Business

MICHELLE SINGLETARY | THE COLOR OF MONEY

What does your tax paperwork say about your financial life?

Unless you’re getting a refund, you might not enjoy tax season.

But there is something for everyone to look forward to. Tax time forces you to gather major documents that make up your financial life. Even if you don’t have to file a tax return, use this time of year as a reason — or push — to become better informed about where you stand financially.

The Internal Revenue Service says more than half of taxpayers hire a professional to help them file their tax return. And many of these folks will put together the necessary documentation and not give more than a glance at what they’re handing over.

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“Individuals will bring their documents but never even open them,” Deenice Galloway of the Maryland-based Expert Tax & Consulting Service said.

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OK, so here are some suggestions on how to use the documents you’ll be compiling to either file your returns yourself or give to a tax professional:

 W-2: If you’re not happy with your income, use this document as impetus to improve your earnings potential. Are you taking full advantage of opportunities at your job to advance? Are there certification courses you could be taking at the local community college or online? Following your employee evaluation, are you heeding any advice on how to move up and possibly into a better-paying position?

 Form 1099: You’ll get this form if you received income last year beyond just wages or a salary. You might get a 1099 if you took an early distribution from your 401(k). If you get a 1099-R because you withdrew money from your retirement account to pay down debt, maybe you need help with budgeting, or at least a better debt repayment plan than robbing your nest egg.

 Form 1098: If you own a home, you will receive a 1098 to report mortgage interest of $600 or more. But even if you’re not itemizing, and therefore not reporting mortgage interest on your tax return, really look at what you’re paying in interest for your home. Perhaps it’s time to make extra principal payments to get rid of this debt as soon as you can. Don’t drag it into your retirement years. Bankrate.com has a mortgage payoff calculator that shows how much interest you can save by making extra payments on the principal.

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 1098-E: Got student loans? If so, you may be eligible to deduct up to $2,500 in interest payments. But when you get this form, I want you to focus on more than the possible deduction. How about boosting your efforts to pay off the loan early? Use the “Prepayment Calculator” at finaid.org to figure out how much you can save and how much faster you can get out of debt. And go to edvisors.com and search for “Strategies for Paying Off Student Loans Faster” to make sure extra payments are put toward your principal.

 Year-end retirement statements: Open them. Look at your investments. And ask yourself if you are saving enough. Many people are putting money aside for retirement but don’t have a clue if they’re on track for saving what they need. Go to choosetosave.org and, using the statements you get for your tax return, plug in the numbers in the “Ballpark E$timate” to calculate how much you need to retire comfortably.

 Receipts: Even if you don’t itemize deductions and decide to claim the standard deduction, look at what you spent last year on various things. Examine your medical expenses. Are you in the best medical plan? Now’s the time to look at your expenses so that next time there’s open enrollment you can make changes. Pore over your receipts for last year’s medical, dental or vision care. If you’re not yet taking advantage of health care spending accounts, maybe you should be.

Use this moment and your tax paperwork to make sure your financial plan is working for you. And if you don’t have a plan, this is the time to start.

Michelle Singletary can be reached at michelle.singletary@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter @SingletaryM.