Five Great Banking Tips

Bank

Banks are a necessary tool to navigate our daily financial lives. Unfortunately, there are aggravating practices at many banks that drive us crazy or cost us money.

Here are five tips to get more out of your bank and pay less.

Bullet Point Remove cash from the right place. Never use an ATM machine that is not in your bank’s network. In-network cash withdrawals cost nothing at most banks, but withdrawals from someone else’s machine may come with a $3 to $5 fee.

Action: Turn over your ATM or debit card and note the networks on the back of the card; or ask your bank about their network coverage. Only use ATMs within the network. Test a transaction to ensure no fee is included on your statement.

Bullet Point Notify your credit card issuer when traveling. Most credit card-issuing banks now automatically freeze your cards when a suspicious transaction occurs out of state. This freeze often includes foreign website transactions.

Action: Call your credit card issuer when you are going to be traveling. Also notify them if you wish to order an item from a foreign website. This can alleviate numerous headaches. While some banks may not block out-of-state transactions, you do not want to to have a transaction rejected while purchasing something on a trip.

Bullet Point Know your bank’s overdraft rules. Non-sufficient funds (NSF) checks are not only embarrassing, they are expensive. Banks make millions on their overdraft fees and automatic loan features when you overdraw your account. Understand your bank’s fees and how they apply your payments.

Action: Look for a bank that will allow you to link another account to your checking account without charging a fee. For instance, as a courtesy many credit unions allow you to link a savings account to your core checking account. Funds from your savings account are used should you inadvertently overdraw your checking account.

Bullet Point Always negotiate fees. If you are a long-standing customer with your bank or credit card company, call them to reduce or waive fees. Good examples of this are over-the-limit credit card fees or late payment fees. If you have multiple checking overdraft fees, negotiate to eliminate as many as possible.

Action: If you are late in paying your credit card or have an overdraft, fix the problem as soon as possible. Only after fixing the problem should you call to negotiate the fees. The bank customer service representative will see your quick action and be more likely to help reduce the fees.

Bullet Point Be willing to shop. Banks understand the power of inertia: They know it’s a pain to change banks. But if you are willing to do so, you might be surprised to find better alternatives for less.

Action: Even interest on savings accounts varies widely from bank to bank. Use the internet to quickly see who is paying what in interest. Do the same for any loans, especially car loans, which vary widely.

Six Must-Dos When You Donate to Charity

Charity Donations Donations are a great way to give to a deserving charity, and they also give back in the form of a tax deduction. Unfortunately, charitable donations are under scrutiny by the IRS, and many donations without adequate documentation are being rejected.

Here are six things you need to do to ensure your charitable donation will be tax-deductible.

 

Bullet Point Make sure your charity is eligible. Only donations to qualified charitable organizations registered with the IRS are tax-deductible. You can confirm an organization qualifies by calling the IRS at (877) 829-5500 or visiting the IRS website.
Bullet Point Itemize. You must itemize your deductions using Schedule A in order to take a deduction for a donation. If you’re going to itemize your return to take advantage of charitable deductions, it also makes sense to look for other itemized deductions. These include state and local taxes, real estate taxes, home mortgage interest and eligible medical expenses over a certain threshold.
Bullet Point Get receipts. Get receipts for your deductible donations. Receipts are not filed with your tax return but must be kept with your tax records. You must get the receipt at the time of the donation or the IRS may not allow the deduction.
Bullet Point Pay attention to the calendar. Donations are deductible in the year they are made. To be deductible in 2017, donations must be made by Dec. 31, although there is an exception. Donations made by credit card are deductible even if you don’t pay off the charge until the following year, as long as the donation is reported on your credit card statement by Dec. 31. Similarly, donation checks written before Dec. 31 are deductible in the year written, even if the check is not cashed until the following year.
Bullet Point Take extra steps for noncash donations. You can make a donation of clothing or items around the home you no longer use. If you decide to make one of these noncash donations, it is up to you to determine the value of the donation. However, many charities provide a donation guide to help you determine the value. Your donated items must be in good or better condition and you should receive a receipt from the charitable organization for your donations. If your noncash donations are greater than $500, you must file a Form 8283 to provide additional information to the IRS. For noncash donations greater than $5,000, you must also get an independent appraisal to certify the worth of the items.
Bullet Point Keep track of mileage. If you drive for charitable purposes, this mileage can be deductible as well. For example, miles driven to deliver meals to the elderly, to be a volunteer coach or to transport others to and from a charitable event, can be deducted at 14 cents per mile. A contemporaneous log of the mileage must be maintained to substantiate your charitable driving.

