Category: Personal Finance

The Republican tax bill – a burden to families, homeowners, and students


Important note: I am not a CPA or tax attorney and I don’t play one on TV. My explanations and descriptions of the proposed changes to the tax code are simplified (which is the goal of this blog). Nothing contained here should be construed as tax advice. I also want to note that I am a Conservative, and I am firmly against this bill.

In early November, 2017, the Republican party released their version of tax reform. You can find the full text of the tax code here: https://waysandmeansforms.house.gov/uploadedfiles/bill_text.pdf. Most people agree that the tax code needs some simplification and that some loopholes need to be closed. While there are a few positive aspects of the bill, the bill, as a whole, is a disaster and should not be passed.  Let’s start with the positive aspects of the proposed bill:

  • Tax brackets are reduced from seven to four, which could lower taxes for some.
  • The standard deduction is doubled, which will make taxes easier for many individuals and families.
  • Repeal of the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT).
  • Repeal of the estate tax.
  • An increase in the child tax credit from $1,000 to $1,600.
  • Corporate tax rate lowered from 35% to 20%.

Now for the negatives:

  • Removal of the personal exemption (currently $4,050 per person). You can find this removal on page 33 of the tax bill. The doubling of the standard deduction is supposed to make up for the removal of the personal exemption, which you get for each dependent and taxpayer on a return. In my family, with five children, we get seven personal exemptions. In 2016 the personal exemption was $4,050, which equates to $28,350. We would get this on top of the standard deduction, which was $12,600, for a total of $40,950. Our deduction under the new bill will be $24,000. This bill penalizes anyone with children, and certainly penalizes large families. Even with the increased child tax credit we still come out behind. I thought Republicans were in favor of families.
  • Mortgage interest deduction would be capped on homes up to $500,000 (see page 100 of the tax bill). In many areas of the country $500,000 is an average home[i]. This only applies to new mortgages, so if you have a mortgage now and the value of your home is $1,000,000 or less, it won’t affect you. Republicans obviously don’t want you to buy a more expensive home.
  • Under current laws, as long as you are using your home as your primary residency, you can move every two years and not pay capital gains taxes on the increase in value on your home. The new tax plan increases that to five years (see page 137). This will be devastating to the starter home market, and challenging for many others. For most individuals that tax will be 15% of the gain. For some reason, Republicans don’t want you to move very often.
  • Graduate students often pay for their tuition by doing research and teaching undergraduate courses. In exchange, they are paid a wage (which average $20,000 – $30,000 a year) and receive a tuition waiver (which averages $12,000 – $50,000 a year). Under current law, the wages are taxed, while the tuition waiver is not. Under the proposed changes, both the wages and tuition waiver become taxable income (see page 98 in the tax bill). This will dis-incentivize students from going to graduate school, and raising their tax bill by a large amount, especially for those that go to more expensive schools.[ii] An analysis by Forbes shows that an in-state University of Florida grad student pays about $1,424 a year in taxes currently, but under the new plan they will pay $4,052 a year, which is 17.6% of their income. A Princeton grad student pays $2,849 (8.8% of their income) now, while under the GOP plan they will pay $13,499 (41.9% of their income)[iii]. That is a heavy, and unacceptable, tax burden on those trying to get an education. For an excellent analysis of how this would affect students, click here.  Why do Republicans not want individuals to go to grad school?
  • Elimination of state and local tax deduction (see page 105).
  • If your employer offers adoption assistance that is not currently reported as income. This bill repeals that and it will now be reported as income. NOTE: This was included in the original bill (see page 142), but has since been removed.
  • If your employer offers tuition assistance, it is currently not reported as income. That benefit will be repealed and it will now be reported as income (see page 96-98). Again, this will discourage individuals from going to school.
  • If you work at an educational institution you or your children may get reduced or free tuition. Currently this is not reported as income. Under the new bill it will be (see page 96). For example, as an employee benefit my children get free tuition at Utah Valley University. Their tuition would be reported as income.
  • The student loan interest deduction will be repealed (see page 96 – Section 221).
  • The itemized deduction for medical expenses will be repealed (see page 113).
  • The bill adds a “Chained CPI” to the tax code, which essentially means that Social Security income will grow at a slower rate than true inflation[iv].

This tax bill is terrible and should not be passed. However, remember that this bill is not a law yet! I encourage you to contact your elected officials and encourage them to scrap this bill entirely. You can find contact information here:

https://www.usa.gov/elected-officials

Call them, e-mail them, post on their social media pages. Let them know you don’t support this bill.

