Winter Weather: Time to organize!

In much of Iowa, our recent winter weeks have held lots of days suitable only for staying indoors. We’ve canceled or postponed many plans, and some of our dogs have missed lots of walks because some days were just too cold or windy.

So what can we do with those snow days?  I have an idea!
No, it’s not binge-watching your favorite shows or movies, nor does it involve baking. You don’t need ME to suggest those!

My idea is less recreational, but much more valuable in the long term: go through your files!

Cleaning and organizing files is a task we tend to procrastinate. But in an emergency, and even in many non-emergency situations, we sure would like to turn to our files and immediately put our hands on the document(s) we need. When need arises, we’ll be glad we invested some time in getting organized.

Here’s the good news: it’s a task that can be broken up into small doses.

  • If you already have a filing system, you can just go through one or two files a day, to pull out old materials that are no longer needed, and make sure the most current information is in front.
  • If you do not have a filing system in place, start with a small stack of papers from wherever you’ve been storing them. Create file folders or envelopes for each category of papers you run across. For example, if the first paper you come to is about your car insurance, then create a car insurance file. Perhaps the next item will be college transcript – if so, create an education file.

Well-organized files have three characteristics:  1) they are clearly labeled; 2) the newest and most important information is in front; and 3) out-of-date and unimportant documents are removed. Determining what is important can be a challenge. Some tips for starters: 

  • Insurance – keep the most recent summary of coverage (declarations page). In addition, keep the full policy booklet if you have one, and any updates you receive about coverage details.
  • Mutual fund accounts – keep your quarterly statements until the year-end statement arrives; that should include all activity for the year, so you can discard the quarterly statements. Keep all year-end statements, with the most recent in front. Keep the most recent prospectus. There is no need to keep annual reports.
  • Monthly bills – once you get the next statement showing that your payment was received, you can safely discard the previous statement, unless you need it for tax purposes.
  • Warranties and purchase records for warrantied items – keep as long as you own the item. Keep the purchase information longer if the item affects your taxes.
  • Taxes – after six years, they can be discarded.

Personally, my biggest filing problem is old folders with labels that have fallen off – I need to go through and re-label files. Which filing task most needs your attention?

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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It May Be a Rough Ride: Prepare for Tax Filing

Form 1040

Filing our 2018 income tax returns may be rougher than normal, because much has changed. Why? Three big reasons:
• There are significant changes in tax law, which affect deductions, exemptions and credits used by virtually all Americans;
• The Federal government dramatically revised Form 1040, the form used by everyone when filing individual income tax, and forms 1040EZ and 1040A have been eliminated; in addition, there are minor changes to the Iowa 1040;
• The partial shutdown of the Federal government creates many unknowns with regard to transmitting returns electronically.

Imagine being a tax software developer. They’ve known all year that the law had changed and the forms were going to change, and they received draft copies of what the forms might look like, but the final forms weren’t released until the second week of December. Just imagine how people have been scrambling to make all the needed adjustments and test all the functions. In addition, it seems likely that the federal shutdown has affected their ability to get technical assistance and to test the compatibility of their software with the IRS system. It almost sounds like a horror story! (That’s a joke, but not really)

What does this mean for us taxpayers? Above all, I think it means we need to be cautious about our expectations. I’m thinking of expectations about the timing and the size of our refunds.
• The changes in the law (and the changes made to year-round tax withholding) will affect us all, and until we calculate our returns we won’t really know if our refunds will be similar to past years’, or higher or lower.
• As far as timing, the IRS won’t even be accepting returns electronically until January 28 – about ten days later than normal; that’s a delay for some folks right from the start. And of course we always need to be cautious about timing expectations – it is never smart to spend money before you have it, OR to make promises that you can pay by a certain date “because surely I’ll have my tax refund by then.” The IRS recently announced that it would be processing refunds even if the government shutdown continues; that’s reassuring, but it is certainly not a guarantee that they’ll be able to do it in a timely manner. Note: also keep in mind that since the passage of the PATH Act in 2015, the IRS delays all refunds that include the Earned Income Tax Credit or the Additional Child Tax Credit until at least February 15. This delay may affect more people this year, because more people may be receiving the Additional Child Tax Credit.

What are your questions about your 2018 tax return?

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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Holiday Wishes

Revisiting a holiday post from a previous year, and renewing happy holiday wishes for all!

For all you readers who celebrate ANY of the December holidays, today is probably NOT a day when you’re looking for a message or tip about wise use of money.  In my experience, by this point in the holiday season the die is cast — the money is pretty much all spent, or at least the decisions are made and the funds are committed. There’s not much I can say that will matter for now. (In a week or two it may be time for a clear money message — time to start new habits and/or address existing problems – but not now).

