Since early March, the COVID-19 pandemic has been making a substantial financial impact on millions of people across the country. With 22 million jobless claims in just one month and a slowly moving economy, many homeowners are left wondering if their properties will see a decline in value as workers continue to lose their jobs and minimize personal spending. Spring is traditionally the prime time for buying and selling homes, but thanks to COVID-19, listings have dropped significantly.
What We Already Know
Beginning in March, mortgage rates have fluctuated significantly. They’ve fallen to record lows—the average for a new 30-year fixed-rate mortgage currently falls near 3.33% – and may continue to drop. For those who already own homes, applications to refinance their homes are up almost 168% from March 2019.
Mortgage rates and home values, while related, are two separate entities. History shows us that home prices are likely to fall during recessions, but to what degree is specific to your local market. If available homes in a particular area are already highly sought-after (places like San Francisco, Los Angeles, or Seattle), it is unlikely homeowners will see their property values go down much at all. That said, with such low mortgage rates available, buyers who haven’t suffered from layoffs or unemployment could find their opportunity to purchase a property. If there is still a demand for homes in an area, home prices are likely to remain steady.
Past research from Zillow shows us that during previous pandemics in the US that home prices remained stable with only small declines in home prices. The research also showed that there were fewer real estate transactions and NOT sales happening at a loss.
COVID-19 is already an oddity, and its impact cannot be denied around the world. With that, all homeowners with interest in selling should be prepared for the likelihood of home values dropping until this pandemic passes and the economy settles. While a drop in home values could leave sellers in a challenging situation, it’s also not ideal for anyone who may be looking to draw upon their home equity in the not-so-distant future.
While so much of our lives remain up in the air, and while the economy is so unsettled, this is an opportunity to pull back and see what happens. If the panic around COVID-19 dies down sooner than anticipated, buyers and sellers may not even notice a change in the market.
Whether you’re working with a robust tax refund, a work bonus, or an inheritance of some kind, here’s a list of positive moves to make with that windfall.
Evaluate Your Debt
There’s “bad” debt and “good” debt. Good debt is an investment that will grow in value or generate long-term income, such as student loans or home equity loans. Bad debt is anything that quickly loses value, doesn’t generate income, and/or has a high interest rate, such as credit cards and cash advance loans. Whenever you come into extra funds, it’s recommended to pay down or pay off bad debt as a top priority.
Consider Your Emergency Fund
Your rainy-day fund should be stocked with at least three months’ worth of living expenses. If yours isn’t there yet, think about boosting it with your refund. If you are a business owner or your income fluctuates, consider shooting for six months’ worth of living expenses.
Fund Your 401(k)
This is a good time to open or boost contributions to your 401(k) or individual retirement account. The 401(k) contribution limit for 2020 is $19,500 for those under age 50, and taxpayers over age 50 are allowed an additional “catch-up” contribution of $6,500.
Open a Roth IRA
If you’re married filing jointly and have a combined adjusted growth income of less than $196,000, you can contribute up to $6,000 to a Roth IRA. The adjusted growth income cap for single filers is $124,000. This is meant to be a long-term money management move, but if you need to withdraw sooner, you can do so tax-free and penalty-fee, though you may owe taxes and penalties on any earnings (not regular contributions) you withdraw.
Invest in Stocks
Assuming you’ve paid off debt, built up your emergency savings fund to three to six months’ worth of living expenses, and boosted your retirement fund, you could think about consulting a financial professional to build a stock portfolio that aligns with your financial goals and personal risk tolerance. Or, if you’re stock market savvy, you can open a brokerage account on your own and start investing in a stock you believe has the potential for growth.
Additional money moves you could make with your refund (again, assuming debt, emergency savings, and retirement funds are taken care of) include making home improvements; opening up a savings account for something big, like saving for a down payment on a house; or donating to charity.
The start of a new year is a time for fresh starts and new goals, but it’s also the beginning of the oft-dreaded tax season, which means Tax identity thieves are on the lookout for information they can use in order to create fraudulent tax returns. Here are some tips to help protect yourself from tax identity theft during tax season.
File Early to Prevent Tax Identity Theft
Tax-related identity theft most commonly occurs from February to early March because thieves want to beat real taxpayers to the punch by filing fraudulent returns before legitimate ones. Because the IRS allows only one tax return per Social Security number per year, your best defense against identity theft is to file your taxes as early as possible.
