Find cheaper checking and ditch your bank

If you’re sick of rising bank fees, check out a new feature at NerdWallet that allows you to compare the costs of more than 120 different checking accounts across a spectrum of banks and credit unions.

You’ll answer a few questions about how you use your account, including the minimum balance you can maintain and how much you’ll deposit each month. The feature serves up the best matches based on your answers. If you have enough cash on hand to qualify for an interest-bearing checking account, the feature can help you find some good options.

You also might want to read a couple of my previous posts on this topic: “How to shop for a new bank” and “7 steps to say ‘buh-bye’ to your bank.”

Changing banks isn’t hassle-free, but you can save some decent money switching to an institution that actually wants your business, rather than punishing you for it.

Missing or bogus tax forms? Here’s what to do

A couple of my Facebook fans haven’t gotten their taxes done because they’re missing key forms–one has a W-2 that’s incorrect, while the other is missing a 1099-R.

These aren’t unusual problems, so I’m hooking you up with the resources you’ll need if you’re facing a similar situation. Here’s what to do:

Gather relevant information. In the case of a missing or incorrect W-2, you’ll want to have handy the employer’s exact name, address and Employer Identification Number (EIN) if possible. (You can find the EIN on a previous year’s W2, if you have that.) It’s also handy to know what the missing or incorrect form SHOULD say, if you have that information from your year-end pay stub or bank records.

Call the IRS at 800-829-1040. Expect to spend a fair bit of time on hold, as they’re a bit busy this time of year. In the future, you can call the agency if you haven’t received a form by Feb. 15 (in other words, don’t wait until the last minute).

Explain the problem. With missing or incorrect W-2s, ask the agent to open a Form W-2 complaint. You’ll need to fill out a Form 4852, which is a substitute W-2 you fill out using the information you have, such as a year-end pay stub. You can find the form and other information here. Missing 1099s often aren’t a big deal, since you don’t need to attach them to your form, with the exception of the 1099-R, which reports tax withheld on retirement plan distributions.

Expect this to delay your refund. If you can’t get a corrected form in time (which is doubtful, at this point), your refund may be held up while the IRS verifies your information.

You may need to file an amended return. If you get a corrected form after the tax-filing deadline and the amounts are different than the ones you entered on your form, you may have to file a 1040X amended return.

You could also consider filing for an automatic six-month extension. You’ll still need to pay any tax owed by April 17, and could face some penalties if you underpay, so use this as a last resort.

20 best cars for teens

My good buddy Des Toups has a nice piece at CarInsurance.com about the best cars for teens. He started with the 65 cars that made the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s 2008 Top Safety Picks list, then whittled them down to those with likely price tags of $15,000 or less, average or better reliability, and gas mileage of 20 mpg or higher. He also has some good suggestions for how to keep somewhat of a lid on insurance costs–although make no mistake: you are going to feel it deep in the wallet when you insure a teen driver.

The #1 car? An Audi. For the rest of the list, click here.

More mega millions madness: Money pros weigh in

Here’s a recent post from Credit.com where a bunch of us money types hold forth about the lottery:

Mega Millions Madness: Money Pros Weigh In (via Credit.com)

Let’s face it. When it comes to things like lottery jackpots, personal finance experts and writers tend to be wet rags. We usually put lottery ticket purchases in the same category of money sins as bottled water or spending $5 for a cup of coffee that can be brewed at home for 25 cents. But whom…

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You’re not going to win the lottery. But if you do, read this.

With so much talk about the record Mega Millions jackpot, I thought I’d throw in my two cents:

First cent: You’re not going to win. The odds are ridiculous.

Second cent: If you should win this or any other windfall, even a much smaller one, you’ve got some work ahead of you.

If you’ve never had money, you may not realize how much effort it takes to manage it wisely–and not lose it. You don’t want to wind up like the folks featured in SmartMoney’s “Why lottery winners go bankrupt“–lottery winners who went bust, or even to jail.

