Report: IRS Debt Collection Program Cost Taxpayers Millions

tax debt collection by the irs
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In its first year in operation, a new IRS program that was meant to outsource federal tax debt collection efforts ultimately cost U.S. taxpayers three times more than it actually recovered.

The findings were published in a Jan. 10 report by the National Taxpayer Advocate (NTA), an independent consumer advocacy arm of the IRS.

In 2015, federal lawmakers enacted legislation that required the IRS to outsource its tax debt collection efforts to private collection agencies. The agency hired four agencies to do the job and spent a total of $20 million to cover program operations. The agencies were charged with collecting $920 million in unpaid debt but, ultimately, they managed to recoup a mere fraction of that amount — $6.7 million in recovered tax debts, according to the report.

Read more: Tax Reform 2018 Explained

After its first year, the current attempt has resulted in a net loss of $13.3 million with less than 1 percent of unpaid tax debt collected.

Consumer advocacy groups like the National Consumer Law Center (NCLC) were quick to cry foul, saying the report’s findings show that the program needlessly wasted money and abused taxpayer rights.

“The IRS private debt collector program is the epitome of waste and abuse in government programs,” said Chi Chi Wu, a staff attorney at the NCLC in a statement.

It’s not the first time the U.S. government has outsourced debt collection efforts to private firms. The NCLC notes that an effort in the mid-1990s lost $17 million and was cut after a year. Another attempt to outsource debt collection in 2006 lasted three years and lost $4.5 million.

Among the taxpayers who were most impacted by this latest private collection program are families hovering just above the poverty line, those beneath it, and retirees who are on Social Security or receive disability benefits.

The report found:

  • 4,905 taxpayers were assigned to private collection firms, and of those, 4,141 filed recent returns by Sept. 28, 2017.
  • 44 percent of those taxpayers had incomes below 250 percent of the federal poverty line ($24,600 for a family of four).
  • 28 percent had an annual income of less than $20,000
  • 19 percent had a median annual income of $6,386
  • 5 percent received Social Security or disability and had a median income of $14,365
report finds IRS private tax debt collection cost more than recouped
Source: Taxpayer Advocate Service

When you owe a tax debt to the IRS, the IRS typically calculates payment plans so that a family can keep up necessary living expenses like housing, transportation, utilities, food, and out-of-pocket health care after making their tax debt payment. However, NTA states that the data shows that these taxpayers were still pressured by the private collection firms hired by the IRS to enter into payment plans they couldn’t afford.

“Forcing the IRS to use private debt collectors to put the squeeze on vulnerable low-income families simply lines the pockets of these private collectors while jeopardizing the economic well-being of families,” said Wu.

Further insight into the problem is difficult to obtain, the NTA says, because the IRS refuses to let representatives of the organization listen to calls between private debt collectors and taxpayers.

Where do the recovered tax debts go?

Under this program, the IRS would send a 10-day notice to taxpayers letting them know a private debt collector will be assigned to them. Of the $6.7 million collected by PCA’s in 2017, $1.2 million, or 18 percent, was recovered as a result of those letters.

Private firms are not supposed to receive a commission off of collected debts. But the NTA study states that the private debt collectors are receiving commission for work done by the IRS and the agency “has no plans to change its procedures to attempt to identify payments that were clearly not attributable to PCA action.”

The IRS is authorized to keep 25 percent of the amount collected by the private agencies and the agencies themselves receive 20 percent in commission. Of the unpaid taxes collected by PCAs, $3 million is the minimum amount left that goes to the Treasury.

What do I do if debt collectors call?

If you’re called by a debt collector, there are several things to know. First, that you have rights, and second, that you need to know more.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) states certain laws related to debt collection are put in place to protect taxpayers’ privacy and security. For example, they can’t call before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m. and they can’t harass or threaten you. In addition, if you have an attorney,  the debt collector will need to contact them instead of you.

You also should check with your state attorney general’s office to see if it offers any additional protection or help for dealing with debt collectors.

Keeping track of your documents is also important. Any communication between you and the debt collector, including letters you may have sent, should be kept in a file that starts when the collector calls, the CFPB suggests.

Identifying the debt collector can save you from taking on a debt that isn’t yours or entering into a less-than ideal payment plan. The CFPB suggests that you don’t give any information, personal or financial, until you’ve verified the collector’s name, address, phone number, and all information about the debt, such as whether it’s yours or not, any dates associated with it, and the total amount including any fees.

What happens if I owe a tax debt?

If you owe a tax debt, you should act sooner rather than later. Unpaid tax debts can not only result in extensive penalties and fees but it could result in:

Reduced Social Security benefits

  • Garnished wages
  • Seized property
  • Passport revocation

Interest is compounded daily on past due taxes (the rate fluctuates, but is 3% more than the federal short-term rate) and late payment penalties are charged separately and can go as high as 25% of the owed amount.

If you owe a tax debt, you still have to file your taxes on time.

If you can’t pay, the worst thing to do is ignore the bill. Contact the IRS and ask them to set up some kind of payment plan that you can afford.

The post Report: IRS Debt Collection Program Cost Taxpayers Millions appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

7 Things You Should Know Before You Rent Out Your Home

The single-family rental industry is booming. So many homeowners are choosing to rent out their homes these days that annual home sales dipped 5 percent in 2017, translating to about 270,000 fewer homes sold that year, according to a study by Zillow.

Contrary to popular belief, big-time real estate investors aren’t driving that growth. On the contrary, a recent report by the Urban Institute found nearly half — 45 percent — of single-family rentals are owned by investors who own just one unit.

Cindy Kluger, 50, of Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., became an unexpected landlord in 2017.

In January, Kluger, a single mother of two — a 16-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter — inherited her aunt’s home in the popular Larchmont district of Los Angeles.

“I was sort of excited about it from the beginning simply because it’s the house where I spent all of my holidays growing up,” Kluger told MagnifyMoney. “I get the honor of caring for this house that meant so much to all of us growing up.”

The home was built in the 1920s and had been in the family for nearly half a century, mostly serving as a destination for family holiday gatherings. Because her extended family was emotionally attached to the home, Kluger knew she didn’t want to live in it or sell the property, but there were taxes and maintenance fees to cover. As an alternative, she decided to rent the entire house out.

For any first-time landlord, navigating the ins and outs of renting out a property can be challenging.

“Being an effective single-family home landlord requires discipline first and foremost,” said Brian Davis, co-founder of SparkRental.com. “Being a landlord is not an emotional business, it’s a business of operating systematically.”

Here are some practical tips for anyone planning to rent out their single-family home for the first time.

Any home improvements needed at the property

203k loan

Before you put your home on the rental market, you should make sure it has been properly inspected and that any underlying structural issues are repaired first.

“I think all homes should have an inspection, even new construction,” said Greenville, S.C.- based real estate consultant Sunny Lake. “To protect you and your investment, it’s always a good idea to have experts working for you to give you an opinion of value and condition.”.

Specifically, look for what needs to be fixed to make sure the property is both legally habitable and aesthetically marketable for prospective tenants.

Because Kluger had inherited a home that had been in her family for decades, she soon realized how many issues had been fixed with DIY repairs.

“For the past 20 years [my aunt] had put bandaids on what was broken,” she said. “I realized that everything had to be examined.”

To bring the home into the modern era, Kluger had to completely redo the home’s foundation, electricity, and plumbing, in addition to ripping out the wall-to-wall carpeting in favor of hardwood and repainting the walls.

“I think it’s super important to think about these things that you may not be aware of because you are not living in the house,” she said. “You don’t want to bring renters into that environment.”

Your property management style

One of the most important things you will need to figure out is who will be responsible for managing the property. Most crucial, you’ll need to decide who handles any general maintenance and whom the tenants will contact if something breaks.

If you take on that responsibility yourself, you may be on call 24/7 to fix a broken pipe (or call someone who can go to the property to fix it). This is the approach Kluger plans to take.

“The fact that I sort of enjoyed all of the maintenance things came as sort of a surprise,” said Kluger. As she set about renovating her home, Kluger says made several contacts with vendors in the area whom she can call if tenants report anything broken and trust they will promptly handle the request.

Lake says you can do it yourself if you are a hands-on person with a network of service providers. But, not all landlords want to take the hands-on approach.

“Landlords should hire a property manager if [they don’t live near the property], or if they don’t have the discipline to manage their properties effectively,” added Davis.

If you plan to hire a property management firm, be prepared to pay between 8 to 10 percent of the monthly rent as a fee, says Lake, although that fee will vary by location.

With that fee comes some valuable bonuses, including peace of mind knowing that the major snafus will be handled by someone else.

Having a property management company might also attract higher-quality tenants, assuming the company provides a higher level of service than you would be able to offer as a single property manager.

Property management companies may also have more experience dealing with tenant issues. If the tenants don’t pay rent, for example, the management company may have a process and a legal team already in place to help resolve the issue.

“It all depends on your accessibility, and how much contact you want to have with the tenants,” said Lake. “Lots of investors feel like the fee is worth it to not have to deal with the potential hassles of late rent, walk-throughs, property maintenance, etc.”

What you expect your tenants to maintain

Some property managers handle all of the property maintenance, while others only manage a portion and expect the tenant to do some of the work involved in keeping the property clean and looking nice.

In the case of a single-family property, tenants might be asked to keep up with lawn maintenance, pay for a garbage collection service, or even homeowners’ association fees, if applicable. And that information should be included in the lease that the tenant signs.

If you won’t allow the tenant to do any landscaping or lawn maintenance because you plan to hire a company to come handle that kind of stuff on a periodic basis, for example, that needs to be stated in writing in the lease. If the tenant is expected to cover HOA fees, the details about how you’ll collect the fee needs to be in the lease, too.

In addition, the lease would need to outline what kinds of modifications the renter is allowed to make to the property. Are they allowed to paint the outside of the home? What about the walls on the inside?

Can they install a fence to keep their dogs in the backyard? If you don’t want your tenants to make any drastic changes to the property, that needs to be clearly stated in writing.

How you’ll find reliable tenants

It’s your property, so you’ll need to decide how you’ll choose a tenant for your property. It’s easy enough to post an ad on Craigslist or Facebook, but that’s just the first step. Once you receive applications, you want to make sure you have a way to choose a tenant you can trust to pay rent in full and on time. That may involve some level of underwriting — like like pulling a credit report and running criminal background check — to check a tenant’s creditworthiness.

“Tenant screening is an art and science in itself” said Davis. He offers the following tips to simplify the process:

  1. Always run full credit, criminal, and eviction reports.
  2. Always verify income and employment.
  3. Verify housing history as best you can with not just the current landlord but a prior landlord.
  4. Consider inspecting the applicant’s current home to see if they maintain it well.

Davis recommends making the inspection of the applicant’s current home a condition of lease acceptance.

“Applicants don’t have to agree, and the landlord doesn’t have to lease to them,” he says. “But, because it’s the most labor-intensive part of screening, it should be left for last, and only done for applicants who otherwise will be accepted.”

