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Sooner is better.

It would have been far, far better to have done beginning-of-year tax planning in January, rather than procrastinating for nine months before grudgingly initiating end-of-year planning.Nonetheless, even belated tactical efforts are better than none at all. If you delay until tax-return time, you'll wind up paying the piper even more.

"Too many people neglect end-of-year tax planning, opting to let everything roll until they do taxes in April when it's too late," observed Richard A. Shaw, a San Diego tax attorney who is a member of the American Bar Association's governing council section on taxation. "By then, the time's over for contributions and other important moves."

So get your tax act together pronto.

"Evaluate your 1989 tax situation now," advised Thomas S. Wallace, national director of personal financial counseling for Ernst & Young. "The reason it's important to routinely save bank statements, canceled checks and documentation of deductions is that you can immediately get an idea of what you must do."

Congressional debate over the proposed cut in capital gains taxes on stocks, bonds, real estate and other assets has everyone a bit perplexed right now, but there are suggestions from the pros.

"Although we're advising clients to take a wait-and-see attitude toward capital gains legislation, our general suggestion is that, if they have the opportunity to do so, they should postpone a sale," said Vincent D. Vaccaro, tax partner with Coopers & Lybrand.

"Bear in mind that transactions affected could be either those after the initial date of Sept. 14, 1989, as stated in the original bill, or it could be changed along the way to perhaps as late as Jan. 1, 1990."

Some tax steps to consider now:

Maximize retirement plan opportunities. This could mean stashing money in a company 401(K) retirement plan. It also could suggest an individual retirement account contribution, which still remains fully deductible for many Americans, or a Keogh retirement plan for the self-employed. (Keogh plans must be set up by year end, though you can contribute until the April tax deadline.)

The sooner that you put money in sheltered plans, the sooner money is deferred, which can make a big difference over a year.

If you're itemizing deductions, you might accelerate or decelerate payments on items based on your circumstances this tax year vs. next. You can control some payment times. If your projections indicate you're edging into a higher bracket, consider switching investments into tax-free municipal bonds. You may be able to control the claiming of a deduction or recognition of income in either 1989 or 1990. This could involve the timing of property tax installments, a company bonus or discretionary medical treatment.

Look at all discretionary purchases. Since 20 percent of consumer interest payments is deductible this year, vs. 10 percent next year, you could opt to buy items in 1989 rather than wait. You might consider a home equity loan to consolidate debts, since it still offers tax deductibility for borrowing based on equity built up in your home.

Charitable contributions should be considered so you don't miss the opportunity to deduct them this year. Consider donating appreciated property, which is generally more tax-advantageous than selling the item yourself and giving cash outright.

While the "kiddie tax" is tough, with unearned income of children above $1,000 taxed at the parents' rate until the child reaches age 14, there are opportunities. One possibility is giving a gift of appreciated stock.

If you're thinking about making a gift to your child, the earlier in the year you make it, the sooner he or she will be earning money. You can give anyone as much as $10,000 a year tax-free, or $20,000 for a married couple.

Check tax withholding. Project 1989 taxes to make sure you'll avoid penalties by having at least 90 percent of this year's tax obligation paid in, or 100 percent of last year's. You may need to increase withholding or estimated payments.