Wednesday, March 29, 2023

So, I “Bit the Bullet” and Finally E-filed Our Taxes

Last year, I wrote a post that described the pros and cons of filing your income taxes by paper or electronically (e-filing). Looking back, it was also a “personal pep talk” for me because I knew I was part of a dying breed of paper income tax filers. 


Only about 8.2% of tax returns are filed by paper or, in numerical terms, nearly 13.2 million tax returns of the nearly 160.8 total returns that are filed. I needed to justify why I was swimming against the tide, so I researched and wrote the post.


My Rationale for Paper Filing

 

In my prior post, I noted that I am a tax geek. I actually like preparing our household tax return because it provides valuable insights into our finances. To me, it feels like piecing together a quilt or completing a complex jigsaw puzzle. The reward is having all the pieces fit together at the end.

 

I’m also frugal. I reasoned…why pay for software or a tax preparer to do something that I could easily do, myself, for free? I was also busy and didn’t want to take the time to transfer all my hand-calculated data into IRS Free File Fillable Forms and then figure out how to e-file it.

 

In addition, last year we owed tax, so there was no tax refund to wait for or get stolen by identity thieves. I knew the IRS was swamped but, if they didn’t get to my tax return for 4 or 5 months, so what? That was not my problem. It was theirs. Last year, I couldn’t see a personal downside to paper filing and the cost was minimal (priority mail and printing forms).

 

Here’s What Happened to Our Tax Return

 

In a word, nothing. Okay…very little. Yes, the IRS got my paper filed tax return. I know this from USPS priority mail tracking and the fact that they cashed my check. After that, my return probably went into a file folder on a table in the cafeteria of the Austin, TX processing center. It may still be there now. Check out the photo in the article link above. Wow! A massive sea of paper tax returns just sitting there!


Last November (2022), I knew something was wrong. I was due a benefit increase from Social Security because my 2021 earnings as an entrepreneur should have knocked out a low-earning year from my teens in the 35-year benefit calculation formula. The Social Security Administration (SSA) has not yet sent me that letter.


When we got the SSA notice at year-end about 2023 Social Security benefits, our 2023 Medicare premiums were based on 2020 income, instead of 2021 income as they should have been with a two-year look back. Obviously, if our tax return has not yet been processed, the IRS cannot send SSA the current data that it needs.


So, I found out that there is another downside to paper filing besides those that I wrote about last year: for older adults, it’s being caught in between two federal government agencies that share tax data with one another. Someday- I don’t know when- SSA will get our 2021 tax information from the IRS and send us a few letters.


So…We Capitulated


This year, I hired a tax pro to file our tax return electronically. First, we are due a refund and want our money quickly. Second, I don’t want to compound the SSA problem. We pay IRMAA tax and the gap between what we should be paying for Medicare and are not keeps growing. Eventually, we’ll have to pay back what we owe.


I hand-calculated everything as usual, again because I enjoy it and also because line-by-line tax preparation is a very useful financial planning aid. My draft also saved the tax pro time, which saved me money. 


He taught me a thing or two but, in the end, the difference between our tax calculations was a negligible $37, much less than the cost of the e-filing tax-preparer. 


Next year, with a good template to follow, I may just try to tackle tax software.


This post provides general personal finance or consumer decision-making information and does not address all the variables that apply to an individual’s unique situation. It does not endorse specific products or services and should not be construed as legal or financial advice. If professional assistance is required, the services of a competent professional should be sought.


Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Tax Planning Tools and Techniques

With 2022 income tax season well underway and almost three months already passed in 2023, now is an appropriate time to review some evergreen tax planning tools and techniques.

 


I recently attended a NY Public Library webinar about tax planning and below is a summary:

 

Standard Deduction- 2023 saw the largest ever automatic adjustment to standard deductions since indexing was introduced in the 1980s. For example, for married couples, the standard deduction is $27,700 in 2023 vs. $25,900 in 2022 and for individuals $13,850 vs. $12,950. A larger standard deduction means that taxpayers can shelter more income from income taxes.