In Kluger’s case, she decided to get the help of a real estate agent to find her first tenant. The agent will find and screen tenants on behalf of Kluger and her father, this time.

“Once she helps us with that process my intention is to educate myself and learn what needs to be done to properly screen renters,” said Kluger.

Regardless of the agent’s opinion, the landlord gets the last word.

“One of the things my dad had me ask the real estate agent is that after she screens the person and thinks she has found a good candidate that we get last say. That we get to meet them and sign off,” said Kluger.

Even if you have a real estate agent taking applications, as in Kluger’s case, Lake recommends hiring an agency to run background checks on any applicants, as they have more access to financial, criminal, and other personal history.

If you don’t have the budget to hire an agent and agency, you may be able to handle the process on your own.

There are several websites that offer tenant screening services, for a fee. A couple of examples include Spark RentalCozy, and MyRental. Cozy, for example, charges $39.99 for both a background check and credit report, but the fee is assessed to the applicant, not the landlord. MyRental reports even include a ‘tenant score’ — a three-digit number that predicts the likelihood of lease default and lets you see if other landlords in your area accepted or declined applicants with that score for around $35.

How much you’ll charge for rent

To set your number, Lake says you’ll need to know the current market value of your property, which will vary based on the location and vacancy rates. She recommends calling up experts in your market for help in determining the rent amount if you’re not a seasoned agent or investor.

“You don’t want to overprice the property and have it sit empty,” she said. “But you don’t want to underprice it and leave money on the table.”

Beware: There may be restrictions on how much you are allowed to raise rent each year. Rent control laws are passed by cities, so you should check the municipal code to see if any rent control laws apply to the area you live in.

You can find your home’s estimated value on mortgage websites like Zillow or Trulia. You can also pay to have an appraiser come and check out your property in person for a more accurate estimate.

“Appraisals are required for financing, but landlords should learn to assess market rents for themselves,” advised Davis.

You should also decide how much of a security deposit, if any, you will request. The deposit acts as security for you in case the tenant is unable to pay rent for a period of time, or to fix any damages left by the tenant when he or she eventually moves out.

The rules surrounding security deposits vary from state to state. For example, New York has no law limiting the amount a landlord can charge for a security deposit, but, if the apartment is in the rent-controlled jurisdiction of New York City, the landlord is limited to collecting up to one month’s rent for a security deposit. Meanwhile, Alabama state law limits landlords to taking only one month’s rent.

State laws may also regulate where you are allowed to keep security deposit funds, if you must first do a walk-through of the residence to collect a deposit, when you are allowed to keep the deposit, and within what amount of time you are required to return the deposit. Check landlord tenant laws in your state to figure out what rules apply to you. Here are a few resources on NoloAmerican Apartment Owners Association and Landlord.com to get started.

Outside of the law, the amount you require is up to you to decide, but will likely depend on how confident you are about the applicant’s creditworthiness. For example, if the applicant is self-employed and that causes you to be less confident in their ability to make the rent payments, you may require a larger security deposit, or ask them to pay upfront a few months worth of rent before they are permitted to move in.

How the cash flows work

If you’re looking to rent a single-family home as an investment property, you should understand the money going in and out of your investment, and how much it will cost you to make money on your rental. In other words, you should understand your cash flows.

For example, you may run yourself into the red if the rent you charge is only enough to cover your monthly mortgage payment and doesn’t take into consideration all of the other costs you’ll incur renting the property like your property tax, utilities, or what you pay to a property manager or other facility managers.

To get an idea of your cash flows, consider your maintenance costs on the property. In addition to property taxes, community fees, and general maintenance costs, you want to factor in cushion for the unexpected, like any potential lapses in tenancy during which you may not be able to receive rent, too.

“You need to have some risk tolerance to be an investor,” says Lake. “If the rental market is soft in your area, you need to have enough other cash flow to maintain your property even if it’s vacant.”

Lay out the cash flow — what you’ll be paid versus the amount of money you plan to put into the investment — and see if the number you estimate you’ll have after all is said and done makes good financial sense for you to rent the property.

What your insurance policy covers

If you’re renting out a home that’s still under a mortgage, you will likely need to purchase a landlord insurance policy to have the proper protections in place, according to Davis. The protection is similar to a homeowner’s insurance policy, but it doesn’t cover belongings.

Some homeowners insurance policies will cover short-term rentals, but most don’t cover long-term rentals like you would need to rent a home. Landlord policies generally cost about 25 percent more than a standard homeowners policy, according to the III, but you’ll get more protections in exchange for the increase.

Landlord insurance typically provides:

  • Property insurance coverage — This covers any physical damages to the structure of the home caused by nature.
  • Coverage for your personal items — If a lawnmower you keep on-site for lawn maintenance burns in a wildfire, for example, landlord insurance would pay for the loss.
  • Liability coverage — Legal and medical expenses may be covered if a tenant or one of their guests gets hurt while on the property.
  • Coverage for loss of rental income — If for some reason you are not able to rent the property — maybe it’s being repaired or rebuilt after damage from a covered loss — the insurance company should pay you the lost rental income for a specific period of time.

Since landlord insurance won’t cover your tenant’s stuff, you may also want to state in your lease whether or not you will require a tenant to keep renters insurance. When your tenant has renters insurance, that saves you, the landlord, from liability if something happens (think: fire, flood) and the tenant’s items are damaged.

How you’ll cover a bad tenant or an emergency

As a landlord, you’ll want to have an emergency fund or other fast borrowing option in place in case you need to make an unexpected major repair, or cover your mortgage for a few months in case your tenant can no longer afford to pay rent.

“Landlords absolutely, positively need a cash cushion,” said Davis.“As a rule of thumb, I like to keep around two months’ worth of rent on hand for each property, plus a source of available funds if needed.”

The fund exists to cover the occasional bad tenant or extended vacancy, and to keep up with the general maintenance of the home — in case, for example, a water heater breaks and you suddenly need $1,800 to replace it.

Lake, on the other hand, recommends landlords keep six months worth of rent in an emergency fund, but says that amount also depends on what other cash flow options you have at your disposal.

“It can be challenging for people to have that kind of cash along with a personal emergency fund,” said Lake. She recommends working with a financial advisor or property manager as a starting point.

Consider setting up an emergency fund, and contributing to it monthly. At the very least, you should have access to emergency money via quick borrowing options such as a credit card, home equity line of credit or home equity loan.

How much money you’ll need to cover a bad tenant or emergency may fluctuate depending on your property and the average amount of time it takes to evict someone, as it may vary depending on your state’s laws. You also want to consider the average time it may take to get another tenant in who will pay the rent. Check online or with a real estate lawyer in your area to calculate what the worst-case scenario may be for your situation.

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These 18 States Are Raising the Minimum Wage in 2018

states raising minimum wage 2018
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Roughly 4.5 million workers in 18 states are starting off the new year with a pay raise.

Many of the new minimum wages are significantly higher than the federal minimum wage of $7.25, a rate that states are slowly but surely leaving behind. The Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor enforces wage laws, but a new federal minimum wage cannot be set unless a bill is passed by Congress and the president signs it into law.

Since 2009, the last time the federal minimum wage was raised, states have had to act independently to counter rising costs of living as well as the demands of their citizens.

Some 80 million Americans are paid hourly — a group that makes up nearly 59 percent of all wage and salary workers.

The number of people who earned the federal minimum wage or less decreased from 3.3 percent in 2015 to 2.7 percent in 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The 2016 percentage is far less than in 1979, when records started to be kept consistently and the number of people at or below minimum wage was 13.4 percent.

The 2018 wage increases were, for eight states, due to cost-of-living increases, and for 10 states, a result of approved legislation or ballot initiatives.

Who gets more pay?

An estimated 4.5 million U.S. workers are set to receive a total of $5 billion in additional wages, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

“Increasing the minimum wage is a crucial tool to help stop growing wage inequality, particularly for women and people of color who disproportionately hold minimum wage jobs,” wrote Janelle Jones, an economic analyst with the Institute. “As low-wage workers face a growing number of attacks on their ability get a fair return on their work, Congress should act to set a higher wage floor for working people.”

Keep in mind, however, that tipped wages are significantly lower than minimum wages, and wage laws have exceptions, such as full-time students or persons with disabilities. Not every employee who works on an hourly basis is affected by the changes.

Where is the minimum wage increasing?

Here’s a breakdown of the 18 states with higher minimum wages in 2018, using information from the National Conference of State Legislatures. These states join the 19 states in 2017 that raised their minimum wages.

State

Minimum Wage

Reasons and Future Adjustments

Alaska

$9.84

Change due to cost of living.

Arizona

$10.50

Change due to ballot/legislature.
Set to increase to $11 beginning 2019 and $12 in 2020. At the start of 2021, the rate will increase annually based on cost of living.

California

$11

Change due to ballot/legislature.
Set to increase to $12 in 2019, $13 in 2020, $14 in 2021, and $15 in 2022. At the start of 2023, the rate will increase annually based on the consumer price index.

Colorado

$10.20

Change due to ballot/legislature.
Set to increase to $11.10 in 2019 and $12 in 2020. At the start of 2021, the rate will increase annually based on the cost of living.

Florida

$8.25

Change due to cost of living, based on a 2004 constitutional amendment.

Hawaii

$10.10

Change due to ballot/legislature.

Maine

$10

Change due to ballot/legislature.
Set to increase to $11 in 2019 and $12 in 2020. At the start of 2021, the rate will increase annually based on the consumer price index.

Michigan

$9.25

Change due to ballot/legislature.
At the start of 2019, the rate will increase annually based on the consumer price index, but increases will cap at 3.5 percent.

Minnesota

$9.65/$7.87

Change due to cost of living.
Due to 2014's HB 2091, businesses with annual sales over $500,000 have a higher minimum wage than those with sales under $500,000.

Missouri

$7.85

Change due to cost of living.

Montana

$8.30/hr for businesses with annual sales over $110,000
$4/hr for businesses with annual sales under $110,000.

Change due to consumer price index.

New Jersey

$8.60

Change due to consumer price index.

New York

$10.40

Change due to ballot/legislature.
Set to increase to $11.10 beginning Dec. 31, 2018, $11.80 in 2019, and $12.50 in 2020. At the start of 2021, the rate will increase annually for inflation, capping at $15. Across the state, the minimum wage varies geographically, and by employer size within New York City.

Ohio

$8.30 for businesses with annual sales over $299,000
$7.25 for businesses with annual sales under $299,000

Change due to consumer price index.

Rhode Island

$10.10

Change due to ballot/legislature.
Set to increase to $10.50 beginning 2019.

South Dakota

$8.85

Change due to cost of living.

Vermont

$10.50

Change due to ballot/legislature.
At the start of 2019, the rate will increase annually by the smaller of two options: the consumer index price or 5 percent. The minimum wage cannot be decreased.

Washington

$11.50

Change due to ballot/legislature.
Set to increase to $12 in 2019 and $13.50 in 2020.

