MONEY Taxes

8 Reasons Your Property Taxes Are So Damn High

150420_EM_PropertyTax
Lisa Corson—Gallery Stock Tourism keeps Las Vegas' property taxes low. New Jersey homeowners have no such luck.

Income taxes are probably top of mind right about now. But for many homeowners, high property taxes are an issue year-round. What's to explain why property taxes are such a burden in certain parts of the country?

A Monmouth University survey released last fall showed that more than half of New Jersey residents want to leave at some point, with 26% saying that it’s “very likely” they’ll move away from the Garden State. The most popular reasons cited for were the costs of housing and property taxes—the high cost of property taxes in particular. “The chief culprit among these costs is the New Jersey’s property tax burden,” Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, explained.

New Jersey isn’t the only state at risk of losing residents to Florida, Pennsylvania, or another state with lower taxes. Stories pop up regularly speculating about the likelihood of homeowners jumping ship from high-tax states like New York and Connecticut as well.

Why is it that some states and municipalities have much higher property tax than their neighbors in the first place? Here’s a rundown of a few major factors.

The community has good schools. Or at least extremely well-funded ones. According to Zillow, the median residential property tax bill in New York’s Westchester County is $13,842, highest in the nation. A Westchester Magazine feature focused on why the leafy, desirable county holds this dubious distinction. The piece draws a comparison to Virginia’s Fairfax County, which is similar in many ways to Westchester: They’re both suburbs of big cities (New York and Washington, D.C.), they have similarly high home values, and they educate about the same number of students in public schools, which in both places have a good reputation.

Yet Westchester spends over $1 billion more to fund its schools, and since property taxes cover the lion’s share of that bill, there’s a big disparity in what homeowners pay. The average residential property tax bill is about $5,500 annually, less than half of what Westchester residents pay (people in Fairfax still complain about property taxes being too high).

The average teacher salary in Fairfax was roughly $67,000 in 2014. In Westchester, the average was estimated at $88,000 in 2013. Benefits and administrative costs add up too—Fairfax County has one superintendent, Westchester has 40—and collectively they translate into bigger burdens on Westchester’s property owners. Defenders of high educator salaries always note that they’re necessary given the high cost of living in the area, and it’s a valid point. After all, teachers, principals, and superintendents must pay local property taxes!

State workers make good money too. By most measures, New Jersey homeowners have the country’s highest property taxes. Tax Foundation data shows that the Garden State has the highest effective property tax rate (percentage of home value) and the highest property taxes per capita. The average property tax bill in the state hit $8,161 in 2014, also tops in the U.S. In fact, one study indicates that less than 1% of American homeowners pay more than $8,000 annually in property taxes.

An Asbury Park Press op-ed published last summer noted that a big reason for the state’s high property taxes is how much the state pays its workers:

The problem lies less with layers of government and excessive numbers of government workers providing services than with the generous salaries and benefits of those who are on the public payroll. Average state worker salaries: highest in the nation. Average teacher salaries: third highest. Public employee health benefit costs: second highest in the nation.

Your state relies heavily on property taxes. The above-referenced editorial also points out that 48% of state and local revenues collected in N.J. come from property taxes, which is off-the-charts high: “No other state derives more than 41 percent of its revenue from that source; the U.S. average is 33.1 percent.”

This state of affairs would be more acceptable to locals if the tradeoff for high property taxes is low taxation in other areas. Indeed, New Jersey has one of the country’s lowest gas taxes, and it’s in the middle of the pack in terms of taxes on wine, spirits, and beer. Unlike many other states, people in New Jersey don’t pay any vehicle property taxes either. Then again, New Jerseyans do pay the second highest state sales tax rate (7%, only California is higher).

Little or no tourism. A recent WalletHub study named Hawaii as the state with the lowest property taxes. New Jersey property taxes are eight times higher than their counterparts in the Aloha State. And a big reason why homeowners get off (relatively) easy in Hawaii is that the state collects so much from outsiders, thanks to high taxes on hotels and other tourism expenses. Likewise, taxes paid by casinos and tourists in Nevada are often credited as a reason why state property taxes aren’t high.

Little or no industry. The more that industrial and commercial businesses pay in taxes in a state or town, the less it’s necessary for homeowners to cover the government’s tab. According to the Wyoming Taxpayer Association, 69% of property taxes in the state are paid by mineral production businesses. Therefore, residential property taxes can remain low—the state has no income tax either. The city of Marlborough, Mass., recently estimated that it were it not for local commercial taxpayers, the average homeowner would see his property tax bill (now averaging $4,791) shoot up by $1,164 per year.

