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This tool offers a new way to estimate next year's tax refund

Susan Tompor

Summer will soon be fading out of view and, like it or not, 2019 will move toward a close. 

So what exactly have you done to withhold more money out of your paycheck to cover that 2019 tax bill? 

If you need a motivator, the Internal Revenue Service has launched its much-anticipated new Tax Withholding Estimator. The calculator reportedly makes it "easier to enter wages and withholding for each job held by the taxpayer and their spouse, as well as separately entering pensions and other sources of income." 

Stepping back to fine tune how much money you're withholding in taxes now can make a huge difference between dreading having to write a big check to pay taxes in April or actually looking forward to getting a tax refund. 

The estimator, which replaces the old IRS online tax withholding calculator, should help you see how on track you are right now. If necessary, you could make adjustments and dedicate more or less money toward federal income taxes out of your paycheck, and your spouse's paycheck, too. 

Many people found the old calculator to be a more than a bit cumbersome, but the new estimator is getting some good reviews. So it's clearly worth a look. 

See www.irs.gov and click on "Tax Withholding Estimator." 

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Why do I need to think about taxes now? 

Getting your withholding right, of course, takes on greater importance after a rather unsettling tax season earlier this year when many taxpayers ended up paying more than expected or took home far smaller tax refunds than usual. 

If you're working in the gig economy and juggling more than one job, the new program can take that into account, too.

Remember, take-home pay went up in 2018 once withholding tables were adjusted to reflect the lower tax rates in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017.

The Internal Revenue Service has rolled out a new online tool for making it easier to figure out whether you're on track for a tax refund -- or owing money -- for your 2019 tax return. The site helps you fill out a W-4 form accurately to reflect your expected tax bill.

For some tax filers, though, the extra money that ended up in their paychecks turned out to be even more than the amount their taxes would have gone down under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, according to H&R Block data. 

Were you upset by a smaller tax refund? 

Under the new tax rules, some people lost key tax benefits. Maybe your children are 17 or older and you don't get as big of a tax break. Maybe you now can only deduct up to $10,000 — and no more — for the money paid for state income taxes, local taxes and property taxes. 

If your tax story fell into one of those buckets, you could have faced more significant swings than the averages would indicate. 

The average tax refund was $2,729 this year through May 10. That's down 1.7% from a year earlier. The total amount of refunds was down 2.7% for that same time frame, totaling $277.26 billion through May 10. That's the latest IRS information available; other statistics will be released later in the year. 

While only a few months remain in 2019, it is still possible to have more money taken out of your paycheck to cover income taxes now to avoid unwelcome surprises in 2020.

How does this estimator work?  

The IRS online estimator is broken into six sections — information about your household, income, adjustments to your income, deductions from income, tax credits and your results. 

You need some paperwork on hand — such as your most recent pay stub and pay information for your spouse. You must know how much in taxes has been withheld already; how much you plan to contribute to your tax-deferred 401(k) plans this year.

You can be more detailed by entering any adjustments to income. But that's not required. The IRS site notes that most taxpayers don't have a large enough adjustment to have a significant impact on their tax obligation. Adjustments could include a student loan interest deduction, alimony paid that could be deductible for some in many cases and other factors.

What do you do next to update your W-4?

The online tool gives you step-by-step instructions for how to fill out a W-4. And you're easily able to download a blank W-4 to give to your employer. 

If you want to withhold more money in taxes, you need to fill out that W-4 and give it to your employer. 

Will this exercise even be worthwhile? 

The more willing you are to dig for your real numbers, the better your odds for a clear tax picture.

Amazingly, the format of the new estimator is extremely straightforward. To get more comfortable with it, I played around by plugging in some random numbers to see how you move from one point to the next. 

The only challenge, as I see it, will be getting your correct paperwork in order. It's important to know information about your tax situation, such as if you're going to claim deductions or take the standard deduction. 

If you can do that, well, a clear graphic pops up at the end to spell out what kind of refund you might expect after you file your tax return in 2020. 

You'll be shown an estimate for how much you might owe in taxes or the size of you estimated tax refund.

And there's a bar to show you how to make adjustments — even now. There's process to follow if you want to get a refund and another if you want to owe as little as possible. 

"Just as before, the more detail you put in the calculator, the more accurate the outcome will be," said Nathan Rigney, who is a lead tax research analyst at H&R Block’s Tax Institute. 

"Unfortunately, we know that most people aren’t comfortable updating their W-4 on their own and that very few did, even after tax reform."

So it's important that the IRS took the step to make it as easy as possible for people.

What's attractive about the online format is that it's not intimidating and you're not handing over anything personal like a Social Security number or your bank account information. 

"It’s easy if you’re sophisticated enough and organized enough to use it correctly," said George W. Smith, a certified public account in Southfield.

"Do I like and support it? Yes, definitely."

Some tax experts say they'd view the new estimator as a much more helpful tool than previous online calculators at www.irs.gov

"It’s user-friendly and takes a more comprehensive look at a person’s overall tax picture," said Patricia Bojanic, a certified public accountant at Gordon Advisors in Troy.

One highlight: A married couple has a simpler time taking into account the wages, as well as the taxes being withheld, for both spouses.

"If used with the right information, it should result in much more accurate withholding," Bojanic said. 

Maybe it won't turn out exactly on the money. But even if you make a good faith effort, things could turn out far better than if you simply kicked next year's tax return down the road and totally ignored the potential problems.

Contact Susan Tompor:  313-222-8876 or stompor@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @tompor. Read more on business and sign up for our business newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Want a bigger tax refund? New IRS estimator may help