Adjust Your W4 to Maximize Your Take-Home Pay This Year

by Emily Guy Birken · 14 comments

Year after year, many Americans are thrilled to receive a huge refund check from Uncle Sam after they’ve filed their taxes. I’m as excited as the next person to receive a wad of unexpected cash, but I also know that by getting a big refund from the IRS, I’ve basically given the government an interest-free loan of my money.

When it comes to your taxes, you should really aim for a modest refund each year, as that means you’re not having too much taken from each paycheck and you’re not scrambling to pay a bill come April. If you regularly receive a refund of $1000 or more, make this the year you do more with your money than just lend it to the IRS.

1. Talk to your HR department to get a new W-4. You probably filled one of these bad boys out when you were first hired, and it’s likely you haven’t seen the form since. But it’s a good idea to review this document periodically — like when you get married or divorced, have children, or buy a new home. Even if none of these things have happened, it’s a good idea to fill one of these out again if you know you can count on a hefty refund each spring.

2. Calculate your withholding allowances. Despite the fact that the withholding allowances that you enter into your W-4 form does not determine your tax bill, only how much you pay in taxes per paycheck, many people (myself included!) are nervous about the idea of taking more allowances than we always have. The IRS provides a withholding calculator that can help you to determine exactly how many you can take.

However, it is good to remember the common allowances you can take:

  • One allowance if you are single and have only one job.
  • One allowance if you have one job and your spouse is not employed.
  • One allowance if your income from a second job or your spouse’s income is $1500 or less
  • One allowance if you spend at least $1800 per year in child or dependent care expenses and plan to take a tax credit.

3. Determine how the allowances will best be split up between married couples. If you and your spouse are both working, you will want to figure out how many allowances you are both entitled to as a couple, and then divide them up however you choose. Generally, you will want to have the higher-paid spouse claim the allowances, as they will often have a greater impact, in terms of reduced withholding, with a higher salary.

According to Turbo Tax Online, married couples often under-withhold (that is, they don’t pay enough from each paycheck), so it is important to make sure you calculate correctly, particularly if this is your first year of married life. The W-4 worksheet offers a second page for married couples that will help you determine the correct number of allowances to make sure you don’t have a nasty surprise in April, 2013.

4. Once you file your new W-4 with your employer, you’ll soon see fatter paychecks. Generally, it takes about a month for the new paperwork to make a difference in your paydays.

With the extra money you’re seeing each month, you could beef up your retirement savings or savings for Junior’s college fund. The best use of that money is putting it somewhere where it could earn you more. Then you’ll know you’re using the money to its best advantage.

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{ read the comments below or add one }

  • casey says:

    Me and my hubby make $60,000 together. I make the higher income. We have 3 kids and 1 in daycare. Each of us want to take enough out, but dont want to pay in either? How many does he claim and me?

  • Kelly Murphy says:

    This is a great article! Please let me know when to change my withholding if I am separated, w 1 dependent, but not yet divorced? Do I wait til tbe divorce is final or do it now? Thanks!

  • Genn says:

    Thanks for the great tips! I just went through a rough divorce and realized I haven’t ever revised my W-4 to maximize what I bring home. Being a newly single mom this will help so much. I would rather be able to save my own then depend on a return every year.

  • Vatti says:

    My partner and i are going through a separation not yet divorce and living separately, we have a child, should i change my withholding to 1 less now? or wait until after the final divorce?

  • amanda says:

    I just changed my withholdings from 9 to 6…and am trying to figure out APPROXIMATELY how much more taxes will be withheld. Does anyone know the ROUGH/back of the envelope amount for each deduction?

  • Sharon says:

    I am singel and have 2 dependents how do I feill out my w-4 to get the most out of my check.
    I make 27 thousand a year but i am expecting a 9 thousand dollar check

  • Patrick R. Carlson says:

    Adjusting your withholding is always a good idea after receiving a large refund or having a large balance due. It’s also important if you have certain planned deductions or credits.

    Too many people never revise these and it’s often to their detriment, particularly the people that consistently owe.

  • Mike says:

    While it’s obvious to do the correct thing…..estimate your taxes so that you owe or receive nothing…..for some people this is their only vehicle to a savings end point. I don’t agree with his idea, but it may be the only one available to some folks.

  • AJ says:

    I’ve been doing this for a few years now. The first year, it was a $150 pay increase every two weeks. I have mentioned it to friends asking about financial advise. Some of them prefer to have a large refund. As long as they understand it’s a free interest loan to Uncle Sam, that’s their choice.

  • Marbella says:

    It is always better with the right money in my pay envelope than that I will “borrow” them to the government. I think I can manage them better than government can. So use W4 and get it right.

  • KM says:

    I revise my W-4 regularly (and this year, my employer asked everyone to resubmit theirs), but I didn’t know that withholdings had to be split up between the spouses. I just got married last year and this is new to me. I will have to see what needs to be done. Thanks for the tips!

  • Emily Guy Birken says:

    @Padgett, thanks for the kind words. I hope this helps you keep more of your money this year.

  • Padgett says:

    Great tips! Too many people forget about that W4 once it’s filed away and don’t go back to modify it.

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