Your property is worth a bundle. Your property tax bill is based on multiplying the local tax rate times the assessed value of your home. So, generally speaking, the owners of more valuable homes pay more in property taxes. Marin County has the most expensive real estate in California, on average, so it should come as no surprise that it has the highest (or among the highest) average property taxes too. In New Jersey, the 10 towns with the highest property tax bills all averaged over $18,000 per year, and five out of the ten had average residential property values over $1 million.

Or it’s not worth much at all. A recent RealtyTrac report shows that nationwide, the highest property tax rates were for high-end homes, valued between $2 million and $5 million. That’s not surprising. What is somewhat of a shock, however, is that the second highest effective property tax rate—calculated based on a percentage of a home’s value—was for houses at the extreme low end of the value spectrum, assessed at under $50,000 or less. Granted, owners at the low end aren’t paying big bucks, but in terms of the percentage of the home’s value, property tax rates represent a disproportionate burden.

Your assessment was too high. There may not be much you can do to change your local tax rate—other than move, of course. But you can challenge the assessment on your property. If your appeal results in a lower assessment, your tax bill goes down as well. The National Taxpayers Union estimates that somewhere between 30% and 60% of properties are over-assessed. This guide to disputing your property taxes from This Old House has some of the best advice on the topic we could find.

MONEY Health Care

You May Still Have Time To Avoid the Health Law’s Tax Penalties

The tax-filing deadline may have passed, but it's not necessarily too late to get around the penalty for going without health insurance last year.

Even though the April 15 tax filing deadline has passed, you might be eligible for some health law-related changes that may save you money down the road.

•If you owed a penalty for not having health insurance last year and didn’t buy a plan for 2015, you may still be able to sign up for a marketplace plan, even though the open enrollment period ended Feb. 15. Many people who didn’t have insurance and didn’t realize that coverage is required under the law are eligible for a special enrollment period to buy a plan by April 30. If you sign up now, you’ll have coverage and avoid the 2015 penalty, which will be the greater of $325 or 2% of your household income.

•If you paid the penalty for not having insurance for some or all of last year and didn’t carefully check to see if you might have qualified for an exemption, it’s not too late. You can still apply for an exemption from the requirement by amending your 2014 tax return. It’s worth looking into since the list of exemptions is a long one. For example, if your 2014 income is below the filing threshold of $10,150—or $20,300 for a married couple—you don’t owe a penalty for not having coverage. Likewise if insurance would cost more than 8% of your income or if you’ve suffered financial hardships like eviction or bankruptcy.

•In February, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services announced that 800,000 tax filers who received a federal subsidy to help pay their insurance premium and used the federal health insurance marketplace received incorrect 1095-A tax forms. These forms reported details about the advance premium tax credit amounts that were paid to insurers based on the consumers’ estimates of income. They were then used to reconcile those payments against how much consumers should have received.

If you filed your taxes based on information that was incorrectly reported by the government on the form, you generally don’t have to file an amended tax return even IF you would owe more tax. But you may want to at least recalculate your return, says Tara Straw, a health policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

“You have the option to amend if it helps you,” she says. Unfortunately, the only way to figure that out may be to do the math on the tax form 8962 that you use to reconcile your income.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

TIME Economy

Low Wage Workers Are Storming the Barricades

Activists Hold Protest In Favor Of Raising Minimum Wage
Alex Wong—Getty Images Activists hold protest In favor of raising minimum wage on April 29, 2014 in Washington, DC.

A few weeks back, when Walmart announced plans to raise its starting pay to $9 per hour, I wrote a column saying this was just the beginning of what would be a growing movement around raising wages in America. Today marks a new high point in this struggle, with tens of thousands of workers set to join walkouts and protests in dozens of cities including New York, Chicago, LA, Oakland, Raleigh, Atlanta, Tampa and Boston, as part of the “Fight for $15” movement to raise the federal minimum wage.

This is big shakes in a country where people don’t take to the streets easily, even when they are toiling full-time for pay so low it forces them to take government subsidies to make ends meet, as is the case with many of the employees from fast food retail outlets like McDonalds and Walmart, as well as the home care aids, child caregivers, launderers, car washers and others who’ll be joining the protests.

It’s always been amazing to me that in a country where 42% of the population makes roughly $15 per hour, that more people weren’t already holding bullhorns, and I don’t mean just low-income workers. There’s something fundamentally off about the fact that corporate profits are at record highs in large part because labor’s share is so low, yet when low-income workers have to then apply for federal benefits, the true cost of those profits gets pushed back not to companies, but onto taxpayers, at a time when state debt levels are at record highs. Talk about an imbalanced economic model.

