A client at the volunteer income tax site asked if we could load her tax refund on a prepaid card. The free volunteer site doesn’t offer a prepaid card option; refunds are direct deposited or sent by paper check. Some prepaid cards restrict deposits of federal funds. A test of prepaid cards was completed by volunteers a number of years ago. The sites raised concerns about the fees and hidden charges associated with the cards. An example was a $25 fee paid to receive a cash withdrawal from refunds loaded on a card.
The Consumer Finance Protection Bureau proposed rule changes for the popular cards in 2016. They are used by employers to issue paychecks, government agencies for benefits, and colleges/universities for financial aid. The new rules took effect on April 1, 2019.
Primary changes include simple upfront details of fees for store purchased cards; expanded access to account activity and balances at no charge; and registration options that afford protections if the cards are used for unauthorized transactions, lost or stolen. These rule changes also apply to electronic wallets.
Employers, government agencies, and colleges/universities must offer an alternative method of funds transfer. If a card option is used there must be access to monthly account transactions and fees.
Consumers should read materials explaining card use; register their cards when the option is available; and become more informed about their rights. Cards can have high fees that make their convenience questionable.
Social Security numbers have to be correct on tax returns. At the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance sites we receive an immediate reject on the return if the name and numbers don’t match Social Security records. We also receive a reject code when a social security number has already been used on a tax return. Individuals must still file a return, but with the electronic submission blocked, it must be a mailed copy.
The IRS and Iowa Department of Revenue will send you a letter saying more than one return was filed in your name. Be sure to respond to the letter promptly. Use the internet to validate the IRS phone number and address (scam artists are now creating very good look alike letters). Call and discuss the evidence needed to support your tax return submission.
A letter will also be sent if the IRS or Iowa Department of Revenue has a record of earned income that you didn’t report on a return. It may mean your SSN was used by someone else so they could avoid paying taxes on their earnings.
Social Security numbers can be obtained through scams or by buying numbers that were stolen in a security breach. If you have been notified that someone has committed tax-related identity theft with your personal information, report it promptly. Go to identitytheft.gov to complete and send the IRS Identity Theft Affidavit. By doing this, you will also file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission and obtain an ID Theft Recovery Plan.
After your identity is falsely used for tax purposes, the IRS will send you an annual PIN number (a new number each year). This PIN number will be added to your tax return to verify your identity to the IRS, and will prevent anyone else from continuing to use your social security number on false claims.
It’s strange to hear marketing promoting the use of e-cigarettes. Legislation has restricted campaigns promoting tobacco products for many years. A frequently-used e-cig marketing approach targets smokers who feel their habit has forced them into self-imposed isolation to hide their habit or protect others from second hand exposure. Web sites declare the product is for individuals who already smoke, offering them a safer alternative.
Nicotine is an addictive substance and e-cigarette ads or commercials clearly state its presence. E-cigarette use often leads to use of tobacco products. Among individuals who smoke, nine out of ten started as teens.
A 2016 report by the Surgeon Generals Office pointed to data indicating a rapid increase in the use of e-cigarettes (also known as “vaping”) by teens and young adults. In research designed to measure whether youth understand the risks, the findings clearly indicate that teens and young adults view e-cigarettes as safe. Flavor options are attractive, and natural curiosity are reasons given to try e-cigarettes.
Tobacco product use in any form, including e-cigarettes, is unsafe for adolescents. Lifelong addiction is costly, not only in health terms, but also in financial terms. E-cigarette pods, equivalent to a pack of cigarettes, cost $4-$5. The device to use the pods is around $35. When a substance is addictive, as e-cigarettes are, users will typically increase consumption over time. This is a bonus for the companies selling the products. Even with low use (2 pods a week), the habit will cost $500 a year.
Running a calculation of what $500 a year could become if it was saved provides an argument against vaping. A modest $50 deposited monthly into an account earning 3% a year with annual compounding (I’m being intentionally conservative here…) from the age of 16 until age 65 would result in cash assets of $65,000. Unfortunately it’s hard to make this example exotic enough to hook individuals on saving instead of vaping.
Early returns prepared at the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) site where I volunteer are resulting in similar refunds or taxes due from previous years. VITA serves individuals with incomes at or below $55,000.
Dependents listed on returns are the biggest factor resulting in similar results. The child tax credit increased to $2000, the refundable portion of the child tax credit has increased to $1,400, and there is a non-refundable credit of $500 for dependent individuals who are 17 or older on December 31st of the tax year.
At the tax site, parents often state they won’t claim a dependent, even when they are eligible. If someone can be claimed as a dependent on your return it should be done; the IRS doesn’t allow a choice. Income deductions don’t increase and the $500 credit may be lost.
Lower withholding hasn’t been a problem with clients we’ve seen, but it has resulted in slightly higher incomes on the state returns, due to reduced deduction on Line 31. While most individuals won’t exceed the federal standard deduction, it makes sense to gather and record allowable deductions so they will carry over in software to the state return. Iowa has a standard deduction of $2,030 for single and $5,000 for couples, so it’s much easier to itemize on the state return.
