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Taxes: 10 Terms You Should Know If You Want to File By Yourself This Year

Taxes: 10 Terms You Should Know If You Want to File By Yourself This Year

If you want to prepare and file your own tax return, you’re not alone. More than 27 million people did their own taxes[1] in 2014, a nearly 6 percent increase from the year before.

However, joining the 27 million-person-strong tax preparers and filers around the United States doesn’t mean that understanding your taxes is easy. Taxes can be daunting, especially if you don’t know the terms.

To help, here’s a list of 10 tax terms that you need to know if you’re doing your taxes yourself this year.

Adjusted Gross Income

Your adjusted gross income (AGI),[2] sometimes referred to as gross income, refers to all the income you’ve received in the year. This includes income you’ve earned, such as wages and income you may have received because of owning stocks, bonds or money market accounts. Interest, dividends and capital gains all fall into this category.

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The “adjusted” part of AGI comes in because you can subtract certain items from the income you’ve received. Contributions to an IRA, for example, might be subtracted, along with alimony costs. Be sure to read the fine print for what you can subtract. AGI is an important step in determining how much you owe.

Tax Deductions

Deductions are amounts of money that you can subtract from your AGI. They come in two forms: standard and itemized. The key to deductions is that they lower your AGI so that you do not have to pay as much tax. In general, the lower your income, the less tax you have to pay. So if, for example, you’ve earned $40,000 in a year and have a $9,000 tax deduction, you’ll only pay tax on $31,000, not the entire $40,000.

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) lists a certain number of deductions right on the Form 1040A or longer and more detailed Form 1040. These include student loan interest, deductible individual retirement accounts contributions, alimony payments and moving expenses.

Standard Deductions

The IRS is the agency that determines tax code. Every year, all tax filers get a standard deduction. The standard deduction is an amount that you can deduct from your AGI to lower your taxes. The amount of standard deduction for the year will be given in the IRS instructions for 1040 and 1040A. The standard deduction depends on your income and is usually given in a table. The IRS adjusts this figure every year for inflation.

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Itemized Deductions

You can deduct items such as mortgage interest, state, local and property taxes, medical expenses, travel expenses if for work or medical needs, charitable contributions, casualty and theft losses and more from your AGI as well.

Note that in some states, medical expenses must exceed a certain percentage of your AGI. It’s a good idea to keep track of your expenses[3] so you know what your medical expenses, including health insurance deductibles, totaled for the year. These are called “itemized deductions” because they need to be itemized, on Schedule A of Form 1040.

If your itemized deductions equal more than the IRS’s standard deduction in a given year, it’s good tax news for you, as you’ll have to pay tax on less of your AGI. You can take itemized deductions or the standard deduction in a given year, not both. Be sure to read the fine print about what’s allowed as an itemized deduction and how much.

Exemption

An exemption is an amount the IRS allows you to subtract from income to reflect people who share your household and may depend on you for income. You can take exemptions, for example, for yourself, any dependents and your spouse. A fixed amount of money is provided for every exemption. You’ll subtract the amount of all exemptions, including for yourself, from your AGI to arrive at your taxable earnings.

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Withholding

Withholding refers to the amount of money taken out of your wages or other income as you earn it, but before you get your paycheck. Paycheck stubs will list the amount of withheld money and what it’s for. Employers withhold taxes for Federal, state and local tax, as well as Social Security.[4] The withholdings go  to your tax accounts. For example, your Federal taxes go into an IRS account.

When you calculate your taxes, you’ll arrive at the taxes you owe for the year. The final step is to subtract any taxes that have already been withheld. These are given on your W-2 and other income forms. If you owe $10,000 in Federal tax, for example, and have had $9,800 in Federal tax withheld from your paycheck, you’ll owe just $200 when you file. If you owe $10,000 in Federal tax and you have $10,100 withheld, you’ll receive a Federal tax refund of $100.

Tax Credits

You can compare tax credits to credits from a store. After you calculate your tax bill, you can use tax credits to reduce the amount you owe.[5] They’re more valuable to the individual taxpayer than deductions because they reduce the amount of tax itself, rather than just the amount of taxed income.

If you have a $1000 tax credit and owe $10,000 in taxes, you’ll end up owing $9,000 instead. You may receive tax credits for some educational programs and home solar power installation, for example. These are revised every year, so be sure to read the IRS’s information about available tax credits carefully.

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Taxable Income

Taxable income refers to your total before tax — or gross — income with every allowable deduction, exemption and adjustment subtracted. Taxable income is the final step in determining how much you owe in taxes.

Basis

If you have stocks, you’ll need to know its basis. Any asset’s basis is the value original paid for it. If you’ve sold stocks this year, you’ll need to know what you paid originally, in order to calculate the gain or loss upon sale. You’ll then use those gains or losses to calculate your tax.

