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.

 

 

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.

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.

Know Your Rights When Debt Collectors Call

Past due noticeAt some point you may be on the receiving end of a debt collection phone call. It could happen any time you are behind on paying your bills, or if there is an error in billing. In the U.S. there are strict rules in place that forbid any kind of harassment. If you know your rights, you can deal with debt collection with minimum hassle. Here are some suggestions.

 

Bullet Point Phone Ask for non-threatening transparency. When a debt collector calls, they must be transparent about who they are. The magic words they must utter are: “This is an attempt to collect a debt, and any information obtained will be used for that purpose.” In addition, debt collectors cannot use abusive or threatening language, or threaten you with fines or jail time. The most a debt collector can truthfully threaten you with is that failure to pay will harm your credit rating, or that they may sue you in a civil court to extract payment.
Bullet Point Rules Know the contact rules. Debt collectors may not contact you outside of “normal” hours, which are between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m. local time. They may try to call you at work, but they must stop if you tell them that you cannot receive calls there. Debt collectors may not talk to anyone else about your debt (other than your attorney, if you have one). They may try contacting other people, such as relatives, neighbors or employers, but it must be solely for the purpose of trying to find out your phone number, address or where you work.
Bullet Point Action Take action. If you believe the debt is in error in whole or in part, you can send a dispute letter to the collection agency within 30 days of first contact. Ask the collector for their mailing address and let them know you are filing a dispute. They will have to cease all collection activities until they send you legal documentation verifying the debt.
Bullet Point Stop Tell them to stop. And, whether you dispute the debt or not, at any time you can send a “cease letter” to the collection agency telling them to stop making contact. You don’t need to provide a specific reason. They will have to stop contact after this point, though they may still decide to pursue legal options in civil court.

If a debt collection agency is not following these rules, report them. Start with your state’s attorney general office, and consider filing a complaint with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau as well.

Save on Insurance By Raising Deductibles

Having insurance for your home and vehicle is essential to ward off financial disaster should accidents occur. Unfortunately, insurance policies continue to become more expensive. One of the things you can do to lower your insurance cost is to consider increasing your coverage deductibles.

Car key and insurance form

Higher deductible, lower insurance cost

Deductibles are the out-of-pocket cost you must pay before your insurance company steps in with their coverage. If you are willing to increase your deductibles, your insurance company will lower your monthly insurance premium.

By increasing car insurance deductibles from $500 to $2,000, the average American would save 16 percent a year, according to the online insurance broker InsuranceQuotes.com. The actual amount you would save on either car or home insurance depends on the state you live in, your demographic profile and claims history.

Do the math

Before you decide whether upping your deductibles is right for you, find out how much you would save. Suppose you would save $200 a year by increasing your car insurance collision and comprehensive deductibles to $2,000 from $500. After 7½ years, you would accumulate enough savings to make up the extra $1,500 out-of-pocket cost should you have an accident.

Now consider how likely you are to have an accident. About six in every 100 U.S. motorists file a collision claim every year and 3 in 100 file a comprehensive claim, according to the Insurance Information Institute. If those claims were spread out evenly, that means every motorist would go 16½ years before filing a collision claim and more than 33 years before filing a comprehensive claim.

Of course, claims are not spread out evenly and no one person’s experience is “average.” Your actual risk will depend greatly on how safe a driver you are, how many miles you drive a year, and where you drive. You have to make a similar estimate of your likelihood of filing a claim on your homeowners insurance.

Avoid the rate-hike game

Insurance companies are renowned for raising your premium after you file a claim. A higher deductible reduces this risk as fewer claims need to be filed.

A word of caution

Remember that increasing your deductibles can create a financial hardship. In our example, you’ll now have to have $2,000 on hand to cover the cost of an insurance claim. Before you change your policy you need to be prepared by having enough cash in a savings account to cover your higher deductible.

Is Your HSA a Retirement Tool?

How much do you need to retire

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) are a great way to pay for medical expenses, and since unused funds roll over from year to year, the account can also provide a source of retirement savings in addition to other plans like 401(k)s or IRAs.
But be aware HSAs can also come with significant disadvantages and less flexibility when compared with other retirement investment tools.