Remember, charitable giving can be a valuable tax deduction — but only if you take the right steps.

 

 

Year-End Tax Checklist

Year-End Tax Checklist

Now is a good time to review your year-end tax situation while there is still time to act. Here’s a handy checklist to help you do that. There are details on “must-dos” to get the most out of your charitable donations. As the year draws to a close, there are several tax-saving ideas you should consider. Use this checklist to make sure you don’t miss an opportunity before the year is out.

Bullet Point Retirement distributions and contributions. Make final contributions to your qualified retirement plan, and take any required minimum distributions from your retirement accounts. The penalty for not taking minimum distributions can be high.
Bullet Point Investment management. Rebalance your investment portfolio, and take any final investment gains and losses. Capital losses can be used to net against your capital gains. You can also take up to $3,000 of capital losses in excess of capital gains each year and use it to lower your taxable ordinary income.
Bullet Point Last-minute charitable giving. Make a late-year charitable donation. Even better, make the donation with appreciated stock you’ve owned more than a year. You often can make a larger donation and get a larger deduction without paying capital gains taxes.
Bullet Point Noncash donation opportunity. Gather up noncash items for donation, document the items, and give those in good condition to your favorite charity. Make sure you get a receipt from the charity, and take a photo of the items donated.
Bullet Point Gifts to dependents and others. You may provide gifts to an individual of up to $14,000 per year in total. Remember that all gifts given (birthdays, holidays, etc.) count toward the annual total.
Bullet Point Organize records now. Start collecting and organizing your end-of-year tax records. Estimate your tax liability and make any required estimated tax payments.

 

 

The Equifax Breach and You

Security

 Be Proactive

Earlier this year, hackers were able to breach the security of Equifax, one of the three national credit reporting agencies. More than 143 million Americans — nearly half the country — were exposed to the attack, and may have had their personal information stolen, including names, birthdates, and Social Security and driver’s license numbers.
Equifax is still determining exactly whose data has been exposed. While you wait to find out, it’s worth taking a few proactive steps to make sure your info isn’t misused by hackers.
Bullet Point Start checking. Visit Equifax’s website at www.equifaxsecurity2017.com and enter your last name and last six digits of your Social Security number. The site will tell you whether it’s likely or not your data has been exposed, and put you on a list to get more information. You can also sign up for a year’s worth of free credit monitoring.
Bullet Point Watch your statements. Start checking your credit card statements, and pay special attention to cards you don’t use often. The initial reports from the breach were that hackers may have been making charges on underused cards.
Bullet Point Check your credit reports. You can look for suspicious items on your reports, such as new accounts being opened in your name, at all three credit report agencies: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Free annual reports are available at www.annualcreditreport.com.
Bullet Point Freeze your credit. If you suspect you may become a victim of identity theft, you can place a credit freeze on your profile at each of the three credit reporting agencies. This stops new accounts from being opened in your name. Note that you’ll have to unfreeze your accounts if you want to apply for new loans or make your credit accessible for things such as job applications.
Bullet Point File your taxes early. One of the most common ways identity thieves use your information is to try to claim a tax refund with your data. This was the most common scam in 2016, according to the Better Business Bureau. If you file your tax return as early as possible, you shut down this opportunity for any would-be thieves.

Fix Your Overfunded Accounts

Home office deductions

Is socking away large sums in a tax-deferred retirement account ever a bad idea? It is when you exceed the annual IRS limits. Whether intentional or not, the penalties can be painful. Here’s how overfunding occurs and what steps to take to fix the problem.

How overfunding happens

Overfunding retirement accounts happens more than you may realize. It can be the result of a job change that causes you to participate in two different employer retirement plans. Sometimes people forget they made IRA contributions early in the year and do it again later. Others forget that the IRA limit is the total of all accounts, not per account. The rules are complicated. Traditional IRAs can’t be contributed to after age 70½, while Roth IRA contributions are subject to income limits. Plus all contributions are predicated on having earned income.