I conclude with two quotes:

“This is a Republican plan that targets people wanting to adopt children, homeowners, small businesses and people with high medical bills.” – Carol Markowitz[v]

“If the goal of the new tax plan is to shift the tax burden from wealthy, older Americans onto young, already-indebted students pursuing their higher education dreams, it’s poised to be a smashing success.” – Ethan Siegel[vi]

 

END NOTE: If you are looking for a comprehensive review of the GOP tax bill you can find that here: https://www.kitces.com/blog/tax-cuts-and-jobs-act-2018-house-gop-tax-reform-proposal/

 

[i] In Los Angeles county, for example, 23% of mortgages are over $500,000. In San Francisco that number jumps to 56.6%. http://www.latimes.com/visuals/graphics/la-na-g-mortgage-interest-deduction-tax-calculator-20171106-htmlstory.html

[ii] https://www.wired.com/story/grad-students-are-freaking-out-about-the-gops-tax-plan-they-should-be/

[iii] https://www.forbes.com/sites/startswithabang/2017/11/07/the-gop-tax-plan-will-destroy-graduate-education/#427787703d2f

[iv] https://newrepublic.com/article/145688/biggest-trojan-horse-republican-tax-plan

[v] http://www.foxnews.com/opinion/2017/11/07/im-conservative-and-hate-republican-tax-plan.html

[vi] https://www.forbes.com/sites/startswithabang/2017/11/07/the-gop-tax-plan-will-destroy-graduate-education/#7c929ce63d2f

How to protect yourself after the Equifax data breach

equifax data breachFollowing the news of the hurricanes, news of the Equifax security breach has been all over the news. Financial data of 143 million Americans has been stolen, and in many cases it means that the victims are at-risk of becoming victims of identity theft for the remainder of their lives. That’s right, you, and if you have them, your children, could be at risk for the rest of your life. The hackers got names, Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses, credit card numbers, and some driver’s license numbers.

The breach ticks me off – this never should have happened. Clearly Equifax has some major vulnerability in their system which they should have known about and protected. A credit bureau should be utilizing the highest level of security at every level. Your information with them should be as secure as a vault. On top of that, to add insult to injury, three of Equifax’s executives (including the CFO) sold nearly $2 million worth of stock after the breach, but before they told the public about it. That’s right – here’s a timeline for you:

  • Between mid-May and July, 2017 – breach happens
  • July 29, 2017 – the hack was discovered
  • Aug 1-2, 2017 – executives sell almost $2 million worth of stock
  • Sept 7, 2017 – the public is informed of the breach (thank you, Equifax, for waiting more than a month before letting us know)
  • Sept 8, 2017 – Equifax stock drops by double-digits

Equifax cliams that these executives had no knowledge of the hack when they sold their shares, but I don’t buy it. You’re telling me the CFO didn’t know about this? If he didn’t know, then who did? I’m sure that the timing of the sale will be part of any investigation.

The breach has happened, though, and you need to take specific steps to be sure you protect yourself. Let me warn you now, the few hours you spend on this are not going to be the most fun, but it is critical you take care of it now. It will be much, much worse if you wait and are a victim of identity theft.

I’ll try to make it as easy as possible for you with links and instructions.

  • First, don’t sign up for the protection that Equifax is offering. It only lasts a year, and, unless you opt-out of it, means you can’t be part of suing Equifax later on. I also don’t trust the company that just had the biggest data breach in history to be able to protect my data. Pass. Due to the severity of the breach, they should offer identity theft protection for life.
  • Sign up for Credit Karma (https://www.creditkarma.com/). You will get free credit scores and free monitoring of your credit reports. If anything unusual happens, they will contact you. It’s a free service and you should sign up for all adult members of your family.
  • Credit Karma logo

  • Place a credit freeze on all three of your credit bureau files. A credit freeze is THE SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT THING YOU CAN DO TO PROTECT YOURSELF. It literally locks your credit bureau files so NO ONE, including you, will be approved for new credit. A thief could have your information and they will apply rapidly for credit, all of which will be denied. They will eventually move on. Depending on the state you live in, there will be a $0-$15 fee to set this up, and you need to do this for each adult member of your family.Here are the links:
    https://www.freeze.equifax.com/Freeze/jsp/SFF_PersonalIDInfo.jsp
    https://www.transunion.com/credit-freeze/place-credit-freeze
    https://www.experian.com/freeze/center.html

    Because millions of people are setting these up the systems are not all working. I was able to set up Equifax and Experian, but not TransUnion. I will keep trying throughout the next day or so, and if it doesn’t work I will take care of it via mail.If you need to apply for credit later, you can un-freeze your reports for a limited period of time, after which it will re-freeze.