 

The Good

HSAs work best when they are used for their designed purpose: to pay for qualified medical expenses. Neither your original contributions to an HSA nor your investment earnings are taxed when used this way.

This makes HSA funds valuable, given that medical costs are one of our largest expenses as we age. The Employee Benefit Research Institute estimates the average 65-year-old couple needs $264,000 to pay for medical care over the course of their retirement. Being able to cover that amount with pre-tax dollars greatly extends the value of retirement savings.

In addition, unlike other retirement plans, there is no required distribution of funds after you reach age 70½.

The Bad

First, you can only contribute to an HSA if you have a high-deductible health insurance plan. That means you will pay more out of pocket each year when you need to use health services, which could make it difficult to build a balance within your HSA.

Second, contributions are limited. Currently, annual contributions to HSAs are limited to $3,400 a year for individuals and $6,750 a year for families. These limits get bumped up by $1,000 for people aged 55 or older. You also may only contribute to an HSA until your retirement age.

Finally, HSAs typically have fewer investment options compared with other investment tools including 401(k)s and IRAs. The accounts often have high management and administrative fees. All this makes building HSA earnings tough to do.

The Ugly

The worst thing about HSAs: before you reach age 65, non-medical withdrawals from HSAs come with a whopping 20 percent penalty. Plus non-medical withdrawls are taxed as income. Even after age 65, both contributions and earnings are taxed when they are withdrawn for non-medical expenses.

In this way, HSAs compare unfavorably with 401(k)s and IRAs, which end their early withdrawal period earlier, at age 59½. They also have lower early withdrawal penalties of just 10 percent.

HSAs are a powerful tool to help manage the ever-rising costs of health care. Knowing the rules and the costs associated with using these funds outside of medical expenses can help you get the most out of an HSA and avoid costly missteps.

The Most- and Least-Taxed States for Retirement

When it comes to choosing where to live during retirement, weather isn’t the only consideration. State and local tax laws have a big impact on your nest egg.

The charts here show the highest and lowest state tax rates and costs of living, from data provided by nonprofit think tanks the Tax Foundation and the Council for Community and Economic Research.

State Income Tax Rates
Highest Lowest
1. California (13.3%) 50. Alaska (0%)
2. Oregon (9.9%) 49. Florida (0%)
3. Minnesota (9.85%) 48. Nevada (0%)
4. Iowa (8.98%) 47. South Dakota (0%)
5. New Jersey (8.97%) 46. Texas (0%)
6. Vermont (8.95%) 45. Washington (0%)
7. Washington DC (8.95%) 44. Wyoming (0%)
State and Local Sales Taxes (state and average local tax rates combined)
Highest Lowest
1. Louisiana (10%) 50. Delaware (0%)
2. Tennessee (9.5%) 49. Montana (0%)
3. Arkansas (9.3%) 48. New Hampshire (0%)
4. Alabama (9%) 47. Oregon (0%)
5. Washington (8.9%) 46. Alaska (1.8%)
Property Taxes (Rankings based on the statewide average of local rates.)
Highest Lowest
1. New Jersey 50. Hawaii
2. Illinois 49. Alabama
3. New Hampshire 48. Louisiana
4. Connecticut 47. Delaware
5. Wisconsin 46. Washington DC
If taxes were the only consideration in our retirement destinations, everyone would move to Alaska, which has no state income or sales taxes. However, the “last frontier” state also has one of the highest costs of living in the U.S. Therefore, you may also wish to consider which states have high and low costs of living.
Don’t Forget: Cost of Living
Highest Lowest
1. Hawaii 50. Mississippi
2. District of Columbia 49. Arkansas
3. California 48. Oklahoma
4. Alaska 47. Michigan
5. New York 46. Tennessee

Simplified Home Office Deduction

Time ClockThere’s a simple “safe harbor” home office deduction.

You take the square footage of your office, up to 300 square feet, and multiply it by $5. This gives you a potential $1,500 deduction under the simplified option. However, your savings could be much greater than $1,500, so it’s often worth getting help to calculate your full deduction using the standard rules.