Today’s Money: Should you spend or save your tax refund?

It’s officially Tax Day! And for more than two-thirds of Americans, filing is likely a pretty uplifting experience. Why? They’re getting refunds averaging $2,800 according to the IRS.

What are they doing with them? According to Principal Financial, the top three uses for the money are: save or invest it (51%), pay off short-term debt like credit cards (38%) and pay off long term debt like a mortgage (24%). But what if you’re looking for other ideas? I was on Today this morning with a few suggestions. Check them out below:

Visit NBCNews.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

*Not seeing the video? Some browsers block videos on secure websites like ours. In your address bar, remove the “s” after http at the start of the web address, then reload the page. The video should appear. If you still have issues, contact us.

Wednesday Welcome: Making the Most of Company Benefits

This week we welcome Sophia Bera, a certified financial planner who caters to millennials — though this particular post, about how to maximize your company’s benefits, is a good reminder to us all. Whether you’re just starting a job or you’ve been with the same company for years and haven’t re-looked your benefits in a while, the below advice will help you make the most of what your company is offering.

Bera - HeadshotDo you remember what company benefits you signed up for when you were first hired?  Did you make any changes during open enrollment this past year?  When it comes to working for a company, the salary offered isn’t the only aspect of the job to take into consideration. Unfortunately, many people only skim through or completely overlook their company benefits package – and this can be a big financial mistake.  Many of these benefits come out of your paycheck pre-tax which helps you lower your tax bill and save you thousands of dollars in the long run!

You might be leaving a lot on the table if you fail to comb through your benefits and take advantage of what you company is offering its employees. It’s more than just an employer match in a retirement account (although that is a big benefit you need to be sure to grab). Here’s where to start and what to look for:

Request Your Company Benefits Package 

If you work for a company with an HR department, you might want to start there. The department (or whoever is in charge of staffing concerns, if you work for a small business) should be able to provide you with some sort of handbook or paperwork that details what you are entitled to as an employee.

It can be really overwhelming to dive into pages and pages of technical writing on your benefits, but understanding the perks that come with your job is important! By utilizing what you can, you could save thousands of dollars in expenses throughout the year.

Common Company Benefits

Before you start feeling too bogged down in all the paperwork that explains your benefits, take a look through this list so you’ll know what to be on the lookout for:

  • Retirement Benefits. The biggest benefit you need to be taking advantage of is any kind of retirement account your employer offers, such as 401(k)s, 403(b)s, or a SIMPLE IRA. Sign up for the retirement plan your company offers and make sure you contribute enough to meet the match if there is one. This is free money! If your employer offers to match your contributions up to 5%, you need to contribute at least 5% of your salary to get the full benefit.
  • All Kinds of Insurance. It’s widely known that the majority of companies offer some sort of health insurance coverage to their employees. But they also offer other types of insurance that you need to take advantage of to make sure you and your family will be protected in the event of a disaster or emergency. Your company benefits could include life insurance, disability insurance (both short term and long term), a health savings account, and flex spending accounts (one for health care and one for childcare costs).
  • Financial Perks in Addition to Your Normal Salary. In addition to your regular paycheck, your company benefits might include things like stock options in the form of a employee stock purchase plan (or ESPP). This allows you to buy company stock at a discounted price. You might also be entitled to reimbursements on your wardrobe, commuting expenses, or other costs that you incur that are a direct result of working for your employer. This will all depend on the company you work for, so be sure to look into this and ask questions!

Finally, don’t forget about vacation time. On the surface, this might not seem like a financial perk. But remember, when you take vacation days you’re getting paid for hours that you’re not actually working.  Be sure to make the most of your paid time off.

Your company benefits package can be a lot to look through, but it’s crucial you take the time to do so. If you’re want to learn more about benefits, you can take a more in-depth look at my post on my website, Gen Y Planning, on how maximizing your company benefits could save you thousands of dollars!

About Sophia: Sophia Bera, CFP® is the Founder of Gen Y Planning and is a financial planner for Millennials.  She’s passionate about helping people in their 20s and 30s across the country with their money. She is a contributor for AOL’s Daily Finance website and has been quoted on various websites and publications including Forbes, Business Insider, Yahoo, Money Magazine, InvestmentNews, Financial Advisor magazine, and The Huffington Post. She was named one of the “Top Financial Advisors for Millennials” by the website www.MoneyUnder30.com. Follow her on Twitter @sophiabera or sign up for the Gen Y Planning Newsletter to stay up to date on financial articles geared towards Millennials.

Frugal Friday: Sales Tax Holidays

iStock_000017007129SmallWe’ve already established that back-to-school sales are in full swing. But have you done your shopping yet? Can I urge you to wait a bit?

Not only because the sales are bound to get better — I noted that in the piece linked above, and dealnews recently published in-depth analysis about laptops, clothing, and dorm furniture — but because in many states, sales tax holidays are on their way.