For now, in the midst of celebration and family time, now is simply the time to enjoy what life brings. To me, the key is to recognize that the most important gift you or anyone else can bring to holiday festivities is a gift of good cheer.

  • That means not comparing how much you spent with how much someone else spent on a gift. Instead, simply trust that you and everyone else gave with good intentions; this will bring the most joy to your celebrations.
    Note: this includes not judging yourself, as well as not judging others.
  • It means giving the best possible interpretation to the contributions and comments of others. Holiday festivities can bring stressful situations and poorly-thought-out comments; for everyone’s sake, this is a time to tune in to the positive to keep celebrations bright.
  • It means that maintaining and building relationships is more important than any detail that is amiss or any aspect of the feast that is less or more than past celebrations.
  • There is always something to enjoy or be grateful for. Bring a grateful or joyful attitude to celebrations, meals, and to giving and receiving.

No matter how much money you spend on holidays, it is gifts of good cheer, kindness, friendship and joy that will mean the most to you and all those in your world.

We at MoneyTip$ wish you very happy holidays!

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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Charitable Giving and Taxes

We’re entering a busy time of year for charitable donations, perhaps because the winter holiday season brings a sense of gratitude followed by a desire to share our abundance. The availability of tax deductions for charitable giving may also contribute to the concentration of donations near year-end.

According to Giving USA, Americans donated a record $410 billion to charities in 2017. What’s more, over 70% of that giving came from individuals, rather than foundations, corporations, or bequests.  However, tax law changes this year mean that for many people there will no longer be an advantage in itemizing deductions; many taxpayers will get better results using a standard deduction. For those households, the tax benefit of charitable donations will be reduced or eliminated.

Will Americans still give?  I have always hoped that the main reason most Americans give is that they care about the organizations they are giving to, and that the tax benefits are just an incidental benefit.

If you are wondering whether you should continue making charitable donations even without the tax deductions, I offer two thoughts:

  • If your standard deduction under the new tax law is larger than your itemized deductions would have been, then you are still coming out ahead. You can give, and still have more available funds than you would have had under the old tax law.
  • There are other strategies that can enable some taxpayers to get tax advantages for charitable donations.
    Clustering donations. Some taxpayers may be able to hold back all their 2018 donations until the beginning of 2019; if they then donate a “normal” amount throughout 2019, they will have twice as many donations as usual to report for the 2019 tax year, which may make itemizing worthwhile in 2019. Following this pattern of no contributions one year and double-contributions the next may enable you to donate the same total amounts as normal, and gain tax benefits by alternating years between itemized and standard deductions.
    Qualified Charitable Distributions (QCD) from an IRA.  If you are at least 70-1/2, you can transfer funds directly from your traditional IRA to a charitable organization; the distribution will not be taxable income to you, AND it can satisfy your required minimum distribution. If your RMD for the year is $5,000, and you are interested in donating $5,000 to a particular organization, then making the contribution through a QCD has the same ultimate impact on your taxes as a tax deduction would have had. IRS Publication 590-B provides details.
    Donating as a business expense.  If you are self-employed or own a business, you may be able to make charitable contributions as a business expense.  For example, farmers can give commodities (e.g. 500 bushels of corn) to a charity. This reduces your business income, and therefore has impact similar to the impact of a tax deduction. Consult with your tax adviser for details.

As always, the best decisions about how to use your money are based on your personal goals and priorities. As you consider your charitable giving decisions, focus on why you want to give when deciding whether and where to make donations. Giving to organizations you know (often local organizations) can ensure that your gifts are used well; when considering larger national charities, check them out with organizations that evaluate charities, such as  www.give.org, www.charitywatch.org, www.charitynavigator.org, or www.givewell.org.

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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Cost-Cutting vs. Saving: Not the same thing!

Most of us have dozens of ways we “save money:”

  • We “save” by using coupons and shopping sales.
  • We “save” by saying NO to ourselves and others when temptation arises.
  • We “save” by cooking at home instead of eating out.

Are you wondering why I put the word “save” in quotation marks in all those examples? Here’s why: even if we did all those things every single week, there is no certainty that our savings account balance will increase.

All those steps are ways we reduce costs, but do they automatically lead to deposits to savings accounts? No. Take me, for example: I have never once taken the money I did not spend at a restaurant or grocery store and deposited it into a savings account as a direct result of the decision not to spend. Instead, the money I “saved” would usually just get spent on something else!

A decision not to spend is a key step in saving. But by itself, that decision is not enough; it only turns into saving when we actually move the money into a savings account (or to a dedicated savings location such as a piggy bank).  When I come to a coffee shop or an ice cream store and I go on by without stopping because I want to save that money, I should probably just stop right there and transfer money from one account to another. Or I could carry a “saving” envelope in my purse and move cash into the envelope every time I resist temptation. That would be the way to make sure the actual saving occurred.

