Monday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: What the government shutdown means for home loans. Also in the news: How to stay afloat financially during the shutdown, how Medicare premiums could be the key to itemizing your taxes, and how to start investing right now.

What the Government Shutdown Means for Home Loans
Prepare for delays.

How to Stay Afloat Financially in a Federal Shutdown
Get ready to spend some time on the phone.

How Medicare premiums could be the key to itemizing your taxes — and saving money
Your premiums could be deductable.

How (and Why) to Start Investing Right Now
The sooner the better.

It’s time to fix Social Security’s tax burden

People on Social Security need a tax break. The rest of us need to make sure they get it — for everyone’s sake.

When Congress made Social Security benefits taxable in 1983, lawmakers didn’t index the tax thresholds to inflation. They “forgot” inflation again when adding a second layer of taxation in 1993.

That means the proportion of recipients who have to pay federal income taxes on their benefits keeps increasing. Initially, only 1 in 10 Social Security recipients had to pay any federal tax. Now, it’s over half.

In my latest for the Associated Press, why this sneaky way of boosting taxes is unfair to those who have already paid their dues.

Monday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: How to prevent gift card fraud this holiday season. Also in the news: Those “live checks” promise cash but come with a catch, renovation loans expand your home buying options, and the 2019 tax brackets.

How to Prevent Gift Card Fraud This Holiday Season
Keep an eye out for scams.

That ‘Live Check’ Promises Cash, but There’s a Catch
It could come with a whopping interest rate.

Renovation Loans Expand Your Homebuying Options
Move-in ready homes are becoming harder to find.

These Are the 2019 Tax Brackets
Small changes for 2019.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Avoid costly mistakes with the car buyer’s checklist. Also in the news: How to be the holiday host with the most credit card rewards, what you should know before making your first student loan payment, and illegal tax moves to avoid.

Avoid Costly Mistakes With the Car Buyer’s Checklist
Take this list with you to the dealership.

Be the Holiday Host With the Most Credit Card Rewards
Reward yourself for being an excellent host.

Read This Before Making Your First Student Loan Payment
The first day of the rest of your payment life.

Illegal Tax Moves to Avoid
Tiny fibs can lead to big trouble.

Wednesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: How to make the most of the Child Tax Credit this year. Also in the news: 4 reasons to ditch your old debit card, getting to know your 401(k) plan, and how to choose the best tax software.

How to Make the Most of the Child Tax Credit This Year
The tax credit is doubling for 2018.

4 Reasons to Ditch Your Old Debit Card
New card, new perks.

Get to Know Your 401(k) Plan
Everything you need to know about your retirement savings.

How to Choose the Best Tax Software for You This Year
DIY vs finding a pro.

Q&A: Finding a place for Mom

Dear Liz: Our mom is a recent widow, living in Seattle in a house that’s over 100 years old and worth about $1.2 million. She’s anxious about things going wrong, such as a recent sewer system repair to the tune of $10,000. She wants to have less uncertainty about her finances in general, live in a space that could support her aging in place and stay near her support system in that neighborhood.

All her children are 100% fine with her selling the house. We love the house, but we love our mother 1,000 times more. She and my siblings have talked about renting out the house and building a mother-in-law apartment on land near a home my sister owns, or remodeling a home my brother owns. I have suggested just selling and then buying a ready-to-move-in condo that would suit my Mom and her mobility.

I know she will be penalized when or if she sells the house, though. If she sold the house and wound up worse off, I’d never forgive myself. How can we find out more about her options?

Answer: Good news — your mom isn’t likely to owe any taxes on the sale of her home.

She lives in a community property state, so her entire house got a new value for tax purposes when your father died. If the home was worth $1.2 million when he died, that would be the value subtracted from the sale price to determine if there was any taxable profit. (In non-community property states, only his half would have gotten this “step up” in basis.)

Any increase in the home’s value since he died would probably be offset by the $250,000 home profit exemption available to homeowners who have lived in their primary residences for at least two of the past five years.