IRAs

The annual Roth and Traditional IRA contribution limit is $5,500 ($6,500 if age 50 or older). If you surpass this amount, you pay a 6 percent penalty on the overpayment every year until it’s corrected, plus a potential 10 percent penalty on the investment income attributed to the overfunded amount.

The fix: If the overfunding is discovered before the filing deadline (plus extensions), you can withdraw the excess and any income earned on the contribution to avoid the 6 percent penalty. You will potentially owe a 10 percent penalty in addition to ordinary income tax on the earnings of the excess contributions if you’re under age 59½. Often you can apply the contribution to the next year. If your issue is due to age (70½ or older for a Traditional IRA) or income limit (for a Roth IRA), consider recharacterizing your contribution from one IRA type to another.

401(k)s

The rules for correcting an overfunded 401(k) are a little more rigid. You have until April 15 to return the funds, period. The nature of the penalty is also different. The excess amount is taxable in the year of the overfunding, plus taxable again when withdrawn. So, you could pay the penalty multiple times on the same amount. And, in certain cases, overfunding a 401(k) could cause it to lose its qualified status.

The fix: If you suspect an overpayment situation, contact your employer as soon as possible. Adjust your contribution amount before the end of the year and try to get the problem resolved that way.

Dos and Don’ts of Business Expensing

Home office deductions

Knowing whether you can or can’t expense a purchase for business purposes can be complicated. However, there are a few hard-and-fast rules to help you.

According to the IRS, business expenses must be ordinary and necessary to be deductible. That means they are common and accepted in your business, as well as helpful and appropriate. You’ll need to maintain records (such as statements and ledgers) and supporting documents (receipts and invoices) to substantiate your deductions. Certain expenses are subject to extra requirements, as described below.

Travel expenses pertain to business trips and can include transportation to and from airports, your hotel and business meeting places. They also generally include lodging, meals, tips and other related incidentals.

Do: + Maintain trip logs describing your business expenses and the purpose of each. If your trip is mostly for business but includes personal components, separate them in your log. These nondeductible personal items could include extending your stay for a vacation or taking personal side trips.
+ Deduct travel-related meal costs, but only up to the 50 percent limit allowed by the IRS.
Don’t: Rely on estimates to determine the business vs. personal components of your expenses.
Deduct any of your travel expenses if your trip is primarily for personal purposes.
Deduct any of your meal costs if they could be considered unreasonably extravagant.

Entertainment expenses need to be either directly related to or associated with the conduct of your business. That means that business is the main purpose of the activities and it’s highly likely you’ll get income or future business benefits. Expenses from entertainment that aren’t considered directly related may still be deductible if they are associated with your business and happen right before or after an important business discussion.

Do: + Keep records of entertainment expenses, including who was present and clear descriptions of the nature, dates and times of the pertinent business discussions.
+ Deduct up to 50 percent of entertainment expenses, as allowed by the IRS.
Don’t: Claim the costs of pleasure boat outings or entertainment facilities (e.g., hunting lodges) that are not related to business activity.

Business use of your personal car is calculated according to your actual business-related expenses, or by multiplying your business mileage by the prescribed IRS rate (53.5 cents per mile in 2017).

Do: + Log odometer readings for each business trip and record your business purpose.
+ Claim actual business deductions by applying the ratio of your business-miles-to-total mileage.
Don’t: Claim mileage or expenses pertaining to commuting to and from work.

If you have any questions about how to handle your business expenses, reach out for further guidance.

Renew Your ITIN Now

Home office deductions

If you have an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) rather than a Social Security number (SSN), you may need to take action now or you’ll be unable to file a tax return for 2017.

Here is what you need to know.

What to know about ITINs

ITINs are identification numbers issued by the U.S. government for individuals who do not qualify to receive a SSN. An ITIN can be used to file tax returns and is also a form of identification often required by banks, insurance companies and other institutions. Unfortunately, ITINs are also a source of identity fraud. To combat this, the 2015 PATH Act made substantial changes to the program. Now a number of ITINs will expire if not renewed by Dec. 31.

Bullet Point No ITIN, no problem. If you do not have an ITIN, but have a SSN, this expiration does not affect you.
Bullet Point No tax return in past three years. ITINs that have not been used to file a tax return at least once in the past three years will automatically expire on Dec. 31.
Bullet Point Specific middle digit numbers expire. The new law creates a rolling expiration date for all issued ITINs. The key number to look for is in this position: 9xx-XX-xxxx. If it’s a 70, 71, 72, or 80, you’ll need to renew it. Last year the middle digits of 78 and 79 expired.

