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Planning

It’s a good thing I’ve been saving a good portion of my income for the past year. Even with making estimated tax payments — the last of which was due on January 16 — I still have a significant tax bill this year, thanks to increased income.

Many taxpayers dread filing their taxes, even if they receive a refund from the IRS. It’s often a time-consuming process that can be fairly stressful. Plus, pressing Submit on your electronic return (or licking the stamp of your paper return) can bring out fears and anxiety over the possibility of an audit, no matter how diligent you were about your records.

Some people, like me, have a stronger reason for the lack of anticipation: we will end up owing money. And for those who haven’t saved enough money throughout the year, this is a dreaded situation.

TAX BILL

What If You Can’t Afford Your Tax Bill?

First of all, you don’t want to owe the IRS money. This type of debt is one of the hardest types to erase. There is no statute of limitations on IRS debt, either, so it won’t just go away on its own if ignored long enough. Even if you declare bankruptcy, it’s very difficult to get rid of tax debt.

Related: How to Adjust Your Witholdings for a $0 Return

Sometimes taxpayers receive a notification saying they owe money, but it might not be accurate. The IRS is a system subject to human error, just like any other agency. You can dispute the amount you owe if it doesn’t match your records and you have a reason to believe your calculation is correct.

Need More Time to File? How to Get an Extension on Your Taxes

The government is sensitive to the issue of whether you can afford to pay, so they’re willing to work with you a little bit. The best option is to avoid using a credit card to pay your debt, which would ordinarily be many consumers’ first choice. When you file your taxes, don’t pay online at that time if you can’t afford it in cash. Instead, wait until after you submit your form and it’s accepted by the IRS. Then, visit the IRS website to file an Online Payment Agreement.

If you take long enough, the IRS will send you a tax due notification, but there’s no need to wait for that to arrive. If you have your adjusted gross income (AGI) from your tax return, the amount you owe, and, of course, your Social Security number, you can get started. The form will first ask you how much you can pay and when you can pay it. Then, it will come up with a payment plan that works for you.

The payment plan will allow you to spread your tax bill out over a longer period of time. This improves the chances that paying your bill won’t cause you a financial hardship, and the IRS still manages to collect the monies due —  a win-win in their book. There is a fee for creating a payment plan, ranging from $43 to to $225.

If your financial hardship is only temporary, the IRS may delay collection, though interest and late fees will still be added to your bill. The IRS could also file a federal tax lien, even if they delay collection. This means your property could become property of the government in order to satisfy your debt.

The last line of negotiation with the IRS is an Offer in Compromise. There are only a few situations in which the IRS will accept a lower tax payment than what they believe is due. If the IRS believes you’ll never be able to satisfy your tax liability, but you agree to the amount you owe, an Offer in Compromise might satisfy the IRS.

If there is legitimate doubt about the tax bill — this will usually happen only in complicated situations — the IRS might consider an Offer in Compromise. Also, if you could afford your tax bill, but paying it would create a significant economic hardship, the IRS might consider an Offer in Compromise for you, as well. This is only in exceptional circumstances.

Because the IRS does charge you interest and penalties when you don’t pay in full or on time, the best solution is to pay the bill in full as soon as possible to reduce these extra costs, even if you agree to payment plans. I prefer the above options over other payment types (such as a high interest credit card) when cash isn’t available at the time the bill is due. However, the IRS offers these additional suggestions:

I’m not a big fan of any of these, but it is important to take care of your IRS debt above many other financial priorities.

Have you ended up with a big tax bill you couldn’t immediately pay? What was your plan of action?

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Whether you’re taking care of multiple children, a disabled spouse, or elderly parents, you’ve likely experienced the high cost of dependent care firsthand. With expenses from babysitters to after school programs, it can be difficult to stay ahead of all your other financial obligations while spending on dependent care.

To help make dependent care more affordable, President-elect Donald Trump has included a new provision in his child care plan: the Dependent Care Savings Account. It’s a tax-favored account that anyone with dependents can contribute to in order to save for eligible expenses. Read further to learn exactly what it is, how it works, and who will benefit from it.

What Is The New Dependent Care Savings Account?

Trump’s child care proposal includes creating a Dependent Care Savings Account (DCSA). Parents can contribute up to $2,000 per year to this tax-favored account. Contributions are tax deductible and grow tax-free. Much like a Health Savings Account (HSA), money in a DCSA doesn’t expire. Unused contributions can even be used for a child’s college education expenses once he/she reaches 18.