Capital Gains

Capital gains refer to any profit you made from selling a capital asset. Real estate, stocks and bonds are all examples of capital gains. You’ll have to pay capital gains tax on the profit from sale. If you sold at a loss, the loss can generally be deducted.

Doing your taxes yourself may seem like a daunting task, but understanding the language is half the battle. Now you’re ready to get a head start on tax season!

Reference

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Anum Yoon

Writer & Journalist

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Last Updated on August 20, 2019

How to Set Financial Goals and Actually Meet Them

How to Set Financial Goals and Actually Meet Them

Finances can push anyone to the point of extreme anxiety and worry. Easier said than done, planning finances is not an egg meant for everyone’s basket. And that’s why most of us are often living pay check to pay check. But did anyone tell you that it is actually not a tough task to meet your financial goals?

In this article, we will explore ways on how to set financial goals and then actually meet them with ease.

5 Steps to Set Financial Goals

Though setting financial goals might seem to be a daunting task but if one has the will and clarity of thought, it is rather easy. Try using these steps:

1. Be Clear About the Objectives

Any goal (let alone financial) without a clear objective is nothing more than a pipe dream. And this couldn’t be more true for financial matters.

It is often said that savings is nothing but deferred consumption. Therefore if you are saving today, then you should be crystal clear about what it is for. It could be anything like kid’s education, retirement, marriage, that dream vacation, fancy car etc.

Once the objective is clear, put a monetary value to that objective and the time frame. The important point at this step of goal setting is to list all the objectives, however small they may be, that you foresee in the future and put a value to it.

2. Keep Them Realistic

It’s good to be an optimistic person but being a pollyanna is not desirable. Similarly, while it might be a good thing to keep your financial goals a bit aggressive, going out of the line will definitely hurt your chances of achieving them.

It’s important that you keep your goals realistic in nature for it will help you stay the course and keep you motivated throughout the journey.

3. Account for Inflation

Ronald Reagan once said – “Inflation is as violent as a mugger, as frightening as an armed robber and as deadly as a hitman”. And this quote sums up the best what inflation could do your financial goals.

Therefore account for inflation whenever you are putting a monetary value to a financial objective that is far away in the future.

For example, if one of your financial goal is your son’s college education, which is 15 years hence, then inflation would increase the monetary burden by more than 50% if inflation is mere 3%. So always account for inflation.

4. Short Term vs Long Term

Just like every calorie is not the same, the approach towards achieving every financial goal will not be the same. It is important to bifurcate goals in short term and long term.

As a rule of thumb, any financial goal, which is due in next 3 years should be termed as short term goal. Any longer duration goals are to be classified as long term goals. This bifurcation of goals into short term vs long term will help in choosing the right investment instrument to achieve them.

More on this later when we talk about how to achieve financial goals.

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5. To Each to His Own

The journey of setting financial goals is an individualistic affair i.e. your goals are your own goals and are determined by your want to achieve them. A lot of times we get on the bandwagon of goal setting only to realize later on that it was not meant for us.

It is important that your goals are actually your goals and not inspired by someone else. Take a hard look at this step at all the goals you’ve set for after this step, you will be on the way to achieve them.

By now, you would be ready with your financial goals, now it’s time to go all out and achieve them.

11 Ways to Achieve Your Financial Goals

Whenever we talk about chasing any financial goal, it is usually a 2 step process –

  • Ensuring healthy savings
  • Making smart investments

You will need to save enough; and invest those savings wisely so that they grow over a period of time to help you achieve goals. So let’s get down to ensuring healthy savings.

Ensuring Healthy Savings

Self realization is the best form of realisation and unless you decide what your current financial position is, you aren’t heading anywhere.

This is the focal point from where you start your journey of achieving financial goals.

1. Track Expenses

The first and the foremost thing to be done is to track your monthly expenses. Use any of the expense tracking mobile apps to record your expenses. Once you start doing it diligently, you would be surprised to see how small expenses add up to a sizeable amount.

Also categorize those expenses into different bucket so that you know which bucket is eating the most of your pay check. This record keeping will pave the way for cutting down on un-wanted expenses and pump up your savings rate.

2. Pay Yourself First

Generally, savings come after all the expenses have been taken care of. This is a classical mistake which almost everyone of us do. We pay ourselves last!

Ideally, this should be planned upside down. We should be paying ourselves first and then to the world i.e. we should be taking out the planned saving amount first and then manage all the expenses from the rest.

The best way to actually implement is to put the savings on automatic mode i.e. money flowing automatically into different financial instruments (for example – mutual funds, retirement corpus etc) every month.

Taking the automatic route will make us lose control of our money and hence will compel us to manage in what’s left with us thereby increasing the savings rate.

3. Make a Plan and Vow to Stick with It

Budgeting is the best to get around the uncertainty that financial plans always pose. Decide in advance how spending has to be made.

