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6 last-minute moves that can trim your 2020 tax bill

"Inaccurate withholding can lead to an unpleasant surprise come Tax Day," says a CPA.

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As the year comes to an end, tax planning may not be at the top of your mind. But before you watch the ball drop, you might want to take a few minutes to review your 2020 tax situation.

A few savvy moves before the end of the year — or in some cases, even in early 2021 — could significantly lower your tax bill. Call it a small victory during a year in which, for many, these sorts of triumphs have been hard to come by.

Read on for six strategies you can employ now that you'll thank yourself for doing come April 15.

Make an estimated tax payment

If you're like nearly half of Americans, you can't remember the last time you updated your withholding, which tells your employer how much federal income tax to take out of your check. "Inaccurate withholding can lead to an unpleasant surprise come Tax Day," says Gregory Anton, chairman of the AICPA's National CPA Financial Literacy Commission.

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If you haven't had enough taxes withheld from your paycheck this year, you'll owe a bill when you file, and may also have an underpayment penalty tacked on.

To see what you may owe, enter information from your most recent paystub into the IRS' Tax Withholding Estimator tool. If you've underpaid, "it's probably too late to adjust your W-4 for this year," says Lisa Greene-Lewis, a certified public accountant and editor of the TurboTax blog. "If you can, you should make an estimated tax payment."

You can calculate and pay your estimated tax via IRS Form 1040-ES. The final deadline for 2020 estimated tax payments (which can be made online) is January 15, but this deadline is waived if you file your return by February 1 and pay the entire balance due with your return.

Contribute more to retirement accounts

Money that you contribute to a pre-tax retirement account such as a traditional 401(k) or individual retirement account will lower your annual income and reduce your tax bill. If you're under 50, you can contribute up to $19,500 to your 401(k) and up to $6,000 to an IRA for 2020.

Contribution rules for 401(k) accounts vary from workplace to workplace, and you may only be able to contribute via paycheck deduction. But if you receive a year-end bonus, you may be able to direct some or all of those funds into your retirement plan. Call your workplace's plan administrator to ask about contribution rules.

For IRAs, contributions made until April 15, 2021, can be used to reduce your 2020 taxable income. Just be sure to tell your financial institution that you want the money to count for 2020, rather than 2021.

Open a retirement account for your side hustle

If you're a freelancer or self-employed, you have a whole different set of tax rules to navigate. "A lot of younger people dove into side gigs, like delivery services, this year," says Greene-Lewis. "They need to realize that they're self-employed. And the good thing about it is, there are so many deductions."

Like folks who earn a regular paycheck, self-employed individuals can lower their income by contributing to a pre-tax retirement plan. As with an IRA, you can make 2020 contributions to a SEP IRA or a solo 401(k) until the tax deadline next year. If you're using a solo 401(k), you'll just need to make sure your plan is set up by the end of 2020.

How much you can set aside may depend on factors including the account you use, how much you earn, and how much you've contributed to a retirement plan at your full-time job.

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Fund future education

If you're planning on taking a college class in 2021, consider pre-paying some of the bill, says Greene-Lewis. By paying expenses for classes that begin in January, February, or March now, she says, you may qualify for the Lifetime Learning Tax Credit for 2020, which is worth up to 20% of out-of-pocket education-related costs, for a maximum of $2,000. You don't have to be a full-time student to qualify, although there are income limits.

Even if you're done with school for a while, you may be able to trim your taxes by contributing to someone else's future education. Depending on where you and your potential recipient live, contributing to a child's 529 college savings plan may qualify you for a state tax deduction. See if you qualify under your state's rules at SavingforCollege.com.

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Harvest your investment losses

If you sold an investment and realized a gain this year, you owe taxes on the money you made. If you held the investment in question for less than a year, then you'll pay your normal income tax rate on the gain. If you sold after more than a year, you'll owe long-term capital gains tax of 0% to 23.8%, depending on your tax bracket.

If you fear you might owe a big capital gains bill, you can sell failing investments and use the resulting losses to offset the gains in a strategy known as tax-loss harvesting. If your losses exceed your gains, you can use up to $3,000 in excess losses to offset regular income. Any remainder can be rolled forward to claim in the next tax year.

This strategy comes with some tricky rules, though, so make sure you understand them fully before shifting investments around. And don't let potential tax consequences interfere with your long-term investing plans, says Naomi Ganoe, a CFP and managing director and private client services practice leader at tax consulting firm CBIZ MHM. "If [an investment] is making money, the tax can't be the only determining factor in holding or selling an asset," she told Grow.

Donate to charity

You normally have to itemize to claim a deduction for charitable donations — a nonstarter for the overwhelming majority of taxpayers for whom it makes much more sense to take the standard deduction. But a provision in the CARES Act allows for everyone to benefit from charitable giving this year.

Filers who claim the standard deduction can claim a deduction of up to $300 in donations, which must have been made in cash (rather than, say, donated clothing or household items) to 501(c)(3) charitable organization. "Even someone without a complicated tax situation can find a charity that deserves a few hundred bucks," says Joanna Powell, a CPA and managing director at CBIZ MHM, "and reduce their taxable income in the process."

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