How Does The Dependent Care Savings Account Work?

DCSAs will be available to everyone regardless of employment status. They won’t be tied to employer accounts.

As previously stated, the maximum annual contribution for DCSAs will be $2,000. Unlike employer-sponsored Dependent Flexible Spending Accounts, unused money in a DCSA will be allowed to carry over year after year. In this way, substantial amounts of money can be accumulated for future dependent care expenses.

Examples of eligible dependent care expenses include:

  • Children
    • After school programs
    • Babysitters
  • Disabled  Spouse
    • In-home care
  • Elderly Parents
    • Adult day care
    • Assisted living

The exact details on how claims will be processed and reimbursed have not been released yet. We suspect it’ll operate similar to an HSA, but on a federal level.

Who Does The Dependent Care Savings Account Benefit?

Anyone who spends money on dependent care can take advantage of the DCSA and reap the tax benefits.

It should be noted that dependents include disabled spouses and elderly parents, not just children. This broadens the applicability of the money put into the account and makes it all the more easy to use it for eligible expenses.

Low-income parents will receive an additional benefit when using DCSAs. The government will match half of the first $1,000 contributed each year. That’s $500 in additional benefits each year.

Trump hasn’t laid out the specific details on how he plans to fund the government match for contributions made by low-income parents. That, however, would come at a large cost. Over 40% of American households have children. If every low-income parent contributed to DCSAs up to the government match, he would need to find a viable way to fund all of those accounts.

His general answer to the funding question is that it’ll be “offset by additional growth.”

Final Thoughts

It’s important to note that in order for DCSAs to have a large scale impact in reducing the cost of dependent care for American families, parents will need to take advantage of the account and contribute to it. Given that participation in FSAs and HSAs has been increasing, the outlook seems promising.

The $500 government match for low-income parents is a lofty provision but may be underutilized in reality. Low-income families may have a hard time coming up with the disposable income to contribute to a DCSA in the first place.

President-elect Trump’s child care plan, specifically the creation of the Dependent Care Savings Account, depends largely on utilization rates. We have our eyes peeled to see how this change affects finances for the U.S., especially families with children or elderly parents.

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Certain expenses can sneak up on you, especially if you don’t run into them too often. For example, a new passport costs $110, but renewal only comes around once every 10 years. Other recurring bills like property taxes, car registration, and insurance payments can also make an unexpected dent in your wallet when they pop up. Do you really even consider these types of things when configuring your budget?

There are many ways to budget for these kinds of costs and make sure that you’re financially prepared. The central idea is to assess all of your potential expenses that occur less frequently than a month, do some simple math, and put away enough money each month to cover them when they pop up.

Getting Organized

When it comes to financial planning, attention to detail is key. And the first step to planning for annual expenses is to have a detailed budget in place.

I prefer to use a spreadsheet for mine, but there are many tools that can help you build a budget. I pair my spreadsheet with Mint to help me automatically track my spending and compare my monthly spending against the budgets I’ve set for myself.

I strongly recommend that you use an automated tool like Mint or the new YNAB if you’re concerned about recurring costs (which you should be!). No amount of planning can fully prepare you for all of the different expenses that come about in a year. It’s especially easy to forget something small or things that come around every 2+ years.

For example, I recently had to renew a few internet domains that I keep as a hobby. While checking out online, I realized I hadn’t budgeted for them at all this year. They just hadn’t come to mind when I was logging things like insurance premiums and membership dues. Once I implemented Mint, though, the app showed me these charges and, in a sense, forced me to rebudget.

My budget spreadsheet has two sections. The upper section has categories like rent, clothing, car payments, and other monthly expenses, along with their associated monthly cost. I’ve then made another column to extrapolate those numbers to show how much I pay annually. This is just to give me a better sense of where my money is going as a whole.

The second section flips this model. Instead of categories, I call out explicit purchases. These include things like new eyeglasses, and I estimate how much I expect to spend on them annually. I then divide that number by 12 to see how much I should be socking away each month to cover their cost. At the bottom of that section, I can simply total the monthly estimates. That way, I know much I need to budget each month to cover all of these costs for a year.

