3 Common Tax Mistakes That Could Cost You

Brandpoint  |  2016-02-24

(BPT) - Tax season is in full swing, and according to the IRS, Americans often leave more than a billion dollars on the table in unclaimed refunds.

With the average refund hovering at $2,800, ensure you get back your maximum refund and avoid these common filing mistakes this tax season.

1. Using an incorrect filing status.

When filing your taxes, you may be confused about whether your filing status is single, married filing jointly, married filing separately, or head of household. Your filing status affects a few things: what kind of credits and deductions you might be eligible for, your tax bracket, and the value of your standard deduction.

Filing status is a grey area for a lot of filers who are married and may fall into multiple categories. If you're legally married and going through a divorce, you could potentially file as married filing jointly, married filing separately, or head of household. You can't file as head of household if you and your spouse lived together at any point in the last six months of the tax year. In fact, the head of household filing status might be the one that causes the most headaches.

Confused about which filing status applies to you? Consulting with an experienced professional tax preparer can help set you on the right course. They can help determine if you qualify for a filing status that is more to your advantage.

2. Taking the standard deduction instead of itemizing.

Only one in three taxpayers itemize their deductions, but millions may be missing out on the benefits.

Often times, home ownership is a life change that helps taxpayers move from taking the standard deduction to itemizing. Itemizing your deduction allows taxpayers to deduct qualifying charitable donations, medical expenses, state income or sales tax, and employee business expenses, among others. Itemizing can save taxpayers hundreds of dollars. For example, if a single taxpayer pays $9,600 in mortgage interest, property taxes and charitable donations, that is $3,300 more than the standard deduction of $6,300. With a marginal tax rate of 25 percent, itemizing saves this taxpayer up to $825.

3. Forgetting to claim the Earned Income Tax Credit.

The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is a tax benefit for lower-income workers. The IRS estimates 20 percent of those eligible for the EITC fail to claim the credit on their taxes. In fact, many overlook the EITC because they may not earn enough money to have to file a return, but because the EITC is a refundable credit, those who do not owe taxes can still be eligible to receive this credit.

Another mistake taxpayers make? Paying full price at the tax office! If you filed your taxes with someone other than H&R Block last year, H&R Block will do your taxes for half of what you paid last year. Make an appointment today at hrblock.com/payhalf before the offer runs out on March 31.

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The Financial Solution You've Been Looking For Might Be Right Under Your Roof

Brandpoint  |  2016-02-24

(BPT) - What would you do with a little extra money? Chances are, you thought of something pretty fast — and you probably had more than one idea. Whether you’re looking to improve your home, pay off outstanding debt or take a vacation, a little cash can go a long way and you can find the money without changing jobs or cutting expenses. The answer lies within the walls around you in your own home.

The housing bust of 2007-09 was a rough time for many homeowners, but today’s market has shown signs of continued recovery and as it does, homes continue to increase in value. Sixty percent of homeowners report equity in their homes has increased since 2013, and almost half expect their equity will increase even more this year, according to research from loanDepot. And as that equity continues to grow, more and more homeowners are realizing that capitalizing on it can be a valuable tool to support their financial stability.

“Homeowners who bought during the housing boom are regaining equity many thought was lost forever, yet too many are not aware of the equity they have gained or they are unclear about how to determine changes in their equity,” says Bryan Sullivan, chief financial officer of loanDepot. “People who bought after the housing boom when prices were low are realizing homeownership can be a great investment and asset leveraged through equity to realize many dreams. Whether they choose to leverage their home equity now or reserve it for future needs, millions of homeowners have choices today not available just a few years ago.”

To better understand how homeowners would leverage additional funds from a home equity loan, loanDepot surveyed 1,000 homeowners to get their responses. The most common uses for funds from a home equity loan included:

  • Remodeling projects. The majority of respondents, 39 percent, said they would reinvest the money acquired by their loan into making further improvements to their home, continuing to support its value.

  • Consolidating high interest debt. For homeowners with significant debt obligations, a home refinancing loan can offer the opportunity to pay down that debt and replace it with a home loan that features a more favorable interest rate.

