Get Your Money Sooner by Starting 2016 Tax Prep Now

Good news, U.S. taxpayers!

In 2017, Tax Day is pushed back to Tuesday April 18th, because April 15th falls on a Saturday and the Emancipation Day holiday (anniversary of the signing of the Compensated Emancipation Act by President Abraham Lincoln) is pushed to Monday April 17th. Residents of Maine and Massachusetts get an extra day to file federal taxes because Patriots Day falls on April 18th, 2017.

However, getting a head start on your return is a better strategy than waiting until April 18th or 19th, depending on your state of residence. From increasing the take-home from your remaining paychecks for the year to making the most out of a bonus check in the first few weeks of 2017, let's review five reasons why it pays off to prep for the 2016 tax season now.

1. Avoid Withholding More Than You Need To

Nearly eight out of 10 U.S. tax filers get tax refunds. This isn't good for two reasons. First, those individuals have to get throughout the year with fewer dollars. The average refund for the 2016 tax season was $2,777, or roughly $230 per month. Wouldn't an extra $230 per month for a full year provide more breathing room in your budget and help you pay down high-interest debt faster? Second, the IRS pays you no interest on the refund from your current year. Now, that's a double whammy.

To find out whether or not you have already withheld enough for this tax season, use the IRS Withholding Calculator and find out how to adjust your Form W-4. Chances are that you will be able to take home more money from your last paychecks from 2016 and avoid having to put those holiday purchases on credit.

2. Spread Out Tax Liability

Of course, using the IRS Withholding Calculator may reveal that you're behind your estimated tax liability. In that case, finding out earlier allows you to take several steps to avoid a huge lump-sum payment next year. Here is your game plan:

  • Adjust your filing status, number of allowances, and number of dependents on Form W-4 according to the instructions from the IRS Withhold Calculator to increase withholding on the next few paychecks;
  • Input an additional amount, if any, you want withheld from each paycheck on line six of Form W-4; or
  • Submit an additional estimated tax payment with the fourth voucher from Form 1040-ES due on January 17, 2017.

3. Boost Retirement Account Contributions

In 2016, you can contribute up to $18,000 ($24,000 when age 50 and over) to your 401K and up to $5,500 ($6,500 when age 50 and over) to your IRA. The catch is that all of your contributions to an employer-sponsored retirement account must be turned by your last paycheck. Even though you can technically submit contributions to your employer-sponsored retirement account until December 31, 2016, your last paycheck may fall on, let's say, December 23rd.

If you know that you still have a lot of room before you hit the maximum contribution limit for your 401K, you're in time to increase the contribution percentage from your paycheck for the remainder of the year. Act fast because some employers may make changes effective anywhere from one to four weeks.

In the event that you don't have a retirement account, find out whether or not you're eligible to set one up by December 31, 2016. As long as you set up your 401K or IRA by this date, any contributions to your retirement account that your employer makes through a commission check or bonus next year before Tax Day or the day that you file your return, whichever is earlier, reduce your taxable income for 2016! (See also: 6 Smart Things to Do With Your Bonus)

4. Get Your Refund Faster

The IRS issues tax refunds generally in less than 21 calendar days. By submitting your tax return earlier, you're increasing your chances of getting your return processed faster. By February 5, 2016, the IRS had received 26,670,000 returns and processed 26,133,000 of those returns. That's a 97.98% processing rate — not too bad. Fast forward to April 22, 2016, the number of returns received by the IRS ballooned to 136,528,000 and the processing rate drops by 3%. The early (tax) bird gets the worm (faster).

Completing your federal return early also helps you get your state refund faster. Remember that this year many states increased the required processing time due to new tax fraud prevention procedures. For example, the Hawaii State Department of Taxation increased the processing window from six to eight weeks to approximately 10 to 14 weeks.

To help increase the odds of a faster refund, opt to file your return electronically, whenever possible, and receive your refund via direct deposit. (See also: 8 Tax Return Mistakes Even Smart People Make)

5. Prevent Tax Identity Theft

Last but not least, a key benefit of preparing and submitting your 2016 tax return early is that it prevents tax-related identity theft. Here's a sample. As of February 29, 2016, the IRS had identified 31,578 fraudulent tax returns involving identity theft. Just six days later, the number of identified fraudulent tax returns increased by over 10,500!

When it comes to filing your return, every single day counts. The longer you wait, the higher your chance in becoming the next victim of tax-related identity theft.

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