Some expenses don’t happen once a year, so you may need to do some simple math to properly estimate them. For example, your insurance may be charged biannually. Just make sure to do the right math to treat these costs like other annual expenses.

The same goes for purchases that happen every few years, like the passport example mentioned at the start of this article. Saving for a passport renewal at $110 every 10 years costs you a whopping $0.92 per month. Which would you rather prepare for: an unplanned $100+ expense hitting your account, or simply putting less than a dollar away each month?

Getting Disciplined

Once you understand how much you should be saving each month, it’s time to start putting it away. I made a second savings account with my bank, just for this purpose. On the first day of each month, I transfer my magic monthly number from checking into that account. It’s no different than how one might transfer a few hundred dollars into a primary savings account, an IRA, or another taxable account. Instead of a second savings account, you can keep track of this through a spreadsheet or other document you’d prefer. However, I find having a discrete account to be really beneficial.

Of course, one hurdle here will be that when these expenses come up for the first time, you won’t have saved enough yet to cover them. Think carefully about what kinds of expenses those are, and make sure to properly save for them as an aside to this process. I also prefer to inflate my monthly number by a bit (~10%) just in case. It never hurts to be overprepared, and that can really help when something you hadn’t thought of (like that pesky passport renewal) catches up to you.

Once you’ve calculated your annual costs, you might be surprised at how much you need to be saving each month. For some of you, it might be hundreds of dollars that you hadn’t previously budgeted. You need to be disciplined in saving that money each month, or you risk putting yourself into potential debt. Stick to transferring that money on the first of each month! I like to make mine an automatic transfer so I don’t have to remember it. And throughout each month, carefully track which costs hit you that aren’t in your normal monthly budget, so you can recoup that money to pay your bills.

My way of tracking recurring costs is by creating a new unique category in Mint called “Annual Expense,” or something similar. I then tag things like eyeglasses or my Amazon Prime membership with this different category. At the end of each month, Mint easily tells me how much I spent on these kinds of expenses, and then I transfer that amount from the second savings account back into my checking.

This allows me to then have enough to make the credit card payments for those charges. It’s a surprisingly simple system (just like most things when it comes to budgeting), but it takes discipline and organization.

Finally, don’t get complacent. This system only works as well as you maintain it. That means that when an unexpected cost comes up, it’s time to get to work. Appropriately budget for it, change your monthly magic number, and plan ahead for what comes next. Yes, it’s work, but that’s what good financial planning is all about. And let’s be fair here: the “work” is actually quite easy.

Your Plan

The method I’ve outlined here works great for me, but I’m curious what works for you. The fundamental strategy of planning for annual costs is to determine what you need to save each month, and put that money somewhere. These expenses will be different for everyone, but you should certainly know where yours stand.

Please chime in if you have a different system for planning, as we’d all like to hear about what’s been effective for you. It’s often hard to think about these kinds of recurring costs, causing people to disregard or fail to save for them. A system that’s easy to understand can go a long way to protecting your financial future.

For reference, here are all the annual costs for which I currently budget: Amazon Prime, license and passport renewal, internet domains, new eyeglasses, vacations and travel, car registration, property tax, gym membership, Xbox Live, veterinary costs, a new cell phone, car maintenance, holiday and birthday gifts, and a local film festival.

What other/different expenses do you see each year?

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In chemistry, a catalyst is something that triggers a reaction — but the nature of the reaction itself depends on having the right elements in place to respond to the catalyst.

What brought to mind that tattered remnant of high school chemistry was thinking back on buying my first house.

I’ll explain how I got from home-buying to chemistry — and, in the process, hopefully share some pointers about what elements should be in place when you buy a home and what catalysts might trigger you to react to those elements.

The chemistry of home-buying

The reason I’m talking about home-buying in terms of chemistry is that there is more to buying a home than pure dollars and cents. Don’t get me wrong. The financials are important, and I’ve written a fair amount about some of the financial aspects of home-buying. However, what is equally important is your personal outlook.

Generally, the elements of your personal situation fall into place bit by bit over time, and you might not really notice how they are developing. It can take a catalyst to set everything in motion.

In my case, the catalyst was simple: Our landlord tried to raise our rent by $50. That doesn’t sound like much today; but at the time, it was 12.5 percent of the rent we were paying previously. More than that, it was a catalyst to us. We realized that renting meant being subject to that unpredictability every year when the lease term ended.

