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Zemanta Related Posts ThumbnailToday’s top story: Everything you need to know about the Earned Income Tax Credit. Also in the news: Saving for your wedding, double checking your 1040, and why deducting medical expenses isn’t as easy as you’d think.

Earned Income Tax Credit: The Basics
What you need need to know about this important tax credit.

How to Save for Your Wedding in Less Than a Year
The happiest day of your life doesn’t have to drain your bank account.

Do Some Looking And Thinking Before Signing Form 1040
Making sure you’ve covered the bases.

Claiming medical deductions harder than you think
Because nothing with taxes is ever easy.

Should You Buy an Extended Warranty?
Depends on what you’re purchasing.

Categories : Liz's Blog
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Investing Made Easy

Mar 24, 2014 | | Comments (2)

Dear Liz: This is going to sound like a stupid question but here goes: I keep hearing different percentages for amounts I should invest for retirement and other goals, such as “put X% in stocks and Y% in bonds.” But which stocks and which bonds? Is it as simple as a purchasing a broad market stock index fund and a broad market bond index fund? There are so many choices for funds, stocks and bonds that I can’t get my head around it all. Also, what should you do with money needed in the near-ish term, say, less than five years?

Answer: Your questions aren’t stupid, and the answers are simple: “Yes,” and “keep it in cash.”

You can make investing complicated if that’s what you want, but a simple, effective solution for most investors is to simply buy inexpensive mutual funds or exchange traded funds (ETFs) that mimic a market index, such as the Wilshire 5000. The investments provide great diversification at low cost, and keeping fees down is essential to getting good long-term returns from your money.

Index funds attempt to match the market’s returns, rather than trying to beat the market with a lot of costly buying and selling. The annual expenses on index funds tend to be a fraction of what you’d pay for an actively managed fund.

Any investment in stocks or bonds requires some patience, however, since short-term fluctuations can cause you to lose money. If you’ll need that money in a few years, you shouldn’t take the risk of losing your principle. An FDIC-insured savings account will keep it safe. Online banks typically offer better yields than their bricks-and-mortar versions.

Categories : Investing, Q&A
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Triggering the Gift Tax

Mar 24, 2014 | | Comments (0)

Dear Liz: In 2007, my parents signed over their house deed to my name. Does this trigger the gift tax? They never filled out a gift tax form. Is it too late? Dad has passed on but Mom is still with us. She has Alzheimer’s disease, and I have her power of attorney. Are there no taxes due because of the lifetime exclusion?

Answer: Yes, a gift tax return should have been filed, but no, the gift tax itself almost certainly wasn’t triggered. In 2007, each of your parents would have had to give away more than $1 million in their lifetimes before gift tax would be owed. The gift tax exemption limit has since been raised to more than $5 million.

A tax professional can help you file the overdue return. Then you should consult an attorney about what to do next.

If your parents’ intent was to avoid taxes by transferring the home to you, they probably made a mistake. By giving the house to you, they also gave their tax basis. That means that when you sell the house, you would have to pay capital gains taxes on the difference between the sale price and what they paid for it, perhaps many years ago. The capital gains would be decreased by any improvements made in the subsequent years and by selling costs, but you still could face a substantial tax bill.

If you’d inherited the home after their deaths, on the other hand, you would get a new tax basis that essentially makes those gains tax-free.
You could undo the gift by transferring the deed back to your mother and filing another gift tax return. (Again, no tax probably would be owed.) But that’s probably not something you’d want to do if your mother will qualify for Medicaid, the government program that pays nursing home expenses for the poor, said Howard Krooks, an attorney with Elder Law Associates in Boca Raton, Fla., and president of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys.

Medicaid looks back at the previous five years to see if the family transferred assets for less than fair-market value and delays eligibility if such transfers are found. Since you’re outside the five-year mark, you may want to leave things the way they are if Medicaid is in your mom’s future, Krooks said.

An elder law attorney can help you sort through the options. You can get referrals from the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys at http://www.naela.org.

Categories : Q&A, Real Estate
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medical concept -  stethoscope over the dollar billsToday’s top story: How many accounts are too many on your credit report? Also in the news: What your car is really costing you, how to manage your money in your 30′s, and it’s time to spring clean your finances.

Do I Have Too Many Accounts on My Credit Report?
The answer may surprise you.