A higher federal minimum wage is inevitable, given that numerous states have already raised theirs and most economists and even many Right Wing politicos are increasingly in agreement that potential job destruction from a moderate increase in minimum wages is negligible. (See a good New York Times summary of that here.) Indeed, the pressure is now on presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton to come out in favor of a higher wage, given her pronouncement that she wants to be a “champion” for the average Joe.

But how will all this influence the inequality debate that will be front and center in the 2016 elections? And what will any of it really do for overall economic growth?

As much as wage hikes are needed to help people avoid working in poverty, the truth is that they won’t do much to move the needle on inequality, since most of the wealth divide has happened at the top end of the labor spectrum. There’s been a $9 trillion increase in household stock market wealth since 2008, most of which has accrued to the top quarter or so of the population that owns the majority of stocks. C-suite America in particular has benefitted, since executives take home the majority of their pay in stock (and thus have reason to do whatever it takes to manipulate stock price.)

Higher federal minimum wages are a good start, but it’s only one piece of the inequality puzzle. Boosting wages in a bigger way will also requiring changing the corporate model to reflect the fact that companies don’t exist only to enrich shareholders, but also workers and society at large, which is the way capitalism works in many other countries. German style worker councils would help balance things, as would a sliding capital gains tax for long versus short-term stock holdings, limits on corporate share buybacks and fiscal stimulus that boosted demand, and hopefully, wages. (For a fascinating back and forth on that topic between Larry Summers and Ben Bernanke, see Brookings’ website.)

Politicians are going to have to grapple with this in the election cycle, because as the latest round of wage protests makes clear, the issue isn’t going away anytime soon.

Read next: Target, Gap and Other Major Retailers Face Staffing Probe

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

MONEY Taxes

How the Sharing Economy Makes Tax Filing Tougher

Lyft driver
Lyft Being a Lyft driver may not feel too fun at tax time.

When you make money working for a business like Uber, Task Rabbit, or Airbnb, doing your taxes can a pain.

Before Jane LeBoeuf started driving for Uber and Lyft, doing her taxes was cheap and easy.

LeBoeuf would swing by the local H&R Block office, pay $150 and end up with a refund. But now, that is not the case.

The 32-year-old from Providence, R.I. paid $470 this year to a professional tax preparer, and her refund got eaten up by the taxes on her side gig income.

As it is with so many other millennials—whether they are driving for a car service, renting property through Airbnb.com, or picking up jobs through TaskRabbit.com—LeBoeuf needed help sorting out the complexities of freelance income that comes with a host of possible deductions.

“There are a lot of people out there who are starting to realize they don’t have it all together,” says Robert Wheeler, who runs an accounting firm in Santa Monica, Calif. “Things are just getting more complicated. People don’t know what to do.”

Accountants point out that one of the biggest problems they see with those earning a sharing-economy income is a lack of record-keeping.

Freelancers like LeBoeuf agree: “I just find it to be too much for me on a daily basis,” she says.

Sometimes all it takes is asking for record-keeping help during the first year. But others need constant attention. Here are some tips on how to get started:

1. Get the right help

Some accountants are starting to specialize in sharing economy tax strategies, like Derek Davis, 28, who is based in Culver City, Calif.

Davis says he had his eureka moment after a ride home from work one night with an Uber driver who had no idea what expenses he was allowed to deduct, like repairs and gas.

Otherwise, tax preparers who specialize in freelance or small businesses would know their way around a Schedule C, which is where freelancers report income.

Since just about anyone can hang out a shingle that says they do taxes, consider looking for a preparer with certified credentials, which you can find by searching the databases of the National Association of Tax Professionals or the National Association of Enrolled Agents.

2. Develop a record-keeping system

Independent contractors are responsible for recording all their income—not just what is sent to them on a Form 1099. Equally, they are responsible for tracking their own expenses. But this can get very complicated for those tracking mileage—when you can count more than just the actual Uber trips you drive, for instance.

And it can be dizzying for those renting out spaces in their homes. For starters, those renting for fewer than 14 days get a break—they do not owe taxes on the income. Go past that, however, and you can deduct any expense directly related to your rental.

Solutions range from traditional spreadsheets to new apps. Intuit, the parent company of TurboTax, partnered this year with the freelance marketplaces Fiverr.com, UpCounsel.com, and TaskRabbit to offer for free its new QuickBooks Online Self-Employed, which can be directly transferred to TurboTax.

Among independent efforts, Derek Davis developed his own free app—Tabby Tax—to help sharing economy workers keep track of expenses.

