NEW YORK It's not too early to start thinking about your 2007 income taxes especially if you'd like to save money on your tax bill.
Taxpayers can take steps to reduce the bite next April, but most need to be completed before the end of this year.
"People tend to focus on taxes the day they have to fill out the form and mail it in to the government," said Scott Cheslowitz, a certified public accountant and member of the New York State Society of CPAs. "But a tax return should be the culmination of all the planning and preparation that has taken place during the year."
Cheslowitz said taxpayers should begin by gathering whatever information they already have on their year-to-date wages and deductible expenses and comparing it to last year's income tax return. That will help determine if sufficient taxes are being withheld by an employer, he said.
Another thing to look at is whether prepaying or postponing certain expenses will have an impact on taxes. For example, making an extra mortgage payment in December and prepaying real estate taxes could increase deductions next April for those who itemize.
While many workers contribute regularly to retirement plans, those who haven't really should pay some attention to these accounts by year's end. They include company-sponsored 401(k) accounts as well as Individual Retirement Accounts that consumers can set up at banks or brokerages.
"You get a double tax benefit," Cheslowitz pointed out. Because most retirement savings accounts are funded with pretax dollars, "they decrease the taxable income you have," he said. "And your chances for a good return on your savings are greater because they grow tax deferred," he added.
This year, the limit on contributions to 401(k) accounts is $15,500; workers 50 and older can make an additional $5,000 "catch-up" contribution. The limit for IRAs is $4,000, with older workers allowed an additional $1,000 contribution.
Company-sponsored accounts must be funded by year's end; IRA contributions can be made up to the April 15 federal income tax filing deadline.
Before the end of the year, people also should take a look at the gains and losses from their investments.
Taxpayers who receive capital gains distributions from mutual funds or sell stocks at a profit may want to offset that with the sale of losing investments. Capital losses also can be used to offset up to $3,000 of income.
Still, Cheslowitz discourages taxpayers from buying or selling stock based solely on tax triggers.
"Whether you have gains or losses, look at your portfolio and say, 'Do I still want to own that stock today?' If the answer is 'yes,' hang on to it in spite of any tax issue."
Donna Cocovinis, a tax attorney and contributing editor to J.K. Lasser's "Your Income Tax 2008," said families considering the purchase of a new car can still get in on some tax credits if they buy a hybrid vehicle before year's end.
"If you're in the market for a car anyway, you can get end-of-the-year model deals and get what remains of the credits," she said, noting that the federal program is scheduled to expire after this year. Car dealers can provide estimates of the credit for specific vehicles.
There also are credits of $200 or more for families that increase the insulation in their homes, buy new energy-saving windows or purchase fuel-efficient air conditioners and furnaces.
"Charitable deductions are also something to think about now, because the holidays are a popular gift-giving season," Cocovinis said.
She suggests people consider using their credit cards rather than donating cash.
Deposit of a cash contribution could be delayed until 2008, meaning that the donor couldn't claim the tax deduction for 2007, but credit card donations, especially those made online, are processed almost immediately. In addition, "when you pay with a credit card, you generate a record" of the contribution, she said.
Under new tax rules, all cash donations must be documented, she pointed out. So people need to save a credit card receipt or canceled check or a receipt from the charity that includes the name of the institution, the date and the amount of the donation.
Cheslowitz said some workers may want to consult their tax accountants, especially if they could be hit by the alternative minimum tax, which is a parallel tax often imposed on high-income families. Aimed at ensuring that all Americans pay taxes, the AMT doesn't allow many of the deductions that the standard tax form does.
"The AMT is complicated, and people should get advice on how to deal with it," he said.
Cheslowitz said families also can benefit from consulting a professional because "they not only can help with proper tax planning, they also can help focus on education, retirement and estate planning."