  • Save for retirement. More than 17 percent of those surveyed said they would use the money to bolster their current retirement package or even start a retirement fund.

  • Pay down student loans. College was a wonderful part of your life, the loans — not so much. Nine percent of respondents said they would use the money to be done with those payments once and for all.

  • Take a trip. If that dream trip seems to always be just slightly out of your financial reach, a home equity loan can help. Nearly five percent of respondents said they would use the additional money for vacation and travel purposes.

Learn more about taking out a home equity loan

Everyone could use a little extra money and finding it is easier than you may think, you just have to capitalize on your home’s inherent value. To learn more about obtaining a second mortgage and the flexibility such equity would offer you, visit www.loanDepot.com/homequity today or watch this video.

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3 Tips to Get You through This Roller Coaster Economy

Brandpoint  |  2016-02-24

(BPT) - The stock market is off to a rocky 2016 and experts advise we buckle up. Uncertainty around China, oil and interest rates is leading to waves of selling and a sharp decline in the market. This volatility is a reminder that we should expect the best and prepare for the worst. At the very least, we're in for a roller coaster of uncertainty, and now is the time to get financially prepared. Here are three ways to get your money in order for uncertain times.

1. Stow away cash in an emergency fund.

You should have six months' expenses saved in case of an emergency. And by emergency, we aren't talking about a desperately needed wardrobe upgrade, or a European vacation to cope with a mid-life crisis. This should be money set aside to deal with life's emergencies like layoffs, medical bills or unforeseen crucial expenses. Don't feel bad if you haven't saved up six months' expenses though - according to a recent Bankrate survey, fewer than four in 10 Americans can handle expenses outside their normal budget. To get a rough goal for your emergency fund total, simply add up all recurring monthly expenses including rent/mortgage, food, gas, car payment, cable, phone, etc. and multiply by six. Try to put 5-10 percent of each paycheck after taxes to this fund, and be sure to put the money into accounts that are liquid and stable, like a checking, savings or money market account.

2. Play it safe with investing.

Investing shouldn't entail blindly paying a stockbroker and assuming all the risk with no tangible goal for success. New investing tools have emerged that bring elite investment options to everyday Americans. These can be great assets in a tough economy. Aspiration, for example, offers strategies that limit the volatility of the stock market and invest in companies with sustainable business practices toward the environment and their own workers that make them poised for growth. Best of all, customers set their fee, even if it's zero. Yes, you read that right - Aspiration lets investors pay them whatever they think is fair, and it can be changed at any time. If this sounds like a gimmick, know that Aspiration is a trusted brand that was just named one of Fast Company's Top 50 Most Innovative Companies of 2016.

If you prefer paying an advisor for advice, Personal Capital is another new-school financial company that provides award-winning technology to help you manage day-to-day finances and investments. Personal Capital offers investment advice from licensed financial advisors, at a significantly reduced all-in management fee.

Once your portfolio is set, start investing a modest amount each month. Even $50 a month will add up over time, and that money will do you more good in the long run than one night at the bar, 10 overpriced lattes, or five deli lunches.

3. Open a fee-free bank account.

The days of big banks dominating the industry and charging outrageous fees could be coming to an end. Convenient banking options exist that bear interest and don't charge an arm and a leg for services. Take the Aspiration Summit Account, a checking account that offers a 1 percent annual percentage yield (100 times the interest rate you get at big banks), $0 monthly service fees, and free access to any ATM in the world. Instead of spending millions on Washington lobbyists or corporate jets for its executives, Aspiration puts that money back toward making this the best account possible for its customers. And it gives 10 percent of all its revenue to charities helping struggling Americans. Money magazine named this the "Best Checking Account in America." Another option is your local credit union which will often have better services and fairer interest rates than a big bank.

Once your finances are in order, peace of mind can set in. A down economy is hard on everyone, but knowing you've taken the basic steps to save in case of emergency will pay off huge in times of need. And if the stock market never crashes and the economy only points upward, you can always use the spare cash for a down payment on that European vacation you've always wanted.