What your car really costs you
Has your car turned into a money pit?

How to Manage Money in Your 30s
This decade could be pivotal to your financial future.

5 Ways to Spring Clean Your Finances
Winter is finally over!

3 Health Myths that Cost You Money
Not taking care of yourself could be costing you money.

Categories : Uncategorized
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Zemanta Related Posts ThumbnailToday’s top story: How credit cards can hurt your credit without charging a dime. Also in the news: Protecting yourself from tax scammers, top 10 tax tips for individuals, and five things that could trigger a larger tax bill.

Why Applying for Lots of Credit Cards Can Hurt Your Credit
Hard inquiries can lower your score.

E-Filing Your Taxes? Here’s How to Protect Yourself from Scammers
Keeping your information safe.

Top 10 tax tips for individual taxpayers
AICPA’s top 10 tax tips

5 Things That Could Trigger a Bigger Tax Bill
Some of these may surprise you.

How To Manage Your Biggest Investment: Your Kids
You’ll spend at least a quarter of a million dollars on your kid.

Categories : Liz's Blog
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Are you ready?

Mar 18, 2014 | | Comments (2)

Christchurch Earthquake - Avonside House CollapsesThe earthquake that rattled us out of bed Monday morning also served as a reminder: it’s time to check the emergency supplies. And it occurred to me that preparing for emergencies has a lot in common with preparing for retirement. Consider:

Most people are woefully unprepared. Not just “under-prepared” but not even being in the same room as prepared. When it comes to retirement savings, one-third of workers have less than $1,000 set aside and 60% have less than $25,000, according to the most recent survey by Employee Benefit Research Institute and Greenwald and Associates.

The solution: Use your imagination. Emergency preparedness experts recommend thinking, in detail, about how you would feed, shelter and tend to the hygiene needs of your family if you were without power, water or a roof for three days. Walking yourself through those days will get you motivated to make your life easier should something happen. A similar exercise can jumpstart your retirement planning: Go to the Social Security estimator, see what you’re scheduled to get at retirement, and imagine trying to live on that.

Many people are overwhelmed. The list of emergency supplies you’re supposed to keep in your home, car and office can be pretty daunting, especially if you’re on a budget. Likewise, the amounts of money people are supposed to save for retirement can seem unrealistically large.

The solution: Start small. Anything you scrape together will help. Getting a kit together can start with some canned goods and a few gallons of water stored in a plastic tote. Getting your retirement together can start with a 1% contribution to a 401(k) or an automatic transfer to an IRA. Build from there, as you can.

You can’t “set it and forget it.” Once you’ve assembled them, disaster supplies have to be regularly checked to see what’s expired or wandered off. (Somebody may have pilfered the batteries in an “emergency” for a game console, for example.) Likewise, once you start saving for retirement, you need to check in to make sure your investments are properly allocated and regularly rebalanced. Changes in your life or your plans can necessitate changes in your retirement savings, as well.

The solution: Put it on your calendar. Schedule checkups at least once a year.

By the way, you can find lists of emergency supplies at the Red Cross and FEMA’s Ready.gov sites. Or check out this great graphic from the LA Times, which shows how you can store what you need in a clean plastic trash can.

If you’re interested, here are some of the supplies we keep around the house (as well as my notes about what I need to replace/get):

Outside in storage bins:

  • Water [need more; we have about half of the two gallons per person per day recommended]
  • Food (we have canned food + can opener, peanut butter, crackers, energy bars; I need to add more pet food now that we have a cat]
  • Cat and dog crates
  • Tent, cookstove, fuel
  • Shovel, hatchet, crowbar, hacksaw
  • Plastic sheeting (to replace windows), duct tape [need to get: staple gun]
  • Plastic goggles, hard hats (protection for clearing debris) [need to find: the work gloves that wandered off]
  • Gas shut off tool (we had an automatic shutoff installed, but I like to be sure)
  • Rope
  • Flashlight, lantern, batteries [looks like I moved the portable radio to some other site; now I just have to remember where]
  • Emergency toilet (bucket with a snap-on seat, garbage bags and kitty litter), toilet paper, wipes
  • Bleach, castille soap, towels
  • Mylar blankets & rain ponchos
  • Need: Fire extinguisher, hygiene kit [toothbrushes, floss, hairbrush]

Car kit:

  • Bottled water
  • Energy bars
  • First-aid kit
  • Sneakers, socks, extra sweaters and coats
  • Multi-tool (oooo I love my Leatherman)
  • Wipes
  • Wind-up/solar-powered flashlight/radio/cell phone charger
  • Regular blanket, mylar blankets & rain ponchos

Categories : Liz's Blog
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Zemanta Related Posts ThumbnailToday’s top story: How to cope when friends and family steal your identity. Also in the news: How to deal with defaulting on your student loans, storing your digital items for free, and five tax credits and deductions you should know about.

