Break Bad Financial Habits and Make Your Money Work for You in 2020

Even those of us who have the best intentions with our money can fall victim to bad financial habits, which can cause unnecessary stress and anxiety. Some of the most common bad habits we fall into include:

  • Impulse spending
  • Not budgeting (or not sticking to a budget)
  • Spending more than you earn
  • Relying on credit cards
  • Falling into the trap of convenience

Breaking bad financial habits takes time, intention, and effort. Below are some ideas for starting better habits to get your money to work for you.

Start an Emergency Savings Account

This isn’t anything you haven’t been told before, but if you want to quit the cycle of credit card debt, you’re going to need a savings account to fall back on in times of financial hardship or unforeseen costs. Start with a goal of saving $1,000 specifically for emergencies, so next time your car needs work, for example, you’ll have the funds to pay for it rather than sinking farther into credit card debt.

Budget

Nothing says “taking control of my money” like creating a budget that works for you. When you assign a purpose to every dollar, not only are you actively monitoring your income and spending habits, but you’re avoiding debt and reaching your financial goals more quickly. The trick is sticking to it. It’s important to track your spending monthly, and revisit your budget at the beginning of each month, adjusting as needed with the goal of spending less than you bring in. If you know you have a bigger expense coming up later that month, or even in a few months, you’ll have a big picture of your finances and you can begin to make a plan for saving. You can also decide what your priorities will be for that month, and start saving toward your goals.

Make a Plan to Get Out of Debt

Credit cards, student loans, and car payments eat into your budget, and limit the amount of money you can put toward retirement and other financial goals. In short, debt limits your choices.

One popular and time-tested method of getting out of debt is often referred to as the snowball method. You start by paying off the smallest debt, then once that’s paid off, you add that monthly payment toward the next smallest debt until that one’s paid off. For example, if your smallest debt is a doctor bill for $200 and you make arrangements to pay $50 per month until it’s paid off, for the next four months you’ll pay that $50 to your doctor’s office while paying the minimum on every other debt. Once the doctor bill is paid in full, you add that $50 to the monthly payment of your next smallest debt while continuing to pay the minimum on your other larger debts. As each debt is paid off, you’re adding more to the next debt and building momentum until even your largest debt is paid off.

Save for the Future and Start Investing

Once you set up an emergency savings account and pay off your debt, you can begin to save more aggressively. The first step is to bulk up your emergency savings fund to the equivalent of six months of living expenses so you’ll have something to fall back on in case of a major unexpected life event, such as a job loss. Once this is accomplished, you can grow your wealth by investing your money. You’ll need to work with a financial planner to help advise you in investments and diversify your portfolio.

Stay Focused

It’s easy to get off track and lose focus when paying off debt, keeping on track with your budget, and saving for the future, so it helps to have some goals in mind. Whether your goals include a vacation home on a tropical island, paying for you child’s college education, or achieving early retirement (or maybe all three), keep these goals at the forefront of your mind whenever you lose steam. You can even create a vision board and put it someplace where you’ll see it every day, reminding you that good financial habits will pay off in the end.

If you have questions on setting healthy financial goals or would like to discuss your 2019 tax return, please feel free to email me at pmcallister@mkrcpas.com or call 317.549.3091.

Essential Year-End Tax Tips

As the clock winds down to the end of the year, there are a few last-minute money moves to make in order to lower your tax bill.

Maximize Your 401(k) and HSA Contributions

While tax deductible contributions can be made to traditional and Roth IRA accounts until April 15 of 2020, the deadline for 401(k)s and HSA accounts is December 31 of this year. You can contribute up to $19,000 to a 401(k), 403(b), most 457 plans, and federal Thrift Savings Plans (plus $6,000 in catch-up contributions for those who are 50 or older). As for HSA accounts, the maximum contribution for 2019 is $3,500 for individuals and $7,000 for family coverage. And if you’re 55 or older you can contribute an additional $1,000.

Start Thinking About Retirement Contributions for 2020

Retirement contributions to 401(k)s have increased for 2020. Individuals can contribute $19,500 next year, and those 50 or older can contribute an additional $6,500. If you prefer to spread out your contributions evenly throughout the year, you’ll need to adjust your monthly contribution amounts by January.

Take Advantage of Your Flexible Spending Account

Funds in a flexible spending account revert back to the employer if not spent within the calendar year. Some companies might provide a grace period extending into the new year, but others end reimbursements on December 31.

Prevent Taxes on an RMD with Charitable Donations

After seniors reach age 70 ½ they must take a required minimum distribution each year from their retirement accounts (an exception to this rule is a Roth IRA account). Seniors who aren’t dependent on this money for living expenses should consider having it sent directly from the retirement account to a charity as a qualified charitable distribution, effectively preventing the money from becoming taxable income.

Consider a Roth Conversion

Because withdrawals from traditional IRAs are taxed in retirement while distributions from Roth IRAs are tax-free, you might think about converting some funds from a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA. Just be sure this move doesn’t tip you into the next tax bracket. You’ll need to pay taxes on the initial conversion, but the money will then grow tax-free in the Roth IRA.

