Note: For an update to this post, please see “How to Guesstimate Your 2018 Taxes in Three Easy Steps.”
The tax overhaul bill passed by the Senate early Saturday, and headed to a conference committee with the House, eliminates some major tax breaks for individuals. That could create long-term hardships for people who made financial commitments based on a tax system long in effect. It also leaves much less room for all of us to employ financial strategies on a yearly basis.
Don’t be distracted by the new rate tables, which you can find on pages 3 to 4 of the 479-page Senate bill. (It downloads here as a PDF.) What I’m talking about are the amounts that get subtracted on your tax return before those rates are used to compute your tax. Without these deductions and exemptions, most of us will be worse off, at least for the next eight years. (For budgetary reasons, the provisions discussed here are set to expire December 31, 2025.)
Before the draconian changes take effect, in 2018, there’s time for you to take a few steps between now and December 31 to reduce what you’ll owe in April. But after that, we’ll start feeling the chokehold. How tight things will be depends on the size of your household, where you live, whether you own a home (or would like to someday) and your stage of life.
You’ll want to have your 2016 tax return handy as you review the following list. It explains how, depending on your situation, the tax overhaul may come between you and the American dream: a home of your own, a living wage and a comfortable retirement.
1You’re married with kids. Currently you can claim a personal exemption of $4,050 for yourself, your spouse and each of your dependents. The Senate bill repeals that. Figure the amount on line 42 of your 2016 tax return would disappear, making your taxable income on the following line that much higher. An increase in the child tax credit (for children under 17), from $1,000 to $2,000, does not come close to making up for the loss of the personal exemption.
2You own a home — or aspire to. For decades the ability to deduct property taxes and interest paid on a mortgage have been crucial to figuring out how much one could afford to spend on a home. Both these deductions are at risk. The Senate bill caps the property tax deduction at $10,000, and eliminates the deduction for interest on home equity loans. The House bill would reduce the amount of debt for which mortgage interest can be deducted, from $1 million, to $500,000, and the interest would only be deductible on a personal residence. Depending on how this gets resolved in conference, it could deter new home purchases and make it unaffordable for current homeowners with large mortgages and high property taxes to continue living in those homes.
If you own your home (or apartment) and itemized deductions in 2016, check Schedule A, line 6, to see what you paid in real estate taxes; and line 10 for the amount you spent in mortgage interest. The Senate bill doubles the standard deduction, from $12,700 to $24,000 for married couples ($6,350 to $12,000 for singles), and chances are that, going forward, you’ll be using that instead of itemizing.
To get some idea of how much worse off you will be, subtract from the new standard deduction what you are now paying in real estate taxes and mortgage interest. If the result is more than zero, multiply this amount by the tax rate that you expect will apply to you in 2018. That’s roughly how much more you will need to pay in taxes because of the new limitations.
With this in mind, you might want to prepay your real estate taxes for 2018. If you do that before December 31, you can deduct whatever you paid in 2017 on this year’s tax return. Any real estate taxes you pay after that can no longer be deducted.
Another strategy to consider is paying off your mortgage more quickly than the bank requires. This is a great investment, because your rate of return equals the interest rate on the loan. Not persuaded? Think of it this way: When you’ve paid down a dollar of debt, that’s a dollar you no longer owe. When you invest a dollar, you can’t be sure whether it will grow or shrink.
3You need to sell your house. Under current law, if you lived in the house for at least two of the five years before the sale, you qualify for a special break that is available to homeowners who sell their principal residence (but not vacation homes): The first $250,000 ($500,000 for married couples) of their capital gain on the sale is not subject to tax. The tax overhaul makes it harder to qualify for this benefit, because you must have lived in the house for longer – five out of eight years – to qualify for the break.
This doesn’t just concern people who are downsizing. It also “will make it harder for people to move for a job, and potentially harder for employers to recruit good employees who would have to move,” says Wendy S. Goffe, a lawyer with Stoel Rives, in Seattle.
4You live in a state or city that has an income tax. This deduction, too, will be eliminated next year. To measure the impact, check Schedule A, line 5, of your 2016 return. Add that to whatever you’re spending on real estate taxes. Then, as described in No. 2, above, figure out whether your current itemized deductions exceed the new standardized one. If they do, you’re worse off.
If you find that to be true, try to pay all the state and local taxes you owe for 2017 before the end of this year. If, instead, you wait until tax time, it counts as a payment in 2018, when it can no longer be deducted.
5You’re career-oriented. It’s ironic that the Senate bill is called the “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act,” because it eliminates a bunch of deductions for money we might at various times spend to advance our careers. These are expenses that get lumped together on Schedule A under the heading “Job Expenses and Certain Miscellaneous Deductions.” Examples include unreimbursed job travel, training or moving costs.
Under current law it has always been hard to get much juice out of these deductions, since you can claim them only if they total more than 2 percent of your adjusted gross income. But in some years that could certainly be the case. And the tax law, especially one with this title, ought to provide financial incentives for self-directed career growth.
6You’re retired or nearing retirement. As our earned income declines, those of us who saved money in retirement accounts will start to take withdrawals to meet current expenses. When we do that from traditional IRAs or 401(k)s (as opposed to Roths, which are funded with after-tax dollars), the money is taxed at ordinary income rates. In an environment in which fewer deductions are available to offset that income, more of our retirement savings will go to taxes and less will be available for personal use.
Knowing that, and with the stock market at an all-time high, you may want to skim off some of the growth in traditional IRAs before year-end, and load up on as many itemized deductions as you can possibly take before they disappear. (To make these withdrawals without penalty, you must generally be older than 59 1/2.)
For people who own their homes, another strategy to consider is renting out your primary residence and downsizing to smaller quarters that you rent, rather than own. This made tax sense even before the latest congressional fiasco, as I wrote here, but it could be even more attractive going forward. Though sharing economy websites are not hospitable to older hosts, real estate agents, who may see home sales go down as a result of the tax overhaul, might be happy to help.
One last note: As a journalist specializing in personal finance, I rarely cover pending legislation, because so much can happen between the time a law is proposed and when it actually passes. I’ve made an exception in this case, because the pending overhaul contains so many provisions that are enormously damaging to ordinary folks. I still hope our legislators will take all the commentary to heart, slow down and come up with something significantly better. Either way, stay tuned for more ways to make the most of what you’ve got.
Deborah L. Jacobs, a lawyer and journalist, is the author of Four Seasons in a Day: Travel, Transitions and Letting Go of the Place We Call Home and Estate Planning Smarts: A Practical, User-Friendly, Action-Oriented Guide. Follow her on Twitter at @djworking and join her on Facebook here. You can subscribe to future blog posts by using the sign-up box on her website’s homepage.