The 5 biggest tax mistakes people make

Published: Friday, March 29, 2013 @ 9:00 AM
Updated: Tuesday, December 30, 2015 @ 12:09 PM

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Did you know taxes are due right around the corner?

Of course you did, and you're probably almost done preparing everything as well. However, before you file them away and checkmark that box off your to-do list, ask yourself one question — are you totally prepared to file?

We spoke with Thomas D. Fisher, CPA, LLC and asked: What are the top five tax mistakes people make every year?

Check out what he told us, and be sure to get your own ducks in a row before signing those magical slips of paper. 

1. Not contributing to 401(k) plans 

Forgetting to fund your 401(k) policy is a mistake for a number of reasons. For starters, if your company offers a match, deciding to not sign up means that you are actually leaving free money on the table. On the tax side of things, 401(k) contributions are taken from participants' paychecks before taxes are deducted, which means contributing to this type of plan will lower how much income you're required to pay taxes on.

2. Taking unnecessary withdrawals from retirement plans 
According to a new study, more than one in four households dips into retirement accounts like 401(k)s and 403(b)s for funding of things outside of retirement, despite the fact that doing so can cause some significant damage to those savings tax wise. According to the New York Times, the report, 'The Retirement Breach in Defined Contribution Plans,' found that withdrawals for non-retirement purposes by account holders under 60 amount to $60 billion a year, or 40% of the $176 billion employees put into such accounts each year..."

Their proposed solution? Hold off on funding retirement plans until you have an emergency savings account to pay for things that may unexpectedly come up. And if you're considering borrowing against retirement accounts to help fund college for your kid, you might want to think again. After all, your kids can always take out student loans for school — there are no such loans available for your retirement.

3. Not getting receipts for clothing donations to charities 

When it comes to making tax-deductible clothing donations to charity, keeping accurate records is key. Complete and accurate records can help speed up the process when it comes time to file and, perhaps even more importantly, will be what you'll need to fall back on should you ever be audited. In fact, H&R Block's Guide to Charitable Deductions claims that for deductions of less than $250 you should keep a receipt from the organization with the name and location of the charity, the date of donation and description of the property, as well as a photo of what you're donating. You might also keep notes on the fair market value of the property at the time you donated it and how you figured the value you're applying for a deduction for. 

Donations over $250 come with their own set of rules. See the full list of suggested documentation for donated items here.

4. Not considering the marriage penalty 
As my new husband and I recently discovered, sometimes there's a nice little price tag that comes with getting married, and it has absolutely nothing to do with paying for a pricey wedding. In a situation where both members of a couple work, that couple can most likely expect to owe more in taxes. Why is this the case? Once you earn above the 15% tax bracket, thresholds for higher tax rates are less than double the thresholds for single filers.

On the other hand, a marriage between two people where one person is not working could yield a marriage bonus, since working spouses can claim deductions and exemptions for non-working spouses and will be paying taxes at a lower tax rate overall.

5. Paying IRS notices without questioning 
Believe it or not, IRS employees are only human, and as such, they do make the occasional mistake. Before blindly paying out any amount that the IRS may tell you that you owe, it's a good idea to recheck your own numbers first. If you still feel you paid the correct amount of taxes, send a letter back and enclose all of your mathematic calculations.

Cheryl Lock is a personal finance writer at and former editor at LearnVest and Parents magazine. When she's not writing, she enjoys travel, which she blogs about at wearywanderer.wordpress.com.

(Source: Savings.com)

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Getting a tax reform bill bonus? 5 things to think about

Published: Thursday, January 04, 2018 @ 11:05 AM

(AP Photo/Hillery Smith Garrison, File)
(AP Photo/Hillery Smith Garrison, File)

Many companies have announced they will provide first quarter cash bonuses to employees following last month’s passage of the tax reform bill.