If you aren’t setting up your refund to be deposited directly into your checking or savings account, this would be the year to start. As one client stated, ” The Federal government could shut down again. It’s hard to tell when I would get my refund, if I have a check mailed. Here is my bank information!”
How’s your New Year’s resolution going? Maybe I can help. Add a short term goal to read one book about money or personal management by the end of January and use the content to improve your original plan to improve your well being. Here are few I recommend:
The Millionaire Next Door identifies seven common traits that show up again and again among those who have accumulated wealth. If your resolution was to slow down the purchase of stuff, adopt a minimalist approach to life, or start recycling/reusing what you have, the book could give additional reasons to stick with it. Authors are Thomas Stanley, PhD and William Danko, PhD
Loaded by Sarah Newcomb, PhD, introduces you to behavioral finance. The book explains how our experiences with money have a psychological basis and can often run counter to what we’d like to accomplish. She explains that money is just a tool and how we use it is entirely a matter of personal choice. The book offers advice about overcoming negative behaviors, so if you are concerned that you might fail to follow through with plans to change your use of money in 2019, this book offers tips that could help you change your goal and make it more achievable.
Charles Duhigg is a business reporter. The Power of Habit describes why habits exist and how they can be changed. Your resolution might be failing because you haven’t really examined why you are repeating the same behavior loop over and over again. Taking advantage of his tips to find your weak links and embrace change could lead to success.
Finally if you use this suggestion and read one book before the end of January, don’t forget to celebrate. One short term resolution accomplished!!!
When will it be delivered? I’m learning that tracking services offered by vendors vary with accuracy and details. Packages I mailed at Halloween took a broom stick ride in the opposite direction of their destination and then circled back for a late delivery. I have a purchase that has been “out for delivery” for a week and there are no details.
The Federal Trade Commission enforces rules for online and mail order sales. Packages have to arrive within 30 days. If that isn’t possible, you must be notified and have an option to cancel the order.
Where will I find it? I have an inspection routine at my house when I receive confirmation of delivery. Packages have been found in multiple locations: on the front porch; the back porch; the bushes near the doors; and the back of the mailbox. I’m thankful I don’t have my son’s dog (shredded packages) and I’m not on a busy city street. There are alternatives to consider: work address, neighbor, requiring a signature for delivery (usually involves a separate charge), using the carrier’s designated pickup and delivery location.
I’m not complaining. “Mail-order” shopping has come a long way from the days of the Montgomery Ward catalog. I remember when you mailed in an order and instead of a package, the vendor’s letter arrived informing you the item was “sold out” or “not in stock”. Sometimes they sent a substitute item, which wasn’t always satisfactory. Inventory control with access from your home computer has reinvented “mail-order” shopping, and it’s definitely on the up swing.
Making a decision about health insurance coverage is not easy. Most of us rely on our employer to wade through the details of policy coverage and negotiation of rates. We gladly accept what is offered, choosing between 2-3 options that personalize the coverage. HR sends a letter or hosts a meeting for questions and answers. If we don’t do anything, the policy we have continues into the new year.
It’s not quite as easy when you are purchasing insurance on your own: some parts of Medicare, the Marketplace, and plans offered from private insurance agencies can be more confusing. The options for coverage have experienced a period of volatility. Assistance with enrollment varies. Here is an overview of the open enrollment time frame, who can help you sort through the options, and major changes to be aware of in 2019:
Medicare: Open enrollment for Medicare Advantage and Prescription Drug coverage (Medicare D) began on October 15th and closes on December 7th. SHIIP volunteers are excellent resources to help sort coverage and find plans that will meet your needs. Medicare is also providing assistance through an online education program, Medicare Plan Finder. Advantage plans are increasing in numbers and are being heavily marketed this season. Individuals enrolled in supplemental coverage (Medigap) and prescription drug (Medicare D) plans should open and read any notices they received in the past 30-60 days. Your coverage may have changed.
Marketplace Coverage: Open enrollment began on November 1 and closes on December 15th. Iowans may call 1-800-318-2596 or visit healthcare.gov for information. Independent insurance agents may be able to assist. If you received assistance last year, try contacting the agency that sponsored the service. Medica and Wellmark will be offering ACA-compliant individual health insurance plans to Iowans statewide for plan year 2019. If you currently have coverage through the exchange and do not choose a plan for 2019 by the end of open enrollment, you will be re-enrolled into the same plan offered by Medica. Reminder: if you want to use Premium Tax Credits to help cover the cost of your insurance, you must purchase it in the marketplace.
Private Plan Coverage: Enrollment is not limited to a set period of time for most policies. The Iowa Insurance Division provides a listing of licensed agents. New this year for individuals who do not qualify for premium tax credits are association benefits plans.
