Completed returns can yield clues to help you maximize your take-home investment returns.
By Christine Benz | 02-08-15 | 06:00 AM | Email Article

Note: This article is part of Morningstar's February 2015 Tax Relief Week special report. The article originally appeared Feb. 8, 2015.

Christine Benz is Morningstar's director of personal finance and author of 30-Minute Money Solutions: A Step-by-Step Guide to Managing Your Finances and the Morningstar Guide to Mutual Funds: 5-Star Strategies for Success. Follow Christine on Twitter: @christine_benz.

The rapid uptake of tax-preparation software means that fewer and fewer taxpayers are filling out their tax returns the old-school way: with pen, paper, and a calculator. That's probably for the better: Not only are the major tax software packages easy to use, but they can help reduce errors and save you money by prompting you to see if you're eligible for valuable credits and deductions. 

But preparing a tax return by hand does have one thing going for it. As you fill out each line and the supplemental forms and schedules, you can't help but take a closer look at each of the nitty-gritty numbers that go into your return: your income from various sources, any retirement-plan contributions or distributions, and income and capital gains distributions from the various investments in your portfolio. Those numbers can yield valuable intelligence about what you're doing now and what you could be doing better--not just in order to improve your tax bill, but to improve your total financial picture. 

Whether you prepare your taxes using a software package, delegate to a CPA, or tackle your taxes the old-school way, don't just file your return and stuff your copy in the drawer without further review. Instead, look it over, compare it to returns from prior years, and take notes. As you do, here are the key line items and forms to focus on.

Line 8 of Your 1040: Interest Income
Line 8a depicts your taxable interest income for the year; line 8b is your tax-exempt interest. Compare these figures to your interest income on previous years' returns; chances are they've been dropping. That's OK, at least in relation to the income you receive from bond funds; bond prices have generally been on an upward trajectory, offsetting the reduction in yields. 

However, you may be able to boost your interest (without taking on additional risk) by making a few small changes. By focusing on the cheapest bond funds you can find, you may be able to plump up your yield, if only slightly. Morningstar Medalist bond funds tend to have very low costs. 

And if you received multiple 1099s from various cash and cashlike accounts that generated piddling amounts of income (or worse yet, you received no 1099 at all because your income was less than $10), consider consolidating those accounts with an online bank account to receive a higher payout. Many online banks are currently paying out 1% (or close to it). 

Also, pay attention to your taxable versus tax-exempt interest. If you're in a high tax bracket, housing high(er)-yielding bonds in tax-sheltered accounts will help reduce the drag of taxes in future years. If you must hold bonds in your taxable account for liquidity purposes, investigate whether municipal bonds might not be a better fit given your tax bracket; the tax-equivalent yield function of Morningstar's Bond Calculator can help with this determination. 

Line 9 of Your 1040: Dividend Income
Are you receiving a bigger share of your total income stream from dividends than you did in the past? If so, just be sure to that you're comfortable with the higher principal volatility that will accompany any stock--even high-quality dividend payers--relative to high-quality bonds. Also, be aware that the valuations in many dividend-rich sectors--utilities, real estate, and health care--are on the high side right now, according to Morningstar's analysts

Here's another area where asset location can come into play; if you are paying taxes on a large sum of nonqualified dividends, such as REITs, consider relocating them to a tax-sheltered account such as an IRA.

Line 13 of Your 1040: Capital Gain (or Loss)
The year 2014 was one in a string of several good years for the market, so it was a reasonable time to take some profits from equities via rebalancing. However, if you're reporting large capital gains on this line because one of your mutual funds made a distribution, make sure you're paying enough attention to tax efficiency within your taxable account. This article discusses the risks of holding active funds in a taxable account; tax-managed funds, exchange-traded funds, and index funds will tend to be more tax-efficient equity holdings. 

If you land in the 10% or 15% tax bracket, however, capital gains can be your friend. As financial-planning expert Michael Kitces outlines here, such investors may want to sell highly appreciated securities to reset their cost basis. There's no tax cost to do so, and if they eventually sell, the spread between their new basis and the sale price will be lower.

Line 15 of Your 1040: IRA Distributions
Retirees aren't the only ones who have to report IRA distributions; investors who are converting Traditional IRA assets to Roth also have to do so. The tax due on the distribution or conversion is based on the ratio of assets that have been taxed to those that have never been taxed within your Traditional, SEP, and SIMPLE IRAs. If you have aftertax dollars inside of your IRA and want to properly account for them when you make a distribution (that is, avoid paying taxes on them again), you'll also need to file Form 8606. Form 8606 is where you account for nondeductible IRA contributions, essentially "showing your work" to determine which portion of your IRA distribution is taxable. 

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Christine Benz does not own shares in any of the securities mentioned above. Find out about Morningstar's editorial policies.
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