» RELATED: What to expect from the new tax legislation

While some may see this as money to spend immediately, PNC offered five things to think about for how to use the funds:

  1. Pay Down Debt—during the holidays, people tend to overspend, with much of those purchases being placed on credit cards. In fact, early reports are that U.S. year-end holiday retail sales rose 4.9% compared to the same period last year. Credit cards can have high interest rates, so to help minimize this, you might consider using the funds to pay down credit card or other debt and start off the New Year in a financially responsible way.
  2. Start an Emergency Fund—a money market account and other appropriate short-term savings vehicles provide easy money management and FDIC protection to help you achieve your savings goals. A money market account may be comprised of short-term securities representing high-quality, liquid debt and monetary instruments.
  3. Increase Your 401(k) Contribution—a 401(k) is an employer-retirement plan that, if your employer offers one and you are eligible to participate, can allow you to invest part of your paycheck before taxes are taken out. Many employers will match a portion of your contribution to this plan, helping your contribution make even more of an impact on your retirement well-being.
  4. Invest in an Individual Retirement Account (IRA)—an IRA can allow you to invest for retirement on a tax-deferred basis and your contributions may be tax-deductible. The deduction may be limited if you or your spouse is covered by a retirement plan at work and your income exceeds certain levels. For 2017 and 2018, your total contributions to all of your traditional and Roth IRAs for the year cannot be more than $5,500 ($6,500 if you are age 50 or older) or your taxable compensation for the year if less. Roth IRA contributions may be limited based on your filing status and income.
  5. Add to Your Child’s 529 Plan—there is no better time than the present to invest in your child’s education and the new tax reform bill expanded the use of 529 plans to cover expenses for grades K—12. A 529 plan is a tax-advantaged investment designed to encourage saving for the future higher education expenses of your child or beneficiary. There are two types of plans: prepaid tuition plans that allow you to pay for tuition and fees at designated institutions in advance; and, savings plans that are tax-advantaged investment vehicles, which allow you to save for future education costs.

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New tax law: What you need to know from local accountants

Published: Thursday, December 28, 2017 @ 9:12 AM

Filers look for tax tips

With the recent tax changes, the usual end-of-year assortment of tax moves is likely more complicated in 2017.

These changes affect everyone from single mothers to millionaires to most sports fans who buy event tickets.

“I’d love to tell you that everyone has a handle on this,” said Mark Bradstreet, founder of the Bradstreet & Co. Inc. accounting firm, which has offices in Centerville and Xenia. “I’m not sure anyone does. I would be suspicious if someone said they did.”

Prominent among the changes: The 1,000-page legislation recently passed by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump caps at $10,000 the amount of state and municipal taxes that taxpayers can deduct from their federal tax bill.

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Some filers — those with high property tax bills who aren’t using the standard deduction — are scrambling to pre-pay property taxes for the coming year before the cap takes effect, according to national reports. In 2017, that deduction has no ceiling.

Sweeping tax overhaul was signed into law.

While the new tax bill lets local municipalities decide whether to allow taxpayers to pre-pay property taxes, it blocked filers from pre-paying local sales and income taxes.

Bradstreet said it’s OK to pre-pay real estate taxes for most taxpayers. Montgomery, Greene and Warren counties will allow filers to pay property taxes early, he said.

“They’re all more than happy to take your money,” he quipped.

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If you fall under the alternative minimum tax (AMT) — and if you don’t itemize your deductions — paying property property taxes early won’t help, Bradstreet said.

“For most people, though, it’s ‘no harm, no foul’ pre-paying it this year,” he said.

But an IRS announcement was triggering more confusion early Thursday.

In a notice, the IRS said pre-paying property taxes may work, but only under certain conditions. Real estate taxes may be paid in 2017, but the taxes must also be assessed in 2017. 

William Duncan, a certified public accountant with Dayton firm Thorn, Lewis & Duncan, said taxpayers should check with accountants to see if they will fall under the AMT in 2017.

Duncan called the tax changes “wild.” With newly lowered tax brackets and higher standard deductions, he said he has clients with seven-figure incomes who will opt to take the standard deduction this year instead of itemizing.

That’s the first time in his career he has seen that, Duncan said.

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The standard deduction for married individuals filing jointly is $24,000, noted John Venturella, a Dayton shareholder with Clark Schaefer Hackett.

“I think you are just going to see a lot of people using the standard deduction,” Venturella said.

The new law introduces some wrinkles for University of Dayton Flyers or other college and professional sports fans, too.

If you buy University of Dayton basketball tickets in the lower arena and pay for a seat license, current law lets you deduct 80 percent of that as a charitable deduction. That benefit is going away in 2018, Duncan said.