Saving is a two-step process. It involves deciding not to spend and  putting money in a designated location. Either step can come first. I can decide not to buy something and then save the money; OR I can put the money away first and then (out of necessity) spend less than I otherwise would have spent.
Note: many of us do better if we put the money in savings first!.When there’s no money in your billfold or your account, it’s easier to resist temptation to spend! 

Do you sometimes wonder why you aren’t getting ahead, despite your efforts? It may be because you’re skipping one of the steps.  How can you turn your cost-cutting into true savings progress?

 

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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Confirmation Bias? Dangerous

I heard a speaker yesterday refer to “confirmation bias.” It’s an idea I know well, but it had been a while since I heard the actual phrase, so it caused me to think. The idea behind confirmation bias is that if you believe something to be true (or if you even want something to be true), you will be able to find facts you can interpret in such a way that they will seem to support the belief you want to be true.

For consumers, confirmation bias can be a dangerous thing. Here are some hypothetical (but realistic) examples of how that could work.

  • Several friends have purchased a very-expensive brand of Widgets, and they all swear by the benefits of the brand. Undoubtedly, a search will lead to other positive reviews of the widget that persuade you that your friends are right; this may leave you feeling justified in spending much more money than planned on your new widget.
  • You hear a rumor that now is a great time to invest in Company X. You do an on-line search and you find several articles that support your desire to jump into the investment, so you move forward with the idea.

In both of these examples, the fact that you knew in advance what answer you wanted to find made you much more likely to find it.

There has been much discussion in recent months about facts and what to believe. Sadly, the abundance of information available on the internet includes “sources” that claim opposing facts: one source shows how “Fact A” is definitely true, while another source cites information which “prove” the false-ness of “Fact A.”

This simply reminds me how critical it is for consumers to protect against confirmation bias, as well as against unreliable information in any situation. The best decisions are based on research conducted by well-respected scientists. Three tips to protect yourself:

  • Always shop around (at least 3 sellers) before making any significant purchase or consumer decision.
  • Always seek information from multiple sources; ideally, those multiple sources would not be connected to each other. (For example, if you read an article in 3 different publications, but all those publications are operated by the same umbrella company, it’s really not equal to three different sources).
  • The most reliable on-line sources on most topics are sites whose URLs carry a “.gov” or a “.edu” extension. Some “.org” sites are reliable, but use caution because they may have an agenda. Two reliable “.org” sites are www.consumerreports.org and www.nefe.org.
Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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Prescription Costs: Cash vs Co-Pay

Prescription drug costs are getting a lot of media attention these days, sometimes leaving consumers unsure who to trust.  One question raised by news coverage is the question of how much we should trust our insurance plans to get us the best deal. According to a recent study, nearly one-fourth of all prescription purchases would be less costly to consumers if they paid cash rather than having their insurance cover the purchase. In other words, their co-payments were more than the actual cash cost of the medication.

The report said it is common for this overpayment to occur with generics. A news report gave an example where the difference was dramatic — a $285 copay compared to a $40 cash price. It seems unthinkable, yet it happens!

Consumers have told stories about this problem for years, but the recent paper from the Schaeffer Health Policy Center at USC was the first known systematic study, so only now are we learning how widespread the problem was; the study, which examined 2013 data, indicated that 23% of all prescriptions involved this kind of overpayment. A few states (not yet Iowa) have passed laws against this practice, but anecdotal reports suggest that it is still widespread.

I’m reminded of the classic consumer advice: “Let the buyer beware;” when in doubt, we need to check things out carefully, gathering information on our own rather than trusting an outsider’s guidance. In fact, the report mentioned that pharmacists’ contracts often include gag rules which prevent them from telling patients about this, unless they ask.

SO – next time I fill a prescription, I’m going to ask: how much would this cost if I just paid cash? If it’s cheaper to pay for it outright, then I’m happy to leave my insurance out of the equation.

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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Sales Tax Holiday: Use Wisely

In Iowa, this coming Friday and Saturday (Aug 3-4 2018) offers a chance to buy qualifying clothing items without paying any sales tax. For most Iowans, (depending on local sales tax), that’s a savings of 7% — not a huge windfall, but still an advantage.  That savings is magnified by the many retailers who offer clothing sales on the same weekend.

Sounds like a winning proposition, right? It can be. But like anything else, it requires consumers to use good judgment! Why?

