I hate to remind you, but you have only about 10 months until tax season.
I know. You didn't expect to read anything about taxes until the stores were putting up Christmas decorations. But the truth is, there are lots of things you could and should be doing right now to put yourself in a better tax position next April 15.
So, here is some advice from two certified public accountants.
Tim Abercrombie of Abercrombie & Associates in Silver Spring says:
* Don't wait until year's end to begin deferring income into a retirement plan. If you wait to make a lump-sum contribution at the end of the year, you could be missing out on returns throughout the year.
* If you received a large refund this year, review your federal and state withholding information now to make sure it reflects your current situation. For example, did you get married? Did you have a child this year? Did you buy a home? If the answer to any one of these questions is yes, you may need to update your W-4 form (Employee's Withholding Allowance Certificate). The W-4 has a worksheet to help you figure out how many personal allowances to take, based on projected deductions and tax credits. Use the IRS online withholding calculator at www.irs.gov (type "withholding calculator" in the search box).
* Give throughout the year. "Develop a systematic plan for cash gifts to charity," Abercrombie said. "Twenty dollars per pay period is easier than $520 at year end." Besides, charities need money all year long.
* If you plan to buy a home, the earlier in the year you purchase, the better. This will allow you to have more mortgage interest to deduct.
* Keep track of your unreimbursed business expenses. If you want to avoid the maddening quest to find all your receipts at tax time, set up a file folder or dedicate a kitchen drawer into which you can toss the information.
* If you work from home, designate a set space for the home office. If you do this, you can apportion a number of expenses to the home office space. But maintain proper documentation for any expenses that you would take, Abercrombie said. On this issue, you may want to consult a tax adviser to determine the appropriate expenses.
* If you are self-employed, make quarterly estimated tax payments to the federal and state government on schedule. "Some clients make federal but skip the state," Abercrombie said. "This may subject you to penalties for underpayment of tax." Keep in mind, state tax payments can be used in your itemized deductions from federal taxes.
Barbara Ames, a CPA and partner at Fisher Barkanic & Ames in Rockville, recommends that you ask these questions:
* Have you reviewed last year's tax return? If not, what are you waiting for? In your tax return is most, if not all, the information you need to come up with a budget.
* Are you contributing the maximum to your retirement plan? For 2004, you are allowed to contribute up to $13,000 to a 401(k) plan. If you are 50 or older, you can make an additional "catch-up" contribution. This year, that maximum annual catch-up is $3,000. If you aren't maxing out your 401(k), at least contribute enough to qualify for your company's matching contribution. Otherwise, you're leaving free money on the table. If your employer doesn't provide a 401(k) or similar retirement plan, then max out your contribution to an Individual Retirement Account (IRA) or other tax-qualified retirement accounts. For 2004, the contribution limit for a traditional IRA is $3,000 ($500 more if you are 50 or older). If your spouse is not working or is not covered by an employer's retirement plan, he or she can still make a deductible contribution to an IRA.
* If you are self-employed, do you have a retirement plan established? If not, consider setting up a SIMPLE IRA, Ames suggested. A SIMPLE (Savings Incentive Match Plan for Employees) is designed for businesses that employ 100 or fewer people who earn at least $5,000 (this includes the self-employed). The 2004 maximum contribution is $9,000, up from $8,000 in 2003. If you are 50 or older, you can contribute an extra $1,500 (up from $1,000 in 2003). The deadline for setting up a SIMPLE is Oct. 1.
Keep this in mind: Procrastination is not just the thief of time, as the British poet Edward Young said. Procrastination can also cost you some real money at tax time.
Michelle Singletary discusses personal finance Tuesdays on NPR's "Day to Day" program and online at www.npr.org. Readers can write to her at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.