  • Place a fraud alert on your accounts. This is simply an extra step that puts an alert on your credit report that you might be a victim of identity theft, and that creditors need to call you before any credit application can be approved. It only lasts 90 days, but you can put the alert on there repeatedly. I already have a note on my calendar 90 days from today to renew the alert. You only need to place the alert with one company then they will place the alert with the other two. I recommend you use TransUnions fraud alert system – I found it to be the easiest one: https://www.transunion.com/fraud-victim-resource/place-fraud-alert
  • fraud alert

  • Sign up for Zander Insurance identity theft insurance. For $145 a year it protects your entire family, including your children. They have a 100% recovery success rate and protect you against all types of ID theft, including tax fraud, medical ID theft, and, of course, financial fraud. If your identity is stolen as a result of the Equifax, or any other breach or identity theft, they will take over and fix everything. It is well worth every penny. You can sign up for that here: https://www.zanderins.com/idtheft2
  • logo_zander

  • Speaking of children, does it make sense to freeze their reports? The credit bureaus don’t want you to be able to do that, but some states have made it mandatory. All three bureaus are falling in line, but none will allow you to do it online. TransUnion will do a search, for free, to see if your children have credit reports. You can find that here: https://www.transunion.com/credit-disputes/child-identity-theft-inquiry-form.
  • Utah is taking things one step further – they have set up a Child Identity Protection Program through the Attorney General’s office that registers your children’s Social Security numbers as a number belonging to a minor, which will help protect their data. You can find that program here: https://cip.utah.gov/cip/SessionInit.action. If you live in a different state encourage your attorney general to create a similar program. Because I live in Utah and have this option, along with the Zander protection, I don’t feel that I need to freeze their credit, but if I lived outside of Utah I would absolutely take that step.
  • utah cip

  • Because credit card numbers were stolen, I recommend calling the toll-free number on the back of each credit card you have and requesting a new number. It’s a pro-active step you can take to prevent unauthorized charges in the future.

Again, I realize this isn’t fun – it’s a lot of work to set these things up, but I wouldn’t delay. Take a couple of hours today and get all of this done. Taking these steps is like building a brick wall between you and identity thieves.

Financial Filing Systems

Think about all the financial paperwork you receive each month – either digitally or in the mail. In a typical month you might receive an investment statement, credit card bills, bank statements, and more. Some need to be checked for accuracy while others need to be filed for tax season.

If it is tax season you will get even more financial documents each month. In addition to new ones you are receiving you also have documents that you keep a copy such as previous year tax returns, real estate documents and your will.

While there are countless financial filing “systems” that individuals have created and discuss on their blog, two stand out that were developed by financial authors or planners – David Bach’s File Folder System and the HomeFile Financial Planning Organizer Kit.


David Bach’s File Folder System

Bach’s system consists of 14 hanging folders and approximately 50 file folders. Each hanging folder is labeled with a different category such as:

  • Tax Returns
  • Retirement Accounts
  • Household
  • Credit Card DEBT
  • Insurance
  • Savings and Checking Accounts

As documents are received they are placed in the corresponding folder.

Bach’s system is simple and, beyond the cost of the folders, is free. Bach discusses his system in more details at http://www.oprah.com/money/david-bachs-file-folder-system.


HomeFile Financial Planning Organizer Kit

HomeFile was developed by financial planners J. Michael Martin and Mary E. Martin. It contains 22 laminated cards that are pre-labeled and are similar, though more detailed than, Bach’s system. Some examples include:

  • Autos
  • Charities
  • Credit
  • Employment
  • Personal
  • Real Estate

Each card is labeled with what is filed there, what is not filed there and when you can remove the document. The system includes a quick-find index so you can locate a document easily and a 48-page handbook with instructions and forms.

The system is $29.95 for one kit. You can learn more at http://www.homefileorganizer.com/.

It is recommended that these types of files are kept in a file-proof locking box or safe. It may be advantageous to make it a portable box so it can be taken with you if needed.

 

Paying for College – 529 plans

College can be paid for in a number of different ways – you can save up in advance, you can work and pay along the way, you can excel in academics, sports or other areas and get scholarships, you can pay with grants or loans or you might just have a rich relative that is willing to pay it for you.

In today’s article I want to cover the first option – saving up in advance.

In 2013 the Center for Social Development did a study called “Small-Dollar Children’s Savings Accounts, Income, and College Outcomes”(1) where they share some interesting findings:

  • 61% of low- and moderate-income (LMI) children have no savings account for college.
  • An LMI with savings for college is three times more likely to enroll in college than a child with no savings, and more than four and a half times more likely to graduate.
  • Only 5% of LMI’s with no savings will graduate, while 25% of those with savings of $1-$499 will graduate, and 33% of those with $500 or more set aside will graduate.

