Finances and Taxes

The Best Personal Finance Moves to Make Before 2019 Runs Out

Caleb Newquist Editor-at-Large, Gusto 
best personal finance

When you have responsibilities, they tend to get put on the back burner because responsibilities are not fun.

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Then you realize that no one is going to get your sh*t together for you, so that means getting serious about saving money, having health insurance, filing your tax returns, and other adult stuff.

Sorry, not sorry. It’s worth it.  

And since many of these tips require you to act before the end of the year, why not give up procrastinating while you’re at it? There’s no time like the present to figure out what being a grown-up is all about, so here are things you can do to prove that you got this.

1. Spend that FSA money

If your employer offers a flexible spending account (FSA) and you’ve enrolled as part of your health care package, now’s the perfect time to spend the remaining balance. You cannot, however, add money to an FSA if you are not enrolled in one. Keep that in mind when your company’s next open enrollment period comes up or you have a qualifying life event (QLE).

The good news is, there are lots of ways to spend that money. WageWorks has a searchable table that will tell you what’s eligible and what’s not. Here are some examples of things that the IRS allows you to use FSA funds on:

  • Acupuncture
  • Bandages
  • Chiropractic care
  • Condoms
  • Dermatology treatments
  • A doula, or birthing coach
  • Lasik surgery
  • Speech therapy
  • Sunscreen
  • Vasectomy

And a few things that aren’t allowed:

  • Insurance premiums
  • Cosmetic surgery
  • Diapers
  • Hair transplant
  • Health savings account contributions
  • Marriage counseling
  • Over-the-counter sunglasses
  • Teeth whitening

Here are more ideas for spending those FSA dollars. If you’re lucky, your employer may allow you to roll over $500 in FSA funds to next year or have a grace (i.e., extended) period of spending. But if not, it’s USE IT OR LOSE IT, DUMMY. Seriously. “USE IT OR LOSE IT, DUMMY” is the technical term the health insurance industry uses to describe forfeiting FSA money.

2. Save for retirement

If you like to sock a little—or maybe a lot—of money away, you have some time to max out your 401(k) contributions. The contribution limit for 2020 is $19,500, and an additional $6,500 if you’re over 50.

This is an especially good move if your company matches your contributions. According to a 2015 Aon report, 42 percent of employers now match  $1 for $1, making it the most popular match rate. Most employees will match from 3 to 6 percent of a participating employee’s total pay.

If possible, you should contribute the maximum amount your employer will match to take full advantage of the matching benefit. Also, both traditional and Roth 401(k) retirement plans offer tax advantages—contributions to a traditional 401(k) account are made on a pre-tax basis while contributions to a Roth 401(k) are made on an after-tax basis, but you get to take the money out tax-free.

3. Make some tax moves

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) nearly doubled the standard deduction, which means fewer taxpayers will be eligible to deduct things such as charitable donations, mortgage interest, and property taxes. The new standard deductions are:

Tax filing statusStandard deduction in 2020
Head of household$18,650
Married, filing jointly$24,800

If you think your total itemized deductions might be close to these thresholds, speed up any plans you have to donate to charity, pay property taxes, or make estimated state income tax payments so you can hit your minimum.

Now’s also a great time to contribute to a traditional individual retirement account (IRA). For 2020, most single and married taxpayers under age 50 may contribute up to $6,000 and take the full deduction on their Form 1040. Taxpayers older than 50 may deduct an additional $1,000 in “catch-up” contributions.

Here’s a table to summarize:

Taxpayer age2020 IRA contribution limit
< 50$6,000
≥ 50$6,000 + $1,000

The best news about IRA contributions is that you can make them all the way until April 15, so even if you can’t make a contribution now, you have a few extra months in 2020 to qualify for the deduction.

4. Get reacquainted with your pay stub

Another smart tax move is to revisit the federal and state withholding taxes for your paycheck.

Significant life events, such as getting married or having a child, can have an impact on your tax situation. If you experienced one of those this year, you’ll want to fill out a new W-4 to avoid withholding too much or too little.

And yes, in this year of tax reform, things got trickier. Households with two people who work and have at least one child (or take care of another family member) may fall into a situation where they’re paying less tax but also newly ineligible for deductions they’ve taken in the past. That can spell disaster if your withholding isn’t adjusted accordingly.

This is also the time of year for high-earners who have maxed out the Social Security withholding to get ready for slightly smaller paychecks after the first of the year. In 2020, maximum amount of wages subject to Social Security tax is $137,700.

There’s also the reality that many employees are more responsible for paying a larger share of health insurance provided by their employer. If your portion of the premium is going up, start mentally preparing for a little (or a lot *cringe*) less take-home pay.

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5. Open enrollment

People! If you don’t have health insurance coverage through your employer, it’s a good idea to buy it on the individual marketplace. Most of us can’t predict when we’ll get sick or hurt or how severe those maladies will be, so be smart and protect yourself by getting some health insurance, even if it’s just a high deductible plan.

The catch is, you have a limited window to buy insurance, aka Open Enrollment. In order to have insurance for 2020, you must enroll in a plan between November 1 and December 15, 2019. Some states may have different enrollment periods, but these dates are a good approximation of the timing.

If you don’t register during this time, you will only be able to do so if you qualify for a Special Enrollment Period. Most people qualify for Special Enrollment Periods due to a life event like marriage, having or adopting a child, getting divorced, or if they lose their insurance coverage during the year.

6. Take some time off!

On average, workers receive 10 paid vacation days (after a year of service). But unfortunately, many of them squander their PTO, allowing it to expire.

Although many companies allow some portion of unused PTO to rollover, Project Time Off has some sorry stats from their “State of American Vacation” report:

  • Fifty-two percent of American employees had unused vacation days in 2017
  • This 52 percent  let 705 million vacation days go unused.
  • Although American employees are earning more vacation days—23.2 days per year—  they forfeited 212 million vacation days in 2017.
  • This has major consequences: $255 billion in economic opportunity is lost to unused vacations.
  • The unused vacation could’ve translated into 1.9 million jobs in 2017.

This is just… sad.

Taking time off allows you to rest and recharge and enjoy your life away from work. It’s also valuable! The 212 million forfeited vacation days represent $62.2 billion in lost benefits! If you’re not using vacation, you’re basically flushing money down the toilet.

7. Do something nice

Under point #3, we mentioned that quite a few taxpayers will no longer be eligible for a deduction for their charitable donations. Despite that, it’s still a great time of year to donate your time or treasure to a cause that is important to you.

SHAMELESS PLUG: If your employer pays you through Gusto, they also have the option of matching your charitable contribution.  

If you don’t have a favorite cause, go find one! Websites like,, HandsOn Network, and the Volunteers of America all have listings of opportunities to give back in your area.   

There’s no time like the present to get your life in order. Work through this list to take advantage of the perks, keep yourself healthy, save for the future, and, yes, even relax a little bit.

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Updated: January 5, 2021

Caleb Newquist
Caleb Newquist Caleb is Editor-at-Large at Gusto. In 2009, he became the founding editor of Going Concern, the one-of-a-kind voice on the accounting profession, serving in the role for 9 years. Prior to Going Concern, Caleb worked as a CPA for nearly 6 years in New York and Denver. He lives in Denver with his wife, two daughters, and two cats.


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