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Three money tasks to do right now

Avoid tax penalties, front-load your medical expenses and set up "savings buckets."

Take advantage of an early-year window to save

Take advantage of an early-year window to save on your tax bill and more, experts say. Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto/okan akdeniz

Most financial to-do lists focus on what you need to get done by Dec. 31, but there's also a brief window early in the new year to save yourself some significant cash. Here are three tasks to consider doing now:

1. Avoid tax penalties. 

If you live in a high-tax area, have a bunch of children or otherwise take a lot of deductions, you may face an unpleasant surprise on April 15. It won't just be a big tax bill. You may also face penalties for not having withheld enough taxes in 2018.

Tax experts say many people are still unaware of how many tax rules have changed. Personal exemptions no longer exist, for example, which can be a problem for people with many dependents. People also can only deduct up to $10,000 of state, local and property taxes combined, when there used to be no limit.

Free income tax calculators can help you estimate your tax bill, or you can turn to a tax pro. You may face a penalty — essentially interest on the amount you should have paid, but didn't — if you'll owe more than $1,000 on April 15. But there may still be time to avoid it.

Those who withheld too little can still avoid the penalty by making an estimated tax payment by Jan. 15. Instructions are on the IRS' payment page.

2. Front-load your medical expenses.

Scheduling routine health appointments and screenings early in the year helps make sure they get done. You could catch problems before they get bigger and more expensive.

Front-loading your costs can also help if you have big medical expenses later in the year. Most health insurance comes with out-of-pocket maximums, which is the most you're expected to pay in a year counting copayments, deductibles and coinsurance amounts but not counting premiums.

Once you hit your plan's limit, your insurance typically starts picking up the entire bill for medical care for the rest of the year.

3. Set up your savings buckets

"Savings buckets" are savings accounts for a specific purpose, such as vacations, property taxes, life insurance premiums, car repairs and so on. You figure out roughly how much money you'll need and when, then set up automatic transfers so the money is there when you need it. Having the cash on hand means you don't have to charge it (and pay high credit card interest rates) or take out expensive loans.

Some people who do this have a single savings account at a traditional bank, using a spreadsheet to keep track of how much has been accumulated for each purpose. But online banks make it easier and more intuitive. These banks typically allow you to set up multiple sub-accounts, and don't charge monthly fees or require minimum balances.

A few minutes spent on these chores now could save you money, time and stress throughout 2019.

If you have a flexible spending account for medical care through your employer, draining it early in the year can be a good plan. Although payments for FSAs are deducted from your paycheck throughout the year, you don't have to contribute the money before you can spend i. If you lose your job or quit, you don't have to pay back the difference between what you've contributed and what you've spent.

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