Tax Prep Tips: What Do I Need to Know to File Successfully?

by Hal Bundrick 20. February 2014

Tax Prep Tips

Filing your 2013 taxes means digging through your calendar, rustling up a bunch of receipts and trying to account for everything that might qualify as a valid deduction or tax credit. To help nudge you in the right direction, here are some legal loopholes you may want to take advantage of.

Remember Job Search Deductions

If you landed a new job last year – in your same occupation – you can generally deduct the expenses that exceed 2% of your adjusted gross income. That can include employment agency fees, resume preparation and mailing – and sometimes travel and transportation expenses. But take note: This doesn’t apply to expenses related to looking for a job in a new occupation – or even a first-time job. And don’t try to deduct expenses that have already been reimbursed.

Another exception to this deduction is one that just doesn’t seem quite fair: You can’t deduct job search expenses if there has been “a substantial break between the end of your last job and the time you began looking for a new one,” according to the IRS.

Maximize Medical Deductions

Unless you were in the hospital or incurred some significant medical expenses last year, a medical deduction is hard to qualify for. But if you have been ill, it can be a substantial tax break. For taxpayers under the age of 65, the medical deduction has risen for 2013 to expenses paid in excess of 10% of your adjusted gross income. Taxpayers over 65 can still claim expenses over 7.5% of AGI, until 2017.

Young Taxpayers Beware

Young adults moving from part-time to full-time employment can often get tripped up in the transition. When filing their first return after getting a full-time job, they may find they owe tax, rather than getting that “bonus” tax refund check from the IRS. After years of claiming “exempt” withholdings on their W-4 they might get caught in a tax trap of insufficient withholdings.

If you are single, claiming yourself as a deduction should hold out the proper amount of taxes, while taking ‘zero’ deductions can often trigger an annual tax refund, depending on your income and individual tax situation. While it’s usually not a good idea to let the government hold your money without earning even a tiny bit of interest, so many taxpayers love their refunds.

Don't Forget Donations

A tax break many Americans overlook: the deduction for clothing and household goods donations.

You can deduct either the cost of the item, or the prevailing fair market value – whichever is lower. If your donation is over $500, you are required to supply more detailed information, including the date of the donation, the original cost and fair market value.

Driving Business Deductions

Business owners need to take every deduction deserved too. Some entrepreneurs just don’t have the time – or the desire – to learn what tax breaks and credits they can earn. If the recession has taken its toll, you may have business losses that can be used to offset other income. And the home office deduction is also a favorite tax break, but can be tricky. These are scenarios when a good tax advisor can be well worth the cost.

If you haven’t been carrying a mileage log in your car, this may be a good time to start. Business miles can really add up, and the IRS allows 56.5 cents per business-purpose mile driven, but taxpayers always have the option of calculating the actual costs of using their vehicle, rather than just using the standard mileage rates.

When Work and Home Expenses Commingle

If you’re a small business owner, or work from home, it can sometimes be a challenge to separate personal expenses from legitimate business expenses.

For example, if you buy something that is used in your business, but sometimes personally as well, you must divide the expense by the proportion between the two. The IRS offers this publication for more information: Publication 535, Business Expenses (Chapter 4).

As you tend to your 1040, you may need a question answered. If so, some local IRS offices offer consultations, and live phone support is available, too. The official website IRS.gov may not be very pretty to look at but offers some extensive resources.

Hal M. Bundrick is a Certified Financial Planner™ and former financial advisor and senior investment specialist for Wall Street firms. He writes about personal finance and investing for NerdWallet. Follow him on Twitter: @HalMBundrick

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6 Smart Reasons to Start Vegetable Plants from Seeds Indoors

by Ralph Valle 5. February 2014

Save Money Gardening

Although it’s only early February and Maryland temperatures are below freezing, you can do more than dream about your vegetable garden for the 2014 growing season. Why not consider growing your plants from seeds?  NOW is the perfect time for starting seeds indoors.

Six smart reasons to start vegetable plants from seeds indoors:

✓ SAVE TIME: By starting vegetables from seeds indoors, you gain 4 to 6 weeks over plants started by seeds in the ground.

✓ EARLY HARVEST: Maryland has short summers. Heat-loving plants like tomatoes and peppers, which need 65-80 days to bear ripe fruit, will get in the ground sooner and establish a strong root system for the hot summer months. This will allow you to harvest and enjoy them in early July instead of August.

✓ CHOICE: You have many more varieties to choose from since you are not limited to only those available at local stores. Burpee.com is one of several online stores that has a great selection of vegetables and flowers.

✓ SAVE MONEY: Growing your own plants from seeds instead of buying them, especially if you plan to have a full-sized garden, will save you a lot of money. Seeds are inexpensive. A packet of seeds averages less than $2 and some seeds are less than a dollar!

✓ CONTROL: You don't have to wait until the soil outside is warm enough to germinate the seeds. When the soil outside hasn't had time to warm up, the seeds will rot in the cool, damp garden soil.

✓ IT'S FUN!

Supplies and getting started

Getting started can be as easy as collecting some items around your house; several small containers, a few straight sticks, clear bags or plastic wrap, and some potting soil. By early- to mid-February, garden stores, big box stores and e-stores will have a wide selection of seeds to choose from. Read seed packets carefully, pick disease-resistant varieties and follow directions.

Fill containers, plant seeds at recommended depth, place a stick or two in the soil on opposite ends of the containers, water soil until moist, and drape a bag/plastic wrap to form an air tight seal around the total container. Place containers in an area in the house that is 65-75 degrees. Seeds do best in warm soil. Check every few days to make sure the soil does not dry out. Most seedlings will emerge in 10-14 days. Once the plants emerge, place in a southern exposed window as the plants need a lot of light. Remove plastic covers and water regularly.

DIY Seed Kid

For those that want to invest some money into this process, seed starter kits are available that include dome tops for the trays. Lights and even heat mats are available to help ensure a high percentage of your seeds will emerge and grow strong. The picture shows a DIY light kit that I built with some leftover scrap lumber, a seed kit with a dome and a heat pad.

This year I am growing lavender plants and they need constant heat at 70 degrees with light for up to 4 weeks until germination. Did I mention saving money? Small lavender plants will be $5 each in stores this spring, and I need about 12 plants to create a new border for my rose garden. The cost of the plants would be $60, the seeds were $1.99! Use Mariner360 to keep track of your gardening expenses and realize how much money you’re saving!

As the weather warms, set your young plants outside, in shade, a few hours each day to “harden off” the plants. This acclimates the plants to outside temperatures and weather conditions. Plant directly in a well-prepared garden bed after the last day of frost warning. Maryland has several micro climates, so do a web search to check frost dates where you live, and while you’re at it, read some other articles with more detail than this blog on how to grow vegetables from seeds.

 If you never have grown plants from seeds, or even if you have tried and failed, now is the time to consider trying again! It’s rewarding in a variety of ways and it’s a lot of fun!

Ralph G. Valle is a Marketing professor at Towson University and an avid, award-winning gardener of over 35 years.

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Cheap Eats on Super Bowl Sunday

by Renee' Anderson 31. January 2014

Nachos with Chilli

So the Ravens aren’t in the Super Bowl, but that doesn’t mean we can’t still enjoy a good football game, watch some of the year’s best commercials, eat, drink, and be merry.

Here are some inexpensive food ideas for your Super Bowl gathering. All of these and more can also be found on our Pinterest page. Whether you’re keeping it simple or inviting a crowd, these are sure to please, and won’t dent your wallet.

1) Build Your Own Nacho Bar

This is fun way to feed a crowd and please different taste buds. Pick your own nacho toppings! Buy whatever tortilla chips are on sale this week, and gather some inexpensive toppings - big jar of salsa (or go even cheaper and make your own), canned beans, cheese/cheese sauce, make some guacamole, etc. If you want to have meat for your nacho bar, just throw some pork or beef in a crock pot.

2) Meatballs

Sweet and sour or marina sauce? Either option is easy and cheap! Make the meatballs yourself. It’s a little more time consuming, but it will definitely save you some money, especially if you’re feeding a crowd. If you want nice juicy meatballs, be sure to buy the 85% lean beef; if you’re being health conscious, get 93%.

3) Mini Corn Dog Muffins

These are great for the youngin’s. Grab a $1 box of corn muffin mix and a pack of hot dogs on sale and whip up some mini corn dogs!

4) Cheesy Football

The perfect snack for game day, this looks the part and taste yummy! Take your favorite cheeseball recipe, and simply shape it into a football. Add the “stitches” to the top to make it look like a football (use pimentos or whatever you can come up with).

5) Popcorn Bar

So clearly I’m liking the “Build Your Own” concept this year. Who wouldn’t? It’s easy, it’s fun, and it will please everyone because THEY decide what they will eat. Pop some kernels, grab some fixings (salt, butter, M&M’s®, peanuts, etc.), and let everyone come up with their own creation.

6) Dessert

Keep it simple with cupcakes shaped like a football. Let’s be honest, boxed cake mixes often taste better than homemade recipes. So, buy a box, mix and bake. Throw some butter, powdered sugar and milk in a mixer (KitchenAid® if you have one), and there you have it. Cheap, easy, and delicious! Of course, decorate as desired; throw some colored sprinkles, M&M's®, icing colors, etc. on top to represent your favorite team.

Another tip - stop by the dollar store and grab some paper products on the cheap to jazz up the house!

Don't forget to visit our Pinterest page for more ideas.

Touchdown!!!!!!!!



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