Paying Off Debt the Smart Way

Being in debt isn’t necessarily a terrible thing. Between mortgages, car loans, credit cards, and student loans – most people are in debt. Being debt-free is a great goal, but you should focus on the management of debt, not just getting rid of it. It’s likely to be there for most of your life – and, handled wisely, it won’t be an albatross around your neck.

You don’t need to shell out your hard-earned money for exorbitant interest rates, or always feel like you’re on the verge of bankruptcy. You can pay off debt the smart way, while at the same time saving money to pay it off faster.

Know Where You Are

First, assess the depth of your debt. Write it down, using pencil and paper, a spreadsheet like Microsoft Excel, or a bookkeeping program like Quicken. Include every financial situation where a company has given you something in advance of payment, including your mortgage, car payment(s), credit cards, tax liens, student loans, and payments on electronics or other household items through a store.

Record the day the debt began and when it will end (if possible), the interest rate you’re paying, and what your payments typically are. Add it all up, painful as that might be. Try not to be discouraged! Remember, you’re going to break this down into manageable chunks while finding extra money to help pay it down.

Identify High-Cost Debt

Yes, some debts are more expensive than others. Unless you’re getting payday loans (which you shouldn’t be), the worst offenders are probably your credit cards. Here’s how to deal with them.

  • Don’t use them. Don’t cut them up, but put them in a drawer and only access them in an emergency.
  • Identify the card with the highest interest and pay off as much as you can every month. Pay minimums on the others. When that one’s paid off, work on the card with the next highest rate.
  • Don’t close existing cards or open any new ones. It won’t help your credit rating.
  • Pay on time, absolutely every time. One late payment these days can lower your FICO score.
  • Go over your credit-card statements with a fine-tooth comb. Are you still being charged for that travel club you’ve never used? Look for line items you don’t need.
  • Call your credit card companies and ask them nicely if they would lower your interest rates. It does work sometimes!

Save, Save, Save

Do whatever you can to retire debt. Consider taking a second job and using that income only for higher payments on your financial obligations. Substitute free family activities for high-cost ones. Sell high-value items that you can live without.

Do Away with Unnecessary Items to Reduce Debt Load

Do you really need the 800-channel cable option or that dish on your roof? You’ll be surprised at what you don’t miss. How about magazine subscriptions? They’re not terribly expensive, but every penny counts. It’s nice to have a library of books, but consider visiting the public library or half-price bookstores until your debt is under control.

Never, Ever Miss a Payment

Not only are you retiring debt, but you’re also building a stellar credit rating. If you ever move or buy another car, you’ll want to get the lowest rate possible. A blemish-free payment record will help with that. Besides, credit card companies can be quick to raise interest rates because of one late payment. A completely missed one is even more serious.

Do Not Increase Debt Load

If you don’t have the cash for it, you probably don’t need it. You’ll feel better about what you do have if you know it’s owned free and clear.

Shop Wisely, and Use the Savings to Pay Down Your Debt

If your family is large enough to warrant it, invest $30 or $40 and join a store like Sam’s or Costco. And use it. Shop there first, then at the grocery store. Change brands if you have to and swallow your pride. Use coupons religiously. Calculate the money you’re saving and slap it on your debt.

Each of these steps, taken alone, probably doesn’t seem like much. But if you adopt as many as you can, you’ll watch your debt decrease every month.

Six Facts about the American Opportunity Tax Credit

There is still time left to take advantage of the American Opportunity Tax Credit, a credit that will help many parents and college students offset the cost of college. This tax credit is part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 and is available through December 31, 2010. It can be claimed by eligible taxpayers for college expenses paid in 2009 and 2010.
Here are six important facts the IRS wants you to know about the American Opportunity Tax Credit:

  1. This credit, which expands and renames the existing Hope Credit, can be claimed for qualified tuition and related expenses that you pay for higher education in 2009 and 2010. Qualified tuition and related expenses include tuition, related fees, books and other required course materials.
  2. The credit is equal to 100 percent of the first $2,000 spent per student each year and 25 percent of the next $2,000. Therefore, the full $2,500 credit may be available to a taxpayer who pays $4,000 or more in qualifying expenses for an eligible student.
  3. The full credit is generally available to eligible taxpayers who make less than $80,000 or $160,000 for married couples filing a joint return. The credit is gradually reduced, however, for taxpayers with incomes above these levels.
  4. Forty percent of the credit is refundable, so even those who owe no tax can get up to $1,000 of the credit for each eligible student as cash back.
  5. The credit can be claimed for qualified expenses paid for any of the first four years of post-secondary education.
  6. You cannot claim the tuition and fees tax deduction in the same year that you claim the American Opportunity Tax Credit or the Lifetime Learning Credit. You must choose to either take the credit or the deduction and should consider which is more beneficial for you.

Complete details on the American Opportunity Tax Credit and other key tax provisions of the Recovery Act are available at IRS.gov/recovery.

Does the IRS Owe You Money?

The Internal Revenue Service may have money for you. Was your income below the limit that requires you to file a tax return? If so, you may still be due a refund.

If you have not filed a prior year tax return and are due a refund, you should consider filing the return to claim that refund. If you are missing a refund for a previously filed tax return, you should contact the IRS to check the status of your refund and confirm your current address.

