Your Financial Diet for the New Year

With each new year inevitably comes the new year resolutions. For most, this is the time of the year we aspire to make big changes in our lives and create new goals to reach by year’s end. One of the most common resolutions that people make is about money: spend less and save more. Giving your finances a fresh start and taking a break from frivolous spending can be very beneficial to you – and give some breathing room to your bank account. This article details how to make your money a priority by starting towards new goals, making a budget and cutting out impractical spending that could affect the way that you save money.

Set goals

One of the first things you should do is to create goals for yourself for the new year. A good way to start is by writing down goals that are realistic and attainable for the year. Make sure that your goals are measurable so that you’re able to track your progress every month to ensure you’re staying on track to meet your objectives.  

Create a budget

Once you have decided what financial goals you want to focus on, it’s time to create a budget.  This will help to give yourself a visual representation of how you’re spending your money. You should start by figuring out how much income you make on a month-to-month basis. If you aren’t salaried or if you receive a commission as part of your compensation, and therefore don’t see a flat rate of pay each month, a good approach is to average out your income from the months prior to seeing what you earn on average. 

The next step is to determine what your spending habits are.  Some expenses are the same every month, such as your mortgage/rent or car payment, while other expenses vary month to month such as your utilities or groceries; you can take the average from your prior months to determine how much you can expect to spend. 

Get rid of the excess spending

After you’ve created a budget, it’s time to take a look at what you’re spending every month – and figuring out what expenses you can do without. A great way to look at where your money is going is by checking your bank statements. It may surprise you, but once you review your expenses, you’ll begin to realize how many times you’ve gone out to eat, went shopping for clothes or splurged a little extra at your favorite coffee shop. Once you are able to identify your impractical expenses, you can be more mindful of them so you can focus on putting more money in your savings. 

The new year allows you to press the restart button on any bad habits that you had previously and this includes how you are spending your money. If you’re looking to refresh your finances, make sure to make attainable money goals, make a budget to ensure that you stay on track and review your expenses regularly to avoid overspending. 

Optima Tax Relief provides assistance to individuals struggling with unmanageable IRS tax burdens. To assess your tax situation and determine if you qualify for tax relief, contact us for a free consultation.

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Setting Financial Goals for the New Year

The new year is the one time of year when everyone reevaluates their life goals and vow to make big changes in their lives. Typically, you’ll see people going back to the gym to reach their goal weight or decide that this is going to be the year that they’re going to travel the world. While any aspiration you set for yourself is a great start, some of the best resolutions are the ones with objectives that will help you move up into the dream position that you’ve always wanted or even buy that house you’ve had your eye on for a while. Here are a few simple tips to get you on the right track for both advancing your career opportunities and saving more money in the bank.

Look for growth opportunities

More and more companies are looking to create growth for employees internally. If you’re looking for a way to earn more money and gain a new set of skills, you may not have to look too far. You can start by looking at job listings that your company is hiring for, if you see something that interests you and you feel you’re more than capable of handling the position, talk to your recruiting team or even the manager of the department that you are interested in. Alternatively, you can also look at positions at other companies and apply.

Create a budget

With the new year comes new ambitions, which means it may be time to economize your budget for the year. Creating a budget means that you set limits on how much you are spending every month to ensure that you don’t overspend and cut into your savings goals. Typically, a budget requires you limit what your spending on necessary items you need throughout the month. For example, if you are going grocery shopping, stick to the basics that you will need; don’t spend frivolously on snacks and sweets just because you’re craving them at that moment. Avoid eating out consistently throughout the month and save it more for a special occasion. If you are looking to splurge, you can always allot a certain amount of money to spending on personal items throughout the month.

Build your savings

Having a cushion to land on if you fall onto hard times, or if you need cash right away in order to respond to an unexpected emergency, is exactly the reason millions of Americans open up a saving’s account.  If you don’t have one yet, then the new year is the perfect time to start. Whether you’re building your savings to invest in a house, vehicle, school, etc., it’s vital to have a savings account as a backup to ensure that you’re able to get out of a financial bind quickly.

