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Your Tax Return: A Snapshot of Your Financial Picture

Imagine you had a camera that could take a snapshot of your financial transactions over the course of a year. This snapshot would give you a chance to see the results of financial decisions you made during the course of the year -- good and bad. By using your recently filed Form 1040 as a "snapshot" of your past spending and investment habits, you can use this information to make better financial decisions in the current year.

Imagine you had a camera that could take a snapshot of your financial transactions over the course of a year. This snapshot would give you a chance to see the results of financial decisions you made during the course of the year -- good and bad. By using your recently filed Form 1040 as a "snapshot" of your past spending and investment habits, you can use this information to make better financial decisions in the current year.

Evaluate your investment strategies. Reviewing Schedule D, Capital Gains and Losses, of Form 1040 for the past few years can be an eye-opener for many people. Did you hold stocks long enough to be entitled to the long-term capital gains rate? Did you try to balance short-term gains with short-term losses? Are you bouncing from one investment trend to another without a long-term investment plan that achieves long-term needs? Are your mutual funds "tax smart"? Looking at your tax return will help you decide whether the investments you now have are the right ones for you.

Become familiar with different types of banking institutions and their products. Find out about CDs, money-market funds, government securities, mutual funds, index funds, and sector funds and how they interrelate with the determination of your tax liability each year. If you are in a high tax bracket and need to diversify away from common stocks, for example, looking into tax-exempt bonds might help, especially if you have state income taxes to worry about, too. You may want to put that knowledge to work in your investment strategy.

Identify borrowing patterns. A look at the interest deductions you claimed on Schedule A, Itemized Deductions, of your Form 1040 can also pinpoint ways for you to let Uncle Sam help pay off some of your loans with tax deductions. Should you have more home-equity interest rather than credit card debt? Are you maximizing -- or overusing -- the advantages of borrowing on margin? Consumer debt is a necessary way of life these days for many taxpayers, but smart borrowing on an after-tax basis can help "tame that tiger."

Revisit medical costs. Should you be taking advantage of the medical expense deduction? Many people assume that with the 7.5 percent adjusted gross income floor on medical expenses that it doesn't pay for them to keep track of expenses to test whether they are entitled to itemize. But with the premiums for long-term care insurance now counted as a medical expense, some individuals are discovering that along with other health insurance premiums, deductibles and timing of elective treatments, the medical tax deduction is theirs for the taking.

Maximize retirement planning efforts. A look at your Form W-2 for the year, and at the retirement contribution deductions allowed in determining adjusted gross income, should tell you a lot. Are you maximizing the amount that Uncle Sam allows you to save tax-free for retirement? Should your spouse set up his or her own retirement fund, too? Are you over-invested in tax-deferred retirement plans, facing a large amount of tax each year after you retire?

Remember, too, that a defined amount of retirement income will only be available for a definite amount of time after you retire. If you are spending down your retirement savings with a five percent return at ten percent per year, those savings will be exhausted in a finite number of years. Do the analysis and try to save enough so that, between Social Security and your savings, you can keep your annual withdrawals to under five percent per year and still meet living expenses.

Extrapolate into the future. Review your Form 1040 like you would reconcile your checkbook except, instead of balancing your monthly budget in your check register, balance your annual budget in your life's registry. You may already use your checkbook to extrapolate one, three or five months into the future to ensure that your income will cover the bills. So why not use your tax return to extrapolate one, three or five years into the future to develop a plan that will cover your life?

Consider "The Big Picture". Many people ask "How long should I keep my tax returns?" It depends on how much of your own financial history you want to see documented. The tax code requires retention of tax returns for a minimum of three years but the more history you have of your financial progress - or regress - over the years, the more information you will have for your analysis for the future.

When you are reviewing your tax return and learning how you have spent your money during the last year, it may help to review some of what you've learned with the person who prepared the return. In fact, taking this step is very important to enable you to work together to better plan your financial future. Please contact the office if you need additional assistance or have any questions as you review your recently filed return.

If and only to the extent that this publication contains contributions from tax professionals who are subject to the rules of professional conduct set forth in Circular 230, as promulgated by the United States Department of the Treasury, the publisher, on behalf of those contributors, hereby states that any U.S. federal tax advice that is contained in such contributions was not intended or written to be used by any taxpayer for the purpose of avoiding penalties that may be imposed on the taxpayer by the Internal Revenue Service, and it cannot be used by any taxpayer for such purpose.