The post These 18 States Are Raising the Minimum Wage in 2018 appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

Spice Up Your Meals Without Hurting Your Wallet

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A fistful of parsley dries out in the refrigerator after you used it for a dish or two. And the 15 bottles of spices on your spice rack have long lost fragrance before you noticed.

Sound familiar?

It’s a common home-cook frustration. A new recipe calls for a tablespoon of fresh basil and a pinch of smoked paprika, but when you go to the grocery store, even the smallest quantities of those ingredients provide far more than you need. Why?

The answer is simple: It’s good business.

Big bunches make big money

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As far as fresh herbs go, sellers make more money off of large bunches, according to John Stanton, professor of food marketing at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.

Demand for fresh herbs — like basil, cilantro, mint, rosemary, thyme, and parsley — has increased dramatically over the past few decades, thanks to gourmet restaurants, and the rise of celebrity chefs and cooking shows. Growing fresh herbs has become a high-profit niche market, experts say, but it’s costly to compete.

Because herbs are at their best when freshly picked, it is important for sellers to establish a quick supply chain. To be successful, they must develop an efficient system to move the herbs from growers to customers, Stanton said. Herbs are also more delicate than vegetables. To prevent damage to the leafy herbs and keep their attractiveness, growers, distributors, and sellers also have to handle them gently and package them properly for long shelf life.

“You cannot have the product sitting around some place too long,” Stanton said. “The withered parsley is almost as powerful as the unwithered, but it just doesn’t look good.”

The complex, labor-heavy logistics that get herbs from growers to grocers in good condition cost a lot of money. Selling herbs in large bunches — more than what a home cook may need — helps make up for these costs.

While no one wants to reveal profit margins for the products they sell, Stanton said growers profit more from fresh herbs than from competitive produce, such as tomatoes and carrots.

The struggle of minimizing waste

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Jeanine Davis, associate professor at the department of horticultural science at NC State University, said small packets of herbs are good alternatives to big bunches of cilantro, parsley, or mint.

While home cooks may avoid food waste by electing the fresh herbs that come in plastic containers, they aren’t necessarily saving money. For instance, a full bunch of cilantro costs $1.99 at Wegmans, a regional supermarket chain in the Northeast, but 0.25 ounces of the same product packaged in a plastic is priced at $1.25. The package is actually more expensive if you calculate the cost per unit. And it may still come with more than you need, as well.

If you’re more concerned about minimizing food waste, subscribing to meal kits might be the way to go. Herbs, spices and seasonings come in the exact amount you need for a dish from meal subscription services like Blue Apron or Sun Basket.

How to make fresh herbs last longer

Compared with buying smaller packages of herbs or subscribing to a meal kit, buying those big, fresh bunches of herbs is the most affordable choice. Buying more than you need doesn’t mean you’ll inevitably waste food either. Karen Kennedy, education coordinator at the Herb Society of America, shared these tips with MagnifyMoney for getting the most value out of your herb purchases:

Spices last longer but can still be problematic

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Most commonly, dried spices are sold in bottles at grocery stores. Each bottle contains a few ounces of herbs, generally about 1 to 2 ounces. Prices vary dramatically by spice.

Kai Stark, purchasing manager at Frontier Co-op, an Iowa-based natural product wholesaler that owns the organic spice brand Simply Organic, told MagnifyMoney that spices are costly because some are extremely difficult to harvest, such as saffron and vanilla, making them incredibly labor-intensive. Others are prone to crop failures, making them risky items for farmers to grow, Stark explained.

Still, many may think two ounces of nutmeg for $5 is costly, especially when the recipe calls for only a tiny bit. Stanton, however, argues that people believe that dried herbs and spices are expensive because they only think of the cost per bottle. He referred to a roasted chicken meal as an example:

“Let’s say a jar of tarragon costs about $3, and a nice chicken may cost $7,” he said. “So you put the chicken in a pan. You took a pinch of tarragon and then you put it in an oven. The cost of the meal is [actually] the full $7 dollars of the chicken and about 3 cents of tarragon.”

“It’s better to think of it as cost per use and then it’s not that expensive,” he added.

How to keep your spice costs down

The trick to getting the most value out of a spice is using the whole bottle. Even though it might seem cheaper to buy dried herbs and spices in larger quantities, Kennedy suggests consumers stock them in small amounts to avoid waste.

In the case of nutmeg, you might want to buy a 0.53-ounce bottle that costs $2.

“If you can’t use it all before the flavor diminishes, you haven’t really saved anything,” Kennedy said.

Stark said the bulk aisle would be the place where consumers should look to save money on spices.

“You can purchase the exact amount of spice you want, whether it’s a pinch or a pound,” he said.

To be sure, not every grocery store has bulk spice aisles, and there may not be a specialty spice shop in your town. If that’s not an option at your local grocer, and you feel like you’re wasting money on spices you don’t use up while they’re most potent, consider these tips:

What you can do to make spices last longer

To keep their shelf life as long as possible, Kennedy said it’s best to store the dried herbs and spices in airtight glass jars and and place the bottles in a dry, dark, and cool location. Use your nose as a judge: You may want to toss your spice jar when a strong aroma or flavor doesn’t come off right away when you open it.

“When the fragrance begins to fade, so has the flavor,” she said. Most spices are good for one year when stored properly.

Spices sitting on the shelf for a year may not smell as good as when they were freshly bought, but Stanton said that doesn’t mean they are not safe to eat.

The expiration dates on food are mostly irrelevant, said Stanton, adding that they were labeled by companies hoping that consumers would regularly toss old products and buy new ones. Indeed, expiration dates are not required by law. Industry groups such as the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute are trying to get food manufacturers and retailers to stop labeling expiration/sell by dates to help consumers reduce food waste.

“If you have an old bottle of dried herbs, you might have to put a little more on,” Stanton said. “So instead of costing 3 cents to make the tarragon chicken, it actually costs 6 cents.”

The post Spice Up Your Meals Without Hurting Your Wallet appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

How to Report Sexual Harassment at Work in a #MeToo World

metoo reporting sexual harassment at work
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Veronica Cannon was just a year out of college when she was took a job at a Jewish community center in South Florida in the early 2000s. At the time, she worked as a social worker and program director for the organization’s senior citizen program.

One morning, about six months after she started, a male colleague made explicit sexual comments toward Cannon in an office corridor. She knew immediately his remarks were out of line. But despite the fact that she took notes of the encounter, recorded her side of the story on tape, and went to higher-ups at her office to complain, the man was never terminated.

“In the two to four weeks that followed, it was very uncomfortable [to work there],” said Cannon, 31, whose name and other identifying details have been changed in this story. “I definitely considered resigning. The only reason why I stayed was because I felt obligated to the clients I was serving. And then after some time had passed, I just tried to put it behind me as much as possible.”

The encounter happened nearly a decade ago, many years before the rise of the #MeToo movement, which was fueled by a wave of public allegations of sexual assault and harassment against Hollywood A-listers — from Harvey Weinstein to Louis C.K. — media moguls like former “Today” Show host Matt Lauer and former CBS anchor Charlie Rose, top editors at NPR and Vice and lawmakers like Sens. Al Franken and Roy Moore.

Momentum appears, for once, to be on the side of victims. In the wake of these allegations, many of the accused have lost lucrative contracts and jobs in their industries. And at the start of the new year, hundreds of well-known actresses and high-powered women in the entertainment industry launched the Time’s Up initiative, which features a multi-million-dollar legal defense fund to aid victims of workplace sexual harassment.

For targets of sexual harassment in the workplace, especially women, it has been historically difficult to speak up for fear of retaliation. According to a 2017 poll conducted by ABC News and The Washington Post, 30 percent of women in the U.S. have experienced “unwanted and inappropriate sexual advances” from a male colleague. And nearly 95 percent of women who claim they experienced unwanted sexual advances at work say the men did not get punished.

“It’s not easy and it takes a lot of courage, but things are changing little by little, and it’s because of more people finding the courage to stand up,” said Candice Blain, Esq., a managing attorney at Blain LLC in Atlanta. Blain, who is also a survivor of sexual assault, has focused on helping victims defend themselves in cases of sexual harassment, cyberbullying and human trafficking.

One thing is for certain. Whereas complaints like the one filed by Cannon might once have been brushed aside by higher management, the tide may be changing in workplaces across the country. Fueled by the heightened awareness of sexual harassment in the workplace, women may find their management more receptive to their complaints and more willing to take action against offending colleagues.

“Having more public role models to give a voice and safe space to reporting these issues is only going to further empower people to not feel as if they have to be shackled by the shame of experiencing discrimination in the workplace,” Cannon said. “By sharing our stories, we can be our best advocates.”

The best thing you can do if you experience inappropriate behavior from a colleague or superior is to be prepared. From bringing any relevant documentation with you to learning about your office’s specific sexual harassment policies, there are steps you can take that will help ensure you did everything in your power to appropriately report what happened.

Tips to report sexual harassment or assault in the workplace:

Report the incident to your company first.

Although some companies may choose not to take action, it’s still an important first step to look up your company’s harassment policy and follow the proper protocol for reporting.

Karla M. Altmayer, an attorney and co-founder of Healing to Action, a Chicago-based organization that aims to end gender violence in the workplace, says it’s a good place to start.

“If a person has followed that policy guideline, then they have done everything in their power to ensure that the company has knowledge of the incident,” Altmayer said. The company’s knowledge of the incident is crucial in the event that legal action is taken later on.

Know when to escalate the situation.

Altmayer says that if an employee has followed the appropriate protocol and the company has not taken proper action, then an employee should file his or her complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Office (EEOC) or their local human rights agency. If you find yourself questioning whether or not your company took appropriate action, Altmayer says to trust your gut.

“Ultimately, if a person feels like the action that the employer took was not reasonable, then usually that’s the beginning of a sign that maybe there are grounds for filing a complaint,” she said.

In Cannon’s case, she knew she needed to escalate her situation after her direct supervisor failed to take it seriously, even if the end result was not the one she hoped for. “If it was something that had happened to me, I was sure it had happened to someone else, and could potentially happen to someone else in the future,” Cannon said.

Bring documentation of the harassment in any form.

Cannon’s decision to record and write about the incident immediately after it happened was crucial. Altmayer says documentation is integral to the success of any claims of harassment, and can take many forms.

One of the common ways news reporters have partly validated stories from women who have come forward with sexual harassment allegations is to ask close relatives or friends whether or not the women told them about the harassment at the time.

“Talking to people is important,” Altmayer said. “Because it does establish a record.” She says another piece of advice she gives her clients is to keep a journal. “Because if you’re keeping a journal in contemporary time with the incidents that are happening, then that is actually admissible as a [court] record.”

If it’s been a long time since the incident occurred and there isn’t documentation, Altmayer says that doesn’t mean the victim won’t have a strong case. “There are ways of establishing the harm that occurred and the credibility of the harm,” she said. One way is by talking about the experience with a therapist, who can then write about it or testify on the victim’s behalf.

“If you don’t have documentation, your testimony is still important … ” Blain said. “If it happened, it’s the truth, it is still worth speaking up and you can work your way around the documentation later on.”

Find an ally.