What does that mean, exactly? Savings for you, first of all. About 17 states waive sales tax for a couple days during the back to school season. But it also means you should carefully plan your shopping, because there is a bit of fine print — most states place restrictions on what, exactly, can be purchased tax-free, and a limit on the price of the items that fall under the tax-free umbrella. This link has a rundown of participating states, but in general, most that participate will offer a tax break on clothing, shoes, and often computers that are priced under a set limit. For instance:

  • Oklahoma will exempt tax on clothing and shoes priced under $100 between August 2 and 4.
  • New Mexico, which is hosting its holiday the same weekend, also has one of the most generous policies. The state will exempt tax on clothing priced up to $100, computers priced up to $1000, computer equipment up to $500, and school supplies up to $30.
  • Maryland will exempt clothing and footwear up to $100 during the week of August 11 through 17.
  • In Tennessee, the sales tax break run from August 2 to 4 and applies to clothing and school supplies under $100 and computers under $1,500.

Is the savings huge? Well, no. Oklahoma’s state sales tax is 4.5%, not including local taxes.  That means residents will save $4.50 on a $100 clothing purchase. If your state’s tax rate is higher, you’ll save more. Tennessee, for example, has a state sales tax of 7%, which could mean a savings of up to $105 on a computer purchase.

Bottom line: It makes sense to buy when you can skip sales tax, if your state is offering the opportunity. But it also makes sense to double up with a promotion or sale — and luckily, many stores will run them in conjunction with the sales tax holiday. So keep an eye peeled for those deals in your area, and you could walk away with big savings.

The Supreme Court Is Deciding On DOMA. How Can LGBT Couples Prepare?

It is widely expected that this month, the Supreme Court will release a decision regarding the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). It is a decision highly anticipated not just among constitutional scholars, but among the entire LGBT community and supporters of same-sex marriage across the country.

DOMA defines marriage (at the federal level) as a union between a man and a woman; as such, it excludes same-sex spouses from tax, healthcare and estate planning benefits that are given to heterosexual spouses.

iStock_courthouse and lgbt flag“Every aspect of a person’s financial life, legal life, and their rights their benefits — DOMA pervades all of that. It’s everything that’s recognized and not recognized at the federal level,” explained Lisa Siegel, a senior wealth planner for Wells Fargo’s Private Bank. Siegel is also an attorney and has helped many LGBT clients navigate this tricky legal and financial terrain.

Siegel says there is not much a same-sex couple can do in advance of the Supreme Court ruling, but there are many things to start considering and documents to start gathering in case DOMA is repealed. Here are some of the areas that require particular attention:

Tax planning. Siegel had advised her own clients to file an extension for their 2012 taxes, in the event DOMA is upended and a same-sex couple can select “married filing jointly” on their federal tax return. For same-sex spouses who didn’t file an extension, she says it’s easy to go back and file an amendment (the IRS has an FAQ and the amendment form here), and the IRS accepts amendments for the past three years. However, depending on the salaries of the spouses in question, Siegel says that filing jointly might not mean owing less money to the government. “You might owe more because of how much money you earn. You have to then have an accountant run a projection to see,” she said.

Estate planning. Heterosexual spouses have access to the unlimited marital deduction, which means that husbands and wives can transfer assets to and from each other (during life and after death) with little or no tax. Under DOMA, same-sex spouses cannot do this. “If this section of DOMA were to be repealed, this would entirely change their estate planning,” Siegel said. “In many cases, [a repeal] would require them to revise their estate plan.” Siegel recommends consulting an attorney with specific experience in LGBT estate planning, or a financial planner with an Accredited Domestic Partnership Advisor (ADPA) designation.

Beneficiary designations. Siegel noted that the estate plan isn’t the only document that would need to be revised: living wills, healthcare proxies, life insurance policies and retirement plans are among the documents that would need to be updated so that same-sex spouses can list each other as their primary benefactor. “[DOMA] affects spousal rollovers — think about IRAs and 401(k)s,” she said. “On qualified plans, there’s no automatic right for [a same-sex] spouse to receive access.”

Wedding planning. Many of the financial and legal ramifications of a DOMA repeal would primarily affect couples who are already married (in states allowing same-sex marriage), but Siegel noted that couples for whom a favorable DOMA ruling might inspire a wedding have their own set of considerations. Primarily: the assets they’d bring to a marriage. “Because marriage has not been an option and many couples have been together for many, many years, as have been some of my couples, we’re finding that these couples are getting married and have pretty much had a lifetime together. They’re coming into the marriage with significant assets,” she said. For these couples, Siegel recommends a prenuptial agreement. “It could be a potentially unpleasant exercise. But important!”

Finally, if the court rules to uphold DOMA, Siegel emphasized that it is still worth it for same-sex couples to meet with their attorneys and financial advisers to make sure their financial plans — and especially, estate plans — are up to date.

“In general, estate plans should be looked at every few years anyway,” Siegel said. “It’s not a bad idea to go back to advisers and say, now what?”

Money 911: Should you pay taxes on an IRA?