Use E-File Instead of Postal Mail
An e-filed tax return arrives instantly at the IRS, which then sends back an acknowledgement receipt. At this point you’ll be notified if there’s any suspicious activity, such as possible identity theft. The quicker you know, the quicker you can deal with it. Before you e-file, however, be sure that your firewall, antivirus, and anti-spyware software are all up to date. If you do send your tax return in by post, think about taking it directly to the post office rather than letting it sit in your mailbox.
Don’t Fall for Scams
The IRS will not contact you by phone, email, or text to ask for personal or financial information. Never give out your Social Security number, passwords, PINs, and credit card or bank information to someone who reaches out via these channels. Official correspondence from the IRS is issued in the form of a letter and sent through the mail. However, scammers are getting increasingly clever, and sometimes phony links can look just like the real IRS website. If you ever have questions about the legitimacy of an IRS related query, your best bet is to call the IRS at 800-829-1040.
Protect Your Financial Accounts
Start by using a different password for each of your financial accounts, preferably one that combines letters, numbers, and special characters. It’s also wise to use a two-factor authentication when available, which requires you to verify your login—typically a code sent via call or text.
How to Report Tax Identity Theft
If you’re a victim of tax-related identity theft, you’ll find out when you try to file your return and learn that a return has already been filed with your Social Security number, or you’ll receive a letter from the IRS stating that a suspicious return using your Social Security number has been identified. If either of these happen, you should do the following:
- Complete a paper return. As shocking as it is to learn that you’ve been the target of identity theft, you still need to file your tax return. In order to avoid tax penalties or late fees, submit a paper return by the filing deadline.
- Go to IdentityTheft.gov to file a report with the FTC and IRS.
- File an Identity Theft Affidavit (Form 14039). Fill out and attach this form to your paper return. It will make its way to the Identity Theft Victim Assistance Organization, which will work on your case. Be prepared to submit various forms of documentation proving your identity.
- Contact the three major credit bureaus—Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion—and ask them to place a fraud alert on your credit records. You should also consider asking them to freeze your credit in case the thief should try to open new credit accounts in your name.
- Request a copy of the fraudulent return via Form 4506-F. Seeing the fraudulent return will help you determine the specifics of the theft, such as what family information has been compromised.
- As a precaution, delete any stored credit card numbers from shopping sites and change saved passwords to online accounts.
If you have questions on tax identity theft or would like to discuss your 2019 tax return, please feel free to email me at email@example.com or call 317.549.3091.
When doing your taxes, the goal is to maximize the tax credits and deductions for which you’re eligible. But tax credits are worth more than deductions with the same value, so knowing the differences between the two will help you save money on taxes.
Both credits and deductions lower your tax bill but in different ways and with different outcomes. Tax credits lower your tax liability while tax deductions reduce your taxable income. For instance, someone who’s in the 25% tax bracket with a $100 tax credit will save $100 dollars in taxes, but if that same person has a $100 deduction, they will only save $25 in taxes (25% of $100).
Tax credits are a dollar-for-dollar reduction on your tax bill, regardless of tax rate, which explains the $100 savings with a $100 tax credit in the previous example. Taking advantage of eligible tax credits after applying all deductions will help to slash your taxes due. Some of the more popular tax credits include:
- Earned Income Tax Credit (EIC or EITC)
- Child Tax Credit
- Child and Dependent Care Credit
- American Opportunity Tax Credit
- Lifetime Learning Credit
- Adoption Credit
- Saver’s Credit
- Residential Energy Tax Credit
Refundable Tax Credits vs. Non-Refundable Tax Credits
Some tax credits are refundable while others are not. When you claim a refundable tax credit that exceeds your total tax liability, the IRS will send you the difference. For example, if your tax liability is $1,000 and then you apply your EITC, which is $2,500, you would use that $2,500 to pay your liability and the remaining $1,500 would be refunded to you. By contrast, a non-refundable tax credit can reduce your federal income tax liability to zero, but any leftover balance from the credit will not be refunded.
There are two types of tax income deductions, which reduce the amount of income you’re taxed on: itemized deductions and above-the-line deductions.
