Family Finance: Tax-time Tips

Julanne Hohbach

Ah, April. It's the first full month of spring, the second-to-the-last month of school and—everyone's favorite—tax time.

Hopefully you've already filed your federal, state and local returns and don't have a date with TurboTax the night of April 17. If not, good luck. At least the filing deadline is two days later this year.

For many families, this annual encounter with Uncle Sam prompts conversations about income tax withholdings. Are you having your employer take enough taxes out of your paycheck? Too much? Should you aim to get a refund, or is it better to owe a little money at the end of the year?

The questions can be almost as confusing as the tax code itself. Type “advice on tax withholding” into Google and you'll get 18.4 million hits. At least you're not the only one who needs guidance.

Let's start with the basics. The amount of tax you owe the feds is governed in large part by your IRS Form W-4. It's one of those papers the HR department hands out your first day on the job. Officially labeled the Employee's Withholding Allowance Certificate, it tells your employer how much in federal tax you want to have taken out of your check. Questions pertaining to whether you're single or married and how many allowances you're claiming determine how much is withheld.

Many employees fill out the form when they join an organization and never touch it again—even if they get married or have children. But those life changes may result in a refund for overpaid taxes, or an unpleasant discovery that you owe more money at year's end. Bankrate suggests re-evaluating anytime there's a major life change (such as marriage, divorce, baby, job loss); decrease your allowances if you owe money and increase them if you get a refund.

A two-page worksheet aims to help you sort it all out, but be advised it can begin to resemble a choose-your-own-adventure book full of “if this, then that” scenarios. Second jobs and freelance income muddy the waters even more. The W-4 does allow taxpayers to have more money withheld if they have other tax credits or significant income from dividends or interest. Keep in mind, you're under no obligation to claim the number of allowances the worksheet says you should. If you want to have more (or less) tax withheld, that's your prerogative.

Bear in mind, too, that the new tax laws signed into effect in December by President Donald Trump boosted many workers' take-home pay (up to 90 percent of taxpayers, according to the U.S. Treasury Department). That, in turn, affected the withholding tables, so compare how your 2018 paycheck changed from 2017 and modify your W-4 as needed.

Remember: The more allowances you claim, the less money that's withheld in taxes. In reality, no matter how carefully you calculate it, you're extremely unlikely to hit the nail precisely on the head and either owe or get back nothing. According to Fidelity, about 20 percent of taxpayers owe the government money in a particular year. Owing more than $1,000, however, makes you more likely to face an IRS penalty for underpayment, the brokerage says.

Most taxpayers love getting a big refund to start out the new year. However, financial planners and accountants advise that it's better to owe a little than get money back. With the latter, you're basically giving the government a free loan.

Instead, withhold less in taxes, take some money from your now-larger paycheck and invest it. A good bet is a high-yield certificate of deposit, if you don't mind tying the money up for the term of the CD.

But even if you just put the money in a savings account, you'll earn something. Interest rates on those accounts aren't what they used to be, but even a little extra pocket change is better than nothing.