So here’s my MSN column “You won the lottery. Now what?” When you don’t win, you can still read it for advice about what to do should any major windfall enter your life.

The weekly round-up

Spring break starts tomorrow for my kiddo, so I won’t be hanging out at the computer–we’ve got some serious goofing off to do. Therefore, I’m posting links to some stuff I hope you’ll find interesting, by myself and others, a day early.

Bob Sullivan of MSNBC posted a very scary column about how “Hackers turn credit report websites against consumers.” This one’s a must read.

GoBankingRates.com posted my column “Biggest Myths About Credit Scores.” We know so much more about  how these formulas work than we did a decade ago, but some of the same myths persist. Falling for any of these could cost you.

Fox Business picked up Jodi Helmer’s piece for CreditCards.com “Seven Easy Ways to Go Green with Your Finances,” to which I contributed a thought or three.

Donna Freedman’s latest for MSN, “A cheap death: Donate your body,” may take frugality a touch too far for some, but it could be just the ticket for those who want to benefit science and education while avoiding big burial costs.

Are you pregnant, or hope to be so soon? You might want to check out the baby planner created by “Generation Earn” author Kimberly Palmer. You can find the link, and read about the soon-to-be mom that Palmer’s advising, at Daily Worth’s Money Fix 3.

My MSN column this week “Lose your house, get socked by the IRS?” is about the coming expiration of the Mortgage Debt Relief Act, which protects homeowners from facing a tax bill after they lose their homes to foreclosure or short sales.

Want to know more about Roths? Check out these links

Nearly 150 bloggers so far have contributed posts to the Roth IRA Movement, which financial planner Jeff Rose organized after speaking to a group of college seniors and discovering none of them knew what a Roth was, or how important it was to their financial futures. (It’s “the best thing since sliced bread,” and really, really important, as you can read in my post “Young and broke? Open a Roth.”)

You can read Jeff’s post here, which is also where you’ll find links to the other 146 (so far) posts. That’s probably more about Roths than anyone can absorb, so here are a few good ones to start with:

Studenomics: “Read This if You Want to Retire Before 70.” An excellent, clear guide to why it’s so important to contribute to a Roth while you’re young.

House of Rose: “I Opened My First IRA Account. Age 22.” The blogger’s personal story of early enlightenment.

Parenting Family Money: “Opening a Roth IRA for a Child.” An early start is good; an even earlier start is better.

Bible Money Matters: “10 Reasons Why I Love The Roth IRA (And Why You Should Too).” If this doesn’t convert you to the wisdom of a Roth, what will?

Amateur Asset Allocator: “Roth IRA: How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Ways.” This blogger wrote a sonnet. Seriously. You must read this.

Lauren Lyons Cole: “How To Pay Taxes Like the Rich.” Why has no one given financial planner Lauren Lyons Cole her own TV show yet? She’s delightful, and hits the highlights of the Roth in a two-minute video.

Please share these links with your friends and anyone you know who isn’t already contributing to a Roth. Help us get the word out about this wonderful vehicle for future financial independence.

Save money. Don’t multi-task.

The barista had to ask three times for her order before the woman finally responded. She’d been so busy nattering away to her friend in line that she didn’t notice she was now at the front.

And the fun wasn’t over. When it was time to pay, the woman pulled out her wallet and dug fruitlessly inside, opening the same compartments over and over, all the while keeping up the nonstop chatter.

As the seconds ticked passed and the line grew, what started out as vaguely annoying became absolutely absurd. The barista looked at me, the next person in line, and widened her eyes in exasperation.

I shrugged. I was just grateful I’d encountered this person in a coffee shop rather than on the road, where she probably thinks she can drive while talking on the phone just fine.

Obviously, she can’t. None of us can. Multi-tasking is a myth, and only works when both the things you’re trying to do are brain-dead simple–like folding laundry and watching TV. Anything more complicated, and you’re likely to do one or both things far worse than if you’d concentrated on a single task.