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5 Tax Tips for Small Business Owners

Brandpoint  |  2016-02-17

(BPT) - Starting a business can be intimidating, but with a solid business plan and guidance from the small business community of experts, it can also be incredibly rewarding. Whether you own a local restaurant or an online Etsy shop, one of the biggest things to get used to as a new small business owner is filing taxes for the first time. If you're filing a business return, hiring an experienced professional tax preparer can help you avoid making common mistakes that can impact the success of your small business.

To get the most from your deductions, here are five tips for small business owners to keep in mind this tax season:

  1. What tax deductions can I claim? Even if the expenses were incurred during the previous calendar year, the IRS allows businesses to deduct up to $5,000 worth of certain start-up expenses in the year the business began (subject to limitations). In addition to these costs, corporations and partnerships are allowed to deduct up to $5,000 of their organizational costs in their first year of operation.

  2. Is my car mileage deductible? If you use your home as a place of business and consider it your principal place of business, car owners are typically allowed to deduct mileage costs from their home to business-related stops.

  3. Can I deduct business travel expenses? When you are traveling away from your usual business location, you may be able to deduct ordinary and necessary expenses related to your work. These expenses include transportation costs, lodging, dry cleaning or laundry, tips, baggage charges and business equipment usage expenses such as fax machines or phones. Meals can be deducted if the trip is overnight but there is a 50 percent limitation on these deductions.

  4. Are personal care and clothing expenses deductible? No, the IRS has a very strict rule against personal clothing being deducted even if they are bought for business use and only worn at work.

  5. How does the Affordable Care Act (ACA) affect my taxes and deductions? The Small Business Health Options Program (SHOP) Marketplace allows for small business to purchase health insurance for their employees. If you pay at least half of your employee's premiums and have less than 25 full-time and equivalent employees with an average annual wage of less than $50,000 ($51,600 for 2016), you may be eligible for the small business health care tax credit. See the calculator at healthcare.gov.

Tax preparation is not one-size-fits all, and navigating credits and deductions makes them even trickier - especially for small business owners and individuals with more complicated tax situations. Filing a business return for the first time can be a daunting task, but it doesn't have to be. A new offering is launching this year called Block Advisors that specializes in personalized tax preparation, tax planning, small business taxes and year-round support. For small business owners, Block Advisors also provides back-end needs like payroll and bookkeeping. Visit blockadvisors.com for more information or to find your nearest location.

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5 Savings Tips to Tax Refund Rewards

Family Features  |  2016-02-16

(Family Features) If $2,000 suddenly hit your bank account, you’d feel like you hit the jackpot, right? That will be a reality for many Americans this tax season as, according to a tax time survey by Straight Talk Wireless, Americans on average expect to receive exactly that back on their tax refund this year. Use this time to reap refund rewards!

Ninety-percent of respondents said tax season is a good time to think about how to save money in other areas – with 84 percent thinking a tax refund is a good way to jumpstart healthy financial habits. Follow these five tips to help make your refund go further:

Don’t think of your tax refund as “fun” money. Sixty-eight percent of Americans said it’s easy to accidentally spend “fun” money on items they don’t really need, but by taking a step back and thinking long term you can make savings choices to help your refund stretch all year long.

Be a saver. When it comes to tax refunds, Americans are split. Fifty-two percent think you should spend it and 48 percent think refunds should be tucked away in savings. Good financial habits start with saving. Which side will you be on this year?

Resist the urge to splurge. Just 9 percent of Americans filing taxes this year said they’re likely to use their tax refund to splurge on a big ticket item. Instead, consider using tax refunds to establish good financial habits, such as cutting unnecessary bills. Make a list of monthly expenses and take time to reevaluate your spending on things like food, utilities or your monthly cell phone bill. You’re almost guaranteed to find ways to cut back and reduce costs.

Think about where your tax refund would make the most impact. Wireless phone bills are the thing Americans are most likely to say they spent too much money on in 2015 (30 percent), even more than clothing (23 percent), groceries (23 percent) or travel (14 percent).