Cannon called her mom immediately after she wrote down what happened. She said she decided to call her not only because she trusted her mom, but because she worked as a legal administrator and had experience dealing with similar situations.

Blain says having an ally is a great idea, but to be cautious of picking someone at your workplace.

“The problem is that if the victim confides in somebody at the workplace before she actually reports it up the chain, that can create problems for her later on because there is a duty on the part of victim to report it as immediately as possible,” Blain said.

She explains that companies can use the fact that a victim spoke about the incident with his or her colleagues but didn’t report it as a way to say they didn’t know what was happening.

“If you’re going to talk about it in the workplace, the first person you should talk about it with is somebody who can put a stop to it,” Blain said.

Know that not all workplaces are treated equal.

Some companies — especially very small ones — don’t have sexual harassment protocols in place. Cannon’s workplace didn’t have such a protocol, which made it less clear for her on how to proceed with her complaint. Even though her superiors decided not to take action against her colleague, Cannon took it upon herself to meet with the director of human resources to help put policies in the book for reporting incidents of sexual harassment, since none had existed previously.

Altmayer says that for people who work somewhere without protocol, the target of sexual harassment should first consult a manager or someone at the company who has hiring or firing power. She reiterates that one of the most important things is for a company to have knowledge of the incident occurring. If a workplace doesn’t take action, Altmayer says victims want to be able to have the power to say his or her employer had knowledge of the incident and could have done something, but didn’t.

“If you tell your supervisor who doesn’t really have hiring or firing power, that is not enough to bind the employer to actually take action,” she said.

Be prepared for retaliation — and document it.

For employees who don’t have the financial means to gamble with their livelihoods, speaking up against a colleague and facing potential retaliation in the workplace could easily dissuade them from reporting harassment.

If you do speak up, however, and your company retaliates against you in some way — such as reducing your work hours, turning you down for a raise, or moving you to a department that doesn’t match your skill set — you may have an even more firm case against them.

Blain says victims who are nervous of reporting sexual harassment for fear of workplace reprisal should know that retaliation is actually a separate claim.

“The reason that’s important and why victims should take comfort in that is because even if the original claim of harassment is not successful — even if you ultimately can’t prove it or win it — if you reported it and you were a victim of retaliation, that in and of itself is a separate violation,” she explained.

So, if a woman does not win a workplace sexual harassment lawsuit, she can still win one related to retaliation from the incident.

Document the incident and contact the EEOC or legal aid groups, such as Time’s Up.

How companies can better manage harassment claims

Altmayer shares this advice for companies looking to create or tweak their sexual harassment code.

Consider keeping the target’s identity anonymous.

“There’s no law that says that the information has to be kept anonymous,” Altmayer said. “But there are definitely best practices.” Her advice to companies who might be creating or tweaking their current policies is to have a rule in which they keep the identity of the complainant confidential.

Having the victim’s identity revealed could have major consequences. “They might be retaliated against,” she said, “or further harassed.”

Don’t put the offender and the victim in the same room at the same time.

Cannon’s direct supervisor brought her and the offender into the same room to discuss what happened. She says her direct supervisor wanted to give the offender the opportunity to share his side of the story.

Cannon, who no longer works at the community center where the incident occured, says that because she had conviction in what had happened she was OK with this. “But I could imagine that would be a really uncomfortable situation for someone else,” she adds.

Altmayer believes bringing people into the same room is a bad idea. “That’s never good practice,” she said. “Because you’re talking about someone who is really fearful of coming forward in the first place, who has put a lot on the line, and is taking a big risk in the workplace culture.”

Tweak the protocol’s language.

Research conducted by the Harvard Business Review found that often times, the language in companies’ sexual harassment policies is ineffective.

They gave 24 employees of a large government organization a copy of their company’s sexual harassment policy and found that nearly all of the participants found the language to be more concerned with perceptions of behaviors instead of behaviors themselves. “The policy was perceived as threatening, because any behavior could be sexual harassment if an irrational (typically female) employee perceived it as such,” the study’s authors wrote.

Consider taking a close look at your company’s policy to ensure it resonates well with all employees.

Be as proactive as possible.

“It’s important also for employers to think about what steps they can take to prevent the violence from happening in the first place,” Altmayer said.

Being proactive includes ensuring both men and women are at the table to discuss company culture, “because in many of these cases, it’s difficult to protect yourself, especially if you’re in a workforce that is predominantly male,” she said.

The post How to Report Sexual Harassment at Work in a #MeToo World appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

7 Research-Driven Ways to Save More Money in 2018

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We all know we should save money for retirement and unexpected mishaps like that broken heater in middle of winter. But, like many tasks in our lives, saving for the future is easier said than done.  

Despite historically low unemployment rates and increasing household income, Americans still aren’t the greatest savers. The average American saved just a little over 3 percent of their disposable personal income in October, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. That’s compared with savings rates of 19.3 percent in Japan and 5.5 percent in the United Kingdom, according to Trading Economics, a global economic data provider. 

Of course, many workers struggle to save simply because their day-to-day expenses eclipse their earnings. But sometimes, a lack of savings could be more of a psychological phenomenon than a monetary one. Research regularly shows that saving money demands a great deal of forethought, self-control and willpower — capabilities that are in direct conflict with our innate desires for pleasure and satisfaction in the here and now. 

Nobel Prize laureate and renowned behavioral economist Richard Thaler said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal that saving for retirement is “cognitively hard” and that it’s   “obviously preposterous” to assume that everybody will figure out how much they have to save and actually carry out the plan. 

The key to saving more is understanding your weaknesses and using tools and strategies that can help you do the right thing without having to think too hard about it.  

We’ve done the hard part for you and found research-backed methods that may help you save more. Follow the tips below to start saving more — and saving smarter — in  2018. 

1. Think present. Act now.  

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The first step to solving your debt problem may be to understand your personality — more specifically, how you think and feel about time. That’s because time orientation, or the way we think about time in relation to our goals, plays a major role in people’s ability to save. 

In a 2014 paper published in “Psychological Science,” scholars Leona Tam and Utpal Dholakia concluded that individuals who think about savings cyclically — seeing life events as a series of repeating experiments — are estimated to save 74 percent more than those who think linearly. People with linear time -orientation view life in past, present and future terms.  

Tam and Dholakia found that those with a cyclical mentality will likely save over time because they tend to believe that their future situation will be similar to what it is now.  Rather than being overly optimistic about their savings potential in the future, which might cause them to put off saving money until later in life, these people will go ahead and start saving now. And by focusing on saving in the present, they are more likely to make it a routine. 

On the other hand, those who think about life in past and future terms may be more likely to put off savings longer because they feel they’ll be better prepared to save later in life.  

“The belief is that if you perform an action in the current cycle now, you will be more likely to perform this particular action in the next cycle,” Tam and Dholakia wrote. “But if you do not perform now, you will be less likely to perform it in the next cycle.” 

The importance of time perspective is also underlined in a 2014 study performed by renowned psychologist Philip Zimbardo in partnership with MagnifyMoney. The study looked at how people’s perception of time impacted their financial health.   

After surveying 3,049 participants in six countries, Zimbardo, co-author of “The Time Paradox,” found that individuals who make decisions based on negative past memories tend to be in good financial health. They are more conservative and likely to save for their future to avoid a repeat of previous negative experiences.  

In contrast, those future-oriented optimists are more likely to make bad financial choices and be less financially healthy.  

But out of the three time orientations — past, present, or future — the group that was in the worst financial shape was the present-minded one. These people are more likely to focus on the here and now, leading them to make impulsive decisions without considering their future. 

2. Automate your savings 

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Yes, it’s just that simple. Behavioral economists have concluded that in order to save more money, you have to make saving as easy as possible and spending as difficult as possible.  

“If people have to actively think about saving, then they probably won’t do it,” Shlomo Benartzi, a behavioral economist at the University of California, Los Angeles, wrote in the “Harvard Business Review” earlier this year. Automated deposits are the most effective way to save for retirement, he argued. 

U.S. companies are increasingly changing their 401(k) enrollment policies from requiring employees to “opt-in” to participate into new ones where workers are automatically enrolled upon employment and are required to “opt-out” if they would like to avoid enrollment. Because that dropout action requires extra time and effort, fewer people would withdraw from their 401(k) plans. 

A 2005 study by William G. Gale, J. Mark Iwry, and Peter Orszag found that workers are more likely to save for retirement if they are automatically enrolled in a company 401(k) plan than if they were given the choice to opt in. 

Besides participating in your company’s retirement plan, you can also auto-save a portion of your salary to your savings account. Many employers set up automatic deposits from your paycheck into multiple checking or savings accounts. You can have a portion of your paycheck automatically transferred into a savings account so that you will be less inclined to touch that money. This might make it easier for you to resist the temptation to spend. 

3. Automate periodic savings increases 

This is auto-saving 2.0.  

Thaler and Benartzi carried out their well-known “Save More Tomorrow” study from the late 1990s to early 2000s, following more than 21,000 workers at three different companies.  

In one portion of the three-part study, the researchers followed 315 workers at an unnamed manufacturing company. About 160 workers elected to increase their 401(k) contributions each year for four years and 32 of them opted out over the years.  

In the end, they found the majority of the people who agreed to the annual contribution increases nearly quadrupled their saving rates. 

The success of the program shows the power of inertia — the tendency for objects or people to continue moving in a certain direction unless they take action to change it. Once their savings strategy was set —  increasing annually with their raises — very few people ever got around to changing their savings allocations again once they enrolled.  

You can mimic these results on your own as well. If you are comfortable enough to start saving more, try adding 1 percent more to your retirement fund every six months. Some retirement plans even offer automatic step-up contributions, where your contributions are automatically increased by 1 or 2 percent each year.  

Larry Heller, a New York-based certified financial planner and president of Heller Wealth Management, suggested that you increase your contribution amount for the next three pay periods and repeat until you hit your maximum.   

“You will be surprised that many people can adjust with a little extra taken out of their paycheck,” Heller told MagnifyMoney.    

4. Set an actionable plan with negative consequences  

One of the big reasons why people fail to save more is a lack of motivation. Dean Karlan, an economics professor at Yale University, created the “commitment contract” theory,   arguing that establishing the economic penalty for failure of saving helps people hit their savings goal. 

Here is how the commitment contract works: It allows people to set a positive goal, for instance, to save more money or to set a New Year’s resolution. If they fail to accomplish the goal, they may be subjected to some form of penalty per the terms of their contract. 

The idea is that your motivation to save money is enhanced by a contract where negative consequences are imposed if conditions are not met. 

For example, a die-hard animal rights activist might develop a commitment contract to save $2,000 in five months for an international trip, with the stipulation that if this person violates the contract, he or she must buy a $70 ticket to a SeaWorld theme park. 

There doesn’t appear to be a savings app that will implement economic punishments if you didn’t hit your savings goal. But you can: join a like-minded accountability group on social media, or ask a friend or family member to be your accountability partner. They could play the “bad cop” for you while you are saving toward a goal. The hope is that you will feel the pressure to carry out your plan under supervision, in addition to the contract you have committed to. And if you miss the target, this partner would ruthlessly urge you to pay your penalty. 