Cancel old subscriptions

Make sure to review your monthly bank statements; you may be surprised to find you are paying for services that you no longer use or thought you had canceled long ago. Be on the lookout for subscriptions or gym services that are automatically being deducted from your bank account. You could potentially save yourself some money.

You don’t have to get a financial rut in the new year, with just a few simple changes you can get off to the right start and reach your financial goals. Looking for career opportunities, starting a budget, opening up a savings account or getting rid of old subscriptions could help you move in the right direction and provide you with a better outlook on your financial future.

Optima Tax Relief provides assistance to individuals struggling with unmanageable IRS tax burdens. To assess your tax situation and determine if you qualify for tax relief, contact us for a free consultation.

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What to do if you need more money for the Holiday Season

This holiday season is all about giving back to family and friends. It can become very expensive with all the gifts and food that you’re purchasing during this time, leaving both you and your wallet financially exhausted. Before you start becoming concerned about how you’ll get through the holidays, keep in mind that there are ways to prepare yourself mentally and financially. Below are a few ways to start preparing for the next holiday season without breaking the bank.

Start saving ahead of time

Not saving for the holidays can wreak havoc on your bank account and leave you in financial hardship. There are ways to prepare for the holiday season ahead of time to help you avoid going broke. One
way you can prepare is by saving up your change from the entire year. Believe it or not, your change will add up and could potentially cover the cost for several gifts you plan on purchasing. 

If you’re not the type to carry cash in your pocket that could give you change, you can always sell unwanted items that you’ve been holding on to. You can hold a garage sale, or you even sell your items on an eCommerce marketplace like eBay. This is an easy way to make money and clean out your home at the same time!

Look for Black Friday deals

With the holidays around the corner, nearly all department stores are preparing to put their products on sale. Typically stores will release their Black Friday deals in advance so you can review what items you want to purchase at a bargain price. Waiting for items to go on a discount is the best way to get some of the newest products for cheap.

If you have a really tight budget, you can also make homemade gifts. This will seem more like a personal gesture to someone as opposed to just purchasing a gift card and it will seem much more refreshing since everyone will be shopping for the latest tech on the market. 

Take on a seasonal job

If you plan on making the holidays an extravagant affair by buying the latest gifts for friends and family but don’t want to put a dent in your savings, consider taking a part-time seasonal job. This could help boost your holiday budget and give you the ability to spend more money on gifts. Seasonal jobs are typically flexible with the hours they assign so they can work around your schedule. This means that you can request to work just a few hours or ask for more hours so you can build a larger budget for yourself. 

With the holidays approaching, it can become very easy to get caught up in all the holiday shopping and spending. You don’t have to go broke buying presents for friends and family and there are solutions to getting everything on everyone’s wish list and not having to deplete your savings. To avoid curbing your spending, you can start saving in advance as well as look at what deals or sales will be coming up so you can save some cash while buying the most current item. Finally, if you’re wanting to splurge this holiday season but don’t have the cash on hand to do so, consider taking up a seasonal job for the holidays. All the money you earn can go towards the gifts you’ve been wanting to buy all year. 

Optima Tax Relief provides assistance to individuals struggling with unmanageable IRS tax burdens. To assess your tax situation and determine if you qualify for tax relief, contact us for a free consultation.

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What is Tax Evasion and How can it Affect You?

For some, it can be a terrifying ordeal to file your tax return, especially if you forget to include vital information when filing. It is important for taxpayers to double-check whatever they have placed on their return in order to avoid the IRS further looking into your tax return. The IRS will flag a taxpayer’s return if they notice that the income reported in inaccurate, if there are too many credits and deductions placed on the return, or if a taxpayer has not filed a required tax return. Although the IRS does not pursue many tax evasion cases, it is the taxpayer’s responsibility to ensure they are filing correctly to avoid the IRS investigating them – and finding something that can send them to jail. If you still have questions on what should be included in your tax return and how to properly file, here are some ways to avoid the IRS coming after you.