These numbers are significant – compared to their peers from a similar socioeconomic background, setting aside between $1-$499 for your child or grandchild makes them three times more likely to enroll in college and four and a half times more likely to graduate. That’s not a lot of money for those outcomes.

In addition, the government has provided some great tax benefits to saving for college in special accounts called 529 plans. Each state has at least one 529 plan, but they all share these benefits:

  • Tax-free investment growth
  • Tax-free withdrawals for qualified expenses
    • Qualified expenses include tuition, fees, room and board, textbooks, computer, printer and software as well as any other required fee from a university or college
  • You can use the money to pay for education expenses in any state
  • The account holder maintains ownership of the account
  • You can change the beneficiary any time you want
  • If your child gets a scholarship you can withdraw up to the amount of the scholarship and just pay taxes on the earnings
    • Non-qualified withdrawals (i.e. those not for qualified expenses) are subject to taxes and a 10% penalty on the earnings
  • Legally there is no maximum amount, though in reality most people want to keep the annual contribution below $14,000 if you are single, and $28,000 if you are married(2)

Many states offer a tax deduction or credit of some kind if you live in that state and invest in that state’s 529 plan. NerdWallet has created a list of which states offer a deduction or credit here:

https://www.nerdwallet.com/blog/investing/529-plans-list/

Which plan should you invest in? You want to find a plan with low fees, direct-investing (which means you pay no commissions on the investment) and, if possible, a tax deduction or credit.

Consumer expert Clark Howard said, “Utah is by far the single best plan in the country.” He also lists Iowa, New York, Georgia and Michigan as great plans.(3) Morningstar rates Utah’s plan as “…one of the best in the U.S.”(4)

You can explore your state’s plan further from the NerdWallet link above, but if you are looking for a great plan you can’t go wrong with the Utah Educational Savings Plan (https://uesp.org/). It is direct-sold, has low-fees, and has good investment options with Vanguard. There is no fee to open the account, there is no minimum investment and Utah residents can get a Utah State tax credit for contributions.(5)

Remember – saving as little as $1-$499 for your child’s college education dramatically increases the odds of them going to, and graduating from, college, which will increase their lifetime earnings, decrease their chances of living in poverty and decrease their chances of being unemployed.(6)

 


  1. https://csd.wustl.edu/publications/documents/wp13-06.pdf
  2. Note that it could actually be much higher than this if your plan allows it, but that gets into estate planning issues, which we aren’t going to get into here.
  3. http://clark.com/education/clark-updates-his-529-guide-for-2010/
  4. https://uesp.org/morningstar-utah-educational-savings-plan-is-one-of-the-best-in-the-u-s/
  5. This is not tax advice – check with your tax advisor or preparer to ensure you get the maximum benefit.
  6. This is assuming they choose the right major, but that will have to be covered in another article.

Are You Financially Fragile?

What would happen to you and your family if:

  • your fridge broke down?
  • your car transmission went out?
  • the primary breadwinner in your family dies?
  • the primary breadwinner in your family becomes disabled?
  • the Social Security fund goes bankrupt and you will no longer receive a Social Security check?

As many as 76% of Americans live paycheck-to-paycheck – they have little to no savings and they spend more than they earn each month. These people are the Financially Fragile.

Financially FragileWhen one of the above events happens it can be challenging for anyone, but it is devastating for the Financially Fragile.

If you are living this way, you can take a few steps to become Financially Resilient. Being Financially Resilient means that you are able to withstand or recover quickly from difficult financial conditions, such as your car transmission going out. Again, that can be difficult for anyone, but the Financially Resilient will recover quickly while it can destroy the Financially Fragile.

Here are some things I recommend to start down the path to becoming Financially Resilient:

  • Have an emergency fund – start out with $1,000
  • Use a budget[i]
  • Spend less than you earn
  • Have adequate insurance
  • Pay off debt
  • Use a Revolving Savings account[ii]
  • Have some “fun money” or “mad money”
  • Pay attention to your credit score[iii]

For more information on these topics, see the links below. I encourage you to take steps to become more Financially Resilient.


[i] Guide to Budgeting

[ii] https://ryanhlaw.com/revolving-savings/

[iii] https://ryanhlaw.com/know-your-score/

Budgeting Software

Budgeting software

Budgeting is the foundation of financial wellness and success. Budgeting puts you in control of your money and helps you achieve your goals.

A few years back two professors did the largest research study on millionaires in the United States. They studied how they made their money, what their family structure was, what kind of car they drove, what kind of watch they had and on and on. After they compiled the research they wrote a great book titled “The Millionaire Next Door.” One of the key findings of the book was about budgeting:

“Millionaires became millionaires by budgeting and controlling expenses, and they maintain their affluent status the same way.”