Drivers can use any number of tools such as MileIQ, EasyBiz Mileage Tracker, and Easy Mile Log to keep track of car expenses.

3. Know what you owe

LeBoeuf was surprised how much her extra income boosted her tax liability and lowered her usual refund. But some people are caught by an even greater surprise—owing money to the Internal Revenue Service.

Many new contractors learn the hard way that you have to pay taxes on freelance income quarterly rather than rely on an employer to deduct enough taxes from a paycheck. Most tax software programs, and any tax professional, should be able to generate an estimate of what you will have to pay based on your projected earnings. Then you can adjust as you go so you do not end up with a penalty for underpayment.

TIME Taxes

Is Your Tax Rate Higher Than Walmart’s?

Use this calculator to find out

It’s April 15, Tax Day. And while dubious business expenses and home offices might help you save a few dollars, most people pay something near what the government sets as the tax rate for their income.

The same is not always true of corporations. While the United States has the highest statutory corporate tax among industrialized nations (39.1 percent), corporations have a greater number of ways to bring that tax bill down. Use the calculator below to see how your tax rate compares to the average effective federal rates paid by 10 major corporates between 2008 to 2012, according to Citizens for Tax Justice, a non-profit organization that advocates for corporate tax reform. The group’s board of directors includes a number of top labor leaders.

Calculations on how much companies pay in taxes vary considerably. A recent report by Citizens for Tax Justice found that profitable Fortune 500 companies paid an average effective federal tax rate of 19.4 percent from 2008 to 2012. The Tax Foundation, a think tank that studies the effect of taxation on the private sector and advocates for decreasing tax burdens, estimates that the nationwide rate is considerably higher–between 26.7 percent and 39.3 depending on the industry. The organization’s board members include two former Republican House members and Douglas Holtz-Eakin, the chief economic adviser to Republican Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign.

While different researchers and organizations typically find different numbers for the exact amount individual companies pay in taxes, Citizens for Tax Justice maintains one of the most comprehensive comparisons of individual businesses.

Multinational corporations leverage tax exemptions to lower their tax bill and return value to shareholders. Tech companies like Apple and Microsoft were criticized after a 2013 Senate investigation into a tax arrangement known as the Double Irish, which allocates profits of intellectual property to tax-haven countries like Ireland.

A new report from the Citizens for Tax Justice highlighted 15 Fortune 500 companies, including JetBlue and General Electric, that the group said either received a rebate or were taxed less than 1 percent of their income in 2014. GE has said that its decision last week to cut loose its financial business GE Capital could lead the company’s effective tax rate to rise to 20 percent in the future, the Wall Street Journal reports.

A February Pew Research survey found that 82 percent of respondents expressed at least some concern that “corporations didn’t pay their fair share,” compared with 53 percent who expressed concern over their own tax burden.

Methodology

The effective federal tax rates are drawn from the Center for Tax Justice’s analysis of top Fortune 500 companies, taken from the research group’s corporate tax explorer.

State and local taxes are not included in these calculations.

Read next: How April 15 Became Tax Day

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Economy

How April 15 Became Tax Day

Final Day For Filing Taxes
Erik S. Lesser—Getty Images A man deposits his tax return into a mailbox on the final day for filing taxes in 2001 in Atlanta

The April date has been "T-day" for 60 years

Founding Father Benjamin Franklin famously said that the only things certain in this world were death and taxes, but he wasn’t necessarily talking about federal income taxes. The U.S. didn’t institute such a tax until the time of the Civil War, as a temporary measure. The Sixteenth Amendment, ratified in 1913, made it possible for the federal government to tax individuals directly.

But the story of tax day doesn’t end there. In 1954, Congress passed nearly 1,000 pages of revision to the Internal Revenue Code. Though TIME noted back then that the bill didn’t really change the overall structure of the tax code, and that many taxpayers wouldn’t be included in the categories of Americans who would see a decrease in their tax bill due to the change, it did mean one big difference that every single taxpayer would feel: “T-day” would be moved to April 15:

The lawmakers rewrote and in some places tightened many provisions concerning gifts, trusts, partnerships and reorganized or liquidated corporations. They plugged a clutch of minor loopholes that some taxpayers had found profitable. They switched income-tax day from March 15 to April 15, thus giving the taxpayer an extra month to recover from Christmas expenses and sparing him the yearly ordeal of hearing and reading clichés about the ides of March.

But when 1955’s tax day rolled around, it became clear that — even if the extra month did help Americans’ wallets — the new date didn’t mean an end to tired date-based jokes. The Ides of March were no longer financially deadly but April, TIME noted with no hint of irony, is the cruelest month.

