Sweat the Big Things. Part 3: Taxes - The Broke Professional

Sweat the Big Things. Part 3: Taxes

This is Part 3 of my three part series about housing, transportation and taxes.  These are the three things which I believe can make or break your finances.

Part 1 discussed housing and Part 2 talked about transportation.

In this Part 3 of this series, let’s save the best for last and talk about taxes!

In my experience talking with fellow doctors and professionals, the subject of taxes usually comes up.  But many people misunderstand taxes.  It is most likely the single biggest expense you will face every single year.

You need to get it right!

Depending on which state you live in (California *cough cough*), your entire income can be taxed at 50% if you’re not careful.

Everyone has to pay taxes.  There is just no way around it.  So it really pays to find out ways to keep your tax rate as low as possible.

While the tax code is pretty complex, there are two main things that most working professionals need to understand to avoid paying too much tax.

PROGRESSIVE Tax Brackets

If you understand this chart, you are far ahead of most Americans when it comes to understanding the tax code.

We all pay federal income tax.  Most of us pay state tax too, but that can vary between states.  So I will just focus on the federal brackets for now.

This chart is important and understanding it will give you a good idea about how much tax you will pay.  More importantly, it will drive some financial decisions throughout the year that will help you minimize your taxes.

The first thing to realize is that the tax brackets are progressive.  Meaning that the more income you have, the higher your tax rate will be.  But our entire income is NOT taxed at the highest rate.  Just the limits spelled out by the tax brackets.

As an example, a new doctor makes $200,000 the the first year out of residency.  Looking at this chart, he might be horrified to learn that he will fall in the 33% tax bracket.  That means he will owe $66,000 on his $200K income!

This is actually incorrect and it is how many people think the tax system works.  The doctor’s income does put him in the 33% bracket, but the entire income is not taxed at 33%, just the portion above the lower limit.

So according to the chart, our doctor would pay 33% on the part of his income above $191,650, which is $8,350.  His total tax would be 33% of $8,350 + $46,643.75 from the previous brackets.  The amount of tax owed is $49,399.25.  That’s a lot of tax but still sounds a lot better that $66,000.  In reality his tax would be even lower with the standard deduction and other deductions available, but there isn’t enough space in this post to get into that.

So with the progressive tax brackets, our entire income is not taxed at our highest bracket only the last dollars we make are.  How can we use this to our advantage for tax planning?  Reduce the amount of last dollars we make!

And by far the best way to do this is by contributing to a tax advantaged account.  This could be a 401k, Traditional IRA or even an HSA.  Money contributed to these accounts are taken off the top of our income, so we are not taxed at our highest tax rates.

In the case of the doctor, if he contributed just $10,000 to a 401k that year, his highest tax bracket would become 28% instead of 33%.  That’s thousands of dollars saved in taxes right off the bat.  We should be saving for our retirement anyway, but it’s nice to be able to save on taxes every year in the process.

Know Your 1040

 

 

The tax code can be difficult to navigate, but the IRS gives you some clarity on the 1040 form.  That is the form we all have to file for our personal taxes, and having a basic understanding of it can really help reduce your taxes.

The 1040 form provides a summary of our taxes.  It lists your income as well as any credit and deductions you receive.  It is a great line by line playbook of how taxes are paid in this country.  Knowing the ins and outs of this form gives insight on why you pay the amount of tax you do.

It would be too involved to go into each line of the 1040, so I will just mention a few things about the place where you get the biggest bang for your buck: above the line deductions.

The higher income you have, the more tax you will pay in general.  So you want to get that income as “low” as possible.  That doesn’t mean you work less or start slacking off.

What we need to do is make as much money as we can, and then try to make it look a lot less on our taxes.  This sounds shady, but it’s totally legal.  And above the line deductions are the best way.

The “line” I’m referring to is line 37 of Form 1040, which lists our adjusted gross income (AGI).  We are taxed on our AGI and not our actual earned income, so making this number lower is key.  And lines 23-36 tell us how to do just that.

Not all these lines will apply to everyone.  But find what applies to you and work on that.  For most working professionals, deductions for IRA contributions and the student loan interest deduction are two easy ones.  Check with your tax professional to see where you can maximize your deductions.

Know thy taxes

The last thing I would recommend for everyone is to find your tax return from last year and take some time to sit down and go through it line by line.  It is an enlightening exercise to see how certain calculations for deductions and credits are made.

And if you don’t like looking through your tax return as much as I do, then sit down with your CPA before the year is up and see where you can find ways to minimize your taxes.

Taxes are definitely complex, especially if you have a business.  But if you sift through the complexity you will be able to find ways to reduce your taxes that many people don’t think about.  Just be careful not to reduce them TOO much so the IRS doesn’t come poking around!

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