Well, if you’re like me, you’ve had experience with the risks involved in shopping simply because there’s a sale. Who among us hasn’t made a purchase because it was such a “great deal” and then never (or rarely) used it? Hopefully we learn from those experiences, but it always pays to exercise caution when shopping sales.  Here are some ideas to help us avoid regrets:

  • Have a list and prioritize.
  • Plan a dollar limit that lets you fit your purchases into your budget without borrowing. When purchases are paid off over months of credit card payments, the benefit of the sale price quickly disappears.
  • Know what the “regular” prices are, and consider whether items will be on a bigger sale later in the fall. In other words, ask yourself “Are they just giving a small discount to tempt me to buy now rather than waiting for later when bigger discounts will be offered?”
  • Keep all receipts. If you pick something up and later decide it wasn’t that important or that great of a bargain, you’ll simply be able to return it!  Be sure to have the self-discipline to follow through on that… it may be “only” $10 or $20, but that adds up over time.
  • If you are buying for people other than yourself (especially growing children) check out their current clothing stock before you make your list — find out what fits and what doesn’t. This will help you make sure that the items on your list are the most important items.

Iowa’s Sales Tax Holiday applies to most clothing and footwear items priced below $100. Most accessories are not exempt (such as jewelry or watches), but some items do qualify for the exemption (such as scarves).  Certain specialty clothing items, such as clothing specific to a particular sport, are excluded as well. For a full list of items that are taxable vs. exempt, go to https://tax.iowa.gov/iowas-annual-sales-tax-holiday.

Happy shopping! Good planning means no regrets!

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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Worried about retirement funds?

I read an article last week in the popular press (based on a legitimate research brief) that offered encouragement for those who are worried they haven’t saved enough for retirement. The research project demonstrated that if you delay retirement 3-6 months, it provides the same benefit as if you had saved an additional 1% of your income for 30 years.

If you are: a) wishing you could save more, but really can’t; or b) wishing you could go back in time and start saving more, sooner, this research is encouraging because it says you can partly make up for a savings shortfall by delaying your retirement date.  To be clear, delaying a few months doesn’t “magically” double the balance in your 401(k) or IRA account.  The delay affects your retirement income security in several ways:

  • It means additional months of contributions to your retirement account.
  • It gives your money more time to grow.
  • It reduces the number of months you’ll need to support yourself in retirement.
  • Delaying Social Security benefits beyond full retirement age results in a larger monthly benefit. (under current law).
    The fourth benefit accounts for most of the mathematical advantage of delaying retirement, but all four factors contribute. The first two actually DO increase the size of your nest egg; the third one means your money doesn’t need to be stretched so thin.

Wherever you are in your pre-retirement saving journey, it always pays to save more starting now if you can. But even a modest delay of retirement can provide a retirement lifestyle as if you’d saved more all along.

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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Updated Tip for Dairy Month

Several years ago I wrote a MoneyTip$ post extolling the virtues of dry milk.  Since June is Dairy Month, it occurred to me that now would be a good time to revisit that topic, because things have changed. Dry milk is no longer the same bargain that it used to be. I’m sure this varies regionally, but where I live I can no longer buy the bargain-sized (20-quart) box of dry milk, and the store-brand liquid milk is so inexpensive that it’s usually a cheaper product per quart compared to dry milk.

Why is this blog-worthy? Two reasons:

  1. It’s a valuable reminder to re-examine your consumer habits periodically. I resisted giving up dry milk — it was a habit ingrained from childhood, built in to how I work in the kitchen. I kept buying it for a while even after I realized it was no longer the cheapest deal.
  2. It’s also a reminder that cost is not the only consideration when shopping. After being without dry milk for several weeks, I realized it was a product I still wanted in my pantry, for several reasons.

I’m back to using dry milk, though not as much as before; these days, if I’m making pudding or pancakes I’ll probably use liquid milk, unless my supply is running low. I still use dry milk though, for more reasons than I could possibly include here; I’ll list a few to give you a general idea:

  • I can add milk nutrients without adding liquid. By adding extra dry milk to casseroles, meat loaf, soups, baked goods, and mashed potatoes, I can boost my intake of calcium and other key nutrients without making my product too runny.
  • It doesn’t need to be stored in the refrigerator. At holidays or with company, frig space is at a premium; by using dry milk for cooking, I can make extra space for refrigerated foods – after all, an extra gallon of milk takes a lot of space!
  • If you make yeast bread (I know not many people do), using dry milk means you don’t need to “scald” milk before adding it to the bread dough. (Scalding deactivates an enzyme that interferes with yeast action – with dry milk that enzyme is already gone).

The main reason for this post is not to let you in on all my kitchen habits, even though that is fun to talk about. The main reason was to share one story of how things that are true at one time may not stay true indefinitely. This applies to specific products we buy, and it also applies to questions like how high should an insurance deductible be, or how much to keep in a savings account.

What habits, beliefs or assumptions affect your consumer decisions? When is the last time you revisited them to make sure they were still on target?

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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