Amazingly, less than two months from mailing in my claim submission, the State of California actually sent me a check for my $74.93 in unclaimed money. Thanks guys, sorry you can’t use it to plug your gaping budget hole, but I’m sure you’ll get me back somehow. 😉 Here’s an expanded listing of useful websites to see if you’ve got any money waiting for you:
California, along with many other states, is broke. As part of an attempt to create more revenue, California passed a more aggressive law to force online merchants to collect sales tax. A 1992 Supreme Court decision stated that retailers that don’t have a physical presence in a state don’t have to collect sales taxes for sales to that state. But some states have passed new laws that redefine “physical presence” to include online affiliates and any subsidiaries.
Amazon.com affiliates are the thousands of websites like this one, where if you click on a link to a book or other product and buy something within a certain time frame, I get a commission of a few percent of your purchase. It’s a safe bet that the majority of blogs you read participate, even if the actual revenue is relatively small. But, by California’s new definition, if just one person is both an affiliate and lives in California, then Amazon.com has to start collecting sales tax from everyone in the state. What’s Amazon’s solution? Easy, cut off all CA affiliates immediately. That’s what they’ve done everywhere else. From CNN:
Other states that have passed the so-called “Amazon tax” in recent years include Connecticut, Illinois, New York, North Carolina, Arkansas and Rhode Island. The retailer has dropped the associates program in all these states, except New York, where it has a brought a lawsuit against the state.
Many other merchants that operate online like Overstock.com have been doing the same thing. They’d much rather lose the incremental revenue from affiliates than have to effectively increase prices for all customers from an entire state. For many website owners, Amazon is their primary source of income, and this move will force many of them to pick up and move.
At the same time, not paying sales tax is one of the expected benefits of buying from Amazon. (Even though in many states you’re technically still supposed to calculate and send it in manually, people rarely do.) This understandably annoys the national brick-and-mortar merchants like Walmart or Target.
As both a consumer and an Amazon affiliate, I am a concerned onlooker. These are two behemoths playing a high-stakes game, but I feel empathy towards those small businesses that just lost a huge chunk of their revenue overnight through no fault of their own. They seem to be collateral damage in this battle.
Tax Day has come and gone (unless you filed an extension). Recently, there was a competition to see who could best “create data visualizations that would make it easier for U.S. citizens to understand how the government spends our tax money”. I’m guessing that most people really don’t know, including myself. The winner was WhereDidMyTaxDollarsGo.com, where you simply type in your income and filing status and off it goes.
I certainly found it very visually appealing. It appears to assume you take the standard deduction. I figured that national defense, Social Security, Medicare, and debt interest payments were going to be a big chunk, but wasn’t really aware of how big the “Income Security” category was. Overall, it reminded me of a less-intimidating version of the US Budget poster.
A rep from TurboTax contacted me to help give away three copies of their TurboTax Online software as a last-minute promotion reminding folks that the filing deadline this year is extended to Monday, April 18th due to the usual April 15th being a holiday in the District of Columbia (Emancipation Day). Apparently, 27% of taxpayers wait until the last two weeks to file their returns. I seem to wait longer and longer, especially with all these 1099s to wait for.
The giveaway is for a code redeemable at TurboTax.com and good for one free federal + state preparation and e-file with TurboTax Premier Online 2010 ($87 retail value). This is the level above Deluxe, which has added guidance for investments and those with rental income (Schedule E).
If you’d like to be entered for the giveaway, just leave a comment with a valid e-mail below by 1pm Eastern on Friday, April 15th. You don’t need to include your full name, but one entry per reader please. I’ll randomly pick 3 winners and contact you via e-mail later that same day so you can finish the darn things over the weekend.
The deadline for filing your federal taxes this year is Monday, April 18th, 2011. If you file for an extension, you will automatically be extended to Monday, October 17, 2011. Here’s how you can e-File a federal extension online in minutes for free.
Option #1: TaxACT
This is how I did my extension last year. Just sign up with TaxACT and e-file your extension for free through them. It’s quick. It’s easy. You don’t even need to actually use them to file your taxes later, although TaxACT is also free for federal taxes with e-File included regardless of income, and is only $14.95 for state returns with free e-File.