 

Itemizing Deductions- Only about 10% of taxpayers have sufficient tax-deductible expenses totaling more than the standard deduction. Given the $10,000 cap for state and local taxes, three major areas remain for itemization purposes: mortgage interest, charitable donations, and medical expenses (e.g., an elective surgery) that exceed 7.5% of adjusted gross income.

 

Charitable Gifting- Two methods for consideration to make tax-advantaged charitable gifts are donor advised funds (DAFs), to receive an immediate charitable contribution deduction for the tax year the gift was made, and qualified charitable distributions (QCDs) after age 70½ which counts toward satisfying the current year’s required minimum distribution (RMD).

 

Capital Losses- Due to how capital gains and losses are computed, capital gains (short- or long-term) can be offset by capital losses using an ordering method. It is best to have long-term gains outweigh short-term gains, as the latter are taxed at ordinary tax rates up to 37%. Long-term gains are taxed at rates of 0%, 15%, and 20%, depending upon total taxable income.

 

Income and Expense Shifting- Business owners, including employees with “side hustles,” can shift income to the next tax year by postponing client invoices until after December 31. If they want to increase expenses to lower net income to reduce business-related taxes, they can prepay expenses such as rent, lease payments on business vehicles, and business insurance premiums.

 

Retirement Savings Plans- Maximum contributions for 2022 in traditional IRAs and 401(k)/403(b)/457/TSP retirement savings accounts are $6,000 and $20,500, respectively, for workers under age 50. In 2023, these limits are $6,500 and $22,500, respectively. Workers age 50 + can save up to $7,500 in IRAs and up to $30,000 in employer savings plans in 2023. Taxpayers with earned income can make 2022 IRA contributions until the tax filing date of April 18, 2023. Contributions cannot be larger than their reported taxable income.

 

Roth IRAs- Income limits apply to qualify to make a contribution. In 2022, modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) must be under $144,000 for individuals and $214,000 for married couples filing jointly (mfj). In 2023, those income limits are $153,000 and $228,000 (mjf), respectively. A “back-door IRA” can get around this: people make a non-deductible traditional IRA contribution first and, a short time later, convert their balance to a Roth IRA.

 

A key take-away? Proactive planning can save money. Start planning for 2023 taxes today.


This post provides general personal finance or consumer decision-making information and does not address all the variables that apply to an individual’s unique situation. It does not endorse specific products or services and should not be construed as legal or financial advice. If professional assistance is required, the services of a competent professional should be sought

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Annuity Myths and Facts

An annuity is a contract between an investor and a life insurance company. Annuities are sold by insurance agents, stock brokers, and other financial advisors. The annuitant, who is usually (but not always) the owner of the annuity, pays a lump sum amount or makes deposits over time and the insurance company promises immediate payments or payments at a future date.



Below are some key things to know about annuities from a recent seminar that I attended:

 

Complexity- Annuities are often sold as a “simple” investment but, in reality, they can be quite complicated. Annuity salespeople sometimes convince people there are no fees but, of course, there are. Examples include surrender charges, sales commissions (loads), management fees, and mortality charges.

 

No Federal Insurance- There is no federal government insurance for annuities as there is for bank products (FDIC) and investment products (SIPC). Therefore, credit quality of issuing insurance companies is very important. Look for an issuer that is highly rated by at least two insurance company rating firms (e.g., A.M. Best, Duff and Phelps, and Standard and Poor’s).

 

Three Types-Fixed annuities are like CDs, only tax-deferred, and guarantee a certain interest rate for a specified time period. Variable annuities are like mutual funds, only tax-deferred, and their owners select underlying mutual funds, called subaccounts, which determine an annuity’s performance. Equity-indexed annuities tie a portion of their return to a stock market index such as the Standard and Poor’s 500. Generally, variable annuities have the highest fees.