The university is inviting ticket-holders to pre-pay for seat licenses in 2017, Duncan said, which Adam Tschuor, associate athletics director for revenue and partnerships at UD, confirmed.

“It may be to your advantage to pay for next season’s ASP (Arena Seating Program) donation or beyond before Jan. 1, 2018,” the university said in a letter sent to ticket-holders just last week. “These payments would still be tax deductible under existing tax law.”

Tschuor said the university has always allowed fans to prepay their “ASP donation in all the way up to the conclusion of the announced ASP cycle.”

Another change: Your tickets for UD, Wright State, Ohio State or Cincinnati Reds or Bengals games will no longer be tax-deductible as a business entertainment expense.

“If you’re a businessperson and you want to take clients to the UD game next year, you’re not going to be allowed to take a tax deduction for the entertainment value of those tickets,” Duncan said.

For businesses, Duncan said it’s important this year to try to defer whatever income you can, push it to 2018, and pay the expenses you can in 2017.

Most accountants scoff at the notion, pushed by the bill’s proponents, that it has simplified the tax code. For higher-income earners in particular, as well as many small businesses, tax law remains at least as complex as ever. And the bill has injected a new layer of uncertainty because so many changes are temporary and could be reversed in a few years.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Donating to charities

December is a critical fundraising month for charities. Many people make year-end gifts for tax reasons, or to extend the spirit of Thanksgiving and generosity to those less fortunate. Here are a few dos and don’ts when it comes to charitable giving.

DON’T succumb to high-pressure, emotional pitches. Giving on the spot is never necessary, no matter how hard a telemarketer or door-to-door solicitor pushes it. The charity that needs your money today will welcome it just as much tomorrow – after you’ve had time to do your homework.

DO think before you give. If you are solicited at the mall or on the street, take a minute or two to “think.” Ask for the charity’s name and address. Get full identification from the solicitor and review it carefully. If you decide to donate, don’t give cash. Write a check made payable to the charitable organization, not an individual.

DO check out the charity carefully. Make sure you feel comfortable with how your money will be spent. Don’t just take the word of someone else; even good friends may not have fully researched the charities they endorse. Go to www.give.org to verify that a charity meets BBB Wise Giving Alliance’s 20 Standards for Charity Accountability.

DON’T assume that only “low overhead” matters. How much money a charity spends on the actual cause – as compared to how much goes toward fundraising and administration – is an important factor, but it’s not the whole story. A charity with impressive financial ratios could have other significant problems such as insufficient transparency, inadequate board activity and inaccurate appeals.

SOURCE: Better Business Bureau

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5 fast facts that will help make filling out FAFSA a breeze

Published: Wednesday, December 13, 2017 @ 10:32 AM

The following points are what you need to know, as well as common mistakes to avoid when filling out the FAFSA Fill it out – you have nothing to lose The sooner you submit your FAFSA, the better Gather the information you'll need Watch out for common mistakes like leaving fields blank Keep an eye out for requests for more information

It's that time of year again when parents and college or college-bound students fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid).

The idea of wading through a form – especially one that requires financial information – is definitely not an appealing idea, but the FAFSA could be a tremendous help in getting your student money to attend college.

RELATED: 20 financial aid terms every college student and parent should understand

The following points are what you need to know, as well as common mistakes to avoid when filling out the FAFSA.

Fill it out – you have nothing to lose.

You may think that you don't need to fill out the FAFSA, especially if you believe you might not qualify for need-based aid. But there's no income cut-off point with federal student aid, according to the U.S. Department of Education. In addition, the FAFSA can help you qualify for all kinds of grants, loans and scholarships, including those offered by your state, school or private organizations.

By investing a few minutes of time, you could reap thousands of dollars in potential rewards.

Submit it ASAP.

The sooner you submit your FAFSA, the better, according to consumer adviser Clark Howard. Although the federal deadline isn't until June 30, 2018, you should check with the financial aid administrator at colleges you're interested in to make sure their deadlines aren't earlier.

Submitting earlier will help you plan how you'll pay for college. You'll also have a better chance of getting as much aid or scholarship money as possible since some colleges distribute their available money on a first-come, first-serve basis, Howard says.

Gather the information you'll need.

