Effective tax rates in the United States

For the most part, the world of personal finance is calm and collected. There's not a lot of bickering. Writers (and readers) agree on most concepts and most solutions. And when we do disagree, it's generally because we're coming from different places.

Take getting out of debt, for instance. This is one of those topics where people do disagree -- but they disagree politely.

Hardcore numbers nerds insist that if you're in debt, you ought to repay high-interest obligations first. The math says this is the smartest path. Other folks, including me, argue that other approaches are valid. You might pay off debts with emotional baggage first. And many people would benefit from repaying debt from smallest balance to highest balance -- the Dave Ramsey approach -- rather than focusing on interest rates.

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Should you pay off your mortgage early?

My friend Amy recently wrote with an interesting dilemma. "Should I pay off my mortgage early?" she wonders.

Amy has a high-paying job and has managed to save enough that she could be completely debt-free if she wanted to. And she kind of wants to! But is this the best choice? She's aware that this is a nice problem to have — but it's still a bit of a muddle. She'd like some guidance.

Here's an abridged version of her email: Continue reading...

More about...Home & Garden, Debt, Investing, Taxes

The best (and worst) states for saving money and getting ahead 2018

Looking to save versus spend? Eager to sock money away not just for a rainy day but potentially for stormy months, even years, ahead?

Consider heading to the Heartland.

The Midwest is home to some of the very best places to save money and get ahead in the U.S., according to a new analysis by Get Rich Slowly.

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What to do if you inherit an IRA?

guy working at computer
Savvy savers open Individual Retirement Accounts for themselves to ensure that their golden years will be enjoyable and not fraught with financial worry. But what if you die before you reach retirement? What happens to your IRA? What to do if you inherit an IRA?
First things first: When you open your IRA account, you will fill out a form listing beneficiaries. It is important to keep this form up to date throughout your working life (if, for example, you are divorced and you don't change the beneficiaries, your ex will inherit your IRA. That thought doesn't lead to a restful sleep in the afterlife, does it?) A will does not supercede the IRA beneficiary form.

What else not to do: Don't name your estate as your IRA beneficiary (also important to note: if you DON'T name a beneficiary, your estate becomes the default). Typically, nonspouse beneficiaries who inherit a traditional IRA can either liquidate and pay taxes on those assets within five years of the owner's death, or take the so-called "stretch option" and stretch the required minimum distributions out over their own lifetime. This could amount to thousands of dollars of lost growth. On top of that, if the IRA becomes part of your estate and enters probate, it can be accessed by creditors.

Has anyone seen that form? Do you know where your IRA beneficiary form is? Don't assume it's easily accessible from your broker or bank, because with all the mergers and acquisitions over the last decade, paperwork may have become lost in the shuffle. So, find that piece of paper -- and all your important financial documents -- and secure them. Then, tell your attorney and your family members where you have stored them.

Inheriting an IRA as a Spouse

According to the IRS, if you inherit a traditional IRA from your spouse, you generally have the following three choices. You can:

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The savers tax credit explained

savers tax credit illustration

A little known tax credit can help you save for retirement, even if you feel you don't have the money to do so.

The formal name is the Retirement Savings Contributions Credit. Most people, however, know it simply as the Saver's Credit, a two-timing savings strategy that reduces taxes and increases retirement.

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Student loan repayment and the ethics of personal finance

[This is the third installment in a series examining repaying student loans. Part I was a best practices guide for repaying student loans. Part II discussed an alternative payment plan, Revised Pay As You Earn or REPAYE.]

In my last post on REPAYE, the new student loan repayment program, I mentioned that it might be possible to artificially lower your adjusted gross income (AGI) in order to lower your required monthly payments under REPAYE.

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Year-end tax planning checklist

Know your taxes! I am a big fan of the philosophy: No one cares more about your money than you do. Even if a professional prepares your taxes every year, learn to do it yourself. Aside from what you'll save in fees, here are two benefits of learning to prepare your taxes yourself:

  1. By doing your taxes on your own, you can learn quite a bit about your finances and get a lot of ideas on how to make your money work more for you.
  2. Sometimes a professional might not ask the right question because they don't know everything that went on in your life this year. If you learn to prepare your taxes yourself, you will become more aware if a professional is missing any deductions.

Educate yourself. This is an excellent place to start — IRS tax tips.

If a professional prepares your taxes…

Set up a meeting with your accountant/tax adviser.

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More about...Planning, Taxes

10 tax breaks for 20-somethings

When I was in my 20s, I was single, without kids, renting, had graduated from college, working at my first job and no interest whatsoever in taxes. My feeling was, Why should I waste time thinking about taxes? As a single, renter with no kids, I would get absolutely no deductions or credits -- and in addition to that, I had nothing to itemize. That meant I should have just filled a 1040EZ and been done with it, right? Right?

Most of us who are starting our financial journey think this. It is not always true. The assumption that paying attention to taxes at this stage provides little benefit, can result in us losing out on a lot!

That is why I decided to write this post, focusing on people in their 20s -- to get their attention, and to tell them there are reasons to take a second look at their taxes (though taxpayers of any age can equally take advantage of these deductions/credits).

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5 military tax deductions service members can claim but often don’t

military tax benefits

As an active-duty military member, preparing and filing your tax return can be a nightmare. Regardless of your duties or where you're stationed, tax season will cause you to stop what you're doing to complete this important task.

However, Uncle Sam has taken into account your unique lifestyle with special tax laws. These include the extension of deadlines for filing and paying taxes while on active duty in a combat zone. But did you know that there are quite a few military tax deductions and credits that are hardly claimed?

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Do credit card rewards count as taxable income?

Over the past 12 months, I have used credit card rewards to finance the bulk of our trips to Jamaica, Las Vegas, Denver, New Orleans, London, Paris, and St. Maarten. And in the process, I've also cashed in a five-figure sum of hotel loyalty points, airline miles and rewards. Of course, I blame part of this on my love of family travel, but it also has to do with how I make a living. Since I'm a points-and-miles blogger for Frugal Travel Guy, it would be pretty weird if I never went anywhere.

Aside from the questions I hear about earning points and miles and booking award travel, I get a lot of questions on the financial aspects of these trips. Are credit card rewards counted as taxable income? How about bank bonuses? If the fine print isn't all that specific, how can I tell?

Are Bank Bonuses Taxable?

We've all gotten at least one of these offers in the mail. They say something like, "Open a new savings account with XY Bank and receive a $300 bonus after setting up direct deposit" or "Earn a $250 bonus after making 10 qualifying transactions with your bank debit card."

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More about...Credit, Taxes