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!

Household hacks for clean freaks


house cleaning products

We’re on a home maintenance roll this week. In our last post, we talked about care for major appliances, and we just found a great article about 10 things in your home you never clean — but should. But our favorite find is a video clip on household hacks, aka “household hints.” These cleaning hack videos are fun and useful. Like the old slogan for potato chips – “bet you can’t eat just one” – it can be hard to stop at just one clip.

This one is chock full of useful ideas, as well as a few corny ones (dust-mop slippers, really??). We’re big fans of multiple use tips for vinegar, baking soda, lemon and other inexpensive, natural products that can replace costly chemical alternatives. We haven’t tried all of these but know that many work. Why not try a few this weekend in your household maintenance?

And if you can’t stop at just one clip, we’ve included links to some of our prior posts for cleaning hacks below the video.

Prior post with household cleaning hacks

Handy household hacks: creative uses for everyday products
Three clips covering vinegar, Windex and common household products

Spring cleaning hacks & tips to make the job easier
3 video clips for cleaning hacks, one focusing on cleaning with salt

Household hacks aren’t just popular since the advent of YouTube – in olden days, they were popular too – see our post on How to stop a runaway horse & other vintage life hacks from days of yore for some fun old time hacks.

Do you have a “bug-out bag” ready?


emergency preparedness checklist

If you’ve followed news about the California wildfires, you know that many people are forced to flee their homes unexpectedly at a moment’s notice. A little bit of planning goes a long way when it comes to disaster preparedness. One of the best ways to get ready for the worst is by putting together a “bug-out bag” – a collection of important documents and valuables, all in one place, ready to be scooped up and transported at a moment’s notice.

What’s In The Bag?

A quick online search will show a plethora of survival kits available for purchase, and while those are useful (and you already have a small emergency kit in your vehicle for the winter, right?), they’re not exactly what we’re looking for here. For most of us, wilderness survival isn’t our goal when putting together a bug-out bag – when the wildfire comes or the hurricane hits or the earthquake shakes, we want to have handy the documents and means to begin the long and complicated process of rebuilding our lives.

So think of your bug-out bag as a starting point. It’s going to have in it the stuff you need to get started again. And a lot of that stuff is paper records.

The Virtual Bag

One of the best ways to ensure that your valuable records aren’t lost is redundancy. And one of the best ways of storing those redundant records is electronically. Keep copies on your phone, on your tablet, on your PC, and in the cloud. Take care to encrypt and password-protect those files. Then you’ll have them at your fingertips when you need them the most. Do the same with irreplaceable family photographs and videos. Inventory your belongings by photo or video. If it can be digitized, digitize it! And then make sure it’s securely stored in more than one place.

What Records Are We Talking About?

The vital ones! Birth certificates, marriage certificates, deeds and titles, passports and visas, papers of incorporation, leases, contracts, you name it! Some of the most important documents to store in your bug-out bag (virtual or not) are insurance records. Make sure those documents have with them your policy numbers, your insurance agent’s contact information, and instructions on how to file a claim.

And While You’re There…

Since you’re already going through all that insurance paperwork, now’s a great time to review your policies and make sure you have adequate coverage. Have you built additions to the house not covered by the original policy? What’s your policy’s loss-of-use coverage? Has your property value increased? What’s the cost to replace your property? Maybe a quick chat with your insurance agent is in order! It can’t hurt to check in with her annually, anyway. Go see her. She’ll probably give you one of those little magnetic tear-off fridge calendars; those are cool. Whether you rent or own, staying up-to-date with your personal and business insurance is the best way to limit the damage a catastrophe can cause.

Peace of Mind

Now that your documents are digitized and distributed, your vital papers safely stashed, and your emergency supplies consolidated, relax! Enjoy the feeling of being prepared. Add items and remove them from your bug-out bag as you see fit and as your circumstances demand. It’s much easier to maintain a secure document cache than it is to create one. Once you’ve put a process in place, you’ll find it easy to maintain. And now that you’ve got all your unique documents duplicated and secured, go to FEMA for a comprehensive checklist of other items to keep close in case of emergency.

Related posts:

Seasonal Toy Safety Tips and 10 Worst Toys for 2017


children playing with toys to illustrate toy safety

It’s not all fun and games when it comes to toys. In 2016, there were 174,100 children under the age of 15 treated at emergency departments for toy-related injuries; seven children died. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) recently issued its seasonal toy safety alerts.