The IRS will usually start off with an audit process rather than taking immediate action against a taxpayer. During the audit process, the IRS will review the tax return(s) filed by a taxpayer to see what errors were knowingly made. If the IRS sees that a taxpayer has repeatedly made the same mistakes on several of their tax returns, such as not fully disclosing large amounts of income they had been receiving throughout multiple years, it could be seen as tax evasion. If a taxpayer continuously makes false statements and hides records like bank statements from an IRS auditor, it could potentially lead to criminal prosecution.

To avoid running into trouble with the IRS, specifically avoiding an audit, or being charged with tax evasion it is important to understand what you should include on your tax return. Whatever income you are earning needs to be included on your tax return. This means that if you have a full-time job as well as a side job, you must report both sources of income. If you also meet the filing requirements, you must file your tax return with the IRS. Avoiding filing a return for multiple years could be considered tax evasion by the IRS. This could also lead to the IRS looking further into the unfiled years and file a tax return on your behalf, which could cause any owed liability to increase on top of the penalties and interest you accrue for not filing in the first place. 

Understanding the IRS as well as their rules will help you navigate the tax filing system put into place. It is up to every taxpayer to keep themselves informed on any tax changes that may occur throughout the year and to also be transparent on their tax return by disclosing any information that may be vital for the IRS to know. If you are unsure of how to file and need further assistance, you can ask the advice of a tax attorney or a tax relief company that can provide you with the necessary assistance you need in order to get compliant with the IRS.

Optima Tax Relief provides assistance to individuals struggling with unmanageable IRS tax burdens. To assess your tax situation and determine if you qualify for tax relief, contact us for a free consultation.

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What Should You do if You Owe the IRS Money?

Having a tax liability with the IRS can be stressful to deal with.  It may even sound easier to avoid your debt altogether. For some taxpayers, paying back your balance to the IRS can prove to be difficult, especially if you don’t have the means to do so. You may feel as though you are backed up against a wall and that there is no hope to help resolve your current situation.  However, there are solutions to keep yourself compliant and out of collections with the IRS so you don’t have to live in constant fear that the IRS is coming after you. The IRS offers solutions for those having difficulty paying their balances in full.

Setting up a Payment Plan

It is important to first understand how much you owe. You can verify the amount owed by referring to your tax returns or by directly contacting the IRS to discuss your balance, including any tacked-on penalties and fees.  The IRS will provide you with a 433F form to fill out your income and expenses. When completing the form, be sure to exclude non-allowable expenses, such as credit card payments, pet-related expenses, or magazine subscriptions.  The IRS typically accepts payment agreements if your balance is under $10,000 and the proposed payment will pay the balance in full.  Your agreement is also required to include any accrued interest and/or penalties.

The IRS Offers Hardship Options

For those who are either unable to pay back their tax liability in full with the IRS or don’t have the ability to be on a monthly payment plan due to financial difficulty, the IRS offers hardship options. The IRS has two options available to those who need temporary relief. The first is a Currently Non Collectable agreement. The IRS will review your income, expenses, and assets to see if you are earning very little to no income. Another hardship option the IRS provides is the Partial Pay agreement. This agreement is similar to a regular installment agreement where you would make monthly payments to the IRS. However, with this agreement, you are only paying back part of the taxes you owe over time. The IRS will review this agreement approximately every two years to see if your financial income has changed. If your income has changed or you have started a new job, the IRS will send you a notice informing you that your income reflects that you have the ability to pay and request that you set up a payment plan with them. If you are attempting to request a hardship agreement with the IRS, they will request the following:

  • Last three months’ worth of bank statements 
  • Proof of income for the last three months
  • The market value for all assets
  • A list of everything that a taxpayer may own (Retirement savings, bank accounts, all sources of income, real estate property, vehicle statements, life insurance policies, etc.)

Request for an Extension 

If you do have the ability to pay your balance in full but need some time to get the money together, the IRS will allow you to request a one-time extension. You can request up to 120 days to pay your tax balance in full. It is important to keep in mind that the IRS will apply a 0.5% penalty per month for the unpaid balance and will only allow you to make this extension once. If you do miss the extension date, you will fall back into collections.

