Financial Focus/Tax-Smart Investment Tips for 2004

In just a few days, millions of Americans will scramble to file their tax returns. And many of them will wonder if they could have done anything to lower the taxes resulting from their investments. Of course, by then it will be too late for 2003 - but there’s plenty of time to make “tax-smart’’ moves for 2004.

Are investment taxes an issue for you? If so, then you, too, will want to take action. Here are a few steps to think about:

* Boost your 401(k) contributions - If you’re under age 50, you can put up to $13,000 into your 401(k) in 2004 - up from $12,000 in 2003. If you’re 50 or over, you can put in $16,000 this year - up from $14,000. Of course, your 401(k) provides you with two major tax benefits. First, you generally contribute “pre-tax’’ dollars, so the more you put in, the lower your taxable income. And second, your earnings can grow on a tax-deferred basis, so they have the opportunity to accumulate faster than if they were placed in an investment on which you paid taxes every year.

* Consider adding dividend-paying stocks - In 2003, new legislation lowered the taxes for qualified stock dividends. Previously, when you received these dividends, you were taxed at your individual income tax rate. But now, if you’re at the 25 percent tax bracket or above, your dividends will be taxed at only 15 percent. On the other hand, your interest payments will continue to be taxed at your individual rate. Consequently, for the income portion of your portfolio, you may want to shift some assets from bonds and certificates of deposit to dividend-paying stocks. (Keep in mind, however, that by doing so, you will increase your investment risk, including the risk of loss of principal. Also, stocks are not fixed-income investments, and they may not pay out dividends.)

* Invest in municipal bonds - If you’re in one of the top tax brackets, you may be able to benefit from investing in municipal bonds. When you own municipal bonds, or “munis,’’ your interest payments will be free from federal income taxes; if the municipality that issues the bond is located in your state, your interest payments also may be exempt from state and local taxes. In fact, the tax advantage of municipal bonds may be so great that you’d have to earn a considerably higher interest rate on a taxable bond - such as a corporate bond - just to get the same after-tax return. (However, some municipal bonds - particularly airport and housing bonds - may be subject to the alternative minimum tax.)

* Open a Roth IRA - If you meet the appropriate income guidelines, you may want to open a Roth IRA. Your Roth IRA earnings grow tax-free, provided you’ve had your account at least five years and you don’t begin taking withdrawals until you’re 59-1/2. For 2004, you can contribute $3,000 to your Roth IRA, or $3,500 if you’re 50 or older.

See Your Investment Professional-

Not all the suggestions described above may be suitable for your individual needs. To find out which ones may work for you, and what other tax-advantaged opportunities exists, see your investment professional and your tax adviser.

Also, remember that taxes, while important, are just one component of your investment strategy. So, while you’re thinking “tax-smart,’’ don’t forget other key elements, such as diversification and quality. By putting all these pieces together, you’ll have a more complete picture.

This article was submitted by the financial representatives of Edward Jones in Hagerstown: Greg Garner, AAMS, 301-733-9465; Dave Walker, 301-766-7300; Joan Bowers, 240-420-8514; John R. Pullaro, 301-824-7726; and Todd Streett, 717-762-0911.