Read the full 1954 story, here in the TIME Vault: The New Tax Law

MONEY Taxes

These Are the People Who Are Most Likely to Get Audited

woman on balcony of modern house
Getty Images The uber-rich have the most to fear when it comes to tax audits.

As tax season draws to a close, you may be wondering if you're at risk. (Hint: Probably not.)

If Tax Day has you worrying about an IRS audit, you probably have little reason to be nervous. Last year, the IRS audited less than 1% of all taxpayers—and the federal agency is on track to audit even fewer people this year.

“The math is pretty simple. There are fewer audits because we have fewer auditors,” IRS commissioner John A. Koskinen told the New York State Bar Association in February. “The IRS lost more than 2,200 revenue agents since 2010. Last year alone, there were 600 fewer auditors, with the total falling to 11,600—the lowest level in more than a decade.”

Still, some Americans are subject to more scrutiny than others. The IRS doesn’t spell out why auditors single out some returns for special treatment, but a look at the agency’s track record provides some clues. Here are the groups that are more likely to get the government’s attention:

1. People who report more than $10 million in income—or none at all

It’s like the old saying about why the bank robber robbed the bank: “Because that’s where the money is.” With limited resources, the IRS takes a harder look at people with the most money (and the most to hide). In 2010, then-commissioner Doug Shulman told the New York State Bar Association targeting the rich was part of a new strategy to “work smarter.”

“This is a game-changing strategy for the IRS,” Shulman said. “Initially, we will be focusing on individuals with tens of millions of dollars of assets or income. Going forward, we will take a unified look at the entire complex web of business entities controlled by a high wealth individual, which will enable us to better assess the risk such arrangements pose to tax compliance.”

In 2014, the IRS audited more than 16% of returns reporting more than $10 million in income. But, as you can see in the table below, single-digit millionaires should take care with their tax returns as well.

Another group with a high-than-average chance of getting audited? People who report no income. If you’re reporting an operating loss on your business, the IRS might double check that you’re being honest. In 2014, the IRS audited 5.3% of the taxpayers who reported no income.

Otherwise, if you—like the majority of American taxpayers—earn between $25,000 and $200,000, you have a better-than-average shot of dodging an IRS audit. Here’s the breakdown:

Returns by Income

Percent of total returns

Percent audited in 2014

All returns 100% 0.86%
No adjusted gross income 1.83% 5.26%
$1 – $24,999 39.08% 0.93%
$25,000 – $49,999 23.32% 0.54%
$50,000 – $74,999 13.12% 0.53%
$75,000 – $99,999 8.33% 0.52%
$100,000 – $199,999 10.70% 0.65%
$200,000 – $499,999 2.87% 1.75%
$500,000 – $1 million 0.48% 3.62%
$1 million – $5 million 0.24% 6.21%
$5 million – $10 million 0.02% 10.53%
Over $10 million 0.01% 16.22%

Source: Internal Revenue Service Data Book, 2014

2. People who file estate tax returns for assets worth more than $5 million

Likewise, a huge estate tax return could raise some eyebrows at the IRS. Overall, 8.5% of estate tax returns were singled out for special scrutiny in 2014, way more than the 0.9% of individual tax returns.

And the bigger the estate, the more likely the IRS flagged the return for an audit. More than 21% of estate tax returns with assets between $5 million and $10 million were audited in 2014, and 27% of returns with assets worth over $10 million were audited.

However, estate tax returns are pretty rare: The IRS received 33,719 in 2013, and only 3,359 of those were for estates worth $10 million or more.

3. People who file international returns

If you’re mailing your return from the Cayman Islands, you can bet that the IRS is onto you. Over the past several years, the IRS has increased scrutiny of international returns.

“On the individual front, we have made putting a big dent in offshore tax evasion a major priority,” Shulman told the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants in 2012. “We view offshore tax evasion as an issue of fundamental fairness. Wealthy people who unlawfully hide their money offshore aren’t paying the taxes they owe, while schoolteachers, firefighters and other ordinary citizens who play by the rules are forced to pick up the slack and foot the bill.”

In 2014, the IRS audited 4.8% of international returns.

But there’s a cost to fewer audits

Law-abiding citizens have little reason to celebrate the limited number of tax audits. Koskinen expects that, thanks to federal budget cuts, the IRS will lose out on at least $2 billion in revenue that auditors would otherwise be able to collect. Plus, sometimes when the government takes a second look at your return, you get more money back: In 2014, the IRS decided 38,029 individual filers had paid too much in taxes and sent them additional refunds.

