Paying taxes is as little fun for us as for anyone. In a recent column we tried to ease the pain a bit. We reviewed programs that help you figure your taxes and fill in all your personal tax forms.
Most of those programs also promise to cut your future tax bite with some simple tax planning.TurboTax, Parsons Personal Tax Preparer and SWIFTAX can plan for three years ahead. Andrew Tobias Tax Cut plans through the year 1999. If you use their "what if" analysis power before completing 1990 taxes, it may unearth ways to save a few bucks this year.
The tax preparation program we liked best was TurboTax. Happily, its tax planning module is also among the best. But don't be fooled.
All these programs are lightweight when it comes to financial planning. There's not much difference between the best and the worst.
The programs all let you choose from a number of useful planning options. TurboTax, for example, can recalculate this year's return using 1991 tax rules. That way, you can predict how much of a tax bite you'll suffer in 1992 if income and expenses remain much the same.
They also help you calculate the minimum tax you can safely have withheld from your paycheck. You can modify your W-4 payroll withholding form accordingly.
What we'd really like to see is a program that suggests ways to lower our future tax bite. Unfortunately, none of the programs is that smart. Instead, they all show a spreadsheet that we must fill in. (Most of the programs can also start by using the figures you typed in when preparing your 1990 return.) The horizontal rows on the program's worksheet are for listing income, deductible expenses, exemptions and such. Vertically, the spreadsheet is divided into years, starting with 1990. If we change one or more figures in any year, such as salary or contributions, the program can recalculate and show us the new estimated taxes for that year.
All the tax preparation programs guide just tactical planning. They show the effect of adding and sub-tracting a dependent, the impact of itemizing estimated medical expenses on your return, the result of increasing mortgage interest and real estate tax expenses.
You can study the impact of put-ting off some bill payments until January of next year. You can test what happens when you push up some payments into this December. Even more useful, the programs figure out how much estimated tax you need to pay when you file form 1040-ES and by when.
They also have built-in reminders of important dates such as when those estimated tax returns are due. But unless you are sure to use the planner every month, we suggest that you copy the reminder list onto your calendar.
Sylvia Porter's Rapid Tax by Dac-Easy doesn't plan for future years, but it offers the best help finding optimal ways to make this year's tax payments.The other programs show how much, if any, the bottom line changes if you deliberately switch from married filing jointly to married filing singly. Porter not only calculates both ways, it automatically picks the best choice when filling in your 1040 forms. (You can override its decision.) MacInTax, the sixth tax preparation program we reviewed earlier, does very little tax planning. For that, you must buy its companion if:X Personal Tax Analyst.
if:X runs on IBM compatibles and Macintoshes, but the IBM version needs at least an i286 computer with 2M of memory and Windows 3.0. The software costs $79, with annual updates $35. (For price and machine details for the other programs, see our prior column.) The program comes with many onscreen work-sheets to fill in. A "converter" utility can transfer in this year's figures from MacInTax. if:X can create five different "what if" plans at a time. You can see the results of its calculations onscreen or printed out. It looks like a picture of the applicable form, either a W-4 or a 1040 tax form, except that it shows five columns of figures. You can compare them and choose the plan you like best.
The program has rows for putting in many more variables than the other programs suggest, including alimony, business income, child care credits, depletion, excess Social Security tax, foreign tax credit, gasoline tax credit, home mortgage interest and IRA contributions. If you can make use of all this tactical maneuvering, you can probably earn back more than the price of the program.
Don't expect any of these inexpensive tax planning programs to suggest financial strategies. They all start with your current financial situation and deal only with variables that apply now. None of them suggests or even touches on strategies for raising your retirement benefits or paying for your kids' educations.
There are a couple of ways to get advice about those strategic alternatives. The first is Julian Block's Year-Round Tax Strategies. If you can't find this book locally, it's $15 postpaid from tax attorney J. Block, 3 Washington Square, Larchmont, NY 10538.
Another way is via personal financial planning programs. We've found some very good ones. We'll review them in an upcoming column.
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