Here are their 2017 safety recommendations:

  • Check the label: Choose age appropriate toys by reading the age label on the toy. Children younger than 3 should not have access to toys with small parts, which can cause choking. Also avoid marbles and small balls for children under 3.
  • Get safety gear. With scooters and other riding toys, supervision is key along with proper safety gear that includes helmets. Helmets should be worn properly at all times and they should be sized to fit. Avoid riding a scooter on a street or roadway with other motor vehicles.
  • Hoverboards: Although not considered a toy, hoverboards should be compliant with UL 2272 safety standard.
  • Be careful with magnets: High powered magnet sets are dangerous and should be kept away from children under 14. Building and play sets with small magnets should also be kept away from small children.

The 10 Worst Toys for 2017

The World Against Toys Causing Harm (W.A.T.C.H.) also recently released its 10 Worst Toys for 2017 list – check out the slide show with photos so you can recognize the toys, some of which would definitely have appeal. It’s particularly important to be alert about avoiding recalled toys online. The W.A.T.C.H. report says that the Internet is like the Wild West when it comes to outlawed toys and that shoppers should not assume that any safeguards are in place:

Regulations and safety protocols for e-commerce transactions are often nonexistent or inadequate. Consumer-to-consumer “second-hand sales”— which are inconsistently monitored, if monitored at all — provide new opportunities for recalled toys to surface.

W.A.T.C.H. offers a list of Toy Hazards to Watch Out For as well as recent Consumer Product Safety Commission Recalls.

Prevent home heating fires with these tips from the pros


two pairso f stockinged feet before a fireplace

As the temperature drops, home fire risk rises. It just makes sense. While cooking fires are the leading cause of residential fires, heating-related fires come in second place and peak in the month of January. The U.S. Fire Administration recently issued two statistical reports that talk about home heating fires. In their Study of Heating Fires in Residential Buildings (2013-2015), they report that:

  • Approximately 45,900 annual heating fires in U.S. residential buildings were reported to fire departments each year.
  • Annually, heating fires resulted in 200+ deaths, 700+ injuries, and more than half a billion dollars in property loss.
  • Residential heating fires peak in the early evening from 5 to 9 p.m., accounting for 29% of heating-related home fires.
  • Confined fires (fires confined to chimneys, flues or fuel burners) accounted for 75% percent of residential building heating fires.
  • Combustible materials that were too close to the heat source accounted for 29% of non-confined fires.

While only 4% of heating fires in residential buildings involved portable heaters, they were  involved in 43% of fatal home heating fires, a statistic that should give some pause. In the USFA study on Portable Heater Fires in Residential Buildings (2013-2015), they report:

  • Annual estimated occurrence: 1,650 portable heater fires in residential
  • Portable heater fires caused an estimated 90 deaths, 175 injuries, and $84 million in property loss.
  • In 54% of the fires, the heat source was too close to combustible objects
  • About 37% of portable heater fires started in bedrooms.
  • In bedroom fires caused by portable heaters, the leading items ignited (23%) were bedding, such as blankets, sheets, and comforters.

Here’s a short USFA safety clip related to portable heaters.

Heating safety tips

Fire prevention experts say there are many practices you can take to reduce your risk of a heating-related fire in your home. Here are few safety tips we’ve compiled from the experts

Practice the 3-foot safety rule. Keep combustible materials away from the furnace, fireplace, wood stove, or portable space heater.

Maintain a “kid-free zone” around open fires and space heaters. Again, 3 feet is the recommended distance.,

Inspect, clean and test. Have qualified heating professionals inspect and clean furnaces, chimneys and heating equipment every year. Replace batteries in your fire alarms in the spring and fall, and test smoke alarms at least once a month.

Turn off portable heaters when you go to bed or leave a room. Get more space heater safety tips from Travelers,

Never, never, never use ovens or portable grills to heat your home.

Fireplace safety:

  • Use a good quality screen to prevent sparks from jumping.
  • Dispose of ashes in a metal, non-flammable container when they are cold.
  • Dispose of ashes a safe distance away from your home – never beside the home or in the garage or cellar.
  • Learn more about how to dispose of ashes properly – and get a few tips on handy uses for the ash.

Related: see our recent post with money-saving home heating ideas:

Winterizing: Money saving ideas for heating your home