OK, procrastinators, listen up: There are still a few things you can do this year to ease your tax burden. "Tax planning this year has been overshadowed by a bear market that left many individuals with substantial realized and recognized losses," says Bob Trinz, senior tax analyst for RIA, a provider of tax law and research. "But some tax relief did materialize in 2002" Though there were no dramatic tax law changes implemented this year, there were several implemented in prior years that took effect in 2002. For instance, higher phase-out ranges for the student loan interest deduction, a new above-the-line deduction (in other words, you don't need to itemize to claim this deduction) for higher education expenses, and higher contribution limits to retirement plans. In addition to these expanded breaks, though, there are still a few last-minute, tried-and-true tactics for lowering your tax bill. But you'll need to act quickly -- all the following strategies must be taken no later than Dec. 31, 2002.
Delay income. Typically, most office workers can't choose when they get paid, but if you have a contract business, work on commission or otherwise have an erratic pay schedule, push off whatever income you can until the new year. (Same goes for a holiday bonus, if you haven't received it yet.) Not only will you delay having to pay tax on the money for more than a year, but lowering your income in 2002 might make you eligible for certain tax breaks (for instance, to convert a traditional IRA into a Roth, your adjusted gross income can't exceed $100,000) that you wouldn't otherwise be able to claim. So if you're on the brink of the phase-out for one or more breaks, speak with your employer about delaying payment.
Go ahead -- charge it. Use your credit card to prepay expenses. For example, charitable contributions and medical expenses are deductible when charged to an individual's credit card in 2002, not when it's billed in 2003.
Get your deductions in a bunch. Several miscellaneous itemized deductions are only deductible to the extent they exceed 2% of your AGI. (For instance, if your AGI is $100,000, only the amount past $2,000 can be deducted.) Now's the time to gather as many of those deductions together as you can. Deductions subject to the AGI floor include job-hunting costs (including agency fees), unreimbursed travel, meals and entertainment expenses of employees on trips away from home, union dues, professional and business association dues, tax advice and preparation fees, legal fees and some education costs. Check out the IRS Web site or publications such as J.K. Lasser's Your Income Tax for a complete list.
Take care of your health. Similar to the miscellaneous itemized deductions, medical expenses are deductible only if you itemize and only if you have expenses exceeding 7.5% of your AGI. Allowable medical care costs include medicine and drugs, stop-smoking programs and exercise and weight reduction programs to manage a specific condition. If you have high medical expenses in 2002, accelerating other costs might help you meet the threshold for deductibility. If so, consider purchasing in advance any medication you know you'll need, or paying for a smoking cessation program that you may not start until 2003.
Pay up, but don't shut up. If you're contesting a tax assessment from a prior year, consider paying it in 2002. You can continue contesting it, but you'll be able to deduct them this year.
Same goes for insurance. Settle insurance or damage claims if doing so will maximize your casualty loss deduction for 2002.
Be generous. Make gifts to family members to take advantage of the $11,000 gift tax exclusion ($22,000 for married couples). It's a smart move for estate planning purposes as well as for spreading a little extra holiday cheer.