learn from your tax return
Posted at 5:18 PM, Apr 15, 2016

The IRS receives roughly 150 million tax returns each year.

If you’re like many Americans, preparing that filing is the closest look you’ve given to your finances for some time. Though it’s far from an exercise in budgeting, in many cases you can’t help but notice things such as investment activity, retirement account balances and debt levels.

It only makes sense, then, to seize the opportunity: If you’re putting in the time, you might as well take away some learnings that can help you in the future. Even if you used a tax preparer, you can — should — still take a look at your return.

Here are five key things to note:

1. The interest you earned on cash savings

If you earn more than $10 in interest from a bank, brokerage or other financial institution, you’ll receive a Form 1099-INT reporting that interest, which is typically taxable.

This is a good reminder to reassess the interest rates on money you keep in safer havens such as savings accounts and CDs. Take a moment to shop around, comparing your current rate with rates from local banks, credit unions and online banks (which often are the winning option).

Then consider whether you’re keeping too much money in cash, when it could work harder for you if invested through an IRA or brokerage account. Money you need in three to five years shouldn’t be in the market, but outside of that, you might want to consider taking a bit more risk.

2. The tax efficiency of your investments

If you’re investing within a brokerage account, it’s important to pay attention to how those investments might be affecting your tax burden, says Nick Bautista, a financial planner in Irvine, California.

For example, putting municipal bond funds in a taxable account often makes sense, as they are exempt from federal (and often state and local) taxes. You might want to avoid mutual funds, as they often pass capital gains on to investors at the end of the year.

“This is another reason why a lot of the movement has been toward exchange-traded funds in recent years,” Bautista says. “ETFs aren’t popping up these capital gain distributions.” That makes them a wise choice for taxable accounts as well.

If this is out of your comfort zone, get some help in the form of a financial advisor or a robo-advisor. Many robo-advisors will allocate your investments across your taxable and IRA accounts in a way designed to minimize taxes. These services also offer tax-loss harvesting, which can reduce the taxes you owe on capital gains.

3. Your retirement savings contributions

The Employee Benefits Research Institute notes that less than half of workers have attempted to ballpark their retirement needs. Filing your tax return is a good opportunity to right that wrong: Because it frequently requires reporting contributions to retirement accounts, you’ll get a good idea of how much you’ve saved this year.

That’s one item on the list of information you’ll need to use a retirement calculator. The others include your income, your retirement account balances and a rough idea of your spending needs.

Running the numbers will tell you whether you should aim to save more this year. If that’s the case, doing so by making tax-deductible contributions to a traditional IRA also will lower your tax bill for 2016.

4. Whether you can give yourself a raise

The average tax refund typically hovers around $3,000. That’s a big windfall, but it would go further if you changed your withholding: The money would show up in your paycheck in small increments, much like a raise.

If you’re struggling to make ends meet each month, that could be the extra wiggle room you need to avoid credit card debt. If you’ve been unable to scrape together 401(k) contributions, that boost to your paycheck could get you there.

The IRS has a surprisingly simple calculator to help you calculate your withholding.

5. Your debt expenses

You can deduct some or all of the interest paid on certain debts, most notably student loans and your mortgage. The value of that deduction varies, but it could shave the equivalent of a point off your mortgage’s interest rate if you’re in the 25% federal tax bracket.

The section of your return used to report interest can serve a couple of purposes. For one thing, it’s a good check-in on the debt you’re carrying. But it’s also a reminder that it pays to be wise about how you prioritize your debts for payoff.

“My philosophy is not to worry so much about using interest for a deduction,” Bautista says. “But if you have extra income and outstanding debts, it’s wise to look and see what the best option is. If you have a mortgage at 4% and you make extra payments toward that, you’re locking in that 4% interest rate. Ask yourself if you could do better if you were to take the extra money and invest it, or whether it would be wiser to pay off a higher-interest-rate debt.”

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