The FAFSA asks questions about the student as well as his or her parents if the student is a dependent.

You'll need the following information on hand as you fill out the FAFSA:

  • The student's Social Security number
  • The parents' Social Security numbers
  • Driver's license number (if you have one)
  • Alien registration number (if you're not a U.S. citizen)
  • Federal tax information for the student (and his or her spouse, if applicable) and the parents. This can often be imported online, so you may not need your records.
  • Information on the student's and parents' assets, such as money held in bank accounts and real estate holdings (not your primary residence)
  • Records of the student's or parents' untaxed income, such as veterans benefits and interest income

Watch out for common mistakes.

The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators points out some common mistakes that can delay your form's submission or cause you to not get the aid and scholarships you might qualify for. They include the following:

  • Leaving some fields blank – Instead, put in a "0" or "not applicable."
  • Listing an incorrect Social Security or driver's license number – It pays to recheck these numbers.
  • Failing to use your legal name – Use the name on your Social Security card, not a nickname.
  • Forgetting to list colleges – Even if you're not sure of which college you'll be attending, add any reasonable possibilities to the list of colleges that will receive your information. You're under no obligation to apply to or attend these colleges, and they can't see which other colleges you're interested in.

Keep an eye out for requests for more information.

Your FAFSA may be selected for verification, which means you'll have to provide some additional or supporting information, U.S. News & World Report explains. This process doesn't necessarily mean you've done anything wrong. You may have a discrepancy or mistake on your form, but some FAFSAs are just randomly selected for verification (lucky you!).

These requests will often come to the student's personal email account or university email address, so he or she will have to be diligent about checking it and responding to any requests by the stated deadline.

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Is credit monitoring a scam?

Published: Wednesday, November 22, 2017 @ 12:01 PM

Clark Howard explains how to protect yourself.

With the recent massive security breach of Equifax — one of the three credit bureaus with which many may have thought their private information was safer than most — now many people are dealing with more insecurities, wondering where they can entrust their private information, if anywhere.

Here are some options:

Credit freezing

Better and cheaper than credit monitoring, an option for optimal security is freezing your credit through each of the three credit bureaus (Experian, Equifax and TransUnion), according to WSB money expert Clark Howard at Clark.com.

The fee is $3 to $10 per person per bureau, depending on your state, to allow you to seal your credit reports — except now it's free with Equifax from here on out due to the recent data breach.

You will be provided with a personal identification number (PIN) that only you know and can be used to temporarily unfreeze (or "thaw") your credit when legitimate applications for credit and services need to be processed such as when you are buying a car.

This added layer of security means thieves can't establish new credit in your name even if they are able to obtain your personal information.

LifeLock vs. CreditKarma.com

While LifeLock advertises it can help consumers secure their information to guard against identity theft, LifeLock charges monthly services that start at $10 a month.

This kind of credit monitoring is not the same or as effective as a credit freeze, said Craig Johnson for Clark.com.

Instead, he recommends CreditKarma.com for free credit monitoring.

Equifax

If you haven't already frozen your credit, now would be the time since Equifax recently got hacked and the information of possibly 145.5 million people was attained by these hackers.

Information accessed primarily includes names, social security numbers, birth dates, addresses and, in some instances, driver's license numbers.

To try to compensate, Equifax is offering free identity theft protection and credit file monitoring (but only through Jan. 31, 2018) with its TrustedID Premier.

Experian

Another point of confusion is the unsolicited free Dark Web Email Scan offered by Experian to your email, leading to a monthly fee for further scanning.

Experian IdentityWorks also offers a free 30-day trial membership for identity theft protection and resolution, involving a monthly automatic deduction of $9.99 for the plus plan or $19.99 for the premium plan.

It's free to cancel within the 30-day trial period, but the consequences are not revealed up front for those who decide to cancel their membership once the monthly fees begin.

TransUnion

The third credit bureau, TransUnion, also offers credit monitoring at $19.95 monthly. However, TransUnion says it offers free identity protection through its TrueIdentity program.

Free helpline

Those with specific questions about the Equifax breach and how it may impact them may contact Howard's Consumer Action Center — a free helpline open 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. EST Monday through Friday with Team Clark volunteers available to answer concerns at 404-892-8227.

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