That’s right – they set a goal to become a millionaire then the budget was the tool they used to get them there.

Maybe you have a goal to become a millionaire, maybe you don’t. You have financial goals, though, even if you haven’t attached a dollar amount to it yet. Do you want to retire someday? That’s a financial goal. Do you want to travel? Go on vacation next year? Buy a better car? Buy a house? Those are all financial goals, and you will achieve those through your budget. Once you attach a dollar amount and a deadline to the goal your budget can start to really work for you.

In this day and age there is no reason not to use budgeting software. It is cheap (or free) and does all the hard work for you.

In today’s post I want to do a review of the top three budgeting programs – Mint, You Need a Budget and EveryDollar. All three are online, have great mobile apps and are very secure.

The basic premise of all three programs is that you budget based on what you actually have – it’s not a projection in the future or a record of the past. If you just got paid and you have $2,000 in the bank then you budget $2,000. In all three programs the $2,000 will go at the top of the page and you give every dollar of the $2,000 a job or a name.

If $1,000 of that is allocated to the mortgage category you put $1,000 in the mortgage category and you have $1,000 remaining. Let’s say you take the remaining $1,000 and put $500 in groceries, $250 in utilities, $200 to a car payment and $50 to entertainment.

At this point your mindset needs to shift. You no longer have $2,000 in the bank – you have $1,000 allocated to your mortgage, $500 in the grocery category, $250 in the utility category, $200 for your car payment and $50 for entertainment. Your bank balance is irrelevant – all that matters is having categories that are funded.

Let’s move on now to what some of the differences are, the costs involved and pros and cons.

everydollarEveryDollar

EveryDollar was developed by Dave Ramsey and his team at Ramsey Solutions.

EveryDollar has two versions – a free version and a paid version. The paid version is $99 a year. The paid version gives you the software and app and the paid version connects to your bank account and imports transactions, which is vital in my opinion. The free version also has a lot of ads pushing you to use the paid version.

EveryDollar recommends you:

  1. Budget before the month begins in a team meeting with your spouse if you are married.
  2. Budget to $0 – or give every dollar a name.
  3. Track your transactions – you enter them manually or with the paid version you import them and assign them to a category.

In addition to the ads pushing you toward the paid version, there are ads for Dave’s ELPs, or Endorsed Local Providers. For example, on the sample budget I set up ads came up for auto insurance, home insurance and life insurance.

EveryDollar comes with a good 15-page Guide to Budgeting that teaches you how to use the software.

I found the interface to be clean and very easy to use. Entering transactions was simple. You can set or change the categories any way you want – adding, deleting, or renaming.

The big problems I see with the software are:

  • Neither version tracks your bank account. The paid one pulls transactions in, but it doesn’t track your account. You would have to log in to each one to be sure your balances are the same. Other software acts as a bank register in addition to the budget. Using EveryDollar gives you an extra step.
  • The ads for the paid version and ELPs got annoying.
  • The paid version is expensive for what you are getting.
  • In most of the categories money doesn’t roll over from month-to-month. If you have $10 left in “gas” at the end of the month it is gone on the first of the next month. I think that is a major flaw. When I looked up why they did that it says that there shouldn’t be any extra money at the end of the month. If there is $10 leftover you should apply it towards your goals. I get that, but I still think it should roll over. What if I am putting extra in the gas category to save for the gas for our vacation?

    There is an exception to this – the “goals” categories do roll over. Put $100 in a category labeled “Emergency Fund” and it will roll over. Supposedly you can also turn any category into a “Fund” and it will roll over. When I tried doing that, though, nothing rolled over. It is possible I got frustrated too early and didn’t learn how to fully use it, though.

While it is clean and simple to use, I think the cons outweigh the positive features. I don’t think it fully does what you want a budget to do.

mintlogo_link_presspgMint

Mint was one of the original players in the online budgeting software game. They were acquired by Intuit a few years back who really hasn’t done much with it. My guess is that they bought Mint to market its other products to the users, of which Mint has over 300 million.

Mint is 100% free. It is supported by ads that can get quite intrusive.

When you first sign up the first step is to link it with your bank account. You can’t move past the first screen until you link it. I don’t like that at all. I think they should let people take it for a spin before they commit, but I think we should also read bills before we pass them. I do wonder how many of their 300 million users signed up, then never actually linked an account.

Because I didn’t want to link an account today, my review is based on how the software used to function. However, just last week I tried to help someone with their Mint account, and it looked the same and had the same limitations it used to have, so my review should be fairly accurate.

Mint will allow you to connect all of your accounts, so it can act like a Financial Dashboard for you. As I mentioned, it is also free.