Take Stock of Losses

Sell any losses in stocks for a deduction of up to $3,000, but be aware that purchasing the same or a substantially similar stock within 30 days of the sale would violate the wash-sale rule. If that happens your capital loss would be deferred until you sell the new shares.

Meet with a Tax Advisor

If you’re unsure whether or not you’re ending the year in a favorable tax bracket, check in with an advisor who can identify actionable steps to reduce taxable income through retirement contributions or itemized deductions.

Holiday Spending: Make a Financial Plan and Avoid Going into Debt

With fall in full swing, it’s the perfect time to start drafting a financial game plan for the holidays in order to avoid overspending, plunging into debt, and piling stress on top of an already stressful season. Here’s how you can hatch a holiday plan for this year and start saving for next year.

Create a Holiday Budget

You’ll first need a solid understanding of your financial situation. How much do you have in savings, and how much of that can be allocated to holiday spending? Or maybe you don’t have enough in savings, or you don’t want to dip into savings, preferring to rely on your discretionary income after monthly bills have been paid? Once you have a full picture, create a budget that works with your current financial circumstances.

It also helps to be mindful of optional spending over the next couple of months. For example, cut back on dining out and retail therapy. You could even cancel some monthly subscription services until after the holidays.

Next, using your budget as a guide, make a list of the items that you’d like to get for everyone on your list along with a set price point for each item. This might take a little research, but having a specific gift in mind and knowing the average market price will help to avoid making impulse purchases. This will also help to cut through the noise of holiday ads and promotions and hone in on sales and discounts for only the items on your list.

Don’t Lose Sight of Additional Holiday Spending

Keep in mind that gifts aren’t the only expense that will cut into your budget. Plan to be frugal with holiday meal shopping, including extra treats and baked goods. Don’t purchase something simply for the sake of tradition and try instead to tailor your holiday meal planning around the actual likes of the people who will be attending your get-togethers. This cuts back on both food waste and money waste. Other often overlooked expenses include gift wrap, holiday cards, mailing costs, and travel expenses.

Make a Plan for Next Year

To make a plan for next holiday season, start by tracking your spending during this holiday season to get a blueprint for average expenses. Then, decide on which strategies you’ll employ for next year’s savings. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Open a holiday savings account. These are typically offered by credit unions, and they are often locked so you can’t access them until the holiday season.
  • Set aside a portion of every paycheck specifically for holiday spending. You can even set up automatic transfers into a separate savings account, building the habit of saving in a “set it and forget it” way.
  • Try the popular 52-week savings challenge. Start by saving $1 the first week of December, then $2 the next week, $3 the following week, and so on. By next holiday season you’ll have nearly $1,400 saved.

With a little foresight and preparation, holiday expenses don’t need to add stress to the festivities of the season.

How to Claim Social Security Survivor Benefits

The Social Security Administration sends survivor benefits to about 6 million Americans every month, directed to widows, widowers, and children who have experienced the loss of someone who has paid into the social security program. Read on to find out who is eligible to receive survivor benefits and how to collect them.

Who is Eligible to Receive Survivor Benefits?

If you were married to your spouse for at least nine months before their death, you are eligible for social security survivor benefits. (The one exception to this length-of-marriage stipulation is if you are caring for a child of the deceased who is under 16 years old). Children of the deceased who are under 18 years old may also receive survivor benefits, as can disabled children under the age of 22. Finally, parents, stepparents, or adoptive parents who are at least age 62 and were dependent upon the deceased could potentially qualify for survivor benefits.

When Can You Begin Social Security Survivor Benefits?

Surviving spouses can begin collecting survivor benefits as early as age 60, but this will result in only about 70% of the amount the survivor could get if they wait until their survivor full retirement age, which is 66 for people born between 1945-1956 and gradually increases to age 67 for those born in 1962 or later. There are some exceptions to this as well: if you are disabled, you may begin collecting survivor benefits at age 50; any surviving spouse can collect a one-time death benefit payment of $255 at any age; and as noted above, survivors who are caring for a child of the deceased who is under age 16 can collect at any age.

How to Claim Social Security Widow and Widower Benefits

First, the death needs to be reported, which is a task that most funeral homes include as part of their service as long as the social security number of the deceased is provided. Documents needed to apply for Social Security survivor benefits include:

  • Proof of death for the deceased in the form of a death certificate
  • Social Security number of the deceased
  • Social Security numbers of the survivor and any dependent children
  • Your birth certificate
  • Your marriage certificate
  • Most current W-2 forms of the deceased
  • Bank information for direct deposit

Once everything is submitted, you’ll be notified of your eligibility to receive survivor benefits.

How Much Will You Receive?