(That’s cheaper than TurboTax or TaxCut, although if you’re already familiar with those programs it may be worth the extra bucks to stick with them, since you can save time by importing your previous year’s data.)
To register with TaxACT, you just need an e-mail and to set your passwords. To go directly to the extension form, click on the “Filing” tab on the top, and then the “File Extension” link right below it (see below). You will then be walked through the Form 4868 in a question-and-answer format. You will then be able to have the form filed electronically instantly (or you can print and snail mail).
If you wish to make a tax payment, you will be able to choose to pay with direct withdrawal from a bank account (account and routing numbers required) or pay with a credit card (IRS fees apply). Afterward, they will send a confirmation of your accepted extension e-file by e-mail or text message. I got mine within a few hours.
Option #2: Free File Fillable Forms
This one’s a little harder to find, but here are some step-by-step instructions. Go to the Free File Fillable Forms site (go alliteration!) and click on “Start Free File Fillable Forms”. Click “Sign-in” on the top left, and create a new account with your e-mail and password information. After you’re signed in, click on “Continue” and pick your form. Go with the full form 1040. On the top right, you should see an icon with the label “File an Extension”.
This will bring up Form 4868. Click around the form to fill the boxes out. You’ll need to estimate your total tax liability, but since this is just an online version of the form so there is no guidance included. As above, you can request your estimated tax payment to be withdrawn electronically by supplying your bank’s routing and account numbers. For identification purposes, you’ll need your adjusted gross income (AGI) from your 2009 tax return.
Please note that filing an extension only extends the time to file your return and does not extend the time to pay any tax due. To avoid late payment penalties and interest you must estimate what tax will be due and pay that when you file the extension. I would overestimate my tax liability a bit to avoid penalties, and get a slight refund when I eventually file my full return.
Got state income taxes as well? Here is a helpful page on state-specific tax extensions.
Here’s another infographic from the New York Times illustrating the proposed budget for 2012. Rectangles are sized according to the proposed spending. Color shows severity of cut or increase from 2010 (green increase, red decrease).
If you like such visualizations, check out Death and Taxes 2011.
H&R Block contacted me to help give away six copies of their H&R Block At Home tax preparation software (formerly TaxCut). Specifically, you will get a free code for H&R Block At Home Premium edition ($49.95 retail value), the level above Deluxe, which has added guidance for the self-employed (Schedule C) and those with rental income (Schedule E). Federal E-file is included. State filing is $34.95 extra.
First, please consider my other H&R Block At Home findings:
- Amazon.com has H&R Block At Home Deluxe Federal + Federal E-File + State for $24.99. State E-file looks to be another $19.95 extra. (If you are willing to download directly onto your computer, it’s only $21.99. Here are the direct download links for Windows or Mac.) Premium is $44.77.
- If you are okay with mail-in rebates, you can get H&R Block Deluxe bundled with some anti-virus software for $20 + $2 shipping, and get a $20 prepaid VISA card via rebate at TigerDirect. I couldn’t get the rebate form to download.
- Until February 15th, you can visit a physical H&R Block location and get your return done for free, but only if you qualify for a 1040-EZ. (No itemized deductions, no dependents, no capital gains.) Otherwise, you’ll have to pay significantly more than the DIY software. Considering the 1040-EZ is only like a page long, if you qualify your taxes should pretty easy to do yourself anyway.
- You can save 25% off all the online versions here.
If you’d like to be entered for the giveaway, just leave a comment with a valid e-mail below by 11:59pm Pacific on Tuesday, February 15th. Name not necessary. I’ll randomly pick 6 winners and contact you via e-mail.
With doing our taxes properly on our minds, what are the chances we’ll get caught if we don’t? Well, there are several ways that the IRS can detect if your return is suspicious, especially if your inputs don’t match up with their W-2 and 1099 records.
Here are the number of IRS audits and the respective probabilities for individuals and businesses during 2010. Large corporations and wealthy individuals have the highest chance of getting audited, which makes sense since they offer the largest potential payoff. If you are an individual making under $200k a year, then your overall chances are 1 in 100. However, I’m sure if your tax return is clean and you didn’t claim to donate $10,000 in used clothing, your actual odds are even better.
Source: IRS, Businessweek
Anyone out there get audited last year?