For me that is where the pros stop. I found Mint to be incredibly inflexible and not user-friendly at all, starting from page one where you can’t see what you are getting unless you link your account. Want to rename a category? Nope. Mint fixes the categories and you can’t change them, which means you have to fit your budget around their predetermined account names. Here is their fixed list: https://www.mint.com/mint-categories.

“Honey, which category in Mint is the money we’re saving for a snowblower?” “It’s the laundry category.” It’s about like that.

Returning things and getting credits to your account throws the budget off as well. If you return $50 worth of clothing it sees that as income. I found full blog posts about how to manipulate the software so it isn’t treated as income. It shouldn’t be that hard.

Remember, though, Mint IS free. If you can’t afford a paid version and you want it to link to your accounts (and you do want to), then Mint is a good option.

ynab-logoYou Need a Budget

You Need a Budget, or YNAB for short, was developed by Jesse Mecham while he was a student at BYU. He had taken an Excel class and created a spreadsheet that he used to track their family budget. He decided to try to sell it and to his surprise it sold – a lot. Jesse has a full team working on YNAB now and it has moved far beyond the Excel spreadsheet. It is now a web-based app with an Android and Apple app. YNAB focuses on one thing – budgeting – and they do it extremely well.

YNAB has four rules for making your budget work:

  1. Give every dollar a job. You budget just the money that you have on hand by asking yourself, “What should this money do before I’m paid again?” You follow this rule by connecting your bank and credit card accounts to YNAB, setting up spending categories, putting money in the categories and tracking your expenses.
  2. Embrace your true expenses. Think about your less-frequent expenses such as Christmas and insurance. You set a goal with a deadline and a dollar amount to meet those goals. The software tells you if you are on-track or not. See my blog post at https://ryanhlaw.com/revolving-savings/ for more details.
  3. Roll with the punches. When you need to change your budget, just change it.
  4. Age your money. Work towards spending money that you earned at least 30 days ago – that way you aren’t living paycheck to paycheck anymore. The software displays an “Age of Money” number at the top of your budget.

YNAB is free for 34 days, then you can pay either $5 a month or $50 a year. Students can get a copy for free for a year by emailing student@ynab.com.

YNAB is simple to use, and in my opinion it is the most powerful budgeting software out there. The only downsides I can think of are:

  • The Android and Apple apps need some more developing. I happen to know that this is a feature they are working on right now.
  • It has a bit of a learning curve. While they have user guides, they could benefit from a simple booklet like EveryDollar puts out with their software. However, they have free online classes (over 100 per week) – including some early in the morning and others in the evening. You should be able to find a class time that works for you. There are currently 13 different classes – from Getting Started to Learn From Reports (https://www.youneedabudget.com/classes/).

Conclusion

If you need a free solution I recommend Mint. If you are willing to pay for a far superior product, though, I recommend YNAB. I have been using YNAB for years now and I recommend it all the time. It is the most powerful and versatile option. You will get far more from YNAB than you will from either other software package.

With any budgeting software, though, it only works if you put in the time. EveryDollar recommends a weekly meeting and check-in. This will work for most people. Being the budgeting nerd that I am, though, I actually log in each morning, pull transactions in from the previous day, and make sure everything is up-to-date. It takes just a few minutes, then I can be sure that all of our budget categories reflect correct numbers.

You can learn more about any of these solutions at:

http://www.everydollar.com

http://www.mint.com

http://www.youneedabudget.com (NOTE: If you sign-up for YNAB through this link you will get your free 34-day trial plus another month for free.)

Droids or Tax Time?

Have you started receiving forms with names that sound like droids from Star Wars?

I’m fairly certain that all these droids will be in Star Wars episode 18:

  • W-2
  • 1099
  • 1098
  • W-4P

That can only mean one of two things. Droids are finally making their long awaited arrival on Earth, or it is tax time.

Droids or Tax Time

 

Just in case it is tax time, here are some answers to common questions to help make tax season a little less taxing.

1. How early can I file my taxes?

Wait to file your taxes until you have ALL the tax forms. This includes W-2s, 1099s, Interest statements, etc. Employers and companies have until January 31 to send you everything, so you should have everything shortly after that. Make a list of what you should receive and wait to start until you have it. The most common forms are:

  • Form W-2: You should receive one from each of your employers
  • Form 1098: If you paid interest on a home or student loan or paid college tuition you will receive a 1098
  • Form 1099-DIV: If you received dividends, distributions or capital gains on any investments, watch for one of these to grace your mailbox
  • Form 1099-INT: Any interest paid to you, such as interest on a CD or bank account, will be reported on this form.
  • 1099-MISC: If you did work as an independent contractor you’ll get one of these.
  • If you donated to a charity they will either provide you a receipt when you donated, or an end of year statement.

