Web offers last-minute tax cuts

SAN FRANCISCO (12/30/2003) - The holidays may be just about over, but it's not too late to treat yourself to a gift that will keep on giving into the new year: a reduced tax bill.

Several online resources can help you take advantage of the remaining days of 2003 to get advice or get in some last-minute tax savings.

For example, the makers of the most popular tax-preparation software programs have already updated their Web sites with new information for the 2003 tax year, including tax-law changes and tips for smart tax prep.

HRBlock.com also offers a comprehensive list of deductions by category. One hint we dug up from the list: If you're a seller on eBay or other online auction sites, and you keep careful records, you may be able to deduct some of the costs of making and shipping the items.

The 2003 versions of H&R Block Inc.'s TaxCut and Intuit Inc.'s TurboTax software are both available now for purchase as downloads or CD-ROMs from the companies' Web sites.

Also check out PCWorld.com's tax software downloads.

Pay It Forward

Online banking and bill-paying services, such as Yahoo Inc.'s Bill Pay, CheckFree Corp., or MSN Bill Pay, make it easy and quick to sneak in a few last-minute loan payments that could be tax deductible.

Consider using that holiday bonus or gift checks to make your January mortgage payment in the remaining days of December. A percentage of home mortgage payments could be tax deductible, depending on your income tax bracket. Even if you mail a paper check, you'll still get a tax benefit as long as the payment is postmarked by year's end.

Up to US$2500 of interest paid on student loans is also deductible. You can make payments on federal Direct Loans at dlssonline.com. Some private loans taken to cover education expenses such as tuition or room and board may also qualify for this deduction. Check your lending institution's Web site to see if it accepts online payments, or use an Internet bill pay service.

There is also still time to set up an Individual Retirement Account, if you qualify. Many online banks, such as Citibank NA, Bank of America Corp., and Chase will let you at least begin the IRA application process online. Once you're set up with an account, transferring funds online to your new tax-advantaged account is simple.

Give a Little, Get a Little

One of the easiest ways to quickly reduce your tax bill for 2003 is to make a tax-deductible monetary donation or other contribution to a charitable organization.

This year's natural disasters--such as Hurricane Isabel, the California wildfires, and the recent earthquake in Iran--have created plenty of need for charitable donations. Charity clearinghouses WhatGoesAround.org, JustGive.org, and NetworkForGood.org sort organizations by cause, highlight regions and organizations most in need, and accept online donations on behalf of nonprofits.

Most charities that have their own Web sites, such as the Red Cross, accept donations online. You also can send a check and take a tax deduction for 2003 as long as it's postmarked before January 1.

Still have a few belated gifts to check off your list? JustGive and NetworkForGood have published a list of charitable gift ideas, from "adopting" an endangered animal or tree to greeting cards produced by charities. Also available are Charity Gift Baskets, which let you split one donation among a group of four organizations with similar causes.

Goodwill to All

If you're a little cash-poor after the holidays, don't worry: there are still ways you can help charities and give yourself a tax break.

Non-cash charitable deductions, such as donations of clothing or household items to charity thrift stores or curbside pickups, are easily America's most overlooked tax benefit, according to Gordon Whitten, director of Intuit's ItsDeductible Product Group. "Year after year, millions of taxpayers either undervalue their donated items or fail to deduct them at all," he says.

H&R Block's DeductionPro and Intuit's ItsDeductible programs assign fair market value to the items you donate, tally your deductions, and export that data to TaxCut or TurboTax, respectively. Both programs guarantee that users will see at least $300 in tax savings, and both are available as downloads or on CD-ROM from the manufacturers' Web sites.

If you're looking to share your generosity, Web sites such as WhatGoesAround.org, JustGive, and NetworkForGood allow visitors to create charity Wish Lists. These Web-based lists can then be accessed by friends and family who can give gifts in your name.

Don't have a group of favorite charities? Guidestar.org, a database comprising more than 850,000 IRS-recognized nonprofits, has an advanced search function that helps you find organizations in line with your values, based on keywords, category, location, and income range.

Finally, if you're making that always-popular New Year's resolution to lose weight, consider signing up for a weight-loss program before January 1. This move could help shrink your tax bill for 2003 as well as your waistline, as some of the costs involved of joining such programs may be deducted as medical expenses.

Weight Watchers has an online diet program that includes recipes, menu-planning tools, newsletters, and message boards. You can sign up instantly using a major credit card for Weight Watchers Online on the company's Web site.

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