I just received the following e-mail from Half.com, where I occasionally sell used books:
We’re writing to let you know that starting with transactions occurring on or after January 1, 2011, new Internal Revenue Service (IRS) regulations require Half.com (and other businesses that process payments) to file a Form 1099-K for all sellers with more than 200 transactions and $20,000 USD in sales per year.
If you’re a high-volume seller who has met or is close to meeting the IRS thresholds, we may need to generate a Form 1099-K for you. If you have multiple accounts, we’ll take all of them into consideration when calculating your volume status. If you exceed the IRS thresholds, we’ll send your first Form 1099-K to you in early 2012. Your Form 1099-K will give you a consolidated report of all payments received through Half.com for 2011. This information will also be reported to the IRS.
Apparently, as part of new legislation designed to help track down (and tax) unreported income, starting in 2011 any credit or debit card payment processor with clients that have more than 200 transactions and $20,000 in sales per year must file a 1099-K with the IRS.
In addition to Half.com, this also includes individual sellers using services like PayPal and Amazon.com. Perhaps also sites like Etsy and Zazzle? This won’t affect me, but I think it’s a pretty good idea. I do feel that lots of eBay income goes unreported, and the limits are reasonable. If you’re clearing 200 transactions and $20k in payments, you should be tracking your income and expenses like a business. This 1099-K won’t really matter as it just reports gross amounts.
I’m more scared about the upcoming changes in 2012 that says that a business has to file a 1099-MISC for any person or business it pays more than $600 in a calendar year. Corporations are no longer exempt. That’s a ton of 1099 forms swirling around. I’m going to have to send W-9 forms to everyone from Staples to my web hosting company. I still hope they’ll change this rule before it goes into effect and swamps tons of small businesses.
Our tax rates for the next two years have been decided, a two whole weeks before January 1st! Just in time for their winter break, what a coincidence. 😉 The “Tax Relief, Unemployment Insurance Reauthorization, and Job Creation Act of 2010” was signed into law last Friday. There’s a lot of stuff in it, as with any tax-related it seems, but here are the two big highlights for individuals:
Payroll Tax Cut
The employee portion of the Social Security tax is reduced to 4.2% in 2011, down from 6.2%. This lasts only for one year. The employer portion remains unchanged at 6.2%. The limits on wages subject to Social Security tax remains at at $106,800 for 2011. Medicare taxes remain unchanged at 1.45% each for employers and employees.
For example, someone earning $50,000 will pay 2% less towards Social Security, for a tax savings of $1,000 spread out over a year of paychecks. The maximum savings per person is then $2,136. Your future Social Security benefit is not directly affected by this change.
However, what has been expired is the “Making Work Pay Tax Credit” of 2009 and 2010, which was a refundable tax credit 6.2 percent of earned income, up to $400 (single) or $800 (married filing jointly). This meant that if you were single with earned income of at least $6,452 in 2010, you got a $400 tax credit. Married couples filing joint returns earning over $12,903 got $800. Note that this tax credit was phased out for taxpayers with modified adjusted gross income in excess of $75,000 (single) or $150,000 (married couples filing jointly).
Here’s a chart from the Tax Policy Center showing the net difference in tax savings from two as a function of earnings.
As you can see, our example of a single person earning $50,000 would be paying approximately $600 less in taxes in 2011. (Gain of $1,000 payroll tax cut, loss of $400 MWP tax credit.)
Current Individual Income Tax Rates Extended
The current income tax rates, sometimes referred to as the “Bush Tax Cuts”, are extended for everyone for two years. Although the exact income ranges are not set, here are projections from the tax software provider CCH Group. They are slightly higher than the 2010 Federal tax brackets, due to inflation.
For the curious, it is estimated that an individual earning $50,000 in 2011 will paying $890 less in federal income taxes as compared to what would happen if no action was taken (even though that was highly unlikely).
- The top rate of 15% for qualified capital gains and dividends is extended for another two years, along with the 0% rate for taxpayers in the 10 and 15 percent income tax brackets.
- Another last-minute patch was made for those subject to the Alternative Minimum Tax because the brackets were not mandated to be adjusted with inflation. The 2010 exemption amount will be $47,450 (single) and $72,450 (married filing jointly).
- Extended unemployment benefits are to be continued at their current level for 13 months.