Related:

MONEY Taxes

The Procrastinator’s Guide to Finishing Your Taxes

flicking wads of paper to procrastinate
Daniel Grizelj—Getty Images Just because I'm not typing doesn't mean I'm not working on my taxes.

The deadline to file your 2014 income tax return is hours away. If you're not done, you're not alone. And you have plenty of options.

I’ll admit it. I’m an editor at a personal finance magazine and website, it’s April 14, and I haven’t yet finished my 2014 tax return. I’m usually a March filer, but, hey, life got in the way this year.

As of 10 days ago, the IRS had received 99 million tax returns, about two-thirds of what the agency expects. So there are tens of millions of us scrambling to reach the finish line. Here’s what you can do if you, too, have put off doing your taxes.

You can file for an extension. It’s a super short and simple form (4868), you can file it online through IRS Free File, and you get another six months to finish just by asking. See you on October 15, Mr. Tax Man!

The rub is that you have to estimate what you owe and send that in, which may feel like as much work as filling out a tax return. “If you’re not 100% certain of the balance due, be conservative and round up,” says Melissa Labant, director of tax advocacy for the American Institute of CPAs. If it turns out you overpaid, you’ll get a refund later or you can apply the excess to next year’s tax bill.

One more thing: Don’t forget to see if your state requires a separate application for an extension.

Reach out to the IRS if you don’t have the cash. When you can’t pay your tax bill in full, you’re looking at penalties and interest. “If you come up with your number by Wednesday but are short the money in your checking account, you have options,” says Mark Luscombe, principal federal tax analyst for Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting US.

As long as you owe $50,000 or less, you can apply for an online payment agreement from the IRS, which lets you spread out the bill over 120 days. Another option: Put the bill on your credit card—the roughly 2% fees might be less than the interest and penalties you’d otherwise face.

April 15 is still your last best chance to cut your tax bill. Other than scouring your files for overlooked deductions or forgotten charitable gifts, you can’t do much at this point to trim your 2014 tax bill—with one important exception. You can fund an individual retirement account for 2014, Roth or traditional, right up until April 15. But that’s a hard deadline, even if you get an extension.

As long as your income is below certain thresholds—$70,000 for single filers if you are covered by a retirement plan at work, $116,000 for married couples filing jointly—you’ll be able to deduct at least part of your contribution to a traditional IRA, thus trimming your tax bill. The most you can put in for 2014 is $5,500, and $6,500 if you’re 50 or older.

Once you’ve scrambled to fund your IRA, carve out some time to think about how you want to invest it. A study by Vanguard found that between January and April—i.e., tax season—IRA contributions are more likely to end up in money market funds (which nowadays pay zilch). And those last-minute investments are also more likely to be left to languish in cash.

Two more last-minute moves can cut your tax bill, though not as much as the IRA contributions. One: Those with self-employment income can still fund a SEP-IRA for 2014. And two: If you have a health savings account, you can still top off your 2014 plan—a max of $3,300 for singles, $6,550 for families—and those contributions are also deductible.

Questions? You’re pretty much on your own. The IRS phone lines are so swamped and undermanned that even the agency urges taxpayers to go to IRS.gov for help. Taxpayer advocate Nina Olson recently reported that only 25% of taxpayers are getting through to a live person, with a wait time of 22 minutes. Really stumped? File for an extension, advises Luscombe.

How about hiring a tax preparer on April 14? You might find a pro who’ll take you on, says Labant, but be prepared to have him or her file an extension for you and then help you out once the crunch is over.

Another option for more than two-thirds of taxpayers: As long as your income is below $60,000, you can get access to free commercial tax filing software via IRS free file.

In your dash to the finish line, don’t make dumb mistakes. Those include math errors, the wrong Social Security number (yours or your dependents’), and no signature on a paper return.

Those flubs can hold up your return (and your refund). What’s worse are mistakes that cost you money. To make sure you’re not missing any deductions (or failing to report any income), Labant suggests this extra step. “Sit back and compare your return to last year’s,” she says. Is there a deduction you took before that’s missing this year? Or an income source you reported for 2013 that escaped your 2014 return?

No time for even that quick exercise? I implore you: Seriously think about filing for an extension.

And don’t make a perfectly understandable flub. This year, you have a brand new chance to mess up. For the first time, you have to report whether you had health insurance last year (and possibly pay a penalty if you don’t). “Any time there’s something new, there’s a high error rate,” says Luscombe.