The amount you receive is determined by the deceased’s earnings and whether or not the deceased was collecting benefits (either full or reduced) at the time of death. The basic breakdown looks like this:

  • For couples who hadn’t started receiving benefits: it’s recommended for the highest earner of the two to wait until age 70 to begin Social Security benefits. This generates a larger monthly benefit amount that becomes the survivor benefit if and when the first spouse passes away.
  • If both spouses had already started claiming: the higher benefit amount becomes the survivor benefit while the lesser of the two benefit amounts will stop.
  • If the deceased spouse had already begun benefits, but the survivor had not:

The surviving spouse will need to decide when they will claim survivor benefits in a way that is likely to give them more lifetime income.

In addition to whether or not either spouse was already receiving Social Security benefits at the time of death, the actual dollar amount a survivor receives will depend on how much money the deceased spouse paid into Social Security over their lifetime.

How to Avoid Paying Capital Gains Tax When You Sell Your Home

Before 1997, once a homeowner reached the age of 55, they had the one-time option of excluding up to $125,000 of gain on the sale of their primary residence. Today any homeowner, regardless of age, has the option to exclude up to $250,000 of gain ($500,000 for married couples filing jointly) on the sale of a home.

What Is Capital Gains Tax?

When you sell property for more than you originally paid, it’s called a capital gain. You need to report your gain to the IRS, which will then tax the gain. Home sales can be excluded from this tax as long as the seller meets the criteria.

Who Qualifies for Capital Gains Tax Exemption?

In order to qualify a seller must meet the minimum IRS criteria:

  • You’ve owned the home for at least two years.
  • You’ve lived in the home as your primary residence for at least two years.
  • You haven’t exempted the gains on another home sale in the last two years.

How to Calculate Gains and Losses

By keeping records of the original purchase price, closing costs, and improvements put into the home (you’ll need to present records and receipts when submitting your taxes), you can avoid being taxed on a significant amount of the profit you make when selling your property.

If, for example, you buy your home for $150,000 and put $20,000 into qualifying upgrades, your cost basis would be $170,000. If you sell the home ten years later for $300,000, the ‘gain’ on your house would be $130,000 (sale price – cost basis), which would have no tax implications because you’d have met the required criteria.

What If You Have More than $250k ($500k for married couples) of Gains?

You’ll be taxed for the amount of gains above $250,000 or $500,000 for married couples filing jointly. To help reduce this amount, keep detailed records of any improvements you put into the home as some improvements can be added to your cost basis, and will thus lessen the amount that needs to be reported.

Tax Deductions for Homeowners After TCJA

As the values of homes around the country continue to rise, as well as the cost of rent, home ownership looks more and more appealing. In the past, homeowners have been able to deduct certain expenses on their tax returns. Yet, with the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 (TCJA), homeowners may no longer qualify for the deductions that were once beneficial in homeownership. Did you know that TCJA is the biggest tax overhaul seen in the USA in 30 years? If you’re curious about how this might affect homeowners, here are highlights of the federal tax deductions for homeownership under the TCJA.

Even with an increase in the standard deduction this year, many homeowners will continue to see some tax relief. While there will be a decrease in available itemized deductions, a few items that have been deductible in the past may still benefit taxpayers this year and beyond. Deductions such as home mortgage interest, state and local property taxes, and amounts paid at closing continue to be likely deductions while filing in 2019. We recommend you consult with one of our tax professionals to ensure that you are maximizing your tax savings as a homeowner. You can also consult the IRS Publication 5307 here.

  • Mortgage Interest Deduction – According to the TCJA, taxpayers can deduct mortgage interest paid on acquisition indebtedness up to $750,000. This deduction can also apply to a second property, so long as the indebtedness does not go above the $750,000. Home equity indebtedness is still deductible as long as the proceeds are used to buy, build, or improve the taxpayer’s home that secures the loan.
  • Mortgage Insurance Deduction – When a homeowner chooses not to or is not able to put down 20% or more in a downpayment, primary mortgage insurance (PMI) is required to protect lenders. As of now, certain amounts paid until the end of 2017 remain deductible. Congress is still deciding whether this deduction will be permanently eliminated.
  • State and Local Taxes – Taxpayers are now limited to a $10,000 itemized deduction for combined state and local taxes. Homeowners in states with high property and income taxes will face the most impact with this deduction limitation.
  • Amounts Paid at Closing – Origination fees, loan discounts, or prepaid interest are not usually deductible in the year that they are paid, but instead over the life of a home loan. However, they may be currently deductible if the loan is used to purchase or improve the home and if that home also serves as collateral for the loan.

Despite the new tax changes under the TCJA, it’s unlikely to be the deciding financial factor for those who have already bought a home or are considering homeownership in the future.  Some buyers may consider homeownership less attractive, which could result in lower home values and lower markets over time. According to Nolo, it is estimated that the tax benefits of owning a home will be less than in years past, putting many homeowners in the same place as renters.  At this time, there is no clear-cut solution that results in the best solution for homeowners, but with the right financial planning from our CPAs, homeowners can find the best ways to maximize their tax savings and cash flow.