Find cellular savings. Twenty-seven percent of Americans made an effort to cut spending on their wireless phone bills last year. You, too, can use your tax refund to cut ties with your wireless company in 2016. As you look for opportunities to make your tax refund go further, ask yourself why haven't you switched to a no-contract wireless phone plan? With Straight Talk Wireless, you get access to the best phones on America’s largest and most dependable 4G LTE networks starting at just $45 a month for the unlimited plan. Straight Talk phones and service plans are available exclusively at Walmart.

Visit StraightTalkSwitch.com for terms and conditions of service and more information on how to make your refund go further this tax season.

Photos courtesy of Shutterstock

*The Straight Talk Wireless Tax Season Survey was conducted by KRC Research via an online survey of nationally representative 1,000 U.S. adults ages 18+ between January 19-22.

†To get 4G LTE speed, you must have a 4G LTE capable device and 4G LTE SIM. Actual availability, coverage and speed may vary. LTE is a trademark of ETSI.

Source: TracFone

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The Affordable Care Act and Taxes: What You Need to Know

Brandpoint  |  2016-02-10

(BPT) - While the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is no longer new, each year brings changes to the health care law. As you undoubtedly know, the ACA is inextricably linked to taxes so keeping up with annual changes is important. Given tax season is now well underway, here's what you need to know when preparing your income tax return this season.

ACA paperwork: things to know before you file

Beginning each January, a variety of tax documents are sent your way. Some arrive via snail mail and others appear in your email inbox. And while you've probably come to know the most common, like 1040, W-2 and maybe even Form 1099, this tax season you may receive forms you haven't seen before: 1095-B and 1095-C (Not to be confused with Form 1095-A, which was required last year).

"These new forms are creating a bit of confusion for taxpayers this year. Folks simply aren't clear about what they're supposed to do with Forms 1095 when they receive them," says Andrew Townsend, tax analyst for TaxAct, a leading provider of affordable digital and download tax preparation solutions. "The important thing to know is that, in most cases, you do not need to wait until you receive these forms to file your tax return. Simply check a box on your return to indicate you had minimum essential coverage throughout the year.

"You don't even have to worry about attaching 1095 forms to your return - the IRS receives a separate copy. Just put your form(s) in a safe place in case you need to verify any information later."

A little background

In 2014, the IRS released Forms 1095-B and 1095-C as optional paperwork for employers and insurance providers. For tax year 2015, it became a requirement for every business and insurance provider to administer the forms to the IRS and the corresponding individual or employee as proof of provided coverage.

Here's what you need to know about the three versions of Form 1095:

  • Form 1095-A - if you purchased health insurance through the Health Insurance Marketplace in 2015, you can expect to receive Form 1095-A. When preparing your 2015 federal return, you will need to use this information to complete your income tax filing, claim premium tax credits and adjust any tax credit payments.
  • Form 1095-B - your insurance company will send you this form if you received minimum essential health coverage through an employer, the government or a government-run plan such as Medicaid, Medicare, CHIP, TRICARE, VA benefits, etc.
  • Form 1095-C - this form will come directly from your employer if it offered coverage to you through a company-sponsored health care plan.

No matter which 1095 form you get, the purpose is the same: to provide an accurate picture of the health insurance coverage you had access to throughout the past year. However, the information provided on Form 1095-B and 1095-C varies slightly.

Form 1095-B includes details specific to your selected health insurance plan, such as the name of your health insurance provider, who the plan covered and the period during which your family had health insurance.

Form 1095-C lists the coverage options you were offered through a company-sponsored health care plan. Even if you chose not to participate in your company-sponsored plan, you will still receive Form 1095-C as proof of the options made available to you.

Keep an eye out for these forms, which should be sent to you on or before March 31, 2016.

Steeper penalties for the uninsured

The ACA says that most Americans living in the United States are required to have qualified health insurance coverage.

"The good news is many people already meet minimum essential coverage requirements," Townsend says. "However, those who didn't have health insurance for more than two months in 2015 and did not qualify for an exemption may face a tax penalty for each month they went without coverage."