Children’s’ Health insurance Plans (known in Iowa as HAWK-I): Enrollment is not limited to a set period of time. Contact the Department of Human Services for applications and program details.
Medicaid: Enrollment is not limited to a set period of time. Individuals may qualify based on income or specific health issues. Contact the Department of Human Services for applications and program details.
Iowa State University Extension and Outreach has available education programs that can help with understanding choices and coverage. Contact your local extension office to request delivery for your community.
I threw a list of Pantry items together in 2004 and went shopping. My goal was to confirm or dispel what participants in my budgeting classes would argue: that it was cheaper to purchase groceries at larger markets, especially those in larger towns where there is more than one grocery store.
What I challenged them to consider was the cost of transportation and the added time it took to make a 1 hour round trip each week for groceries; especially if the sale items were the same price in a local store. Did they save enough to off-set those costs? Even though the cash register receipt is lower for the same items, it wasn’t enough savings to cover the cost of transportation.
I took my list shopping to the local grocery in 2007 and again today. Here’s what I’ve learned from the comparison:
- The cost for store brands, 2004-2018, increased 54.7%, the national brands increased 34.3%.
- The margin between the cost of buying a store brand and buying a national label continues to erode. In 2004 the difference was 30%, in 2018 the difference is 24%. Store brands still cost less, but not as much. Quality becomes more important.
- The changes in package sizes has slowed. I found several items in smaller packages between 2004 and 2007; but only Oat Cereal was found in a smaller package in 2018.
- Some items are lower priced. Brand name stick margarine is priced lower than the 2004 cost and the store brand is equivalent to the brand name price. Oat Cereal, when broken down into price per ounce, is 27 cents today. In 2004 it was 26 cents an ounce. Brand name green beans have declined slightly since 2007, with store brands getting close to equivalent price.
- Items on my pantry list with a larger than average increase in price are: a 2 lb. block of processed cheese food – the national brand increased 100%; a 5 lb. bag of national brand flour increased 61%.
A new player in the pantry shopping list is a local dollar store. My grocery sack included a combination of store brands and national brands. The sizes were equivalent. Not everything on the list was available. Some items were lower, but others were higher in price. In the end my combination sack cost the same as the store brands at the local grocery. If you have the time and pay attention to prices you could lower your total grocery costs by shopping at both stores if they are close to each other.
Visit the Spend Smart, Eat Smart website for low cost recipes and other tools to manage your grocery dollars.
Thirty percent of U.S. consumers have been notified of potential compromise of their personal information in a data breach. In 2017, for the first time, more Social Security numbers were exposed than credit account numbers. Research finds that counterfeit use of credit cards is more difficult with the new microchip technology; as a result, criminals are focusing on new account creation. The number tripled in 2017 resulting in $5.1 million in losses. Now the Federal government is joining states to give consumers options to protect their credit history.
New federal legislation supports the right for individuals in all states to apply, free of charge, a credit freeze to their credit reports. The action can be taken after September 21, 2018. By activating a freeze, you put a block on the creation of any new credit account by preventing prospective lenders from viewing your credit report. If lenders can’t confirm your capacity to repay a potential debt, they are unlikely to open an account in your name. Iowa’s law went into effect in May. Note: a freeze requires management; you must lift the freeze when applying for new credit.
If you are denied credit, lenders and agencies are required, by law, to send you documents informing you of your right to obtain your credit report and to dispute errors. The documents are now required to also notify you of your right to freeze your files.
In cases of identity theft, consumers have long had the option to place a fraud alert on their credit reports; the alert is a tip that this individual’s personal information was compromised, and consumers are still encouraged to pursue this action. The time frame for how long an alert is posted has been extended from 90 days to one year. A fraud alert does not, however, block potential lenders from viewing your information; therefore it does not prevent unauthorized opening of new accounts in your name.
What happens if a credit card balance goes unpaid? If you aren’t receiving collection calls, does it mean the debt is no longer a problem?
All states have statute of limitation laws setting a time when a debt can no longer be collected. Credit card debt is considered open account debt because the lender has the option to change the terms of the agreement at any time. Iowa law states open account balances can no longer be collected after 5 years from the last charge, payment, or admission of ownership of the debt in writing.
Once the original lender has exhausted their attempts to collect and elects to discharge the balance, the debt is sold to collection agencies. Timelines vary for when an account is sold, typically at 180 days. Collection agencies will contact you and attempt to collect a settlement. If the agency is unsuccessful they may bundle the uncollected debts and sell it again to a different agency. Attempts to collect your debt can occur at any time in the five year period and can result in court action. If the debt results in a court judgement to pay, it is valid for 20 years. Iowa allows actions to be taken to renew judgements extending the time when active collection can take place.
Ignoring unpaid debt won’t make it go away. Resources that may help are available through the Iowa Attorney General’s office, the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, the National Consumer Law Center, and local attorneys.