7 Lessons From Tax Day to Remember for Next Year

Cue the sigh of relief: Another tax season has come and gone. Before you kick back and relax, though, take a little moment of self-reflection. Did Tax Day make your stress levels soar?

If the answer is yes, it's time to brush up on a few key lessons to take with you into the 2017 tax year. We guarantee you'll be breathing a little easier come next April.

1. Keep track of all your income

Specifically, don't forget about taxes you'll need to pay on any income you earn during the year outside of a full-time job. This includes money from freelance work or self-employment, dividends on investments, interest payments, and even gambling winnings. Be sure to track all of this income so that you're not surprised by a tax bill later.

2. Save all of your paperwork

Make sure you keep careful track of any forms and paperwork necessary to file your taxes. This includes your W-2 or any 1099s, as well as documents from banks, investment firms, and your mortgage company. These forms are usually sent out in February.

More immediately, if you make any contributions to charity, you'll need the documentation. If you own a small business, you'll need receipts for all expenses you plan to deduct. If you plan to seek deductions for any unreimbursed medical expenses, you'll need a bill from your health care provider. All of these are important in order to enter accurate information on your tax return. As you gather them throughout the year, set them aside in a file or box that you keep in a safe place.

3. Deductions and credits are your friends

A credit is a straight reduction in your tax bill. A deduction means you reduce the amount of your income that is taxable. Either way, these tax breaks should not be overlooked.

You can get a tax credit for having a kid. You can get a tax deduction if you pay interest on your mortgage. You can get a tax deduction for charitable donations. There are even deductions and credits for using energy-efficient appliances or driving a hybrid car. The list of possible deductions and tax credits is massive, and chances are, you qualify for at least a few. Most tax preparers and tax preparation programs will walk you through these deductions and credits to make sure you're getting the maximum benefit. If you haven't paid much attention to potential tax deductions or credits in the past, however, make sure you start this year. It could save you significant money.

4. Understand how tax-advantaged investment accounts differ

In addition to claiming tax credits and deductions, you can reduce your tax bill in advance simply by saving for retirement. If you use a 401(k), traditional IRA, or Roth IRA to build your nest egg, there are considerable tax advantages, and you need to understand the main differences.

With a 401(k) and traditional IRA, any money you contribute to your account throughout the year will be deducted from your taxable income now. In some cases, this could move you into a lower tax bracket and save you considerable money on this year's tax bill. With a Roth IRA, money you contribute is taxed now, but you will not have to pay taxes on any investment gains when you withdraw the money at retirement.

5. If you are getting a big return, that's not a good thing

Getting money back on your taxes is certainly better than owing so much to the IRS that you pay a penalty. But if you are getting a considerable amount back after filing your return, you may have had too much taken out of your paycheck and overpaid taxes throughout the year. So in a sense, the government has been holding onto your money interest-free for no reason when you could have been using it for yourself. To make sure this doesn't happen again, ask your employer for a new W-4 and increase the number of exemptions you claim.

6. If you make a mistake, you can amend your return

Tax time can be nerve wracking because people are petrified of making a mistake and having the IRS come after them. But the actual chances of the government knocking on your door are quite low. The IRS simply does not have the staff to audit many individuals, and when they do, they usually target either very wealthy people or people with very complicated tax returns.

If you do discover that you made a mistake, you can file an amended return without much hassle. Simply file Form 1040X, Amended Tax Return, along with the corrected (or missing) documents you did not originally file with your return. This happened to me once when I forgot to report some dividend income, and I never had the taxman knock on my door. (See also: The Easiest Way to Avoid a Tax Audit)

7. Use your taxes as a learning opportunity

Even with all these lessons under your belt, tax time can still be a tedious and stressful time of year. When all else fails, change your perspective. I personally find the process of doing taxes to be fairly educational. You can see a clear picture of how much money you actually took in during the year, and how much the government takes. The process of finding deductions can be a learning experience as well. If you approach doing your taxes with an attitude of curiosity, you may find the whole process to be less painful.

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