Doing your taxes is already unpleasant enough without running into any surprises during the process. But for plenty of taxpayers this year, surprises are exactly what the future holds.

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, passed in December 2017, was one of the largest tax overhauls in decades — and it took effect for the 2018 tax year, meaning you’ll see changes starting now. Among other things, the bill limits state and local tax deductions (you can deduct up to $10,000), lowers tax rates, and roughly doubles the standard deduction amount, which is the flat number that reduces the amount of income you have to pay taxes on.

For many folks, the changes are a lot to keep up with. In a survey commissioned by the personal finance company NerdWallet, over a quarter of Americans could not confidently report what exactly changed with the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, and nearly half didn’t know what it would mean for their tax bracket, specifically.

As April 15 inches closer, tax professionals and financial experts weigh in on what they wished more people knew going into tax season, their best advice for the changes taking place, and how to prepare for next year.

Answers have been edited for length and clarity.


Learn the lingo

Credits mean more than deductions. They come right off the taxes you owe, dollar for dollar. Deductions just reduce; it’s not dollar for dollar.

Lisa Greene-Lewis, CPA and tax expert for TurboTax

Be prepared for a (potentially) smaller refund

The new tax rules likely mean that many people will pay less in overall taxes for 2018, but one big unknown is how the new withholding tables that employers started using last year will affect people when they file. Some taxpayers may find their tax refund is smaller than expected, or that they owe money.

Andrea Coombes, NerdWallet tax specialist

The new tax law lowered the tax rates and lowered the withholding tables. These things combined will likely lower taxpayer refunds, or possibly cause a balance due, where in past years there may not have been one. Discuss proper withholding with your tax preparer to avoid unwelcome surprises in the future.

— Cindy Hockenberry, director of federal tax research and government relations, National Association of Tax Professionals

Adjust your withholding

If your refund was big, that’s money you could have been getting in each paycheck. It could be smart to let your employer know you want to adjust your W-4 form, so that less is taken out of each paycheck. And vice versa: If you got a big bill, or a refund that was smaller than you wanted, then consider changing your W-4 so that more is withheld.

Andrea Coombes

Take advantage of the standard deduction

Since the standard deduction has increased, fewer taxpayers will itemize their deductions. This won’t cause them to lose out, economically— it just means that they’ll be getting a better tax result from claiming the standard deduction than they would have gotten through itemizing their deductions.

Julie Roin, professor, The University of Chicago Law School

Know which deductions have been limited or eliminated

Many taxpayers will stop itemizing — not because the standard deduction has been raised, but because many of the deductions they formerly claimed were limited or disappeared entirely due to the new tax act. For example, the deduction for employee business expenses has gone away. The deduction for state and local taxes (income and property taxes, primarily) is limited to $10,000 per year. Moving expenses can’t be deducted. Business entertainment expenses, which used to be 50 percent deductible, are now completely nondeductible. Alimony is no longer deductible, so that it will end up, generally speaking, being taxed to the higher earning ex-spouse.

Julie Roin

Each person — married, single, head of household — should check to see if they still qualify for a tax exemption.

Anita R. Johnson, financial psychologist

Don’t forget about your dependents

If you’re taking care of both of your parents, they don’t have to live with you for you to claim them as dependents. This triggers a brand-new credit that’s worth $500 per dependent. Say you had a dependent that went from 17 to 18 years old, but they’re still living at home — that dependent is now worth a $500 credit under the new tax law. Other dependent credits — that could be a parent, a grandparent, a child — any of those dependents, you can put them on the tax return and you can claim $500. If you’ve got a child that’s an undergraduate, you can claim them up to age 23. Say they finish college, and they’re 24 and they move back in the home — now you can put them back on the tax return and get another $500 even though they’re past the age of 23.

Aaron Martinez, master tax advisor at H&R Block

Know your self-employed tax benefits

There are some tax benefits, especially for the self-employed, that were voted into law. One of them is a 20 percent qualified income deduction. People will be able to get this deduction on their qualified business income, which is in addition to deducting business expenses — for example, when you’re a freelancer, you can deduct advertising or travel, and this new 20 percent is on top of those deductions.

Lisa Greene-Lewis

Open an IRA

If you haven’t yet filed your taxes, you still may be able to reduce your 2018 tax bill by opening and funding a traditional IRA. If you qualify to deduct your contributions, every dollar you put into a traditional IRA will reduce your taxable income, and you have until April 15 to apply your contribution to 2018.

Andrea Coombes

Take a personalized approach

While it’s important to understand how to maximize the current tax code, it’s also important to look at your tax plan from a comprehensive approach, including what’s important to you. For example, liquidity may not be the most tax-efficient approach to investing, but there may be reasons a client needs investments or cash to be liquid (new home purchase, college, health-related needs, retirement income). It may be that someone highly values charitable giving, but the benefit of the deduction is not as significant — this doesn’t necessarily mean that they should stop giving to organizations that are important to them.

— Katherine Liola, CEO and Founder of Concentric Private Wealth

There are people who love getting a big refund check at the end of the year. There are other people who don’t like the idea of the government holding on to their money. It really is a lifestyle choice, where each person has to look at their own individual situation and make a decision based on what they prefer.

Aaron Martinez