5. Focus on smaller goals first

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Now you know you need to establish a savings goal, but it might be daunting to even think about achieving that goal.  

Experts found that breaking down the goal into manageable pieces spurs confidence, even though the ultimate amount of money that would be saved is exactly the same.  

Benartzi and his colleagues at UCLA asked a group of participants if they would like to save $5 every day, and another group if they wanted to save $35 a week, and the third group whether they thought they could save $150 a month. The results were astonishing: Nearly 30 percent of the participants said they could save $5 a day, while just 7 percent elected to save $150 a month.  

Bloggers have popularized the $5 savings challenge as well, where people were encouraged to save every $5 bill they come across in their wallet instead of spending it. One woman claimed she saved $40,000 over 13 years just by socking away her $5 bills.  

Let’s say you want to make it easier to save for an iPhone X (about $1,000) in seven months. Instead of telling yourself you’ll save $150 per month, break it down even further by committing to save $5 per day. You might achieve that by cutting back on your daily dining-out budget. Just take it one baby step at a time. 

And you don’t have to literally take the money out of your wallet. You could use an app that helps you save in small amounts over time as well.  

Digit connects to your checking account and tries to find spare money in your account to transfer to your Digit savings account. You can command the app via text messaging to save more, deposit money into savings, or transfer money back to your checking account. Note: the app is free to use for the first 100 days. After that, it charges $2.99 per month. 

There is also Acorns, a microsavings app that automatically invests a small amount of money daily, weekly or monthly for you. One of Acorn’s interesting features is it rounds up your purchases to the nearest full dollar amount and makes the change available for you to invest. Let’s say you used a credit card to buy a cup of coffee for $2.75. You can choose to invest the 25 cents on the app, or Acorn will invest the change for you if you elected automatic roundups investment. It’s free to open an Acorns account. The app charges $1 per month if your balance is under $5,000, or 0.25 percent per year if your balance is $5,000 or more. 

We’ve reviewed microsavings apps, including Acorns. Read more about their features here. 

6. Save that big windfall 

Scholars Peter Tufano and Daniel Schneider wrote in a 2008 paper that it’s relatively easier for people to save lump-sum distributions because they perceive those funds differently from their regular income. An annual tax refund, inheritance, performance bonus, or graduation or wedding gifts are seen more like an unexpected surplus of money. 

When you get that big year-end bonus or your tax check in the 2018 tax season, you may want to save the large portion of the refund while putting a smaller amount in your checkings account. You will feel good saving for durable items, such as household appliances, a car, or a down payment but leaving a little room for the occasional self-indulgence. 

7. Track your spending

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You thought you knew how much you spent in Starbucks each month, but you might be surprised by the actual dollar amount going into coffee once you start tracking your expenses. 

Benartzi and fellow researcher Yaron Levi reported that those who used a mobile app that tracked spending and investment performance cut back on their spending by 15.7 percent. 

Their findings align with results from a 2016 Federal Reserve study: About 62 percent of consumers with access to mobile banking checked their account balance on their phone before making a big purchase, and half of them decided not to buy that item because they were informed of their real-time account balance and credit limit. 

It’s time to download a budgeting app that aggregates all your financial accounts — debit and credit cards, retirement accounts, brokerage accounts, and so on. Once you get an accurate sense of your finances, you may think twice before buying that $1,000 Canada Goose parka. 

We’ve ranked popular budgeting apps. Check out the reviews here. 

The post 7 Research-Driven Ways to Save More Money in 2018 appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

Americans with Holiday Debt Added an Average of $1,054, a 5% Increase from 2016

Consumers who said they went into debt over the holiday season racked up an average of $1,054 of debt, according to an annual survey conducted by MagnifyMoney. That’s not only an increase of 5% over last year, but we also found more shoppers put that debt on high-interest plastic.

As in previous years, most shoppers who took on holiday debt put their purchases on credit cards. But the percentage of consumers who pulled out the plastic for holiday gifts and other seasonal spending was significantly higher in 2017. When asked where the holiday debt came from, 68% of shoppers said that credit cards were responsible, up 8 percentage points from 2016. Store cards were the reason for 17% of shoppers, and 9% used a personal loan.

Nor were the amounts of debt accumulated trivial. Many consumers accumulated significant amounts of debt this season: 44% of shoppers racked up more than $1,000 in holiday debt, and 5% accumulated more than $5,000 in balances. Meanwhile, half of consumers admit it will take more than three months to pay off that spending.

Strong retail holiday sales – with a statement to match

Early indications from industry sources show that retail sales rose nearly 5% versus last year, according to a sales report by Mastercard. The MagnifyMoney survey appears to validate that finding: among shoppers surveyed who said they went into debt, the average amount spent this season exceeded 2016 spending by $51, or roughly 5%.

For most shoppers, going into debt wasn’t the plan. According to the survey, 64% of those who have holiday-related debt didn’t plan to incur it. And lack of planning, whether it’s for holiday spending or other types of debt, can lead to financial problems down the road.

Much of that spending won’t melt away anytime soon

Only half of those surveyed said that they expected to pay off their spending in three months or less. Of the remaining half, 29% said they’ll need five months or longer to pay off holiday debt, in most cases accruing additional interest.

An additional 10 percent of people who took on holiday debt said they would only make minimum payments. Assuming that shopper spent the average of $1,054, and paid a minimum payment of $25 each month, he or she would be paying down that balance until 2023. That is nearly as painful as the $500 in interest fees they would pay over that time, assuming an annual percentage rate (APR) of 15.9%. You can enter your own rates and balances to find out how much interest you’ll pay on credit card debt using the MagnifyMoney Credit Card Payoff Calculator.

Zero Percent APR Gotchas

Interestingly, nearly half of respondents indicated they’re paying less than a 10% APR on their balances. Although the survey didn’t ask the source of those low rates, some of these “rates” could be  special financing offers from store cards from retailers – a source of financing for 17% of holiday shoppers surveyed who said they took on debt this year.

The holiday season is prime time for special in-store financing offers, but once you read the fine print they may cost much more than they help shoppers save.  Many of store cards come with  deferred interest clauses, where the consumer pays no interest for a fixed period – often 6 months. If the consumer pays off those types of purchases within the period, he or she does indeed pay no interest.  But after that period ends, any balance that hasn’t yet been paid in full will be charged interest retroactively, often at rates much higher than most bank-issued credit cards (APRs of 25% or greater are typical).

Less use of unconventional financing

Although more shoppers resorted to credit cards for holiday shopping this year, fewer used loans like payday or title loans – usually the most costly form of borrowing for consumers. Only 4% of shoppers said they used payday or title loans to finance holiday shopping, down from 6% in 2016. Similarly, only 2% said they used home equity for financing. Although home equity may provide more favorable borrowing terms, there may be additional fees you’ll incur, and in the worst case, your home is the ultimate collateral on these loans.

Getting back on track

By understanding where your finances are now, you’ll likely do a better job with managing your debt and spending in the future. For instance, just tracking your spending, whether or not it’s holiday-related spending, will help clarify which expenses might be able to be reduced or eliminated.

Finding out your what’s in your credit reports (available for free at AnnualCreditReport.com) will confirm there aren’t any unexpected surprises waiting for you should you consider refinancing with a lower-rate personal loan or zero percent balance transfer offer from a new or existing credit card offer.  Other tactics, like automated payment plans and budgeting, can be found in The MagnifyMoney Debt Guide e-book.

2017 Post-Holiday Debt Survey Questions

Methodology: MagnifyMoney surveyed 676 U.S. adults who reported they added debt over the holidays via Google Consumer Surveys from December 21 – 26, 2017.

Average Debt Among Shoppers Who Said They Went into Debt Over the Holidays

2017: $1,054

2016: $1,003

If you went into debt, did you plan to go into debt this holiday season?

Yes: 36%

No: 64%

How much debt did you take on over the holidays?

$0-999: 56%

$1,000-1,999: 26%

$2,000-2,999: 9%

$3,000-3,999: 3%

$4,000-4,999: 1%

$5,000-5,999: 4%

$6,000+: 1%

Where did your holiday debt come from?

Credit cards: 68%

Store cards: 17%

Personal loan: 9%

Payday / title loan: 4%

Home equity loan: 2%

When will you pay the debt off?

1 month: 19%

2 months: 16%

3 months: 14%

4 months: 11%

5 months+: 30%

I’m only making minimum payments: 10%

Will you try to consolidate your debt or shop around for a good balance transfer rate?

Yes: 12%

No – Don’t want to deal with another bank: 27%

No – Too many traps: 20%

No – Rate is already low: 23%

No: – Don’t know enough about it: 10%

No – Wouldn’t qualify: 8%

How stressed are you about your holiday debt?

Stressed: 29%

Not Stressed: 71%

What interest rate are you paying on your debt?

Less than 10%: 49%

10-19%: 33%

20-29%: 16%

The post Americans with Holiday Debt Added an Average of $1,054, a 5% Increase from 2016 appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

Tax Reform 2018 Explained

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As promised, the bill formerly known as The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act arrived on President Donald Trump’s desk before Christmas. He signed it into law today.

The House (again) approved the final version of the the most sweeping rewrite of the tax code in more than 30 years. The tax bill previously passed the House — it was a 227-203 vote, no Democrats supported the bill — on Dec. 19. Then, the Senate passed the final version of the $1.5 trillion tax bill in the early hours of the morning Wednesday, Dec. 20. The vote was 51-48 along party lines.

However, in a plot twist that had to do with archaic Senate rules, the Senate’s infamous Byrd Rule forced Senate Republicans to change the bill’s name and eliminate two of its proposed provisions before taking a vote, so the House had to reapprove.

Officially, the new name of the bill is “An Act to provide for reconciliation pursuant to titles II and V of the concurrent resolution on the budget for fiscal year 2018”, but it’s been called the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act since it was introduced back in November 2017. The Senate parliamentarian ruled the bill’s name and two other provisions — one that would have allowed parents to pay for homeschooling with money from 529 savings accounts and another that was part of criteria used to determine which colleges would qualify for a new excise tax — had to change else the bill would violate the budget rules Senate Republicans have to follow to pass their bill through a process that prevents Democrats from filibustering.

What’s changing

Here is a breakdown of changes to come. The majority go into effect Jan. 1, 2018. Read on or jump ahead to the rules you’re most interested in:

Tax brackets and income taxes

Old Rule

New Rule (Effective Jan. 1, 2018)

There are currently seven tax brackets.

The rate on the highest earners is 39.6 percent for taxpayers earning above $418,400 for individuals and $470,700 for married couples filing taxes jointly.

New Rule (Effective Jan. 1, 2018)

The new rules retain seven tax brackets, but the brackets have been modified to lower most individual income tax rates. The new brackets expire in 2027.

Top income earners — above $500,000 for individuals and above $600,000 for married couples filing jointly — falls from 39.6 percent to 37 percent.