Since we know that the income and capital gains tax rates will stay the same for the next two years, the standard end-of-year tax actions should apply. The general idea being to take any deductions you can right now, and defer as much income as possible until next year.
Here’s an e-mail I got yesterday from a reporter from National Public Radio, looking for some volunteers for a story that requires someone who is both willing to be open about their finances and who also keeps a close accounting of things.
Jonathan – I am working on a story for National Public Radio about taxes. […] We want to track all of the taxes paid by one average American. All the taxes. Property tax, income tax, sales tax (as best we can), hotel taxes, airline taxes, capital gains taxes…
We just want to give listeners a sense of all the taxes we pay. The theory is that we might be surprised at how much we pay in non-income taxes. […] Perhaps one of your readers would fit the bill.
I’m still trying to be anonymous, but if you’re interested, please e-mail Tamara Keith directly at tkeith -@t- npr.org.
Sometimes saving money just involves being lucky. I don’t really keep up with mortgage rates anymore, but last week an e-mail subject line just happened to catch my eye that mortgage rates are at “record lows”. I always figured that my 5.125% rate was so low that another refinance or loan modification probably would never be worth it, but it turns out that rates are so low they just might. Here’s a quick snapshot of rates from a Wall Street Journal article on 7/16/10:
The 30-year fixed-rate mortgage averaged 4.57% in the week ended Thursday, unchanged from a week earlier and down from 5.14% a year earlier. Rates on 15-year fixed-rate mortgages were 4.06%, extending the lowest point since Freddie started tracking it in 1991, and down from 4.07% last week and 4.63% a year earlier. […] To obtain the rates, the mortgages required payment of an average 0.7 point. A point is 1% of the mortgage amount, charged as prepaid interest.
has ads now for 4.25% fixed for 30 years and 3.75% for 15 years. As for me, I might be able to get my interest rate below 4.75% and have a “breakeven” period of less than 3 years. I’m awaiting official paperwork. Ask your loan servicer and/or mortgage broker what they can do for you. Can’t hurt to ask!
Meanwhile, I was playing with the Refinance Breakeven calculator over at DinkyTown and found out that there are multiple definitions of “breakeven period”. Before, I simply figured that a refinance would cost X dollars upfront in fees and closing costs, but would save me Y dollars per month. Divide X by Y, and you’d have a breakeven point. For example, if it cost you $2,400 in fees but saved you $100 per month, you’d break even in 24 months. Past that, you’re saving $100 every month. In this case, if you plan to keep your mortgage for longer than 24 months, then refinancing makes sense.
However, there are actually four possible breakeven methods presented:
- Monthly payment savings. The simple formula described above. The number of months it will take for your monthly payment reduction to be greater then your closing costs. Doesn’t take into account that you may be making more monthly payments.
- Interest savings (plus PMI if applicable). The number of months it will take for your interest and PMI savings to exceed your closing costs.
- After-tax interest savings (plus PMI if applicable). The number of months it will take for the after-tax interest and PMI savings to exceed your closing costs. This takes into account that the interest and PMI being paid may be tax-deductible, while the closing costs are paid with after-tax money only. Depends on your income tax rate.
- Total after-tax interest savings vs. prepayment. This is the most conservative breakeven measure, and will result in the longest breakeven time period. This method considers that you could take the amount spent on refi closing costs and instead make a large prepayment on your existing mortgage. Then, it calculates the number of months it will take for the after-tax interest and PMI savings to exceed both the closing costs and any interest savings from prepaying your mortgage.
Which method is best?
First, I should add that you could complicate things even further by assuming any money not paid out immediately could earn a rate of return (savings accounts, CD, etc.) But that would make my head explode, so I won’t. The calculator suggests that methods #2 and #3 are most commonly accepted, and I would tend to agree. If you are sure that your interest is 100% tax-deductible (you exceed the standard deduction provided by the IRS without it), then you should use the value from #3. Otherwise, something in between #2 and #3 is probably the most accurate.
Method #4 compares with another theoretical situation that only applies if you really want to make a lump-sum prepayment and keep the higher monthly mortgage payment over a shorter mortgage term. For many people, the goal is to lower the monthly outlay and improve cashflow as well as save money on interest.