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Year-End Tax Moves Aren't Just for the Wealthy. These Strategies Can Help Lower Your Bill

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The end of the year is fast approaching, yet there is still time to take charge of your taxes.

While that might seem like something only the wealthy would do, there are also ways for the average American to save money — even if you are part of the 90% who take the standard deduction (which is $12,400 for single filers in 2020).

"This has been a very interesting year from a tax perspective," said certified financial planner and certified public account Howard Hook, partner at EKS Associates, based in Princeton, New Jersey.

For one, we don't know where tax rates will head, he said.

Also, required minimum distributions from individual retirement accounts and 401(k) plans were suspended for most people this year, thanks to the coronavirus relief bill.

From annual strategies to unique situations brought on from the coronavirus pandemic, here are some approaches that may help minimize your tax bite, or at least help you be better prepared come April 15.

Coronavirus-related distributions

Thanks to the CARES Act, Americans impacted by the virus were allowed to take out up to $100,000 from their 401(k) or IRA penalty free. However, you'll still have to pay taxes on the amount you took out.

You have three years to pay up, so if you took out $9,000, you'll report $3,000 on your income for 2020, 2021 and 2022.

If your financial situation turns around, you also have the option of paying all or some of the money back within three years, said Ed Slott, CPA and founder of Ed Slott & Co. in Rockville Centre, New York.

In that case, you can file amended tax returns for the years you paid levies on the withdrawal.

Roth conversions

Consider converting your IRA into a Roth if your income took a hit and landed you in a lower tax bracket, Slott said.

You'll pay any taxes on the amount now, at a lower rate, and not once you hit retirement, when rates will likely be higher. Your money will continue to grow and when you take your distributions, they will be tax free.

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"Even if your income is about the same, we have very low tax rates, relatively speaking," Slott said.

"The Roth is a play on the tax rates," he added. "It's like buying a stock low and selling it high. Always pay taxes at the lowest rates."

Donating to charity

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This year, everyone can write off up to $300 in charitable donations, whether you itemize your taxes or not.

For those who are 70½ and older, you can make what is called a qualified charitable distribution from your IRA without having to itemize your taxes. It is a way to donate money directly from your account without paying the typical taxes on the withdrawal.

Slott recommends this if you were already planning to make a charitable contribution.

"You are getting money out of traditional IRA at zero tax cost on a gift you would have been making anyway," he said.

For example, if you donated $10,000 and have a tax rate of 24%, you'll save $2,400 in taxes.

Consider taking your RMD

You likely don't have to take your required minimum distribution this year, since it was waived by the CARES Act.

Yet in some circumstances, you may want to. If you find yourself in a low tax bracket this year, it's better to pay taxes on your distribution now instead of when your bracket, or the tax rates, go higher, Slott said.

You can also convert the money into a Roth IRA.

"Because there is no RMD, anything you can take can be converted," he said. "That is only going to last until the end of this year."

Don't forget about unemployment pay

Unemployment pay is taxable. So while you can't really minimize the money you'll owe, you can do your best to be prepared at tax time.

"It always comes down to two things: Save more and spend less," Slott said. "If you can, always try to put money away; it doesn't matter how much."

Just remember, taxes are not the end-all, be-all, Hook said.

"We like to save taxes but, at the end of the day, nothing ever should be done strictly for income tax purposes only."

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