The majority of individual income tax changes would be temporary, expiring after Dec.
31, 2025.

2017 Tax Brackets

New Tax Brackets (Effective Jan. 1, 2018)

Single Individuals

Taxable Income

Tax Bracket

Taxable Income

Tax Bracket

$9,325 or less

10%

$9,525 or less

10%

$9,326-$37,950

15%

$9,526-$38,700

12%

$37,951-$91,900

25%

$38,701-$82,500

22%

$91,901-$191,650

28%

$82,501-$157,500

24%

$191,651-$416,700

33%

$157,501-$200,000

32%

$416,701-$418,400

35%

$200,001-$500,000

35%

Over $418,400

39.60%

Over $500,000

37%

Married Individuals Filing Joint Returns and Surviving Spouses

Taxable Income

Tax Bracket

Taxable Income

Tax Bracket

$18,650 or less

10%

$19,050 or less

10%

$18,651-$75,900

15%

$19,051-$77,400

12%

$75,901-$153,100

25%

$77,401-$165,000

22%

$153,101-$233,350

28%

$165,001-$315,000

24%

$233,351-$416,700

33%

$315,001-$400,000

32%

$416,701-$470,700

35%

$400,001-$600,000

35%

Over $470,700

39.60%

Over $600,000

37%

Heads of Households

Taxable Income

Tax Bracket

Taxable Income

Tax Bracket

$13,350 or less

10%

$13,600 or less

10%

$13,351-$50,800

15%

$13,601-$51,800

12%

$50,801-$131,200

25%

$51,801-$82,500

22%

$131,201-$212,500

28%

$82,501-$157,500

24%

$212,501-$416,700

33%

$157,501-$200,000

32%

$416,701-$444,550

35%

$200,001-$500,000

35%

Over $444,550

39.60%

Over $500,000

37%

Married Individuals Filing Separate Returns

Taxable Income

Tax Bracket

Taxable Income

Tax Bracket

$9,325 or less

10%

Not over $9,525

10%

$9,326-$37,950

15%

$9,525-$38,700

12%

$37,951-$76,550

25%

$38,701-$82,500

22%

$76,551-$116,675

28%

$82,501-$157,500

24%

$116,676- $208,350

33%

$157,501-$200,000

32%

$208,351-$235,350

35%

$200,001-$300,000

35%

Over $235,350

39.60%

Over $300,000

37%

Standard deductions

Old Rule

New Rule (Effective Jan. 1, 2018)

Taxpayers who do not itemize can claim the current standard deduction of $6,350 for single individuals, $9,350 for heads of household or $12,700 for married couples filing jointly

New Rule (Effective Jan. 1, 2018)

Standard deductions for all nearly double under the new rules.

Individuals see standard deductions rise to $12,000; fo heads of household, it rises to $18,000; and for married couples filing jointly the standard deduction increases to $24,000.

Child tax credit

Old Rule

New Rule (Effective Jan. 1, 2018)

The current child tax credit is $1,000 per child under the age of 17.

The credit is reduced by $50 for each $1,000 a taxpayer earns over certain thresholds. The phase-out thresholds start at a modified adjusted gross income (AGI) over $75,000 for single individuals and heads of household, $110,000 for married couples filing jointly and $55,000 for married couples filing separately.

New Rule (Effective Jan. 1, 2018)

The child tax credit doubles to $2,000 per qualifying child. Up to $1,400 of the child tax credit can be received as refundable credit (meaning it can go toward a tax refund). The new rule also includes a $500 nonrefundable credit per dependent other than a qualifying child.

The credit begins to phase out at an AGI over $200,000 — for married couples, the phase-out starts at an AGI over $400,000.

This rule is in effect through 2025.

Personal exemptions

Old Rule

New Rule (Effective Jan. 1, 2018)

Taxpayers can reduce their adjusted gross income by claiming personal exemptions — generally for the taxpayer, their spouse and their dependents.

Taxpayers could deduct $4,050 per exemption in 2017, though the deduction is phased out for taxpayers earning more than certain AGI thresholds. The phase out begins at an AGI over $313,800 for married couples filing jointly, $287,650 for heads of household, $156,900 for married couples filing separately and $261,500 for all other taxpayers.

New Rule (Effective Jan. 1, 2018)

Personal exemptions have been suspended through 2025.

Mortgage interest deduction

Old Rule

New Rule (Effective Jan. 1, 2018)

Currently homeowners are allowed to deduct interest paid on mortgages valued up to $1 million on a taxpayer’s principal residence and one other qualified residence.

They can also deduct interest paid on a home equity loan or home equity line of credit no greater than $100,000. These are itemized deductions.

New Rule (Effective Jan. 1, 2018)

New homeowners can include mortgage interest paid on up to $750,000 of principal value on a new home in their itemized deductions.

The old, $1 million caps continues to apply to current homeowners (those who took out their mortgages on or before Dec. 15, 2017), as well as refinancing on mortgages taken out on or before Dec. 15, 2017, as long as new mortgage amount does not exceed the amount of debt being refinanced.

Homeowners may not deduct interest paid on a home equity line of credit or home equity loan.

The $750,000 cap and the suspension on deducting home equity interest expire after 2025.

State and local tax (SALT) deduction

Old Rule

New Rule (Effective Jan. 1, 2018)

Taxpayers may include state and local property, income and sales taxes as itemized deductions.

New Rule (Effective Jan. 1, 2018)

Taxpayers are limited claiming an itemized deduction of $10,000 in combined state and local income, sales and property taxes, starting in 2018 through 2025.

Taxpayers cannot get around these limits by prepaying 2018 state and local income taxes while it is still 2017. The bill says nothing about prepaying 2018 property taxes.

Bicycle commuting

Old Rule

New Rule (Effective Jan. 1, 2018)

Taxpayers can exclude up to $20 a month of qualified bicycle commuting reimbursements from their gross income. That includes payments from employers for things like a bicycle purchase, bike maintenance or storage. Workers can claim the exclusion in any month they regularly use a bicycle to commute to work and do not receive other transit benefits.

New Rule (Effective Jan. 1, 2018)

The exclusion is suspended through 2025.

Personal casualty or theft

Old Rule

New Rule (Effective Jan. 1, 2018)

Under current tax law individuals can deduct uninsured losses above $100 when property is lost to a fire, shipwreck, flood, storm, earthquake or other natural disaster. The deduction is allowed as long as the total loss amounts to greater than 10 percent of the taxpayer’s adjusted gross income.

New Rule (Effective Jan. 1, 2018)

The new tax bill only allows taxpayers to claim the deduction if the loss occurred during a federally declared disaster, through 2025.

Alimony

Old Rule

New Rule (Effective Jan. 1, 2019)

The individual paying alimony or maintenance payments can deduct payments from their income. The person receiving the payments includes them as income.

New Rule (Effective Jan. 1, 2019)

The person making alimony or maintenance payments does not get to deduct them, and the recipient does not claim the payments as income. This goes into effect for any divorce or separation agreement signed or modified on or after Jan. 1, 2019.

Moving expenses

Old Rule

New Rule (Effective Jan. 1, 2018)

Current law allows taxpayers to deduct moving expenses as long as the move is of a certain distance from the taxpayer’s previous home and the job in the new location is full-time.

New Rule (Effective Jan. 1, 2018)

The new tax bill suspends the moving expense deduction through 2025. Until then, taxpayers are not permitted to deduct moving expenses.

Moving-related deductions and exclusions remain in place for members of the military.

Gains made on home sales

Old Rule

New Rule (Effective Jan. 1, 2018)

Homeowners can exclude up to $250,000 (or $500,000, if married filing jointly) of gains made when selling their primary residence, as long as they owned and primarily lived in the home for at least two of the five years before the sale. The exclusion can be claimed only once in a two-year period.

New Rule (Effective Jan. 1, 2018)

Homeowners can still exclude gains up to $250,000 (or $500,000 if married filing jointly) when they sell their primary residence, but they have to have lived there longer. People who sell their homes after Dec. 31, 2017 now have to use the home as their primary residence for five of the eight years before the sale in order to claim the exclusion. It can only be claimed once in a five-year period.

The new rule expires on Dec. 31, 2025.

Student loan debt discharge

Old Rule

New Rule (Effective Jan. 1, 2018)

Currently, student loan debt discharged due to death or disability is taxed as income.

New Rule (Effective Jan. 1, 2018)

Under the new tax bill, student loan debt discharged due to death or disability after Dec. 31, 2017, will not be taxed as income. The rule lasts through 2025.

Estate taxes

The estate tax, aka the “Death Tax” is a tax levied on significantly large estates that are passed down to heirs.

Old Rule

New Rule (Effective Jan. 1, 2018)

Estates up to $5.49 million in value were exempt from the tax.

The top tax rate was 40 percent.

New Rule (Effective Jan. 1, 2018)

Doubles the exemption for the estate tax.

Now, estates up to $11.2 million are exempt from the tax.

Corporate taxes

Old Rule

New Rule (Effective Jan. 1, 2018)

Under a four-step graduated rate structure, the current top corporate tax rate is 35 percent on taxable income greater than $10 million.

New Rule (Effective Jan. 1, 2018)

Permanently cuts the top corporate tax rate to 21 percent.

Pass-through businesses

Pass-through businesses are generally small businesses (also some big firms) that don’t pay the corporate income tax. Instead, the owners report the corporate profits as their own income and pay taxes based on the individual tax rates along with their regular personal income tax.

Some of the common types of pass-through businesses are partnerships, LLCs (limited liability companies), S corporations and sole proprietorships.

Old Rule

New Rule (Effective Jan. 1, 2018)

All pass-through business owners’ income was previously subject to regular personal income tax.

New Rule (Effective Jan. 1, 2018)

Under the new laws, pass-through business owners can deduct up to 20 percent of their qualified business income from a partnership, S corporation or sole proprietorship.

Individuals earning $157,500 and married couples earning $315,000 are eligible for the fullest deduction.

Medical expenses

Old Rule

New Rule

Taxpayers were previously allowed to deduct out-of-pocket medical expenses that exceed 10 percent of their adjusted gross income or 7.5 percent if they or their spouse were 65 or older.

New Rule

The threshold for all taxpayers to claim an itemized deduction for medical expenses is lowered to 7.5 percent of a filer’s adjusted gross income.

The change applies to taxable years from Dec. 31, 2016 to Jan. 1, 2019.

ACA individual mandate

The individual mandate was a key provision of the Affordable Care Act that required non-exempt U.S. citizens and noncitizens who lawfully reside in the country to have health insurance.

Old Rule

New Rule (Effective Jan. 1, 2019)

Consumers who did not qualify for an exemption and chose not to purchase insurance faced a range of tax penalties, depending on income.

New Rule (Effective Jan. 1, 2019)

The individual mandate is out.

Starting Jan. 1, 2019, consumers who do not purchase health insurance will no longer face penalties.

GOP lawmakers argue that the measure will decrease spending on the tax subsidies it offers to balance out the cost of premiums for millions of Obamacare enrollees.