There’s other forms as well, but those are some of the most common ones.

Here’s a great printable checklist from TurboTax:

http://images.turbotax.intuit.com/iqcms/marketing/lib/TurboTax_TaxPrepChecklist.pdf

 

2. Should I file my own taxes or have someone do it for me?

There’s a few different ways you can file your taxes:

  • On paper
    • I don’t recommend this – calculations can be complicated
  • Software such as TaxAct, TurboTax or H&R Block at home
    • As long as you use top-rated software you’ll find it’s intuitive and simple. You’ll enter your tax forms in and the software will search for possible errors. I personally use TaxAct.
  • Discount tax preparation services, such as H&R Block or Jackson-Hewitt
    • These companies have their place, but can be expensive. Their tax preparers are trained, but basically use similar software that you can use on your own. If you want the peace of mind from having someone do your taxes, this can be a good option.
  • Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) or Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE)
    • VITA and TCE volunteers are IRS-certified and will file your taxes for free. You read that correct. It’s free, and there’s no catch. VITA is available for anyone that makes under $54,000, and TCE is available for those over age 60. You can find them here: https://www.irs.gov/Individuals/Free-Tax-Return-Preparation-for-You-by-Volunteers. Both VITA and TCE tend to fill up quickly, and many are first-come, first-served.
  • Accountant or CPA
    • Unless you run a business you probably don’t need an accountant or CPA to prepare your return. I have several small businesses, and we still file our own, but if your business starts to move beyond small you should work with the accountant or CPA throughout the year.

3. What is the due date to file my tax return?

It’s normally April 15, but this year it is Tuesday, April 18. Why? The 15th is a Saturday, and anytime tax day falls on a weekend it is pushed to Monday. However on Monday the 17th Washington DC has a holiday (Emancipation Day), therefore tax day gets moved to the next business day.

 

To close up this week’s article, I strongly encourage you to check out one of the VITA sites if you make less than $54,000 a year. Almost anyone who uses a discount tax preparer could have their taxes filed for free instead.

One last note – don’t ever get a Tax Refund Anticipation Loan. Companies will offer to give you your tax refund right then, for a fee that ranges between $30 and $150. Don’t fall for it – if you file electronically you’ll have your refund in 1-2 weeks.

Knowledge is not power. It is the wise application of knowledge that is power.

It’s been said that knowledge is power, but all of us, including me, have knowledge about something we should (or shouldn’t) be doing, but we fail to take action. Knowledge is neither wisdom nor power. It is simply knowledge until it is applied.

Here’s an example. I know I shouldn’t eat refined sugar. It is addicting, fattening, a depressant, it causes inflammation, leads to aggressive behavior, anxiety, fatigue and even cancer. I know all of that, but I continue to eat it.[i] I’ve cut back, but I still eat it.

People know that riding in a car without a seat belt or driving a motorcycle without a helmet leads to an increased chance of dying in an accident. But they still drive without a seat belt or without a helmet.

The Surgeon General has warned us for years that smoking is hazardous to your health, yet millions of people still smoke.

We think the odds are in our favor. I won’t get cancer from sugar. I won’t be in a life-threatening accident. I won’t get lung cancer.

It would probably take a trained psychologist to work out all the issues around these statements and thoughts, but the fact is that we know, deep down, that we should change.

The same is true of our finances. Personal finance is mostly common sense. Use a budget, get out of debt, save for the future, insure for major losses and plan for emergencies. We have the knowledge, it’s the execution that is lacking. If you fail to take action, though, you are going to wind up broke and frustrated.

The challenge today is simple. Turn your knowledge into power through wise application. Pick an area of your personal finances that you need to make a change in. Maybe it’s reigning in your fast food spending. Perhaps it is finally setting up a budget. Maybe you need to take a step to protect your identity. Do it today! Add it to your to-do list and get it done.

power

[i] Sorry if I ruined Halloween, but all of these things are true…

How to Protect Yourself from Banking Fraud

wellsfargoBy now you’ve probably heard about Wells Fargo and the $190 million fine they are being issued because their employees created more than 2 million unwanted deposit accounts and credit cards for their customers. Because of the scandal 5,300 employees have lost their jobs. Wells Fargo customers have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees for these unwanted accounts.

Why did the employees create fake accounts?

The employees are paid an incentive for every new account or credit card they opened. They might get $3 for signing someone up for online banking, or $5 to open a savings account, or $20 if they open a new credit card. Imagine the incentive there – if an employee making minimum wage could open 2-3 new cards a day, that makes a big difference in how much they take home.

How did so many accounts get opened without customer’s knowing about it?