 

Two Time Categories- Immediate annuities begin payment within a year of purchase. They are often bought with money from settlements, investment accounts, and pension plan lump sum distributions. Deferred annuities make payments at a future date and allow annuitants time to make deposits. Either type provides a guaranteed income stream subject to contract terms.

 

What Not to Do- Annuities are generally not appropriate for qualified retirement plans such as 401(k)s or IRAs. They are already a tax-deferred product and investors gain no benefit by placing them in a tax-deferred plan. In addition, many annuities have high expenses, making them a less attractive alternative to low-cost investments such as index funds and ETFs.

 

Income Taxes- Earnings on annuities are tax-deferred until annuitants make a withdrawal, generally during retirement. At that time, withdrawals are taxed as ordinary income, minus the amount of after-tax dollars originally used the purchase the annuity.

 

Reasons to Purchase- The attorney presenter noted the following reasons to consider an annuity as part of overall estate and financial plans: 1. Medicaid planning, 2. To convert life insurance policy cash value into income and stop making premium payments, 3. For a guaranteed lifetime income stream, and 4. To dole out money to a spendthrift adult child.

 

In summary, annuities are a financial tool to consider...when they make sense. 

Look for highly rated, low-expense vendors.


This post provides general personal finance or consumer decision-making information and does not address all the variables that apply to an individual’s unique situation. It does not endorse specific products or services and should not be construed as legal or financial advice. If professional assistance is required, the services of a competent professional should be sought.


Thursday, March 9, 2023

New Ways to Shop


U.S. Shopping History

Back in the day, people shopped in a single general store in rural towns across America. Think Oleson’s Mercantile store in Little House on the Prairie. Mark-ups were generally high and product selection was limited. This started to change in the late 1800s with the introduction of mail order catalogs (e.g., Sears) where shoppers could select from a wide range of merchandise.



Then came the heyday of large shopping malls in the mid-20th century. Malls were where baby boomers (me included) went to shop and “hang out.” These malls generally had 4-5 large “anchor” department stores, as well as dozens of small specialty shops. Many were two stories with escalators. It is projected, however, that up to 25% of U.S. malls could close in the next five years. COVID-19 accelerated a decline in shopping malls that was already underway.


The Rise of E-Commerce

E-commerce has emerged as the leading way that Americans shop and Amazon’s share of the U.S. ecommerce market is almost 60%. Almost 1 in 3 Americans (especially Millennials) has an Amazon Prime membership and prime members spend over $1,000 a year. 


Even people who don’t shop that much online often use Amazon and other online retailers to do price checks and/or negotiate with “brick and mortar” retailers. Amazon Prime Day is now the most profitable retail shopping day…more than Black Friday and Cyber Monday combined.


Social Media and Shopping

Beyond Amazon, technology has impacted shopping in other ways. Social media is a big driver of consumer purchases. One example, according to a webinar by Next Gen Personal Finance (NGPF), is so-called “haul videos.” These are videos where social media influencers highlight fast fashion brands to millions of followers. 


Haul videos and the resulting FOMO (fear of missing out) and YOLO (you only live once) mindset that occurs can cause people to blow their budget, over-consume, increase credit card debt, and waste money on low-quality clothing.


Buy Now, Pay Later

Another pandemic-accelerated, technology-enabled trend is Buy Now, Pay Later (BNPL). This is where shoppers divide their purchase into multiple (e.g., 4-6) equal payments and make the first payment at the time of checkout, typically online. Most (75%) BNPL users are Gen Z or millennials. Names of BNPL providers include AfterPay, Affirm, Klarna, and ZipPay. 


Unlike traditional layaway plans, which were very popular in the heyday of shopping malls, BNPL enables shoppers to get a product up front with the first payment instead of waiting, sometimes for months, until the final payment is made. However, if consumers miss a payment, there can be late fees and other penalties added to what they owe. 


Therefore, shoppers using BNPL should avoid buying things that they do not readily have money for. One study, however, found that nearly a third of BNPL users have struggled to keep up with payments.