This penalty, known as an individual shared responsibility payment, is not new this year, but the amount a taxpayer without qualifying insurance may be subject to pay with their 2015 tax return has changed.

The penalty, payable with 2015 returns (due April 18, 2016), is the greater of:

  • 2 percent of your yearly household income above the tax-filing threshold (generally about $10,300) up to a maximum cost of the national average premium to purchase a Bronze Plan from the federal healthcare exchange (also called a Marketplace)
  • $325 per adult ($162.50 per child under 18), but not more than $975

These costs have more than tripled since 2014 when the penalty was $95 per person or 1 percent of household income.

In 2016 they spike even higher. If you do not meet the minimum essential coverage requirements throughout 2016, you may pay the greater of 2.5 percent of your household income or $695 per adult and $347.50 per child under 18 (up to $2,085 for a family).

Help when you need it

It can be challenging to stay on top of annual changes to the ACA and the related tax implications. Fortunately, taxpayers can turn to a number of resources, including TaxAct, for help.

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New Flexible Spending Account Options Will Help You Stretch Your Money

Brandpoint  |  2016-02-03

(BPT) - As we head into the 2016 annual health care enrollment period, the benefits of different plan options may seem hard to decipher. Like many employees, you may have never considered a flexible spending account, or FSA. In fact, only about 30 percent of workers who have an FSA available to them sign up to take advantage of the program. However, a variety of benefits make health care FSA plans worth a second look.

According to a March 2015 survey conducted by Visa and WageWorks, fear of losing money at the end of the year is the number one reason employees don’t participate in health care FSA plans, despite the fact they’re leaving tax savings on the table. What you may not know is that the IRS revised options in 2013 to allow for carryover of FSA dedicated funds up to $500 — meaning, you don’t need to fear the notion of “use it or lose it.” With an increasing number of employers now providing FSA carryover options, there’s a good chance your employer is offering this benefit to you as well. In the same Visa/WageWorks survey, 60 percent of employers said they opted to offer the FSA carryover option this year.

A health care FSA with carryover helps eliminate the stress and pressure of having to spend your annual contribution by the end of the year, and allows for ease of budgeting and allocating where and when health care dollars are spent.

A convenient way for employees to access and use FSA funds in a secure way is through a Visa debit card. While individual health care needs vary, here are just a few common eligible health care expenses and scenarios that can be covered with flexible spending account dollars.

  • Copays and deductibles are generally covered out of pocket, but both are easily handled by funds allocated and available through your FSA.

  • The cost of important and routine exams, such as physicals or dermatology checkups, can quickly add up. But, with dedicated FSA funds, you can cover these costs with ease.

  • FSA monies can be used to keep your smile bright and healthy. Dental cleanings, dentures and orthodontia are all eligible FSA expenses.

  • Not only can your FSA help to keep your mind at ease about medical expenses, it can also help to keep you seeing in clear view. Annual vision exams, new glasses and LASIK services can also be covered with FSA funds.

  • Many employees may think specialty visits are ineligible expenses, but your chiropractor or acupuncturist can also be paid for with FSA funds.

  • Necessary health care equipment like blood pressure monitors or thermometers can be purchased with an FSA, as can important and potentially life-changing services, such as smoking cessation programs.

Additionally, the pre-tax salary reduction helps pave the way for employees to really stretch their hard-earned dollars. For example, the average employee who contributes $500 to their health care FSA at the start of the year will probably utilize all of those funds by the end of the plan year and by contributing that amount to an FSA will save approximately $150 in taxes, depending on his/her tax rate (the maximum contribution for an individual is $2,550, which would save an average of $765 at a 30 percent tax rate).

Using your Visa debit card for your FSA may also cut down on your paperwork. Many of the processing systems at pharmacies, grocery stores and other retailers that sell medical products are programmed to distinguish between covered items and non-covered items, making getting the care you need more simple.

As you review your options this open enrollment season, ask your employer if they offer flexible spending accounts with carryover, available on a Visa debit card. To learn more visit www.visahealthcare.com.

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