However, without the mandate, experts caution that fewer healthy and young people will sign up for health coverage through the insurance marketplace, which will likely lead to increases in premium costs for those who remain the marketplace and could even induce some insurers to drop out of the market altogether. It’s a big blow to supporters of the long-embattled health care law.

529 college savings plans

A 529 college savings plan is a tax-advantaged savings account designed to encourage saving for qualified future higher-education costs, such as tuition, fees and room and board. Your money is invested and grows tax free.

Old Rule

New Rule (Effective Jan. 1, 2018)

Previously, 529 plan savings could only be used on qualified higher education expenses.

New Rule (Effective Jan. 1, 2018)

In a major victory for wealthier families, you can now use 529 savings for private K-12 schooling.

Tax benefits are now extended to eligible education expenses for an elementary or secondary public, private, or religious school.

The new rules allows you to withdraw up to $10,000 a year per student (child) for education costs.

Alternative minimum tax

The individual alternative minimum tax, or AMT, often imposed on higher-income families, especially those with children, who live in high-tax states — but not necessarily the ultra rich. It requires many households or individuals to calculate their tax due under the AMT rules alongside the rules for regular income tax. They have to pay the higher amount. Whether or not a someone pays AMT depends on their alternative minimum taxable income (AMTI). AMTI is determined through a series of assessments of a taxpayer’s income and assets — the explanation of calculating AMTI takes up two pages in the tax bill, so we’re not getting into the details here.

Old Rule

New Rule (Effective Jan. 1, 2018)

The exemption amount is $84,500 for married joint-filing couples, $54,300 for single filers and $42,250 for married couples filing separately.

The AMT exemption begins to phase out at $120,700 for singles, $160,900 for married couples filing jointly and $80,450 for married couples filing separately.

New Rule (Effective Jan. 1, 2018)

The AMT is here to stay but fewer households will have to face it.

Under the new rules, which are in effect from Jan. 1, 2018 through Dec. 31, 2025, married couples filing jointly will be exempt from the alternative minimum tax starting at $109,400. Exemption starts at $70,300 for all other taxpayers (other than estates and trusts).

The exemption phase-out thresholds will rise to $1,000,000 for married couples filing jointly, and $500,000 for all other taxpayers.

Miscellaneous tax deductions

Taxpayers can take the miscellaneous tax deduction if the items total more than 2 percent of their adjusted gross income. The amount that’s deductible is the the amount that exceeds the 2 percent threshold. These are some of the major changes coming to the miscellaneous tax deduction.

Old Rule

New Rule (Effective Jan. 1, 2018)

Tax preparation: Taxpayers can today claim an itemized deduction of the amount of money they pay for tax-related expenses, like the person who prepares their taxes or any software purchased pr fees paid to fee to file forms electronically.

Work-related expenses: Under current law, workers can deduct unreimbursed business expense as an itemized deduction, like the cost of a home office, job-search costs, professional license fees and more.

Investment fees: Taxpayers can currently deduct fees paid to advisors and brokers to manage their money.

New Rule (Effective Jan. 1, 2018)

Tax preparation: Taxpayers may not claim tax-preparation expenses as an itemized deduction through 2025.

Work-related expenses: The bill suspends work-related expenses as an itemized deduction through 2025.

Investment fees: Under the new rules, the investment fee deduction is suspended until 2025.

Tax deductions that won’t be changing

Teacher deduction

Teachers can deduct up to $250 for unreimbursed expenses for classroom supplies or school materials from their taxable income.

Electric cars

Electric car owners who bought a vehicle after 2010 may be given tax credit of up to $7,500, depending on the battery capacity.

Adoption assistance

Adoptive parents are allowed a tax credit and employer-provided benefits up to $13,570 per eligible child in 2017.

Student loan interest deduction

Student loan borrowers may deduct up to $2,500 on the interest paid for student loans every year.

The post Tax Reform 2018 Explained appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

The Ultimate Guide to Bitcoin

guide to bitcoin

It’s irresistible, and painful, to play the what-if regret game with investments. What if you bought Apple or Amazon stock back in 1997? What if you bought a condo in that tough city neighborhood ten years ago? What it mom didn’t throw out that full set of 1969 Topps baseball cards? Millennials didn’t invent FOMO; investors have struggled with the fear of missing out forever.

Those missed opportunities pale in comparison to what’s going on with Bitcoin, however. Price of a single bitcoin just passed $1,000 in February. It had climbed 15-fold by December, less than one year later. Travel back another few months, or years, and the windfall for early virtual currency buyers is almost unfathomable. Writer Kashmir Hill captured it well; four years ago, she lived all-Bitcoin week for a story, and found a restaurant where she could use the digital currency to buy her friends a sushi dinner. The price: 10 bitcoins. By the end of November, the coins she spent on the sushi would have been worth about $100,000. And now?

“That sushi dinner could have paid for an ivy league degree,” she lamented on Twitter. Now, that’s a regret.

How could a sushi dinner turn into a six-figure windfall? How can you buy a dinner with virtual “money” in the first place? And what should you be doing when it seems like the whole world has gone crazy for digital currencies?

We’ll try to answer those questions for you here.

Before we get started, however, it’s important to remember that the fear of missing out has driven people to make many bad choices in investing, and in life, (you should have stayed at that party and met your future wife, dummy!) for a very long time. So if you are tempted to dip your toe in this brave new world, it’s critical that you understand what you think you are missing out on.

Tom is a virtual currency investor who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity. (Bitcoin hackers are very aggressive and scour the Internet for targets, finding them when people brag about their holdings; so if you invest in Bitcoin, keep it to yourself.)

Tom got in early, but he’s suffering from investment regret, too.

“That would be because I sold the bulk of it way back when it was $4000, because I very wrongly thought the bubble could not go much higher,” he said. “Crypto right now is like the wild west … It really is.”

What is Bitcoin? A brief history

To start at the ending, Bitcoin took a big step away from the Wild West this week when a traditional market tied to the virtual currency allowed U.S. investors to make Bitcoin bets the old-fashioned way: through brokerage accounts. On Dec. 10, the Chicago Board of Exchange began the buying and selling of futures contracts on Bitcoin’s value. Investors don’t buy actual coins through these contracts; instead, they are making bets with each other about the future value of Bitcoin. Still, the event marked a remarkable step for an idea that was born from the musings of Internet radicals and almost killed by child pedophiles.

The birth of cryptocurrencies

In the Internet’s early days, no one was really sure how people like Jeff Bezos would make money. To be specific, no one was sure how sites like Amazon would be able to collect money. Credit cards seemed like a risky way to transmit “cash” across the Web — anti-fraud systems were essentially unheard of — so there was a race to create a new kind of cash that could be sent digitally. “Currencies” with names like DigiCash, backed by MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte, and E-gold sprouted up to fill the void. Eventually, eGold would swell to 3.5 million users worldwide.

Virtual currencies offered the added digital-age benefit of making international transactions easier and far cheaper, as they can be used to circumvent transfer fees imposed by of traditional banking systems..

The philosophical origins of virtual currency predate these digital currencies, however, to a group of hackers with a libertarian vibe generally referred to as cypherpunks. They dreamed of creating a money system that was entirely beyond the reach of governments. They blamed much of the world’s ills — inflation, poverty, concentration of wealth — on the power governments can exert by controlling national currencies.

By combining the secrecy of cryptography with a currency, cypherpunks imagined a world of free, anonymous money flows that drained traditional governments of their source of power.

Early hits and misses

Early supporters like Rik Willard, founder of Agentic Group — a consortium of firms that advocates use of blockchain technologies — have always had lofty goals for cryptocurrencies.

“To me, Bitcoin is a globally distributed proof-of-concept for a new understanding and subsequent reconfiguration of intrinsic value creation,” he says. “Like any radical technology before it, digital value will begin to shape us in unimaginable ways, with the end goal, hopefully, of more financial inclusion and an end to enforced scarcity and unnecessary poverty.”

Creating new currencies is tricky work, however, largely because criminals often flock to platforms that seem to be beyond the reach of law enforcement and traditional institutions. E-Gold ultimately collapsed, and its founder jailed, after a 2007 indictment on money laundering charges.

“The E-Gold payment system has been a preferred means of payment for child pornography distributors, identity thieves, online scammers, and other criminals around the world to launder their illegal income anonymously,” the Department of Justice said.

The age of Bitcoin

But the dream of a currency not issued by governments wasn’t dead. About a year later, in August 2008, someone registered the domain name Bitcoin.org. Two months later, a paper attributed to “Satoshi Nakamoto” was posted to a cryptography mailing titled Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System, laying out the concepts for a new kind of virtual money. By January 2009, the first Bitcoin network came online.

What was different about Bitcoin?

When traditional currency is used for transactions, third parties are always involved. Cash changes hands, but a government provides that cash and promises it has a certain value. When money is electronically wired, banks add or subtract the money from balance sheets. More important, they supply “trust” that enables parties to believe they are getting what they deserve out of a transaction. Outside of old-fashioned bartering, there was no way to conduct business without invoking a third party institution to provide trust.

Bitcoin changes this model by allowing peer-to-peer transactions that don’t require outside blessing and verification. Instead, all transactions are published online, in a completely transparent format as a shared ledger, so they are verified — not by a bank or a government — but by the network itself. No trust required. Blocks of data are continually added to a chain providing an audit trail that confirms every transaction. Ever. That’s the blockchain.

The decentralized nature of the blockchain is key. Whenever there’s a discrepancy — say, someone tries to add inaccurate information — the many nodes on the network arm-wrestle over which data is correct and builds consensus. Then, the data is replicated across the network.

This decentralized-by-design feature means there isn’t one central authority which could be manipulated for fraud purposes, or by a government or corporation seeking control. It also means it’s virtually impossible to fake a blockchain transaction once it’s approved, or to remove one. This is sometimes called distributed “trustless” consensus. In anarchy, security.

The comeback cryptocurrency

Bitcoin’s timing was impeccable. The cryptocurrency’s radical libertarian (anarchist?) ideology found plenty of bedfellows in the early stages. The global financial crisis that began in 2008 stoked the flames of bank skepticism and helped create a population ready to consider dramatic alternatives. In 2011, Bitcoin immediately became popular with Occupy Wall Streeters, who used it to accept donations and run some operations.

But it was still a bumpy ride. While Bitcoin transactions are very public, the parties in the transaction can remain anonymous. They use a cryptographic key to access their money, hence the term cryptocurrency.

So Bitcoin predictably attracted the same crowd as eGold. In 2013, Bitcoin faced an existential threat when U.S. federal authorities cracked down on a criminal haunt called Silk Road, a popular site used to buy and sell illicit drugs. Bitcoin was the currency of choice for Silk Road criminals, and authorities seemed ready for another E-gold-like crackdown. The FBI seized 174,000 Bitcoins when it shut down Silk Road, leading many to fear that users would abandon the cryptocurrency.

While Bitcoin’s value fell briefly by about one-quarter after Silk Road’s closure, it quickly recovered (to $125…feel that pang of regret again?), and transactions kept flowing. Meanwhile, rather than marginalize Bitcoin, governments around the world slowly started to legitimize it.