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Nowadays, several money management apps and wallets can help you do this automatically. It’s easy and who knows, you may just end up doing what people fail to do.

At first, you may not be able to stick to your plans completely but don’t let that become a reason why you stop budgeting entirely.

Make use of technology solutions you like. Explore options and alternatives that let you make use of the available wallet options and choose the one that suits you the most. In time, you will get accustomed to making use of these solutions.

You will find that they make it simpler for you to follow your plan, which would have been difficult otherwise.

4. Rise Again Even If You Fall

Let’s be realistic. It’s not like the world will come to an end if you made one mistake. This isn’t called leniency but discipline.

If you fail to meet your budget for a month, don’t give up the entire effort just like that. Instead, start again.

Remember that flexible plans are the most realistic plans. So go forward and try to follow your financial goals as planned but if for some reason, the plan gets out of hand for you, do not give up on it just yet. This has a lot to do with your psychology rather than any material commitment.

All you have to do is to stay on the road and vow to stay on it, no matter how much you fall down.

5. Make Savings a Habit and Not a Goal

In the book Nudge, authors Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein advocate that in order to achieve any goal, it should be broken down into habits since habits are more intuitive for people to adapt to.

Make Savings a habit rather than a goal. While it might seem to be counter intuitive to many but there are some deft ways of doing it. For example:

Always eat out (if at all) during weekdays rather than weekends. Usually weekends are expensive. Make it a habit and you would in turn be saving a great deal.

If you are travelling buff, try to travel during off season. Your outlay will be much less.

If you go out for shopping, always look out for coupons and see where can you get the best deal.

So the key point is to imbibe the action that results in savings rather than on the savings itself, which is the outcome. Focusing on the outcome will bring out the feeling of sacrifice which will be harder to sustain over a period of time.

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6. Talk About It

Sticking to the saving schedule (to achieve financial goals) is not an easy journey. There will be many distractions from those who are not aligned with your mission. And it would be rather easy to lose the grip over your discipline.

Therefore in order to stay the course, it is advisable that you keep yourself surrounded with people who are also on the same bandwagon. Daily discussions with them will keep you motivated to move forward.

7. Maintain a Journal

For some people, writing helps a great deal in making sure that they achieve what they plan.

So if you are one of them, maintain a proper journal, where you write down your goals and also jot down the extent to which you managed to meet them. This will help you in reviewing how far you have come and which goals you have met.

Use this journal to write down all essential points such as your short term, mid term and long term goals, your current sources of income, your regular expenses which you are aware of and any committed expenses which are of recurring nature.

When you have a written commitment on paper, you are going to feel more energised to follow the plan and stick to it. Moreover, it is going to be a lot more easier for you to follow you and track your progress.

At this point, you should be ready with your financial goals and would be doing brilliantly with savings; now it’s time to talk about the big daddy – Investments.

Making Smart Investments

Savings by themselves don’t take anyone too far. However savings when invested wisely can do wonders and we are at that stage where we will talk about making smart investments.

8. Consult a Financial Advisor

Investments doesn’t come naturally to most of us therefore rather than dabbling with it ourselves, it is wise to consult a financial advisor.

Talk to him/her about your financial goals and savings and then seek advice for the best investment instruments to achieve your goals.

9. Choose Your Investment Instrument Wisely

Though your financial advisor will suggest the best investment instruments, it doesn’t hurt to know a bit about them.

Just like “no one is born a criminal”, no investment instrument is bad or good. It is the application of that instrument that makes all the difference.

Do you remember we talked about bifurcating financial goals in short term and long term?

It is here where that classification will help.

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So as a general rule, for all your short term financial goals, choose an investment instrument that has debt nature for example fixed deposits, debt mutual funds etc. The reason for going for debt instruments is that chances of capital loss is less as compared to equity instruments.

10. Compounding Is the Eighth Wonder

Einstein once remarked about compounding,

Compound Interest is the eighth wonder of the world. He who understands it, earns it… He who doesn’t… Pays it.

So make friends with this wonder kid. And sooner you become friends with it, quicker you will reach closer to your financial goals.

Start investing early so that time is on your side to help you bear the fruits of compounding.

11. Measure, Measure, Measure

All of us do good when it comes to earning more per month but fail miserably when it comes to measuring the investments; taking stock of how our investments are doing.

If there is one single step where everything (so far) can go wrong, it is at this step – Measuring the Progress.

If we don’t measure the progress timely, then we would be shooting in the dark. We wouldn’t know if our saving rate is appropriate or not; whether financial advisor is doing a decent job; whether we are moving closer to our target or not.

Do measure everything. If you can’t measure it all yourself, ask your financial advisor to do it for you. But do it!

The Bottom Line

This completes the list of tips for you to set financial goals and actually achieve them with not so great difficulty.

As you can see, all it requires is discipline. But guess that’s the most difficult part!

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Featured photo credit: rawpixel via unsplash.com

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