What your tax return can tell you about your financial health

By Eileen Aj Connelly Associated Press

NEW YORK — When you’re done with your tax return, your first instinct may be to stash it in a drawer and put it out of your mind until next year.

That would be a mistake.

A smarter move would be to think of your return as a financial snapshot. By taking a close look at it now, you can use your return to help map out goals for the rest of the year. Ultimately you may be able to improve your financial standing and possibly reduce what you owe come April 15, 2011.

From the address label to the size of your refund, your tax return can provide a surprising number of prompts for shaping up your finances.

Here are six questions to consider:

1. Should you adjust your withholding?

The last number on your return will tell you whether you need to adjust the amount withheld from your paycheck.

If you’re getting a fat refund, it’s smart to reduce withholding so you receive that money during the year. If you view a refund as forced savings, it makes more sense to keep your money, rather than wait for the government to send it back. You won’t earn much interest, given the current low-rate offers on savings, but you will have cash available for emergencies or for something fun, like a vacation fund. A $6,000 refund translates into $500 a month you could have control over.

If you’re worried that you will spend any cash within reach, Jim Sharvin, an accountant in Torrance, Calif., suggests opening a new account and directing your employer to split off the extra money and deposit it there. If you can’t designate multiple accounts for your pay, set up automatic transfers from your primary account.

On the flip side, if you’re writing a big check each April, you might see that as an interest-free loan from the government. But if you pay your tax bill with a credit card or other loan, chances are you’re better off paying as you go. Increase your withholding enough to cover your taxes and you won’t have to find ways to pay next year.

2. Are you saving for retirement?

“The one thing that most people really fail to take advantage of is the opportunity to contribute to an employer-sponsored 401(k),” said Gina Chironis, CEO of Clarity Wealth Management in Irvine, Calif.

If your job offers a plan with an employer match, you benefit twice, because you’ll save on taxes and get those matching funds.

If you don’t have a plan at work, that makes an Individual Retirement Account or Roth IRA even more important. And don’t wait until later in life to start funding one — start early and the money has time to accumulate.

Another way to set aside money for retirement is by using a Health Savings Account, Chironis said. If you have a high deductible health plan, you may be entitled to open an account that can cover out-of-pocket medical expenses tax free. And any money you don’t use can roll over from year to year, helping to establish a health care fund for later years when you’ll need it most.

3. Did you itemize deductions?

Internal Revenue Service statistics show that only about 35 percent of tax returns include itemized deductions. That means millions are missing out on tax savings, and for many it’s because of sloppy record keeping.

The most common itemized deduction is mortgage interest and property taxes, but even if you don’t own a home, you might be able to itemize if you keep careful records. Medical expenses, charitable contributions and job search costs may all be deductible, so set up a simple filing system so you don’t miss out next year.

“Now is the time to pay attention,” said CPA Sharvin. And don’t fall into the trap of fearing that claiming deductions could trigger an audit. “People walk away from lots of deductions,” he said. “You should take 100 percent of all the deductions allowed by law.”

But he warned that you shouldn’t automatically assume you’ll be able to deduct all work-related expenses that weren’t reimbursed. In fact, that should be a last resort. “Always make your employer reimburse you,” Sharvin advised.

4. Did you report any taxable interest or dividends?

Beyond your retirement savings, take a look at other investments. Did you receive taxable interest income or pay out taxes on dividends If so, you might want to convert that money into tax-free municipal bonds or transfer it to a Roth IRA to reduce what you owe, said Michael Eisenberg, a Los Angeles accountant.

And if you don’t have investments that generated these taxable items, but you have a good salary, it might be time to examine your spending patterns. “Where is all of that money going?” Eisenberg asked.

5. Is it time to buy a house — or pay off your mortgage?

With housing prices and interest rates still low, you may find it’s the right time to purchase a home. While the homebuyer credit expires if you don’t enter a contract before April 30 and close by June 30, buying a home will still bring tax benefits.

In contrast, Eisenberg said he has clients who could benefit from paying down their mortgage. If you’ve been paying your mortgage for years and the interest deduction is no longer substantial, it’s worth considering this option.

6. Did you file your first joint return, or have kids?

If you’re recently married or you’re a new parent, it’s a good time to reassess your insurance needs and make sure you’ve updated your financial paperwork and records.

For instance, is your new spouse named as the beneficiary on your retirement plan and insurance policies Do you need to get life insurance, or increase what you have?

Life changes like this can also mean it’s time to write or update a will and address related issues, Eisenberg said. This could lead you to create a broader estate plan.