Renew your ITIN

Don’t wait until the last minute to discover your tax return has been rejected and your refund delayed because of an expired ITIN. To renew, fill out Form W-7 with the required support documents. To learn more, visit the ITIN information page on the IRS website, Individual Taxpayer Identification Number.

Avoid FAFSA mistakes

Don’t forgo federal student aid by making one of the following common filing mistakes:

Bullet Point Mistake: Not reading the instructions or questions

Tip: Answer all the questions, even if the answer is zero. If left blank, a question will be considered unanswered. Here are some quick tips:

  • Write dollar amounts without cents.
  • “You” and “your” refer to the student, not the parents.
  • Provide parent information if you or your child is considered a dependent of someone else.
  • Understand the definitions of key FAFSA language including: legal guardianship, parent and household size.
  • Use the available FAQs and FAFSA Information Center.
Bullet Point Mistake: Incorrect, incomplete or nonmatching data

Tip: Complete the FAFSA online. Although you can complete the FAFSA on paper, it takes only three to five days to process when submitted electronically. The online version has built-in safeguards that identify and prevent many errors. Plus, the IRS Data Retrieval Tool can import information directly from your tax return. Logging in with a Federal Student Aid (FSA) ID will automatically load basic information (e.g., name, birthdate, and Social Security number), reducing the likelihood of typos. You’ll even receive confirmation of receipt once you submit your online application.

Bullet Point Mistake: Not filing on time

Tip: Note the new October FAFSA filing start date and get the application submitted as soon as possible. The sooner you or your child gets started, the higher the likelihood of being awarded funds, since many are distributed on a first-come, first-served basis.

Remember, students need to complete a FAFSA each year because eligibility does not carry over and can vary based on circumstances. Students can use the FAFSA Web Worksheet now to gather and organize the data needed for their application, available at www.fafsa.gov.

Contractor or Employee?

Company benefits

Knowing the difference is important

Is a worker an independent contractor or an employee? This seemingly simple question is often the contentious subject of IRS audits. As an employer, getting this wrong could cost you plenty in the way of Social Security, Medicare, and other employment-related taxes. Here is what you need to know.

 The basics…

 

As the worker. If you are a contractor and not considered an employee you must:

Bullet Point Employee Pay self-employment taxes (Social Security and Medicare-related taxes)
Bullet Point Employee Make estimated federal and state tax payments.
Bullet Point Employee Handle your own benefits, insurance and bookkeeping.

As the employer. You must ensure your employee versus independent contractor determination is correct. Getting this wrong in the eyes of the IRS can lead to:

Bullet Point Employer Payment and penalties related to Social Security and Medicare taxes.
Bullet Point Employer Payment of possible overtime including penalties for a contractor reclassified as an employee.
Bullet Point Employer Legal obligation to pay for benefits.

Things to consider

When the IRS recharacterizes an independent contractor as an employee they look at the business relationship between the employer and the worker. The IRS focuses on the degree of control exercised by the employer over the work done and they assess the worker’s independence. Here are some guidelines:

Bullet Point Consider The more the employer has the right to control the work (when, how and where the work is done), the more likely the worker is an employee.
Bullet Point Consider The more the financial relationship is controlled by the employer the more likely the relationship will be seen as an employee and not an independent contractor. To clarify this, an independent contractor should have a contract, have multiple customers, invoice the company for work done, and handle financial matters in a professional manner.
Bullet Point Consider The more businesslike the arrangement the more likely you have an independent contractor relationship.

While there are no hard-set rules, the more reasonable your basis for classification and the more consistently it is applied, the more likely an independent contractor classification will not be challenged.

Ace the FAFSA

Home office deductions

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is a tool students use to apply for more than $120 billion in federal funds. Unfortunately, each year many students miss out. A report from NerdWallet estimates that $1,861 per eligible high school graduate of free federal grant money went unused during 2014 because they did not complete a FAFSA.

 

 

Even if you don’t think you or your child qualify for federal aid, filling out a FAFSA is important because it could be used to determine eligibility for nonfederal aid and private funds.

FAFSA available Oct. 1

Previously, the FAFSA was not available until January. A recent change now makes the application available Oct. 1. This is because the 2018-19 FAFSA can be completed with your 2016 tax information.