Once that catalyst sparked the idea of buying a home, all the right elements were in place for us to follow through on our decision. My career was progressing well, I had gotten married and we planned to have kids, and we had family roots in the area. If it hadn’t been for that catalyst, though, I’m not sure how long it would have taken for it to occur to us to buy a house. So, we have our landlord to thank.

Here’s how the chemistry of home-buying might come together for you.

How to know if it is time to buy a house

Here are some of the right elements for buying a home:

  • Career stability. This does not necessarily mean that you plan on staying in the same job, but that you have in-demand skills and that there is a healthy job market for those skills within commuting distance of the house you plan to buy.
  • Commitment to your area. It could come down to the weather, family and friends, arts and entertainment, or all of the above, but you need to figure out where you want to be for the long haul. It’s okay to be restless when you are young, but it is better if you aren’t that way after you buy a house.
  • Clarity about your household. It might take several years before you start to have clarity on what your household will look like in the future: Will you marry? Do you expect to have kids? Will elderly parents come live with you at some point? The more clarity you have about the size of your household in the years ahead, the easier it is to know what kind of home to buy, though it is always wise to make choices that build in a little flexibility as well.
  • Knowing yourself. Life plans and personal tastes take a while to evolve. Don’t rush into home-buying unless you have a good handle on what you want for the long term.
  • Affordability. This is an entirely different area of discussion; but if the dollars and cents don’t add up, not all the elements for buying a home are in place.

Catalysts can help you decide

Given the right elements, what can trigger you to act on them? Here are some possibilities:

  • A jump in rents. As I mentioned, that did it for us. It changes the current comparison between renting and owning costs, and makes you think about stabilizing your housing expense for the future.
  • Low mortgage rates. You should look at today’s mortgage rates as an opportunity that might not always be there. If home-buying is in your future, you might want to accelerate the timing to take advantage.
  • A change in household. Getting married or having a baby might mean you have to find a bigger place anyway, so you might think about doing that by buying.
  • A strong raise in pay. A meaningful bump-up — beyond the standard annual cost-of-living type of adjustment — could not only give you the financial means to buy a home, but it might also be a sign that your career is well enough on track for you to make that kind of commitment.

In short, besides the math of affordability, buying a home comes down to the chemistry of your personal situation. Perhaps if we had known so much was riding on math and chemistry, we all would have paid more attention in high school.

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My Annual Personal Goal Review

by Luke Landes

For the first time in several years, at the beginning of 2014, I shared my personal and financial plans for the year. I had navigated away from sharing personal data on Consumerism Commentary, leaving an opening for Naked With Cash. Over the course of the past two years, eleven readers shared their financial goals and […]

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12 Alternative Financial Resolutions for 2014

by Luke Landes
New year hat

New Year’s resolutions have become so cliché that the process of making them has become a joke. People settle for mundane goals for the year like “losing weight,” “quitting smoking,” and “getting out of debt.” These are great goals, of course, but most who think about these only when the calendar changes soon forget their […]

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My Personal and Financial Plans for 2014

by Luke Landes

The last time I shared my personal goals and plans with Consumerism Commentary readers was at the very beginning of 2011. I went so far to declare that 2011 would be the year that everything changes, a subtle homage to a television program called Torchwood. Anyway, I was right; in 2011, my life changed, but […]

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How Is Your Budget Doing These Days?

by Phil Cioppa

This is a guest article by Phil Cioppa of Arbol Financial Strategies, LLC. Phil has over 10 years of financial service experience and specializes in asset management strategies, insurance planning and taxation issues. A budget is an important part of any financial plan, and right now is the best time to take another look at […]

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A Different Environment for 2012 Goals and Resolutions

by Luke Landes

I’ve exchanged some of the stress and risk in my life for a more comfortable situation. At the end of October, as some readers have been aware, I relinquished my ownership of Consumerism Commentary. There was an announcement in the Wall Street Journal that I’ll link to below for those who are curious about some […]

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Reflecting on My 2011 Goals

by Luke Landes

A little less than a year ago, I mentioned that 2011 would be the year that everything changes. It’s a phrasing that I borrowed from Torchwood, but it was relevant for me as well as to the television program’s concept. I’ll have more to say about this year’s changes later. At the time I created […]

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