Unclaimed Refunds

Some people may have had taxes withheld from their wages but were not required to file a tax return because they had too little income. Others may not have had any tax withheld but would be eligible for the refundable Earned Income Tax Credit.

  • To collect this money a return must be filed with the IRS no later than three years from the due date of the return.
  • If no return is filed to claim the refund within three years, the money becomes the property of the U.S. Treasury.
  • There is no penalty assessed by the IRS for filing a late return qualifying for a refund.
  • Current and prior year tax forms and instructions are available on the Forms and Publications page of IRS.gov or by calling 800-TAX-FORM (800-829-3676).
  • Information about the Earned Income Tax Credit and how to claim it is also available on IRS.gov.

Undeliverable Refunds

Were you expecting a refund check but didn’t get it?

  • Refund checks are mailed to your last known address. Checks are returned to the IRS if you move without notifying the IRS or the U.S. Postal Service.
  • You may be able to update your address with the IRS on the “Where’s My Refund?” feature available on IRS.gov. You will be prompted to provide an updated address if there is an undeliverable check outstanding within the last 12 months.
  • You can also ensure the IRS has your correct address by filing Form 8822, Change of Address, which is available on IRS.gov or can be ordered by calling 800-TAX-FORM (800-829-3676).
  • If you do not have access to the Internet and think you may be missing a refund, you should first check your records or contact your tax preparer. If your refund information appears correct, call the IRS toll-free assistance line at 800-829-1040 to check the status of your refund and confirm your address.

Eight Things to Know If You Receive an IRS Notice

Did you receive a notice from the IRS this year? Every year the IRS sends millions of letters and notices to taxpayers but that doesn’t mean you need to worry. Here are eight things every taxpayer should know about IRS notices – just in case one shows up in your mailbox.
  1. Don’t panic. Many of these letters can be dealt with simply and painlessly.
  2. There are number of reasons the IRS sends notices to taxpayers. The notice may request payment of taxes, notify you of a change to your account or request additional information. The notice you receive normally covers a very specific issue about your account or tax return.
  3. Each letter and notice offers specific instructions on what you need to do to satisfy the inquiry.
  4. If you receive a correction notice, you should review the correspondence and compare it with the information on your return.
  5. If you agree with the correction to your account, usually no reply is necessary unless a payment is due.
  6. If you do not agree with the correction the IRS made, it is important that you respond as requested. Write to explain why you disagree. Include any documents and information you wish the IRS to consider, along with the bottom tear-off portion of the notice. Mail the information to the IRS address shown in the upper left-hand corner of the notice. Allow at least 30 days for a response.
  7. Most correspondence can be handled without calling or visiting an IRS office. However, if you have questions, call the telephone number in the upper right-hand corner of the notice. Have a copy of your tax return and the correspondence available when you call, to help us respond to your inquiry.
  8. It’s important that you keep copies of any correspondence with your records.

Most importanly, if you receive a notice from the IRS or your State/Local tax agency, do not procarastinate…Send it over to me as soon as possible so we can address the issue.

Ten Tips for Taxpayers Making Charitable Donations

Did you make a donation to a charity this year? If so, you may be able to take a deduction for it on your 2010 tax return.

Here are the top 10 things the IRS wants every taxpayer to know before deducting charitable donations.

  1. Charitable contributions must be made to qualified organizations to be deductible. You can ask any organization whether it is a qualified organization and most will be able to tell you. You can also check IRS Publication 78, Cumulative List of Organizations, which lists most qualified organizations. IRS Publication 78 is available at IRS.gov.
  2. Charitable contributions are deductible only if you itemize deductions using Form 1040, Schedule A.
  3. You generally can deduct your cash contributions and the fair market value of most property you donate to a qualified organization. Special rules apply to several types of donated property, including clothing or household items, cars and boats.
  4. If your contribution entitles you to receive merchandise, goods, or services in return – such as admission to a charity banquet or sporting event – you can deduct only the amount that exceeds the fair market value of the benefit received.
  5. Be sure to keep good records of any contribution you make, regardless of the amount. For any contribution made in cash, you must maintain a record of the contribution such as a bank record – including a cancelled check or a bank or credit card statement – a written record from the charity containing the date and amount of the contribution and the name of the organization, or a payroll deduction record.
  6. Only contributions actually made during the tax year are deductible. For example, if you pledged $500 in September but paid the charity only $200 by Dec. 31, your deduction would be $200.
  7. Include credit card charges and payments by check in the year they are given to the charity, even though you may not pay the credit card bill or have your bank account debited until the next year.
  8. For any contribution of $250 or more, you must have written acknowledgment from the organization to substantiate your donation. This written proof must include the amount of cash and a description and good faith estimate of value of any property you contributed, and whether the organization provided any goods or services in exchange for the gift.
  9. To deduct charitable contributions of items valued at $500 or more you must complete a Form 8283, Noncash Charitable Contributions, and attached the form to your return.
  10. An appraisal generally must be obtained if you claim a deduction for a contribution of noncash property worth more than $5,000. In that case, you must also fill out Section B of Form 8283 and attach the form to your return.

For more information about Charitable Contributions and for information on determining value, please contact my office.