The IRS offers an array of options to ensure that you stay compliant and out of collections. If you are having difficulty paying your full tax balance to the IRS right away, it is important to know your options and what you can do to protect yourself. If you are unsure of what to do, you can always speak to a tax relief company such as Optima Tax Relief or the IRS to get a better understanding of what works best for you. 

Optima Tax Relief provides assistance to individuals struggling with unmanageable IRS tax burdens. To assess your tax situation and determine if you qualify for tax relief, contact us for a free consultation.

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529 Plans: Facts and Tax Benefits

If you are a grandparent, opening a 529 plan with a grandchild as a beneficiary can have both direct and indirect tax benefits for you while providing a valuable benefit for your grandchild. Best of all, you shouldn’t hear any protests about how you’re spoiling your grandson or granddaughter again. Still, watch out for pitfalls associated with 529 plans imposed by the Internal Revenue Service and by individual states that can potentially ruin your gift.

Types of 529 Plans

There are two types of 529 plans: prepaid tuition and savings account assistance. Both types of plans are administered by individual states. Unlike in-state tuition rates, there are no residency restrictions imposed for purchasing either type of 529 plan. You or your grandchild can live in any state or even in two different states. You can also change beneficiaries for 529 plans as long as the new beneficiary is part of the same family. So when Jeanine finishes college, you can make her brother Billy the new beneficiary. However, some states place age restrictions on beneficiaries, which may be an issue if you intend to fund a plan for a grown grandchild.

Prepaid tuition plans provide funds that can be applied to pay tuition for colleges and universities located within the state. The growth rate for a prepaid tuition plan is pegged to the tuition rate of the particular educational institution to which it is linked.

If the tuition at a particular school quadruples by the time the beneficiary is ready to attend, the value of the 529 plan quadruples as well.

Financial aid assistance plans provide cash benefits that the beneficiary can use for qualified expenses at eligible financial institutions. Eligible educational expenses include all the usual suspects – tuition, fees, room and board. In addition, under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (commonly called the stimulus), computer equipment, software, peripherals and the cost of Internet access also count as eligible educational expenses. So, purchasing accounting software for finance major is totally OK. That Wii Fit game console on the other hand, not so much, unless the beneficiary is majoring in physical therapy.

Both types of plans are administered by individual states. Unlike in-state tuition rates, there are no residency restrictions imposed for purchasing either type of 529 plan. You or your grandchild can live in any state or even in two different states. You can also change beneficiaries for 529 plans as long as the new beneficiary is part of the same family. So when Jeanine finishes college, you can make her brother Billy the new beneficiary. However, some states place age restrictions on beneficiaries, which may be an issue if you intend to fund a plan for a grown grandchild.

Establishing and Funding a 529 Plan

As a grandparent, you may fund a separate 529 plan and contribute as much as $14,000 (for 2013) to each 529 plan fund without incurring gift taxes. You and your spouse can contribute up to $28,000 in a 529 plan for each grandchild without incurring gift taxes. As an alternative, you an fund up to $65,000 (or $130,000 for married couples) in the first year of a five-year period without incurring the gift tax, as long as there are no other gifts made to that particular beneficiary within the same five-year window. If the cost to attend a particular educational institution is lower than the limit set by the IRS, though, you can only fund the plan to meet the lower amount.

State Tax Benefits and Federal Estate Tax Benefits

Some states allow grandparents to deduct contributions to 529 plans from their state income tax returns. Inquire with a plan administrator for the details. However, a prominent myth is that federal income taxes are also deductible. This is absolutely NOT true. But grandparents do receive indirect tax breaks from contributing to 529 plans – so long as the funds are used for qualified educational expenses by the beneficiary.

There are also no capital gains taxes on earnings. Plus, each contribution reduces the value of your estate, which may result in lower or no gift taxes for your heirs. But if the funds are use for non-qualified expenses, the owners of the funds are hit with income taxes plus a penalty of 10 percent on any investment gains.

The Gift That Keeps on Giving

Instead of braving the crowds trying to find that elusive gadget that happens to be the “it” gift this year, give the gift that keeps on giving – to you as well as your grandchildren. Even if you start off with a small cash gift now, by the time your grandchild is ready for college, he or she will have a tidy sum stashed away with no adverse affect on financial aid eligibility. You will save wear and tear on your nerves while providing a gift that can truly change your grandchild’s life for the better.

