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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.
“Set it and forget it” is a common approach when it comes to a workplace 401(k), yet it likely will play a substantial role in the financial security of your future. Consistently contributing to your 401(k), and learning how to manage it, will set you on the course to living golden in your retirement years. Below are some tips to help you make the most of your workplace 401(k).
Contribute to the Match
Employers often match contributions up to a certain point, which means you’re getting free money for participating in the program. You should contribute at least up to this point. Beyond this, a typical rule of thumb is to add about 15% to your 401(k) plan each year, including company contributions (i.e. if your company matches 3%, plan to contribute 12%).
Boost Your Investment Savvy
Expense Ratio? Risk Tolerance? Whether you’re going it alone or recruiting the help of a financial professional, you need to have a basic knowledge of investing. Before filing away the information sent to you by your plan, be sure to read through it and look up any terms you don’t understand.
Get Help with Account Management
Of course, having a basic understanding of investment terms will take you only so far. If your investment knowledge is shaky, it might be worth it to recruit the help of a professional. Some 401(k) plans even offer free advice from a professional, or they will provide model portfolios to follow.
Save with a Target Date Fund
The simplest approach to a 401(k) plan is to allocate savings to the target date fund with the date that corresponds to the year closest to the year you reach age 65. With this low maintenance approach, the fund automatically adjusts as you get closer to retirement.
Learn to Rebalance
If you’re not partaking in the target date fund, you will need to perform routine maintenance on your 401(k), which is what “rebalancing” means. Provided you have a mix of stocks and bonds, you will have to buy and sell assets as they move up or down in value. Generally, participants have the option to automatically rebalance through your plan’s website, typically with a quarterly or annual rebalancing.
Though you may be able to take a loan from your 401(k), they usually have to be paid back within five years, with interest. The risks of borrowing from your 401(k) come when you lose your job or change employers, because the loan will be due almost immediately. If you can’t repay the loan, you’ll be taxed and burdened with a 10% penalty for early withdrawal. Not to mention, by taking out a loan on your 401(k), you are shortchanging your retirement savings in a way that could be extremely difficult to catch up.
Mix It Up
Your 401(k) should be only one prong in your retirement plan. Your home and other assets, funds from a side hustle, and other investment accounts like an IRA might be additional prongs that make a complete picture of your financial future. Spreading your assets over multiple income streams will yield better returns, so if you switch jobs at some point, consider whether rolling your 401(k) into your new employer’s plan makes the most sense for your situation, or if you should put those funds into an IRA, which may give your more investment options.
Spring cleaning isn’t just for closets, windows, and garages. After tax season is a great time to take a look at your personal finances and spending habits, and make adjustments where needed.
Organize Spending Habits
Take stock of your spending routines and target changes you want to make. Always treat yourself to a latte on Fridays? Meet friends for dinner on Saturdays? How about using coupons or promo codes before the expiration date for FOMTS (Fear Of Missing The Sale)? When you take a keen eye to your spending habits, you’ll be able to spot target areas where your spending reflects nothing more than routine. Now is the time to change up that routine to better reflect your financial goals moving forward.
Polish Your Budget
If you have no budget to dust off, now is the time to create one. Come up with a plan for how you want to save and spend your money, and track your spending habits to help reach your financial goals. The key is to be consistent and stay on budget. Make sure you’re polishing—er, updating—your budget monthly or even weekly.
Catch Up on Late Payments by Turning Trash into Dollars
Are you behind on any payments? Now is the perfect time to slow down and work on a plan to pay things off. Tried-and-true methods for getting some quick cash to help jumpstart this plan is to host a garage sale, post unwanted items on your local Facebook Marketplace, or sell on eBay. A spending freeze—a temporary pause on purchasing anything but essentials—can also help with with saving funds for paying off old bills.
Pare Down Debt
Staying in debt is like trying to swim against the current: you might be moving your arms and kicking your feet but you’re not moving forward. Now is the time to draft a debt repayment plan: make a list of all your debts and rank them in the order you want to pay them off (some people rank from lowest to highest amount owed, while others rank from highest to lowest interest rate). Whichever way you choose, build your plan into your budget, focus on one debt at a time, stay diligent, and watch your debt diminish each month.
Clean out clutter
In most cases you only need to hold onto your tax returns documents for three years, but the IRS has up to six years to initiate an audit if you’ve neglected to report at least 25% of your income. For this reason, taxpayers who receive multiple 1099s from a variety of income sources might want to hold onto documents for at least six years as it can be easy to miss or overlook reporting some income. Keep documents for seven years if you filed a claim for worthless securities or a bad debt deduction.
Maintenance Cleaning: Plan for your Future
Now is the time to plan for your financial future by creating or updating a financial plan with clear goals set on a timeline. A certified CPA or financial planner can help you identify areas of improvement and keep you on track to meet your financial goals.