Itemized deductions are certain tax-deductible expenses that you incur throughout the year. For some taxpayers, those expenses add up to be greater than the standard deduction amount, in which case, they should itemize their tax returns rather than take the flat-dollar standard deduction. Keep in mind that if you plan to itemize, you should accurately track your spending throughout the year, and keep supporting documentation (receipts, bank statements, check stubs, insurance bills, etc.) in the instance that IRS would ask for proof.
Common itemized deductions include:
- Medical expenses
- State and local income taxes
- Property taxes
- Mortgage interest
- Charitable contributions
The standard deduction is a fixed amount that varies in consistency to your filing status. For 2019 returns, the standard deduction is:
- $12,200 for single filers and married filers filing separately
- $24,400 for married filers filing jointly
- $18,350 for heads of household
If you claim the standard deduction, you can use “above-the-line” deductions, which reduce your adjusted gross income (AGI), to lower your tax bill. Some of these deductions are:
- Health savings account (HSA) contributions
- Deductible contributions to IRAs
- The deductible portion of self-employment taxes
- Contributions to self-employed SEP-IRA, SIMPLE IRA, and other qualified plans
- Self-employment health insurance premiums
- Penalties on early savings withdrawals
Above-the-line deductions typically aren’t as valuable as tax credits, but they help to lower your AGI, which can slash your tax liability and qualify you for other tax breaks based on income limits.
Enrolling in a 529 plan is the first step toward conscious planning for your child’s college education, but don’t stop there. With college costs rising steadily — over 168 percent over the last 20 years, according to U.S. News — it’s important to maximize the value of your plan to ensure you reach your college savings goals.
First, it’s important to know the specifics of 529 plans. For instance, there are two different types of these state-sponsored plans available:
- Probably the most well-known, the college savings plan allows your money to be invested in a variety of ways, such as mutual funds and the like, and it will compound interest over time. The account will go up or down in value based on the performance of the investment options.
- A pre-paid tuition plan allows savers to purchase units on a credit-based system to put toward tuition and fees for campus living, excluding secondary expenses such as room and board. Because prepaid plans allow you to lock in current tuition prices, if budgeting is a priority, this plan might be the best fit. Just be sure to check which colleges and universities participate in the plan because not all do.
Because 529 plans compound tax-free over time, starting early gives you an advantage. The longer the money is in the account, the more time it has to grow.
Take Advantage of Automatic Contributions
Automatic contributions to 529 plans can commonly be withdrawn from a linked checking or savings account. This makes it easier to stay on track to reach your goal. If financial situations change, account holders can adjust this setting in their account and continue to make contributions when it’s practical.
Be Mindful of Rules and Fees
Like IRAs, you make yourself vulnerable to penalty fees if you withdraw earnings from a 529 plan too soon, like withdrawing funds before the beneficiary’s tuition bill is due, which could incur a 10% penalty fee. Likewise, withdrawing more than allotted for qualifying expenses that year will prompt a fee. Though non-qualifying expenses, like medical bills, will provoke a penalty fee, there are some exceptions to this rule, such as if the beneficiary receives a scholarship or another type of educational assistance.
Both prepaid and college savings plans typically include enrollment and administrative fees when you withdrawal funds, but college savings plans may also add an assessment management fee.
Cut the Middle Man—You
An effective way to use your 529 funds to ensure that you’re not taking out more than your expenses, and thereby causing a tax liability, is to have the plan pay the costs directly to the school with direct payment.
Know How Your State Operates
Individual states make their own rules for 529 plans, so in whichever state you set up your 529 plan, it’s important to understand that state’s benefits, drawbacks, rules, and fees. State income tax deductions will also vary by state.
Withdraw from the Correct Fund
If you have more than one 529 plan, be sure you’re not just randomly withdrawing from any of them, or simply withdrawing from the account with the highest balance. Gauge each plan’s growth potential to determine which one has the best investment growth rate, and tap into those savings to receive the best tax breaks.
Involve Extended Family
Relatives have the ability to contribute to or open a 529 plan to help alleviate the burden for parents and students, and the contributor is eligible to take a deduction as long as it’s offered by that state.
Knowing the ins and outs of a 529 plan can be complex, but the simplest way to maximize your plan is to start early, allowing the funds to accumulate over time.