But multi-tasking isn’t just stupid. It can be expensive. Consider:

  • Talking on a cell phone while driving is as dangerous as driving drunk. You’re four times as likely to be in an accident.
  • Texting while driving raises your chances of an accident by 20 times.
  • Not only are you risking injury and death–and the injury and death of others–but you’re just begging for a nice juicy lawsuit. As Nolo Press puts it, “plaintiffs have argued (and some courts have agreed) that a driver was legally at fault for the accident (“negligent,” in legalese) because the driver used a cell phone immediately before or during the collision.”
  • If a plaintiff’s attorney can successfully argue that a phone call is distracting, think how much easier his or her case will be if you were texting–which any idiot knows you shouldn’t do in a car.
  • Even if everybody walks away without stunning medical bills, you can bet your life your auto insurance rates will skyrocket.

It’s not that hard to turn off the phone and put it away when you drive. You’ll drive better, and you could save yourself a fortune.

Young and broke? Open a Roth

You young’uns, listen up. Roth IRAs are the best thing since sliced bread. And the best time to contribute is when you’re young and broke, since you won’t always be that way.

Here’s the deal: contributions to a Roth don’t give you a tax break up front. But when you aren’t making much money, you aren’t paying much in taxes, so that’s an easy sacrifice to make.

The beauty of the Roth is when you take the money out. You can always withdraw your contributions without paying income taxes or penalty on the cash. But I recommend you don’t, because if you leave your Roth alone, those contributions—and all the lovely gains they’ll earn over the years—can be withdrawn entirely tax free.

Chances are, your tax rate will be higher in the future than it is now. The future you will be blessing the current you for tucking aside all that tax-free wealth. Every $1,000 you contribute in your 20s could grow to $20,000 or more by the time you’re ready to retire. If you’re so rich by then that you don’t need the money, you can pass the account on to your kids, and THEY can pull out money tax free.

That doesn’t mean you should ignore your workplace retirement plan—your 401(k) or 403(b)—especially if it has a match. But if you can possibly tuck some money away in a Roth, you probably should.

Starting one is easy—just about any bank, brokerage firm or mutual fund company under the sun will be happy to take your money. I like Vanguard’s target date retirement funds, since they do all the asset allocation and rebalancing for you, their expenses are dead cheap and you only have to have a $1,000 minimum investment to start a Roth there. (Don’t have $1,000 yet? Start a Roth at a credit union, save up and then transfer the account to Vanguard.)

Even if you aren’t so young anymore, the tax benefits of a Roth make sense if you’re likely to be in the same or higher tax bracket in retirement.

The ability to contribute to a Roth starts to phase out once your modified adjusted gross income exceeds $110,000 if you’re single and $173,000 if you’re married filing jointly.

Making money is a good thing. But I’ll admit to some sadness when hubby and I stopped being able to contribute to our Roths. These accounts really are a great deal.

 

Spreading the wealth: the number of millionaires grows

More people have achieved a net worth of at least $1 million, not including their primary residences. The Spectrum Group, which keeps track of these things, said the number of millionaires climbed for the third straight year to 8.6 million in 2011 (or 7.5% of all U.S. households). The growth in millionaires follows a 27% decline in 2008. But we’re still not back to the 2007 peak of 9.2 million.

Spectrum said the ranks of all affluent investors increased in 2011:

  • Those with $100,000 or more in net worth sans primary residence reached 36.7 million from 36.2 million in 2010 (about 32% of U.S. households)
  • Those with $500,000 or more in net worth climbed to 13.8 million from 13.5 million in 2010 (about 12% of U.S. households)
  • Those with $5 million or more in net worth rose to 1.078 million from 1.061 million in 2010 (slightly less than 1% of U.S. households)
  • Those with $25 million or more in net worth grew to 107,000 from 105,000 in 2010 (slightly less than .1% of households)