Photo: New York Times

IRS to Employers: Hire Veterans by Dec. 31 and Save on Taxes

If you plan to hire soon, consider hiring veterans. If you do, you may be able to claim the federal Work Opportunity Tax Credit worth thousands of dollars.

You must act soon. The WOTC is available to employers that hire qualified veterans before the new year.

Here are six key facts about the WOTC:

  1. Hiring Deadline. Employers hiring qualified veterans before Jan. 1, 2014, may be able to claim the WOTC. The credit was set to expire at the end of 2012. The American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 extended it for one year.
  2. Maximum Credit. The tax credit limit is $9,600 per worker for employers that operate a taxable business. The limit for tax-exempt employers is $6,240 per worker.
  3. Credit Factors. The credit amount depends on a number of factors. They include the length of time a veteran was unemployed, the number of hours worked and the amount of the wages paid during the first year of employment.
  4. Disabled Veterans. Employers hiring veterans with service-related disabilities may be eligible for the maximum tax credit.
  5. State Certification. Employers must file Form 8850, Pre-Screening Notice and Certification Request for the Work Opportunity Credit, with their state workforce agency. They must file the form within 28 days after the qualified veteran starts work. For more information, visit the U.S. Department of Labor’s WOTC website.
  6. E-file. Some states accept Form 8850 electronically.

New Flexible Spending Account (FSA) Carryover Rules for 2013

Flexible spending accounts (FSAs), often called a flex plans, are not new, but they are improved.

Participants use them to set aside money pre-tax, to pay for out-of- pocket medical costs such as co-pays and other expenses not covered by insurance. Employers like FSAs because they don’t have to pay employment tax on the amounts employees use to fund their accounts. It’s a win/win, but despite the name, one thing these accounts have not always been is flexible. A few years ago the IRS added an optional “grace period” to make FSAs better, and now they’ve improved them again, by allowing a carryover.

For now, let’s start with the basics.

What is an FSA?

A flexible spending account is an employer-sponsored pre-tax (or “tax free”) account that you can use to set aside money to cover eligible health and/or dependent care expenses.

At the beginning of the plan year, January 1st, your employer will ask how much you’d like to contribute to the account. Total any expenses that you predict won’t be covered by your insurance, like the braces your child will need or on-going rehabilitation treatment. This amount is then taken out of your paycheck in equal installments each pay period, and put into a special account by your employer. Although there are limits to how much you can set aside, and up until now, any excess leftover after the plan year was forfeited, the benefits of having an FSA money are numerous.

Benefits of an FSA

An FSA is included in your employer’s benefits package for a reason–it reduces your income taxes. The contributions you make to your flex plan are deducted from your pay before any Federal, State, or Social Security taxes are calculated, and are never reported to the IRS. In other words, you’re reducing your taxable income while at the same time increasing your spendable income. Making the most of your FSA could save you hundreds of dollars in taxes per year.

A basic example of this would be if, say, you were in the 15% tax bracket. You know you’ll spend $1000 on eligible health care expenses, so you set it aside in a flex account for the year. Your “take home” pay is $1000. If you opt out of putting it into an FSA, but still spend that $1000, you’ll have paid $150 in taxes to the IRS. Your “take home” pay is then only $850.

Without an FSA, you’d still pay the amount not covered by your insurance, but you’d be using money from your paycheck after taxes have already been taken out. The chart below, from FSA Feds, gives a real example of the tax benefits of an FSA.

