Tips to get you through tax season


illustration of woman burried in paperwork

Here in the US, it’s tax season! Unless you’re a CPA (and if you are, thank you for your hard work and sorry for not sorting that shoebox filled with receipts), this fact is unlikely to fill your heart with joy, especially if you’re one of the millions of Americans who does her own taxes.

It’s an annual headache. It’s awful. Did you know that in some other countries, citizens are simply mailed a form that has all their tax data pre-filled? Then they simply check it for errors, make any necessary corrections or additions, and mail it back in. Done and done. Of course, here in the US, we don’t do things that way, because that would be simple and easy, and simple and easy is in direct contradiction to our rough-and-tumble pioneer spirit. Or something like that. But hey, good news: April 15 falls on a Sunday this year, so you have a whole extra day to prepare.

So. We have a tax code the size of a refrigerator. A walk-in refrigerator. It’s written in impenetrable bureaucrat-ese, and it has so many loopholes that even the exceptions to the exceptions have exceptions. So buckle in as we take a look at some important things to know about getting your taxes done right.

Get (More) Organized

Every year you tell yourself you’re going to be better organized next year. It happens. But it’s hard to maintain the discipline in June that will pay off next April. Still, the better a job you’ve done of keeping your tax-related documents organized, the easier a time you’ll have when push comes to shove.

Do Your Homework

Modern tax software is pretty good at grilling you with questions you’ll need to answer to properly complete your tax forms. But the more answers you have at hand when you fire that software up the happier you’ll be. Has your employment situation changed since your last filing? How about income you earned from your side hustle? Did you have any employees, contract or otherwise? If you’re self-employed, did you make any purchases that were a business expense, like a printer or computer? Start big and drill down.

Don’t forget deductions

Are you eligible for deductions? Check this handy summary of 2017 Tax Rates, Standard Deductions, Exemption Amounts, and more. And as insurance agents, we’d be remiss not to point out one potential deduction that shouldn’t be overlooked – non-reimbursed losses from theft or casualty events (fires, floods, storms, etc.)

Watch out for the scammers

There are a lot of bad guys out there trying to separate you from your tax refund – and the scammers get craftier every year. The IRS keeps track of the latest tax fraud schemes – there’s a lot of them! There are a lot of tax agent impersonators, too – remember, the IRS will never contact you on social media or via email. Here’s a guide to know when it really is an IRS agent and when it’s not.

Seek Help

Even the best tax software can’t anticipate the minutiae of your individual work circumstances. Spend some time looking over the IRS help pages to check for details you might have missed. If you work from home, can you write off those comfy footy pajamas as a business expense? (Probably not, sadly.) The best solution is to hire a professional tax accountant – she may save you enough to pay for her services!

Don’t Freak Out

Remember: Form 4868 is your friend! This is the form you’ll use to file for an extension, so BEFORE THAT APRIL 16 DEADLINE, submit this little beauty and feel the stress ebb away. Be aware that this form requires you to make an estimated tax payment, so it isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card, but it can come in handy if you’re overwhelmed.

If you’re doing taxes for your business (and why are you doing that?! Get an accountant, jeez!) the form you’ll need to file for an extension is either Form 7004 or Form 1138, depending on your circumstances.

Of course, there’s a whole list of caveats, ifs, and buts swirling around any tax question. Your best guide will be a reputable tax accountant. Start looking soon, they’re very, very busy here in the depths of tax season!

A fresh look for 2017: Re-assess your insurance needs


financial planning

Insurance isn’t a once-and-done thing – it requires a periodic assessment of the changing circumstances in your life and a thoughtful evaluation of whether you should add  protection against any new risks. As you budget for the new year and prep for tax season, it’s the perfect timing to think about these things.

With the start of a new year and the emphasis on resolutions, there have been a few good articles on insurance that caught our attention. The National Association of Insurance Commissioners issued a handy Insurance Checklist for the New Year. It offers some considerations about common forms of insurance – life, home/rental, health, auto.

When new life events occur, you should review of insurance coverage. You may need to add a new type of coverage, you may want to raise or lower deductibles on an existing policy, or there may be opportunities for savings or discounts. Your independent insurance agent will be able to inform you about various coverage options – but can only advise you based upon what he or she knows.

Here’s a list of life events that should trigger a call to your independent insurance agent:

  • Marriage
  • Divorce
  • Birth or adoption of a child
  • Death of an immediate family member
  • Military deployment
  • Purchasing a new home, condo, or a second home
  • Home renovation
  • Adding buildings to your property
  • Renting out your home
  • Moving to a new geographic area
  • Renting an apartment
  • A teen child getting an auto license
  • Getting a new car
  • Joining a carpool
  • Acquiring expensive electronics, antiques, jewelry, furs, or specialty collections
  • Acquiring a recreational vehicle – boat, motorcycle, snowmobile
  • Getting a recreational drone
  • Changing jobs and job benefits
  • Retiring
  • Starting a small business
  • Joining the sharing economy, such as renting property through Airbnb or driving for Uber

Lacie Glover at Nerd Wallet, USA Today offers good risk limiting advice for us all with her 10 smart insurance resolutions for 2017.  We particularly like #1 – making an inventory – and #9 – informing beneficiaries about your policy. We’d go one step further and suggest that you look at any insurance policies and financial accounts and make sure your contact information and beneficiaries are updated. People often forget to keep those things up to date – unfortunate consequences can ensue: you might not intend to leave your home, your 401K or your life insurance to an ex-spouse, but it could happen if you forget to update your beneficiaries when circumstances change. See our best practices for updating your beneficiaries for insurance policies and retirement plans.