In addition to the options your family has already discussed, your mother also may want to explore “continuing care” communities that would allow her to live independently while providing assisted living or nursing home care as she ages.

These communities aren’t cheap. They tend to have hefty, up-front fees of $100,000 to $1 million in addition to monthly fees of $3,000 to $5,000 that may increase as her needs change, according to AARP. For those who can afford them, though, continuing care communities offer a potentially attractive way to provide future care without requiring a late-in-life move.

She’ll have the most options if she moves to a community while she’s still relatively healthy. AARP has more information about how to evaluate and choose a continuing care retirement community.

Q&A: Rebalancing your portfolio can trigger tax bills

Dear Liz: Is there a tax aspect to rebalancing your portfolio? You’ve mentioned the importance of rebalancing regularly to reduce risk.

Answer: Rebalancing is basically the process of adjusting your portfolio back to a target asset allocation, or mix of stocks, bonds and cash. When stocks have been climbing, you can wind up with too high an exposure to the stock market, which means any downturn can hurt you disproportionately.

There definitely can be tax consequences to rebalancing, depending on whether the money is invested in retirement plans.

Rebalancing inside an IRA, 401(k) or other tax-deferred account won’t trigger a tax bill. Rebalancing in a regular account could. Investments held longer than a year may qualify for lower capital gains tax rates, but those held less than a year are typically taxed at regular income tax rates when they’re sold.

Tax experts often recommend selling some losers to offset winners’ gains, and “robo advisor” services that invest according to computer algorithms may offer automated “tax loss harvesting” to reduce tax bills.

Monday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: How to size up your property tax assessment. Also in the news: How to never miss a credit card payment again, what it takes to retire early, and how to save money by embracing the ‘pain of paying.’

How to Size Up Your Property Tax Assessment
Don’t be caught offguard.

How to Never Miss a Credit Card Payment Again
Automate your credit life.

Dreaming of an Early Retirement? Here’s What It Takes
Never too early to get started.

Save Money by Embracing the ‘Pain of Paying’
Cash can hurt.

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: 4 ways to get a sales price when there isn’t a sale. Also in the news: What to buy and skip in September, why your kid’s after-school job may mean tax homework for you, and why your credit card debt is worse than your mortgage debt.

4 Ways to Get a Sale Price When There Isn’t a Sale
It can be as simple as just asking for one.

What to Buy (and Skip) in September
Skip the televisions.

Your Kid’s After-School Job May Mean Tax Homework for You
When to file a return.

Your Credit Card Debt Is Worse Than Your Mortgage Debt
The difference between good and bad debt.

Q&A: Big severance creates a tax problem

Dear Liz: My husband is being laid off with a severance package equal to seven months’ pay. What’s better for tax avoidance in California, a 529 college savings plan contribution or investing in an IRA?

Answer: A 529 college savings plan contribution won’t save you taxes in California. There’s no federal deduction for such contributions, and unlike most other states, California doesn’t offer a state tax break, either.

Your husband can contribute up to $5,500 to IRAs for each of you, plus an additional $1,000 per person if you’re 50 or over. Whether the money will reduce your 2018 tax bill depends on your income and whether you’re covered by workplace retirement programs.

If your husband had a 401(k) or similar plan, he would be able to deduct his contribution only if your modified adjusted gross income as a married couple filing jointly is under $101,000. A partial deduction is available until the tax break phases out at $121,000.

If you aren’t an active participant in a workplace plan, however, higher income limits apply. Your husband can make and deduct a spousal IRA contribution for you as long as your joint modified adjusted gross income is under $189,000. A partial deduction is available until the tax break phases out at $199,000.

Even if you’re able to reduce your taxable income with such contributions, you’ll still probably owe a sizable tax bill on this severance. Please consult a tax pro about how much of the money to put aside and whether you’ll need to make any payments before next year’s tax deadline.