FSA Chart

“This example illustrates tax savings based on 25% Federal and 7.65% FICA taxes, resulting in a 32.65% discount on eligible expenses paid through an FSA. State and local taxes are not included. Actual savings will vary based on your individual tax situation, and on whether you are covered under Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS) or Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS). You may wish to consult a tax professional for more information on the tax implications of an FSA.” –

What Can Be Deducted

If it’s considered an eligible deductible expense, and isn’t reimbursed by your current insurance, it can be reimbursed through a Flexible Spending Account. Some deductible expenses for a health care FSA (HSA) include:

  • Fees in excess of reasonable and customary amounts allowed by your insurance
  • Non-elective cosmetic surgery
  • Stop-smoking programs and any prescribed drugs to help with nicotine withdrawal
  • Acupuncture treatments
  • Inpatient treatment at a center for alcohol or drug addiction
  • False teeth, hearing aids, crutches, wheelchairs, and guide dogs for the blind or deaf
  • Co-payments on covered expenses
  • Deductibles

With a dependent care FSA, you can save money for expenses used to care for dependents while you’re at work, like day care costs for children under the age of 13, or adult care programs for senior citizens that live with you. Also, some adoption costs can be included as expenses.

The IRS lists the ins and outs of the various FSAs and HSAs here, but take note: If you’re single and don’t expect to incur any health costs besides a few $25 copays, an FSA may not be worth it.

New FSA Rules for 2013

So, FSAs allow employees who participate to pay for medical costs with pre-tax savings. Employees decide how much to put into the accounts through payroll deductions. As they incur an eligible expenses, they are reimbursed from the funds in their FSAs. The maximum a participant can put into an account is $2,500, although employers can set lower limits.

There has been one potential drawback with FSAs. Originally, they were inflexible, as in, use-it-or-lose-it. Any funds left in an individual’s account at year end were forfeited.

This restriction caused some problems.

  • Many employees were leery of participating, for fear of losing their hard earned money.
  • Some participated, but underfunded their FSAs to avoid forfeiting money if they failed to spend it.
  • Or if they got to the end of the year with an unspent balance, they would go out and make purchases they wouldn’t ordinarily make, like an extra pair of prescription sunglasses, just to use up the money.

The “Grace Period”

A few years ago, a grace period was added to FSAs to encourage greater participation. The grace period is 2 and ½ months, after the end of the year during which employees could spend out the balance of their FSA funds. A grace period is not automatic, and must be elected by the employer. This feature improved FSAs, but the newest addition should prove even better.

The Carryover

Now FSA participants who do not spend out their fund balances by the end of the year, may carry over up to $500 into the following year. So an employee who ends the year with $400 in his or her FSA and has chosen to set aside $2,000 into the new year’s plan will have $2,400 to spend in the new year.

Again, the carryover is not automatic. An employer must make the election to allow the carryover. The upper limit to carryover is $500, but employers may choose to allow a smaller carryover.

Note: A plan cannot allow both the carryover and the grace period. Employers must choose one or the other. So, if you have a plan in place which currently allows a grace period, you must elect to end the grace period in order to choose the carryover.

When does this kick in? It can begin now for employers who amend their plans to allow it. Normally such an election would have to be made before a plan year starts, but because this law is new, employers can choose it for 2013 and going forward.

For more information on the tax savings of an FSA, contact Optima Tax Relief today.

This article was co-written by Teresa Ambord and Brenda Harjala, staff writers for Optima Tax Relief.

Photos: New Mexico State UniversityFSAFeds

Study Says Even Savers Spend Their Refunds

Via LearnVest By Alden Wicker ~

tax refundThe refund checks are in the mail, and millions of Americans are feeling a bit flush this tax season.

(Still haven’t done your taxes? Start here.)

You might be one of the smart Americans who plan to use their refund to reach a financial goal. According to a TD Ameritrade survey released last month, of the almost half of Americans expecting a check, 47% plan to save some of it and 44% plan to pay off debt with the money.

Only 15% wanted to use the whole thing to splurge on something discretionary.

While the savers will mostly go through with their plan, TODAY reports that they still might treat themselves to something, even unconsciously.

Research shows that there’s an immediate, though small, bump in spending among people who receive tax refunds the week they get it, even if they planned on saving it. Then there’s another small bump in spending in August, indicating people might be using the money to augment their summer vacation.

So you might as well make it official. Set aside 10% of your refund to treat yourself, you deserve it for navigating that tax maze! Then use the rest to help reach a financial goal or two.

LearnVest is the leading lifestyle and personal finance website for women.

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