This requirement is simple enough if you got coverage through work or Medicare—you just check a box. Things get thornier if you bought an individual policy on an insurance marketplace and got a tax credit to subsidize your premium (hello, Form 8962), or if you’re applying for an exemption or calculating your penalty (Meet Form 8965).

To make matters worse, the federal government sent out 800,000 incorrect 1095-A forms to folks who bought policies on an exchange. Plus, H&R Block estimates that about half of those who got subsidies have to repay at least some of the money.

You can read about all of this at the IRS Affordable Care Act Q&A page. That could take some time. You know you can get an extension, right?

Remember: You can take a do-over. If you push through to make the deadline, then wake up on April 16 and realize you messed up, you can file an amended return. However, you might want to wait a few weeks, says Luscombe. That way the IRS won’t process your second return first and treat your original return as the amended one.

Vow to reform your ways. Do you hate the stress of filing at the last minute? “Don’t procrastinate again next year,” says Labant. Duly noted. Right after I file for my extension.

MONEY Ask the Expert

Which Wins for Retirement Savings: Roth IRA or Roth 401(k)?

Ask the Expert Retirement illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: I am 30 and just starting to save for retirement. My employer offers a traditional 401(k) and a Roth 401(k) but no company match. Should I open and max out a Roth IRA first and then contribute to my company 401(k) and hope it offers a match in the future?– Charlotte Mapes, Tampa

A: A company match is a nice to have, but it’s not the most important consideration when you’re deciding which account to choose for your retirement savings, says Samuel Rad, a certified financial planner at Searchlight Financial Advisors in Beverly Hills, Calif.

Contributing to a 401(k) almost always trumps an IRA because you can sock away a lot more money, says Rad. This is true whether you’re talking about a Roth IRA or a traditional IRA. In 2015 you can put $18,000 a year in your company 401(k) ($24,000 if you’re 50 or older). You can only put $5,500 in an IRA ($6,500 if you’re 50-plus). A 401(k) is also easy to fund because your contributions are automatically deducted from your pay check.

With Roth IRAs, higher earners may also face income limits to contributions. For singles, you can’t put money in a Roth if your modified adjusted gross income exceeds $131,000; for married couples filing jointly, the cutoff is $193,000. There are no income limits for contributions to a 401(k).

If you had a company match, you might save enough in the plan to receive the full match, and then stash additional money in a Roth IRA. But since you don’t, and you also have a Roth option in your 401(k), the key decision for you is whether to contribute to a traditional 401(k) or a Roth 401(k). (You’re fortunate to have the choice. Only 50% of employer defined contribution plans offer a Roth 401(k), according to Aon Hewitt.)

The basic difference between a traditional and a Roth 401(k) is when you pay the taxes. With a traditional 401(k), you make contributions with pre-tax dollars, so you get a tax break up front, which helps lower your current income tax bill. Your money—both contributions and earnings—will grow tax-deferred until you withdraw it, when you’ll pay whatever income tax rates applies at that time. If you tap that money before age 59 1/2, you’ll pay a 10% penalty in addition to taxes (with a few exceptions).

With a Roth 401(k), it’s the opposite. You make your contributions with after-tax dollars, so there’s no upfront tax deduction. And unlike a Roth IRA, there are no contribution limits based on your income. You can withdraw contributions and earnings tax-free at age 59½, as long as you’ve held the account for five years. That gives you a valuable stream of tax-free income when you’re retired.

So it all comes down to deciding when it’s better for you to pay the taxes—now or later. And that depends a lot on what you think your income tax rates will be when you retire.

No one has a crystal ball, but for young investors like you, the Roth looks particularly attractive. You’re likely to be in a lower tax bracket earlier in your career, so the up-front tax break you’d receive from contributing to a traditional 401(k) isn’t as big it would be for a high earner. Plus, you’ll benefit from decades of tax-free compounding.

Of course, having a tax-free pool of money is also valuable for older investors and retirees, even those in a lower tax brackets. If you had to make a sudden large withdrawal, perhaps for a health emergency, you can tap those savings rather than a pre-tax account, which might push you into a higher tax bracket.

The good news is that you have the best of both worlds, says Rad. You can hedge your bets by contributing both to your traditional 401(k) and the Roth 401(k), though you are capped at $18,000 total. Do this, and you can lower your current taxable income and build a tax diversified retirement portfolio.

There is one downside to a Roth 401(k) vs. a Roth IRA: Just like a regular 401(k), a Roth 401(k) has a required minimum distribution (RMD) rule. You have to start withdrawing money at age 70 ½, even if you don’t need the income at that time. That means you may be forced to make withdrawals when the market is down. If you have money in a Roth IRA, there is no RMD, so you can keep your money invested as long as you want. So you may want to rollover your Roth 401(k) to a Roth IRA before you reach age 70 1/2.