Some customers did notice, and they would get the accounts closed. Others probably noticed, but didn’t take the time to get them closed. Others probably didn’t notice it. Far too many people don’t really pay attention to their accounts or even their balances.

Let’s put a few things in perspective

  • 5,300 employees are a tiny portion of Wells Fargo’s workforce. They have 265,000 employees, so 5,300 is only 2% of their work force. Also, the firings took place over several years, not just today as most news stories are indicating. The majority of Wells Fargo employees are honest and wouldn’t do something like this. Will they encourage you to open a credit card? Sure. They might take home $20 if they can convince you, but most of them would never dream of opening one up for you after you said you weren’t interested.
  • $190 million means nothing to Wells Fargo. They are worth $250 billion, so $190 million is only .076% of the bank’s net worth. If you have a net worth of $200,000 a fine of .076% would be $152. Annoying? Sure. But it isn’t going to cause any trouble to your budget or your net worth. Some people have asked if the fine is high enough. It probably isn’t.
  • Wells Fargo has agreed to change their sales practices and provide more oversight, and anyone who paid fines or fees will receive a full refund.
  • Many banks offer their employees these types of incentives. The more accounts a person has with a bank the more tied in they are, and the harder it is to leave. Employees are incentivized for helping tie you in with that bank for life.

What can you do to protect yourself?

There are a few simple steps you can take:

  • Watch your accounts. Be sure to check your accounts regularly to make sure nothing is being charged or added to your accounts.
  • Keep things simple. You don’t need 12 accounts at 9 different banks in the area. You should have one main bank. If you have little accounts open at other banks because you got a free toaster for opening an account, get them closed.
  • Switch to a local credit union. Credit unions are owned by their members, and they charge fewer and lower fees and will give you better rates on loans. You can also get to know the managers. Most of them are happy to meet with their members and will help you out if there is a problem.
  • There is no reason for you to pay any maintenance fees on your checking or savings accounts. There are plenty of credit unions and banks that have free checking and savings accounts with no minimum balance requirements and no limit on the number of transactions you can make per month.

I encourage you to be proactive about your banking by taking these simple steps to protect yourself.

And if you have a Wells Fargo account, pull up your online banking and make sure no accounts were opened for you that you didn’t want or ask for. Check for fines and fees you shouldn’t have paid. They will be contacting their customers to let them know how to get a refund.

 

Picture credit: http://therealdeal.com/issues_articles/wells-fargo-go-go/

Automate Your Finances

A good part of financial success is setting up systems that will ensure success.

Something simple you can do is automate a few key things. Automating your finances is one of those systems that will help you be successful. Here are some examples:

  • Have your paycheck direct depositedDirect Deposit

    Many employers default to direct deposit – you have to put in a special request to get a paper check. Direct deposit is generally available in your account the same day the deposit is made and it costs less in time for both you and your employer. If your employer doesn’t offer this service, encourage them to set it up. With many accounting software packages, such as QuickBooks, direct deposit is included as a free add-on.

  • Set up as many of your bills as possible on automatic bill paybill pay

    There are two ways to do this – either set up the bill to get paid directly out of your account each month (generally charged to a credit or debit card) or you can pay through your bank’s online bill pay.We pay all of our regular monthly bills, such as the electric and gas bill, Netflix, our mortgage and others by having the payment charged to our debit card. It pulls out the same amount each month, and I can set it up once and forget it. It also ensures that we will never be late on these payments and get hit with a late fee.

    For other payments that don’t have this feature I pay them through our bank’s bill-pay system. Our children attend a local children’s choir, for example, and they don’t offer direct bill pay, so I log in to my bank when I get the bill and send the payment off. You don’t even have to pay for postage if you use this method!

  • Have a set amount (ideally 10%) transfer from checking to savings when your paycheck is deposited.Pay Yourself First

    You can either have your bank do this automatically or if your bank doesn’t offer this service, you can often have your paycheck split into several accounts. My employer, for example, will allow me to put different percentages of my paycheck into different accounts. By doing this you are “paying yourself first.” Jim Rohn once said that poor people spend their money and save what’s left, while rich people save their money then spend what’s left. Make the savings portion automatic, then spend what you have left.[1]

These three simple tips can help ensure your success with your finances. Choose one you aren’t currently doing and get it set up today.


 

[1] This does not count, of course, for cases of extreme poverty, but the vast majority of people reading my blog could adopt the idea of paying yourself first. If 10% is too much, start with just 1%, or even just ½ of 1%! Are you going to build up much money saving just 1%? No, but that’s not the point. The point is starting the habit, then building it up over time. See https://ryanhlaw.com/one-small-step/ for more ideas about starting small.