 

Why it’s important to monitor your credit history every year


creditYour credit history is very important. A good credit report can help or hurt you when you look for a car loan, a mortgage or some insurance policies. You may be denied loans or credit cards if you history is poor, or you may end up paying higher rates on credit cards or for insurance coverage. (See: Credit-Based Insurance Scores: How an Insurance Company Can Use Your Credit to Determine Your Premium) Some employers may even look at your credit rating as a factor in whether or not to hire you.

You should monitor your credit rating yearly, learn more about what helps and hurts you, and review reports to be sure there isn’t anything inaccurate. Some reasons you should monitor your credit annually:

  • Find problems that are hurting your good rating and try to improve
  • Identify mistakes and get them corrected
  • Watch for signs of potential identity theft
  • Somebody else’s information might be mistakenly attributed to you
  • You might find accounts that are not yours

By law, you can get one free copy of your credit report every year. That includes one copy from each of the three major reporting companies: TransUnion, Equifax and Experian. But you need to be careful about where you get your free credit reports from. Here is the authorized source:

Annual Credit Report at 1-877-322-8228
AnnualCreditReport.com

You will hear a lot of promotions for “free credit reports” – but consumer beware! Many of them make reports free but have some type of a catch – see this short video to learn more.

 What if you find problems in your credit report?

According to consumer.gov, you can take these steps to fix any mistakes or problems:
Write a letter. Tell the credit reporting company that you have questions about information in your report.

  • Explain which information is wrong and why you think so.
  • Say that you want the information corrected or removed from your report.
  • Send a copy of your credit report with the wrong information circled.
  • Send copies of other papers that help you explain your opinion.
  • Send this information Certified Mail. Ask the post office for a return receipt. The receipt is proof that the credit reporting company got your letter.
  • The credit reporting company must look into your complaint and answer you in writing.

The FTC offers more information:

Retirement planning procrastination wastes the advantage of compound interest


Many people procrastinate when it comes to saving for retirement … but the earlier you start, the more compounding interest works in your favor.

Financial Engines conducted a survey to better to better understand why people procrastinate on their retirement savings. They learned that most of those those surveyed identified 25 as the right age to begin planning and saving for retirement, but that most had started much later than that: an average of 10.6 years later than they thought they should have.

They attributed that delay in retirement savings to various reasons:

  • 50% – stress
  • 40% – other, higher priorities
  • 24% – worried about being
  • 23% – unsure how to go about it
  • 20% – believed it was too difficult

While people think they can make up for it later — and sometimes they can — every year of delay squanders the advantage of compound interest. To reach the same savings goal, they would need to save more each year to make up for any missed investment growth, as well as any missed employer matches, if available.

The following graphic depicts the percent of income that would need to be saved each year to reach the savings goal.

delayYou can learn more about the benefits of time by playing with with this compound interest calculator.

But the better-late-than-never rule comes into play – even if you missed out on the advantage of an early start, the sooner you do begin the better, so don’t delay. Here are some tips offered by  Financial Engines for late starters:

late-startFor more information on the cost of procrastination, see their complete infographic.

Money Matters: 48 Mistakes, 7 Quizzes and 5 Cool Learning Tools


Money TreeApril is financial literacy month. How savvy are you about money? This fun article will let you chart your age based on your savings habits. To commemorate the month, we’ve put together a financial wellness toolkit for you to learn common money mistakes, to test your own financial knowledge and find good learning resources to improve your knowledge.

Common Money Mistakes

 Test Your Money Savvy

 Resources for Learning to Manage Money

360 Days of Financial Literacy
A free program by the nation’s certified public accountants to help Americans understand personal finances through every stage of life. Check out the more than 30 financial calculators.

InsureU
Unbiased insurance information for consumers sponsored by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC). Information is organized by life stage and lines of coverage: auto insurance, home insurance, health insurance and life insurance.

MyMoney.gov
Making the most of your money starts with five building blocks for managing and growing your money. MyMoney.Gov offers tools and information on five key areas of money management: Earnings; Saving & investing; Protecting; Spending; and Borrowing.

Jump$tart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy
a national non-profit of about 150 national organizations and entities from the corporate, non-profit, academic, government and other sectors that share an interest in advancing financial literacy among students in pre-kindergarten through college.

30 Steps to Financial Wellness
A 30 step path will help you achieve financial wellness.