4 Important Last-Minute Money Moves for 2014

New Year 2015 is coming concept - inscription 2014 and 2015 on a beach sand, the wave is starting to cover the digits 2014
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With less than a month to go until 2015 begins, you're running out of time to get everything done that you need to do before the year ends. In some cases, acting now can save you a lot of money. In others, not acting before the end of the year can lead to some huge penalties that are entirely unnecessary. No matter what, though, looking at four areas of your financial picture can put you in a much better position to begin 2015 on a positive note. Let's take a closer look at these four key last-minute money moves for 2014.

1. Make the Most of Tax Deductions

With the exception of making an IRA contribution -- which you can do until next April 15 -- you can usually only claim tax deductions for money that you spent in 2014. As a result, if you're looking to maximize your tax deductions, think about prepaying your deductible expenses, including charitable deductions, deductible state and local tax payments, and mortgage interest, before the end of the year.

To decide whether paying off bills earlier rather than later is smart, the first thing to do is to look at whether you have enough deductions to itemize rather than simply taking the standard deduction. Doubling up on deductible expenses can sometimes give you enough to itemize, saving you in taxes over the long run. But if you wouldn't be able to itemize either way, then you're better off not making payments for deductible expenses any sooner than you need to.

2. Spend Your Flex Money -- If You Have To

Each year, millions of workers have the option of putting money aside in a flexible spending account to go toward health care or child care expenses. The advantage of doing so is that you can make contributions with pre-tax money, saving yourself the income and payroll taxes on your flexible spending account contributions. The potential downside, though, is that with some plans, if you don't spend all your money by the end of the year, you lose it -- even though it was your money to begin with.

Fortunately, many plans have made their flex plans more flexible, introducing later deadlines as well as the ability to carry over limited amounts of money from year to year. But although the Internal Revenue Service has allowed employers to add those provisions to their flex plans, it hasn't forced them to do so. Be sure to check with your employer's HR department to see if they've adopted the new rules to keep you from losing your unspent money on Jan. 1.

3. Take Any Necessary Withdrawals From Retirement Accounts

Most people focus on growing their retirement savings, but two groups of people have to worry about making sure they take enough money out of their retirement accounts. If you're age 70 1/2 or older, then you have to take required minimum distributions based on your life expectancy. In addition, if you've inherited an IRA or other retirement account and have elected to stretch distributions throughout your lifetime, then you have to take the annual required amount regardless of your age.

Penalties for not taking required minimum distributions are punitive, amounting to 50 percent of the amount you were supposed to have withdrawn. For most people, withdrawals are required by Dec. 31, with the one exception being that those who just turned 70½ this year can wait until April 1 before making their first required minimum distribution.

4. Get Your 2015 Plan in Place

The new year is always a turbulent time in the financial world, with new opportunities to make adjustments to the investment mix in your portfolio, save more for retirement by maxing out 2015 contribution limits, and learn about tax provisions for which you might become eligible. The last thing you want to do is to go into 2015 unprepared for what's available to you.

Making a financial plan now will give you enough time that you'll be able to execute your 2015 money strategies much more effectively when the time comes. In addition, in some cases, getting a jump on your peers can help you capitalize on areas they'll discover much later -- and thereby potentially profit less from them. A good plan gets all the legwork out of the way early and leaves you free to move quickly when the moment is right.

Making sure you do a year-end financial checkup won't just save you from unnecessary pain and potentially bring you bigger tax refunds down the road. It will also give you the peace of mind to know that your finances are in the best shape possible to start out the new year. Get these things done now, and you won't have to resolve to fix your financial mistakes in 2015.

Motley Fool contributorDan Caplingeris looking forward to 2015. You can follow him on Twitter@DanCaplingeror onGoogle+. Want to make 2015your best investing year ever? Check out The Motley Fool'sone great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond.