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Luke Landes

With the holidays approaching, many companies are preparing their bonus checks. However, some employees who are looking forward to their bonuses are also concerned about tax consequences.

I gave up this “extra” part of my corporate pay, in exchange for the benefit of working for myself, when I left my day job a few years ago. An annual bonus was certainly an appreciated part of my income, however. However, if this year’s holiday season is anything like years past, I know I can expect people around me to complain that they’d rather not receive a bonus. But why?

There is a widely-held belief that the extra income from a bonus — which is not really extra, just a variable aspect of compensation — supposedly bumps them into a higher tax bracket. This, they believe, is bad. They believe that they could potentially owe the government a higher tax rate on all of their income. This is incorrect and represents confusion about how marginal tax rates work.

These misconceptions and the resulting complaints are intensified when the bonus check arrives. Typically, they’ll see a net payment amount representing only a fraction of the gross income listed on their pay stub. This only fuels the anti-bonus fire.

What a Bonus Actually Does to Taxes

For most taxpayers, the IRS treats bonus income the same as regular income. All taxable W-2 income gets added together in one box when you file your federal tax return forms. The same tax rates apply to each dollar shown, whether it came from your 9-to-5, your side hustle, weekend babysitting, or a holiday bonus.

There is a catch, though, and is the reason this confusion runs rampant. While the IRS doesn’t discriminate between regular pay and bonus pay, employers often do.

How Employers Calculate Taxes

Employers can choose between two primary methods of withholding federal taxes from bonus or supplemental income. This applies when said “extra” income is given to the employee in a check or direct deposit separate from regular income.

Option 1: The employer may withhold a flat 25% for federal income taxes from the bonus payment. If the employee receives over $1 million in bonus payments in one year, the employer can withhold 25% of the first $1 million in addition to 35% from the amount over $1 million.

Option 2: The employer may add the bonus payment to the most recent regular income payment. They would then determine the standard withholding based on tax tables and the sum of the two payments. Then, subtract the amount already withheld from the most recent regular income payment, and withhold the rest from the bonus.

*Option 3: The employer may base withholding on the sum of the bonus and regular pay using the standard withholding tables. *This option is for employers who choose to combine bonus compensation with regular compensation in one payment, check or direct deposit, without any differentiation between the two types of income.

Regardless of the method the employer chooses, bonus income and regular income are grouped together when you file your taxes. The IRS will refund any overpayment and will collect any underpayment.

Outliers

One interesting exception to the rule of bonuses being taxed the same as all other income applies to hedge fund and other investment managers. This type of income is known as carried interest. Investment managers often take their bonuses from investment gains, and these can be taxed at the long-term capital gains rate of 15%. This rate is usually significantly lower than their marginal tax rates.

My Final Advice

Don’t be afraid of earning that bonus or more money in general. Your employer might withhold more of the check for taxes than you’re used to, but it will even out when you file your taxes.

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401(k) plans are the primary retirement savings vehicle for the middle class, particularly as more employers enroll new employees automatically in the plans. And for those who have the ability to maximize their contribution each year, the new calendar year offers an additional opportunity.

In 2015 and 2016, the maximum contribution limits were the same. For retirement accounts — which include 401(k) accounts, 403(b) accounts, most 457 plans, and Thrift Savings Plans — these stayed at $18,000. In case you were holding out for an increase, I have bad news: for 2017, these contribution limits have remain unchanged.

Of course, savers and investors aged 50 or older can take advantage of a catch-up contribution. This effectively increases the limit for those approaching traditional retirement age. In 2017, taxpayers who meet this age-based criterion can contribute an additional $6,000 above the regular maximum of $18,000. As a result, if you are 50 or older, you can contribute a maximum of $24,000 into these tax-advantaged accounts. (This is also the same as the past two years.)

Resource: Maxed out your 401k or looking for better investment options? Check out an IRA at WealthFront.

The total contribution limit, including employer contributions, has changed, however. It is now at $54,000, up from last year’s $53,000.

The benefits of a 401(k) plan are, by design, directed primarily at people who most need an incentive to save for retirement. This may help contain the tax benefits within the middle class. The government does this by applying a maximum level of compensation to which matching benefits apply.

In 2017, only the first $270,000 in an employee’s compensation over the course of 2017 may be applied to the company’s matching formula. That income limit has grown from $265,000 in 2016.  That’s a sufficiently high maximum and should cover more than just the middle class.

To illustrate, if a company matches an employee’s contributions at a rate of 50% up to a limit of 5% the salary, an employee with a $100,000 salary deferring $15,000 will receive at most a $5,000 matching contribution (5% of the full $100,000 salary). If an employee at the same company ears $400,000 in compensation throughout the year, deferring $15,000, the matching contribution will be $13,500 (5% of the $270,000 maximum compensation, not $20,000). There are additional rules in place that require a company to balance benefits between highly compensated employees (those earning $120,000 or more) and all others.

Beginning in 2013, new regulations required 401(k) plan administers to explicitly state in quarterly statements how much investors are paying in fees. Previously, this information was not easy to discover. While you could (and should) look at the various prospectuses in search of management expenses fees or expense ratios, expressed as a percentage of assets, there were at least two obstacles:

  • The expense ratios force you to do your own calculations to determine how much money you’re spending in fees.
  • Not all fees are included in expense ratios. Some funds, like annuity-based mutual funds, don’t have expense ratios but certainly have fees.

To maximize your 401(k) contribution in 2017, spread the $18,000 across the number of paychecks you plan to receive throughout the year. That’s a contribution of $1,500 each month, $750 twice a month, $692 every two weeks, or $346 a week for those age 49 or younger. The calculation for those over 50 who want to max the contribution are $2,000 per month, $1,000 twice a month, $923 every two weeks, or $461 a week.

If your contributions are recorded in the form of percentages, don’t forget to change your contribution to take into account raises and bonuses. If you are expecting your company to match your contributions at some level, and you reach your 401(k) contribution limit before your last paycheck, you may miss out on free money.

The following table illustrates the change in 401(k) contribution limits over the past several years.

Year 401(k)
Maximum
Catch-Up
Contribution
Maximum
Allocation
2017 $18,000 $6,000 $54,000
2016 $18,000 $6,000 $53,000
2015 $18,000 $6,000 $53,000
2014 $17,500 $5,500 $52,000
2013 $17,500 $5,500 $51,000
2012 $17,000 $5,500 $50,000
2011 $16,500 $5,500 $49,000
2010 $16,500 $5,500 $49,000
2009 $16,500 $5,500 $49,000
2008 $15,500 $5,000 $46,000

Photo: urban_data

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Most taxpayers can choose between itemizing tax deductions to reduce taxable income, which requires accurate record-keeping and support, and taking the standard deduction. The standard tax deduction is a fixed amount that reduces the amount of money on which year-end taxes are calculated. Generally, if you can show that you’ve had more deductible expenses than the amount of the default standard deduction, it’s better to itemize.

IRS publication 501 outlines each year’s deduction amounts. There are some cases where adjustments should be made to the standard deduction. For example, if you are 65 or older, or if you are blind, the standard deduction increases.

The standard exemption is another deduction to your income that you can take for yourself and for any dependents.

Tax Year 2017 2016 2015 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009
Single $6,350 $6,300 $6,300 $6,200 $6,100 $5,950 $5,800 $5,700 $5,700
Married filing jointly $12,700 $12,600 $12,600 $12,400 $12,200 $11,900 $11,600 $11,400 $11,400
Married filing separately $6,350 $6,300 $6,300 $6,200 $6,100 $5,950 $5,800 $5,700 $5,700
Head of household $9,350 $9,300 $9,250 $9,100 $8,950 $8,700 $8,500 $8.400 $8,350
Personal exemption $4,050 $4,050 $4,000 $3,950 $3,900 $3,800 $3,750 $3,650 $3,650

Note: When you file taxes in April 2017, you’re actually filing for your 2016 earned income. Review the numbers in the 2016 column and understand the federal tax brackets.

A dependent child can increase the standard deduction by as much as $1,000, if certain requirements are met.

Do you itemize your tax deductions or take the standard deduction?

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Cash back credit cards can help consumers practice responsible spending while earning a little extra for their efforts when used properly. The days of earning 5 percent cash back for all credit card purchases may be just a memory, but the smart use of credit cards can still be profitable for diligent consumers. You may be able to find some credit cards offering a high level of cash back in certain spending categories, but these are often subject to maximums.

Most of today’s better cash back credit cards offer 1 percent to 2 percent cash back on purchases. However, if you look hard enough, you’ll find a number of credit cards with higher cash rebates. Keep in mind that in order to make credit card with rewards programs worthwhile, you must pay your bill on time and in full every single month to avoid interest charges and late fees.

This ever-changing list reflects the best cash back credit cards currently available.

Best Cash Back Credit Cards

1. Discover it Card-Cashback Match

Discover It® CardThe Discover it Card-Cashback Match has a tempting offer for anyone considering a new cash-back card— they’ll double all the cash back you’ve earned at the end of your first year automatically on this card. This offer is only intended for new cardmembers and is only available for a limited time. That applies to the 5 percent cash back in quarterly categories as well as the 1 percent cash back on all other purchases.

With the new New Freeze It® on/off switch, you can prevent new purchases, cash advances and balance transfers on misplaced cards in seconds by mobile app and online. You can also get your free FICO® Credit Score on statements, online and by mobile app, and will pay no annual fee or foreign transaction fees.

  • Cash Back: 5% on categories that change each quarter, up to $1,500 in purchases. All other purchases earn 1% cash back.
  • Sign up bonus: Discover will double your cash back rewards at the end of your first year.
  • Annual Fee: None.
  • Introductory APR: 0% on purchases and balance transfers for 12 months.
  • Other Benefits: Discover gives you free access to your FICO score.

Find out how to apply for the card here.

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2. Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express

I recommend the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express as the one whose bonus categories are most likely to overlap the spending habits of parents. Cash back is earned only on eligible purchases as follows:

  • 6% cash back at U.S. supermarkets, on up to $6,000 per year in purchases
  • 3% cash back at U.S. gas stations
  • 3% cash back at select U.S. department stores
  • 1% cash back on other purchases

There are no rotating reward categories. No enrollment is required. Cash back is received in the form of Reward Dollars that can be redeemed as a statement credit. You can also earn $150 back after you spend $1,000 in purchases on your new card in your first three months. You will receive the $150 back in the form of statement credits. There is a $95 annual fee.

Find out how to apply for this card here.

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3. Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express

Blue Cash EverydayIf you prefer a no annual fee version of the card, consider the Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express. While you save on the fee, the rewards are a step down. You’ll earn $100 back after you spend $1,000 in purchases on your new card in your first three months. The cash back percentages are a bit lower, but still very good:

  • 3% cash back at U.S. supermarkets, on up to $6,000 per year in purchases
  • 2% cash back at U.S. gas stations
  • 2% cash back at select U.S. department stores
  • 1% cash back on other purchases

Find out how to apply for this card here.

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4. Capital One® Quicksilver® Cash Rewards Credit Card

With the Capital One® Quicksilver® Cash Rewards Credit Card, you earn 1.5% on all purchases. There are no categories to remember or quarterly signups to worry about. In addition, you can earn a one-time $100 cash bonus after you spend $500 on purchases within the first 3 months. It also offers a unique perk–Every 10th Uber ride is free up to $15 when you pay with your Quicksilver® card through March 31, 2017. There is no annual fee.

  • Cash Back: 1.5% cash back on all purchases.
  • Sign up bonus: Get a $100 bonus when you spend $500 on the card in the first three months.
  • Annual Fee: None.
  • Introductory APR: 0% on purchases and balance transfers for 9 months.
  • Other Benefits: Every 10th Uber ride is free up to $15 when you pay with your Quicksilver card through March 31, 2017

Find out how to apply for this card here.

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5. Discover it® Chrome

With Discover it® Chrome, you can earn 1% cash back on every purchase, but Discover® offers an opportunity to earn double cash back on certain categories. The double cash back is limited to $1,000 in combined purchases, though, which adds up to only $100 extra. Still, that’s $100 you wouldn’t have otherwise.

The categories for double cash back with Discover it® Chrome are gas stations and restaurants. In order to make using the cash back points even easier, Discover® allows you to pay for items on Amazon.com using points instead of dollars. That could come in handy during the holiday seasons.

  • Cash Back: 2% cash back on all purchases at gas stations and restaurants, up to$1,000 in combined purchases every quarter—no sign-ups needed. 1% cash back on all other purchases.
  • Sign up bonus: Discover matches all your cash back earned the first year.
  • Annual Fee: None.
  • Introductory APR: 0% on purchases and balance transfers for 12 months.
  • Other Benefits: Free access to your FICO score.

Find out how to apply for this card here.

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6. Ink Cash Business Credit Card

The Ink Cash Business Credit Card is a business card, but sole proprietors can open an account too. Not only is this a good cash back card, but it’s the card I recently chose to open for a side business. Chase is currently offering new customers a $200 account cash back bonus after you spend $3,000 on purchases across the first three months from account opening.

Beyond the opening bonus, Chase offers cardholders 5% cash back on purchases at office supply stores, telephone (mobile and landline) payments, and cable and internet bills, up to a total of $25,000 in combined purchases each account anniversary year. The next tier is a 2% cash back rate on combined purchases up to $25,000 at gas stations and restaurants each account anniversary year. These bonus cash back tiers include points that aren’t added to your account until the anniversary of your card opening, so that’s a little inconvenient.

Otherwise, all other purchases earn an unlimited 1% cash back. Always see issuer’s terms regarding APR.

  • Cash Back: Earn 5% cash back on the first $25,000 spent in combined purchases at office supply stores and on cellular phone, landline, internet and cable TV services each account anniversary year. Earn 2% cash back on the first $25,000 spent in combined purchases at gas stations and restaurants each account anniversary year. Earn 1% cash back on all other card purchases with no limit to the amount you can earn
  • Sign up bonus: $200 when you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first three months.
  • Annual Fee: None.
  • Introductory APR: 0% on purchases and balance transfers for 12 months.
  • Other Benefits: Employee cards at no additional cost.

7. Citi Double Cash

The Citi Double Cash card offers up to 2% cash back on all purchases. You earn 1% cash back on every purchase. You earn another 1% cash back when you pay for the purchase. There is no annual fee, and the card also offers a competitive 0% introductory rate offer on balance transfers and purchases.

  • Cash Back: 1% cash back on every purchase and 1% cash back as you pay for those purchases.
  • Sign up bonus: None.
  • Annual Fee: None.
  • Introductory APR: 0% on balance transfers for 18 months.
  • Other Benefits: None.

8. Fidelity Rewards Visa Signature Card

The Fidelity Rewards Visa Signature Card is regularly cited as a Consumerism Commentary readers’ favorite. You’ll earn a solid 2% cash back on every purchase.  There is no limit to the amount of rewards you can earn and the rewards never expire. On top of that, there is no annual fee.

This card requires a linked account at Fidelity, but these accounts are free and can be good choices for savers and investors. A few years ago, I chose to rollover a former company’s 401(k) into a Fidelity IRA, and I use Fidelity as the servicing company for my charitable gift fund. Their index mutual funds are some of the lowest cost in the business, but for most of my own investing I prefer Vanguard. Vanguard, however, does not offer a similar credit card offer.

If you’re holding on to a cash back credit card that you feel deserves to make this list, let me know by leaving your thoughts in the comments below. If the offer is good, I’ll add it to this best cash back credit cards list.

  • Cash Back: 2% cash back on all purchases. Cash back rewards are deposited into your Fidelity account.
  • Sign up bonus: Get $100 after you spend $1000 in the first 90 days.
  • Annual Fee: None.
  • Introductory APR: None.
  • Other Benefits: None.

Find out how to apply for this card here.

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9. Chase Freedom Card

The Chase Freedom card offers a lot of ways to save. First, get a $150 bonus after spending $500 on purchases in your first 3 months from account-opening. Besides this bonus, with Chase Freedom you can earn 5% cash back on up to $1,500 in combined purchases in bonus categories each quarter you activate. You’ll earn unlimited 1% cash back on all other purchases. It also offers a longer introductory APR than many cash back cards.

  • Cash Back: 5% on categories that change each quarter, up to $1,500 in purchases. All other purchases earn 1% cash back.
  • Sign up bonus: Get a $150 bonus when you spend $500 on the card in the first three months.
  • Annual Fee: None.
  • Introductory APR: 0% on purchases and balance transfers for 15 months.
  • Other Benefits: You can earn an additional $25 bonus when you add your first authorized user and make your firstpurchase within this same 3 month period.

Compare each of these and other cash back cards, and apply online, here.

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Thank You: Twelve Years of Consumerism Commentary

by Luke Landes
Original Consumerism Commentary

Thank you to Consumerism Commentary readers.

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Life Is Short: Toxic Financial Attitudes

by Luke Landes
Drinks on beach

There’s a good reason I can’t get into extreme savings for retirement. When desperate financial times call for desperate financial measures, there is a good incentive to cut all unnecessary spending and eliminate bad debt. Many people even wait until they hit rock bottom before reforming their approach to their finances, because the effects of […]

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Podcast 175: Carl Richards, The One-Page Financial Plan

by Luke Landes
Carl Richards

It may have been over a year since I last put together a podcast episode, but I’m back today to talk with Consumerism Commentary Podcast guest Carl Richards. Carl is here to talk about his new book, The One-Page Financial Plan: A Simple Way to Be Smart About Your Money. The author will also be […]

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Command and Control: From Baseball Pitches to Your Money

by Luke Landes
Matt Harvey

When your life is out of control, nothing seems to go right. You have the worst luck, and you can’t seem to get ahead with anything, whether a project, a goal, or even simple things like taking care of daily tasks. Regaining control of your life is imperative. For your finances, you can do that […]

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Can You Blame Them for Not Being Invested in Stocks?

by Luke Landes
Luke Landes

After the stock market closed on Friday, my portfolio was at an all-time high. That was likely also the case for a lot of investors living in the United States who are similar to me: earning income, investing in the stock market with a buy-and-hold strategy for the future, and leaving money invested during the […]

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5 Reasons Why New Chip Credit Cards Won’t Reduce Fraud

by Luke Landes
Chip-Embedded Credit Cards

Banks in the United States are undergoing a major transformation in credit card technology, a process similar to the one Europe successfully completed several years ago. Despite the technological advances in mobile payment that have already rendered plastic cards obsolete, the financial industry wants to replace every magnetic stripe credit card in every wallet. When […]

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