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The way you fill out the W-4 form that you turn in to your employer when you start a new job determines how much income tax you will have withheld from each paycheck, which affects how much you will ultimately owe or receive as a refund in April. What you may not know is that it’s possible to submit a new W-4 form to your employer whenever you want – it’s not a one-time thing. (For more on income taxes, see our Tax Center.) Managing what your employer withholds through your W-4 form will enable you to have a better shot at owing no taxes in April.
On the other hand, you also don’t want to overpay taxes and give an interest-free loan to Uncle Sam all year, which could also happen. Read on to find out how to get your tax bill or refund closer to zero before tax time approaches.
Your personal situation will determine how accurately you can calculate your total tax liability for the year. If you are a salaried employee with a steady job, it’s relatively easy, because you can predict what your total income for the year will be. If you’re an hourly, seasonal or self-employed worker, make an educated guess based on your earnings history in your current line of work and how your year has gone so far.
You have three options for calculating your tax liability:
Once you know the total amount you will owe in federal taxes, you’ll need to figure out how much you need to have withheld per pay period to get to that total, but not exceed it, by December 31.
If it’s so early in the year that you haven’t received any paychecks or pay stubs yet, just divide your total tax liability for the year by the number of paychecks you receive. Then, compare that amount to the amount that is withheld from your first paycheck of the year and make any necessary adjustments.
If it’s not the beginning of the year, you’ll need to compensate for all the previous pay periods when you were over- or underpaying your federal tax by filling out a new W-4 to adjust your withholding up or down for the rest of the year. Then, the following January, you’ll need to fill out a new W-4 again, or else your withholding will be off for the new year.
Finding out that you owe money when you were expecting a refund is a nasty shock. There are, of course, a number of ways to raise the money if you find yourself with a sudden, hefty tax bill. But it’s better to strategize proactively and avoid it.
The basic way to resolve the under- or overpayment problem is the same. But instead of dividing the amount you’ll owe for the whole year by the number of paychecks you receive, you’ll need to figure out how much you’ve paid in federal taxes so far (your pay stub may have a running total; if not, ask your HR department). Subtract that amount from what you owe, then divide the result by the number of pay periods remaining for the year. The final number is how much federal tax you need to have withheld from each paycheck. If you’ve been underpaying, a simple subtraction calculation will show you how much extra you need to pay each month.
Figuring out the reverse is trickier. There is no simple way to do it; the best method is to plug different numbers of withholding allowances into a paycheck calculator until it spits out the amount closest to the calculated federal tax you want to be paying each pay period.
Remember, if you’re self-employed, have fluctuating income because you’re an hourly or seasonal worker, have multiple jobs or lower your taxes by itemizing your deductions, things get considerably more complicated. You probably won’t be able to make sure you owe nothing on your taxes with 100% accuracy because your income and tax liability will change throughout the year. But following these steps may help you get closer to a reasonable number. You can always redo the calculations described above two or three times a year as your income picture evolves.
It sometimes takes considerable effort to figure out what amount you should really have withheld from each paycheck, especially if it’s not the beginning of the year. However, a couple of hours now can either increase your monthly cash flow for the rest of the year or save you from an unexpected bill at tax time. Having money now is more valuable than having the same money in the future for a variety of not-always-obvious mathematical reasons; it’s worth getting as much cash per month as Uncle Sam will permit.
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