This morning on Money 911, we heard from a woman who inherited an IRA but was a bit confused about what this means for her taxes. To see what we told her, plus for information on the new mortgage settlement, check out the video clip below.

 

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Today’s Money: A tax-time quiz

This morning, I visited Kathie Lee and Hoda to give viewers a little tax-time quiz. Do you know how many people file their taxes last-minute? If you haven’t filed yet, what’s your best option? To find out the answers to these questions and more, check out the video clip below.

 

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Money 911: Cashing in on a coin collection

This morning on Money 911, we heard from a man who wanted to maximize what he could earn from an inherited coin collection. To see what we told him, plus what to do with profits from a real estate sale, check out the video clip below.

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Money 911: Getting stuck as a co-signer

On our latest Money 911 segment, we heard from someone who has gotten stuck as a cosigner on a loan on which the primary borrower has fallen negligent. Is there any way he can get out of this situation? To hear our answer to his question — plus whether or not you can write off trips to the bank as a business expense — check out the video clip below.

 

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Money 911: Maximizing your tax return

This morning on Today‘s Money 911, we heard from a woman who wanted to know how to use her $10,000 tax return. Should she: pay off student loans, pay off her credit cards, or boost her emergency savings? To see what we told her, plus tips on taking Social Security, check out the video clip below.

 

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Post-Bulletin: Life changes in 2011 can affect your tax status

taxReady for a fun statistic? Since 1986, there have been nearly 15,000 changes to the tax code.

This information comes from Mark Steber, the chief tax officer for Jackson Hewitt. He passed it along to prove a larger point: Though those changes have made an impact on your taxes over the years, a bigger impact is made by the changes that have occurred in your own life: marriages, births, adoptions, new homes and new jobs.So as we approach tax season, take some time to think about what happened to you in 2011 that could affect your filing. In this economy in particular, such changes may be more prevalent because larger numbers of people are taking on freelance jobs, offering financial help to an elderly parent or taking advantage of low interest rates on mortgages. What to look out for:Self-employmentMaybe you decided to moonlight as a consultant or freelancer last year to bring in some extra income or pad your resume. That extra cash comes with extra tax consequences — and a few misconceptions, says Steber.

An employer is required to send employees a W-2 for any income paid to them during the year, regardless of amount. If you’re doing freelance or contract work, the business that hired you must send you a form 1099 if it paid you $600 or more over the course of the year; however, you’re required to report any income on your tax return — whether you received a 1099 or not. This is important because with most freelance and contract work, taxes aren’t taken out in advance. You need to plan for them by saving a portion of every check so they do not surprise you come April.

It’s worth your money to talk to a tax adviser because that person can also show you how to offset a portion of what’s owed with deductions stemming from your new side job. For example, you may be able to deduct mileage, supplies, a portion of your cellphone charges, etc.

Caring for an aging parent

I’ll bet you didn’t know there was a tax perk here, but there may be if you meet a support test: Essentially, your parent becomes your dependent if you provide more than half of his or her support. Mom or Dad doesn’t even have to live with you, says Steber: If your parent is in a nursing home or care facility and you’re footing half that bill, you’ll likely pass that test. That means you could qualify for a dependent exemption as well as a deduction of medical expenses that you pay. One last caveat: Your parent can’t earn more than the exemption amount — $3,700 in 2011 — excluding Social Security.

Birth of a child

You can claim your child as a dependent, which could give you the same exemption we talked about above — $3,700 per dependent. You’ll also get a Child Tax Credit of up to $1,000 per child. If you adopted, you get to go one step further: You may be eligible for a refundable credit for qualified expenses, up to $13,360 per child. In most cases, if you’re married, you must file a joint tax return to capture adoption tax perks.

New home purchase

This is a big life change, and it leads to significant tax changes. If you have a mortgage on your home, you’ll likely be able to deduct mortgage interest and property taxes. That can shift you away from the standard deduction — generally taken by people who don’t own homes and don’t otherwise have a lot of deductions — and into itemizing, which opens you up to a host of other deductions, says Steber.

For one, you should start logging charitable contributions, which can be write-offs. You may also want to carefully track medical expenses to see if they’ll add up to an amount large enough to deduct (you can deduct medical expenses that exceed 7.5 percent of your adjusted gross income).

“When you buy a house, that changes the game in terms of your tax profile, and triggers the ability to itemize,” explains Steber.

Marriage

If you changed your name, make sure you notify the Social Security Administration. Then understand that whether you file separately or jointly, you have to deduct the same way — meaning you both either itemize or take the standard deduction.

Finally, don’t be scared of the so-called marriage penalty. It rarely kicks in, and in many cases, marriage can lower your tax bill because it may pull a higher-earning spouse into a lower tax bracket. (However, if you’re both high earners with nearly equal incomes, you may end up paying more.) You should also check your current withholdings after getting married, just to make sure they’re still correct. The IRS has an easy calculator on its website to help you.

This article originally appeared in the Rochester, MN Post Bulletin.