When Family and Friends Steal Your Identity
Dealing with the financial and the emotional fallout.

Debt Adviser: How to deal with student loan debt default
Communication with lenders is key.

How to store your e-memories for free
The battle for the Cloud means cheaper storage for everyone.

5 Tax Credits and Deductions You Need to Know About
Don’t give Uncle Sam more than you absolutely have to.

Retirement: A third have less than $1,000 put away
A scary situation.

Categories : Liz's Blog
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Dear Liz: Regarding the reader who was worried about not having sufficient tax deductions: I recommend charitable giving. As our mortgage interest per payment fell, I augmented it with charitable giving to maintain the same annual total for income tax deductions (interest plus charity). As the years go by, our interest decreases and charity increases. Payments to charity accomplish a social benefit, while interest payments just line the pockets of bankers. We give to a broad variety of charities: national, local and international organizations, religious and secular, health and social care, care for children at risk, veterans, Red Cross, etc. The great thing about charitable giving is that we get to choose whom we wish to help. When asked, most organizations will keep your demographic information private so that you are not inundated with requests via the sale of donor lists.

Answer: Thanks for sharing your approach, but people should understand that it requires paying out more money over time to maintain the same level of itemized deductions.

Mortgage payments typically remain the same over the life of the loan, with the amount of potentially deductible interest shrinking and the amount applied to the principal increasing with each payment. So as the amount of deductible interest declines, you would have to increase your contributions to charity in addition to making your mortgage payment each month if you wanted to keep your itemized deductions unchanged.

Categories : Q&A, Saving Money
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Dear Liz: I am 55 and my wife is 65. She only worked a few part-time jobs as she spent most of her working years raising our nine beautiful children. My question is, since she does not have enough credits to collect Social Security on her own work record, can she claim spousal benefits on my work history? If so, at what age and how will it affect my benefits?

Answer: Your wife can receive spousal benefits based on your work record, but those checks can’t start until you’re old enough to qualify for benefits at age 62 (when she’s 72).

If you apply at 62, however, you’re typically locked into a check that would be about 30% smaller than what you’d get if you waited until your “full retirement age” to start. Full retirement age used to be 65, but it’s now 66 and will gradually increase to 67 for people born in 1960 or later.

At your full retirement age, you have the option to “file and suspend,” in which you file for retirement benefits and then immediately suspend your application. Your wife can start receiving spousal benefits, but because you aren’t actually receiving checks, your benefit can continue to grow until it maxes out at age 70.

For many couples, it makes sense for the higher earner to delay starting benefits as long as possible. Given your big age gap, however, you may be better off with a hybrid approach: starting your own benefits (and your wife’s spousal benefit) at age 62 and then suspending your benefit when you reach full retirement age, said economist Laurence Kotlikoff, a Boston University professor who created the site MaximizeMySocialSecurity.com to help people analyze their claiming options. Your benefit would grow 8% a year from the time you suspend to the time you restart at age 70. Your wife would continue to receive her spousal benefit in the interim.

Because your wife will be older than her own full retirement age of 66 when she starts receiving checks, she will be entitled to half of the benefit you’re scheduled to get at your full retirement age. What she gets doesn’t diminish what you get. Spouses who haven’t reached their full retirement age when they apply for spousal benefits have to settle for a discounted check.

Clearly, claiming decisions can be complicated, especially for married people and even more so when there’s a big gap in their ages. AARP has a free calculator that can help most people understand their options. T. Rowe Price also has an easy-to-use calculator, but it doesn’t work for married couples with more than a six-year age gap.

For a more detailed and customizable calculator, you may want to pay $40 to use the software at sites such as MaximizeMySocialSecurity.com or SocialSecurityChoices.com, co-developed by economist (and Social Security recipient) Russell F. Settle.

Categories : Q&A, Retirement
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