Timeless Shopping Strategies

Clearly, Americans’ shopping experience has evolved over the past 100+ years. However, some timeless money-saving shopping practices remain. Look for deals (e.g., coupons in stores and discount codes online), compare at least three competing vendors for big purchases, and use credit cards wisely.


This post provides general personal finance or consumer decision-making information and does not address all the variables that apply to an individual’s unique situation. It does not endorse specific products or services and should not be construed as legal or financial advice. If professional assistance is required, the services of a competent professional should be sought.

 

 


Thursday, March 2, 2023

Barbservations From Online RMD Webinars

After I left New Jersey and was no longer a recognizable figure as a financial educator for Rutgers University, I attended a few free meal seminars “undercover” in my new home state of Florida. Few people here know about my financial education work and I knew I wouldn't  be "outed" and asked to leave because I'm a CFP(R). 


Knowing that these seminars have been linked to an increased risk of abusive sales practices, if not outright investment fraud, and having read a detailed expose’ by Helaine Olen in the book Pound Foolish, I was curious to see the sales techniques used by the program organizers up close and personal.


Last year, I noticed a new trend that has continued into 2023: ads on social media about online financial seminars focused on required minimum distributions (RMDs) and income taxes owed in later life. In other words, no free meal; just the seminar…and the sales pitch. Curious as I was before, I attended 4 or 5 of these online seminars. Below are some of my “Barbservations”:



Canned Presentation- After viewing several webinars, I noticed that the event organizers were using the same slides and reading the same script, along with personal tweaks, of course. There must be a “central source” that provides program materials to event organizers. Unfortunately, some webinars that I viewed were not updated with latest (2022) IRS life expectancy factors.

 

Pesky Pop-Ups- Throughout all of the presentations, there were pop-up boxes on the screen encouraging viewers to sign up for a free consultation. This was very similar to postcards or door prize entry forms passed around at in-person seminars. In both situations, completing the forms was optional.

 

Scary Tactics- The webinars began with an image of a “tax train” about to run people over and the specter of the highest marginal tax bracket once again being 91% as it once was in the past (1951-1963). The colorful term “tax torpedo,” conjuring up a large explosion, was used to describe how a small income increment can result in a big increase in income taxes.

 

More Scary Tactics- A few that I noted were: “One or two bad years and your money is gone,” “massive amounts of government debt will cripple us,” “Uncle Sam is money hungry,” “taxes have no place to go but up,” and references to “Biden’s taxes,” to stir up some angry political undertones. Some presenters, no doubt prompted by a written script, also ripped up a sheet of paper several times to graphically illustrate the loss of $1million in savings due to taxes.

 

Teaser Tools- Some presenters offered free resources- but only to webinar viewers who made appointments for a consultation. These included an e-book, and something called “safe money tools.” One speaker also disparaged so-called “steak dinner guys” while acting just like them.

 

Kernels of Truth- Wrapped up in the colorful language and scare tactics was accurate core information: 1. Tax diversification throughout one’s working years can reduce taxes in later life, 2. Roth conversions and charitable gift planning (e.g., Qualified Charitable Distributions or QCDs) are strategies to reduce taxes, 3. RMD divisors grow by almost a factor of 1 every year, 4. Setting up automatic withdrawals with plan custodians can help avoid missed RMDs and tax penalties, and 5. Interest and/or dividends from investments should, ideally, satisfy RMDs, at least initially, with no impact on invested principal.

 

Bottom line: Be as cautious when attending online seminars as those that include free meals.


This post provides general personal finance or consumer decision-making information and does not address all the variables that apply to an individual’s unique situation. It does not endorse specific products or services and should not be construed as legal or financial advice. If professional assistance is required, the services of a competent professional should be sought.


Looking Ahead to Your 2024 Tax Return

  With the 2023 tax filing deadline in the rear view mirror, now is a good time to look ahead to 2024 taxes that you will owe in April 2025....