Do you have a personal finance question for our experts? Write to AskTheExpert@moneymail.com.

Read next: The Pros and Cons of Hiring a Financial Adviser

MONEY retirement income

Why Are States Leaving Billions in Retiree Income on the Table?

Many elderly can afford to pay more in taxes. And with a growing number of needy seniors to support, states can't afford to pass up that revenue.

Illinois is the national poster child for state budget messes. My home state faces a $7.4 billion general fund deficit and a $12 billion revenue shortfall. One proposed idea for plugging at least part of the horrific shortfall: tax retirement income. But our new governor, Republican Bruce Rauner, has rejected the idea.

Illinois exempts all retirement income from state taxes—Social Security, private and public pensions, and annuities. We’re leaving $2 billion on the table annually, according to the state’s estimates. And we’re hardly alone: 36 states that have an income tax allow some exemption for private or public pension benefits, and 32 exempt all Social Security benefits from tax, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP). States currently considering wider income tax exemptions for seniors include Rhode Island and Maryland.

With the April 15 tax day just around the corner, it’s a timely moment to ask: What are these politicians thinking?

Income tax exemptions date back to a time when elderly poverty rates were much higher than they are today (federal taxation of Social Security began in the 1980s). As recently as 1970, almost 25% of Americans older than 65 lived in poverty, according to the Census Bureau; now it’s around 9%. Today, it still makes sense to tread lightly on vulnerable lower-income seniors, many of whom live hand to mouth trying to meet basic expenses. And the number of vulnerable seniors is on the rise.

MORE SENIORS

But much of the benefit of state retirement income exemptions goes to affluent elderly households. The cost of these exemptions is high, and it’s going to get higher as our population ages. In llinois, the number of senior citizens is projected to grow from 1.7 million in 2010 to 2.7 million by 2030. That points to a demographic shift that will mean a shrinking pool of workers will be funding tax breaks for a growing group of retirees.

So there’s a real need for states to target these tax breaks to seniors who really need them. Yet one of the plans floated in Rhode Island would exempt all state, local and federal retirement income, including Social Security benefits—from the state’s personal income tax. The Social Security proposal is an especially good example of a poorly targeted break.

Currently, Rhode Island uses the federal formula for taxing Social Security, which already protects low-income seniors from taxes. Under the federal formula, beneficiaries with income lower than $25,000 ($32,000 for couples) are exempt from any tax (income here is defined as adjusted gross plus half of your Social Security benefit). Up to 50% of benefits are taxed for beneficiaries with income from $25,000 to $34,000 ($32,000 to $44,000 for married couples). For seniors with incomes above those levels, up to 85% of benefits are taxed.

If Rhode Island decides to exempt all Social Security income from taxation, more than half of the benefit will flow to the wealthiest 20 percent of taxpayers, according to an ITEP analysis.

“The poorest seniors in Rhode Island wouldn’t get a dime from this change, because they already don’t pay state taxes on Social Security,” says Meg Wiehe, ITEP’s state tax policy director.

WORKING LONGER

Another tax fairness issue is inequitable treatment of older workers and retirees. The percentage of older workers staying in the labor force beyond traditional retirement age is rising—and many of them are sticking around just to make ends meet. Those workers are bearing the full state income tax burden, effectively subsidizing more affluent retired counterparts.

Some tax-cut advocates might argue that breaks for seniors will help retain or attract residents to their states. But numerous studies show that few seniors move around the country for any reason at all. Just 50% of Americans age 50 to 64 say they hope to retire in a different location, according to a recent survey by Bankrate.com, and the rate drops to 20% for people over 65.

For those who do move, taxes are a consideration—but not the only one.

“A lot of factors go into the decision,” says Rocky Mengle, senior state analyst at Wolters Kluwer, Tax & Accounting US. “Climate, proximity to family and friends are all very important, along with the overall cost of living. But I’d certainly throw taxes into the mix as a consideration.”

Smart tax policy makers and politicians should take all these factors into consideration—especially in states that are facing crushing deficits and debt burdens. Targeted exemptions for vulnerable seniors make sense, but the breaks should be affluence-tested.

“The scales would vary state to state,” says Wiehe. “But a test that makes sure taxation isn’t a blanket giveaway with most of it going to the most affluent households.”

Indeed. In the golden years, not all the gold needs to go to the rich.

Read next: 1 in 3 Older Workers Likely to Be Poor, or Near Poor, in Retirement

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