Ironically, a decision in 2013 by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network to require Bitcoin exchanges to register as money-service businesses — like payday lenders and other non-bank financial institutions — probably helped Bitcoin along. It was seen as tacit admission by the U.S. that it could not afford to drive Bitcoin overseas and cede the development of cryptocurrencies to places like Asia.

Since then, numerous factors have contributed to the meteoric rise in Bitcoin’s value. Chief among them: copycats, called alt coins.

There’s hundreds of cryptocurrencies now, all trying to cash in on the Bitcoin craze through their own Initial Coin Offerings. When these occur, buyers leap in, usually investing with Bitcoins. Later, they often convert the new coins into Bitcoins.

All that activity pushes up the demand for Bitcoins. Other reasons are critical, too. Many startups are encouraging investments in Bitcoin. The echo chamber of financial media keeps focus on fantastic returns early investors are getting, whipping up the FOMO, which in turn leads to more investment, which whips up the price.

And finally, perhaps the biggest reason: Everyone from taxi driver to baristas to grandparents are now talking about Bitcoin. Cryptocurrencies aren’t just for early adopters any more; now they have attracted what Wall Street calls “retail investors.”

That means there’s a lot of more money from a lot more people kicking the tires on a Bitcoin investment. More buyers and more money mean higher prices.

How to buy and sell Bitcoin

value of bitcoin

So, how do you get in on this?

There are two ways to obtain Bitcoins; you can buy them, or you can “make” them, through a process called mining.

New Bitcoins are created, it would seem, out of thin air as a “reward” when computers compete to do the nuts and bolts work of confirming blockchain transactions. Anyone can mine —investor Tom, mentioned above, mines for alt coins using a network in his garage — but as time goes by, the processing power required to mine continues to swell.

Enormous server farms around the world are now devoted to “winning” Bitcoins, using copious amounts of electricity as they do it.

So most people obtain coins by buying them, usually on a Bitcoin exchange, where traditional currency, like dollars, can be traded for cryptocurrency.

The largest bitcoin broker is called Coinbase, which says it now has 13 million accounts — more than stock brokerage Charles Schwab. Coinbase works like an exchange for beginners, but it’s really a front-end for an exchange called GDAX, or Global Digital Asset Exchange, formerly called Coinbase Exchange.

To buy Bitcoin from Coinbase or another broker or exchange, you’ll have to download software called a cryptocurrency wallet. The wallet will be used to store the cryptographic keys that are needed to unlock virtual currency value. Coinbase, like other brokers and exchanges, also supports some alt coins, like Ethereum and Litecoin.

People invest in alt coins because they are much cheaper, and theoretically offer a chance at greater investment returns, though they can also be more risky. Not all coins, or all exchanges, are supported by all wallets.

Selling coins simply requires reversing the process. Bitcoin holders use a broker or exchange to move transfer virtual currency back into traditional currency, like dollars. That money is then transferred back to a traditional bank account.

Can you buy Bitcoins with a credit card?

Yes. But only through a wallet application and an exchange.

To keep things simple, a new user who wanted to get started on cryptocurrency can download wallet software from Coinbase, link a traditional bank account (such as a checking account or a credit card) to the Coinbase account, and begin buying bitcoins almost immediately. There’s a fee associated with each transaction (at Coinbase, it’s 3.99% for credit or debit card transactions).

No one gets rich on Coinbase in a week or two. New investors can only buy tiny fractions of Bitcoins — credit and debit card depositors are limited to $150 during the first week, for example.

But note,Buyers can’t sell right away. They have to wait a week; that can be frustrating if the value of a coin investment rises quickly, as it has recently. Coinbase users can increase their buy/sell limits through a variety of steps, including identity verification and creating a history of transactions. The throttled on-boarding process helps prevent fraud.

Bitcoins can also be purchased and sold using ATMs that are scattered around the world. They aren’t very practical, however. Transaction fees are high, and there are only a few thousand machines. They’re more of a novelty.

Spending Bitcoin

Spending bitcoin is no picnic. Many journalists have imitated Hill’s “live life for a week on Bitcoin” project; they usually come away frustrated. Yes, Bitcoin acceptance has slowly increased.

BitPay.com claims 100,000 merchants worldwide accept it. Earlier this year, Starbucks announced support for Bitcoin through its mobile app and integration with a wallet called uPayYou. Plenty of familiar online services, like Overstock.com and Expedia, take Bitcoin, too.

There are plenty of pain points along the way, however. If you thought waiting for chip-enabled credit card transactions was annoying, wait until you get held up making a Bitcoin-based purchase. Bitcoin transactions must be confirmed and added to the Blockchain, which can take several minutes, or even hours.

Risk & Rewards

There’s an bigger challenge with larger transactions. Bitcoin is so volatile that it’s risky to use for large purchases.

“Shark Tank” star Kevin O’Leary recently told CNBC that when he recently tried to settle a $200,000 international Bitcoin transaction, the other party insisted he buy insurance to guarantee the value of the Bitcoins wouldn’t fall. The risk outweighed any savings that might have been earned by avoiding bank fees or currency conversion fees.

Bitcoin comes with an even greater risk, however: It comes with virtually no consumer protections. If Bitcoins are lost or stolen, they are gone forever.

Tom says he mined 100 Bitcoins fairly early on, but his hard drive crashed, so they are simply gone. Coin thieves are also hard at work hacking wallets, which don’t necessarily come with built-in security.

Writing in Medium, Cody Brown tells the painful story of looking on helplessly while a criminal took control of his cell phone, opened his wallet, and drained $8,000 worth of Bitcoins. Users are so concerned that some have taken to purchasing physical “hardware” wallets they can essentially hide at home.

Worst of all, exchanges themselves have proven to be unreliable. The Japan-based Mt. Gox exchange, once the world’s largest, closed in 2014 after $450 million worth of Bitcoin were lost or stolen. Dozens of smaller security incidents at exchanges are chronicled at the website Blockchain Graveyard.

To security expert Harri Hursti of Nordic Innovation Labs, this fragility is cryptocurrency’s Achilles’’ heel.

“The one key feature of conventional financial systems is that pretty much any erroneous transactions or illegal actions can be unwound and reversed,” he says. “In a blockchain economy, your monetary value can disappear in a cloud of bits with a typo — not to mention intentional crime.”

Is Bitcoin an investment or a currency — or both?

Because there’s still a lot of friction involved in spending Bitcoin — certainly more than many other methods, from debit cards to Apple Pay — Bitcoin is a poor currency at the moment. It’s most practical use as a currency is probably in third-world countries and places where the existing currency is already volatile and Bitcoin provides an immediate benefit.

Outside of these extreme environments, there’s plenty of debate about Bitcoin’s long-term potential as a currency. Brian Armstrong, founder of Coinbase, says that Bitcoin is largely an investment at the moment.

“Bitcoin is 80% people buying and selling as an investment and 20% usage. I think in five years those numbers could be inverted,” he wrote last year.

That split isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As an investment, Bitcoin also serves as a store of value, the same purpose traditional gold serves for people who think their government’s policies will lead to dramatic inflation. You could also think of Bitcoin as the digital-age version of hiding money in a mattress.

Should I invest in Bitcoin?

It goes without saying that consumers shouldn’t invest money in Bitcoin that they can’t afford to lose, or that they’ll need for something in the next couple of years. Whether or not you can stomach that risk is a question only you can answer for yourself.

As a high volatility investment, impacted by hundreds of factors that create a calculus beyond the capacity of individual investors to compute, it really isn’t much different from gambling.

A long list of investing titans, beginning with Warren Buffett, have warned consumers not to throw money at Bitcoin. Remember, fear of missing out can make you do dumb things.

One reason not to avoid investing in Bitcoin: Because you think it has no intrinsic value, it’s not worth anything in the real world, or any those similar arguments. All currencies have this problem. Why is a hundred dollar bill worth $100? Because Uncle Sam says so. If you recycled that piece of paper, you’d get a tiny fraction of that. So dollars have no intrinsic value, either. All currencies — including hard currency, like gold — are ultimately some form of group delusion.

It’s not the intrinsic value that matters; it’s the depth of the “delusion.” As long as people have faith a currency is valuable, it is.

Now, you might not trust the Bitcoin mania, or the exchanges, or your own hard drive, and those would all be sensible reasons to stay away — for now. But people like Willard believe virtual money, in some form, is inevitable.

“Whether Bitcoin, as a brand, lives or dies is ultimately inconsequential. The fact is that natively digital currencies are here to stay and a multiplicity of new digital value possibilities is inevitable,” says Willard.

There is wide consensus that the blockchain technology underlying Bitcoin is of real and lasting value. As with so many gold rushes before, the only group nearly guaranteed to make money are — not people digging for gold — but companies selling the shovels to the diggers. While the metaphor is inexact, that’s partly why Tom isn’t buying cryptocoins, but rather mining for them.

The way he looks at it, even if the coins he mines fall to zero value, he still hasn’t lost everything. He still has his servers in his garage.

“I can, as an example, build and sell gaming machines on top of them, and potentially recoup my entire investment if things went sideways,” he says.

In other words, if his cryptocurrency investment fails, there’s always video games.

The post The Ultimate Guide to Bitcoin appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

4 Big Legal Changes That Will Hit Your Wallet in 2018

social security 401k tax changes 2018
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With all eyes on the GOP’s sweeping plans for tax reform, it’s easy to lose sight of other policy changes that could have an impact on your wallet.

In 2018, there are at least three key policy changes to keep tabs on — adjustments to Social Security benefits, 401(k) contribution limit changes, and the preservation of one of the year’s most controversial financial rules.

Here’s what you need to know:

More Social Security benefits

For Social Security beneficiaries, there is a lot to be excited about in 2018.

The cost-of living-adjustment, which determines the amount of money people receive from the system, is rising by 2 percent, the largest increase in five years. This means a growth in benefits for the more than 61 million recipients currently who currently utilize Social Security in America.

Additionally, the maximum payout—which is the amount you can receive once you’re eligible for 100 percent of your benefits—is also increasing, with the figure growing from $2,687 per month to $2,788 per month.

Greater 401(k) contributions

Saving for retirement will also be a little easier in the coming years, as the Internal Revenue Service announced that the annual limit for 401(k) contributors will increase by $500 in 2018.

Previously, anyone participating in a 401(k) or 403(b) plan, the majority of 457 plans, or the  Thrift Savings Plan could set aside $18,000 per year, but the number will grow to $18,500. To see how much this change might affect your retirement funds, you can use this calculator to track how your 401(k) funds will grow over time.

Mandatory arbitration contracts

Earlier this year, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) issued a regulation banning mandatory arbitration clauses, the often-controversial sections of consumer contracts that effectively prevent customers from filing class-action suits against a company they are doing business with, such as a bank.

However, this law, which was set to come into effect in 2018, has been overturned by Congress, meaning the rule will remain in effect.

Martin Lynch, the compliance manager and director of education for Cambridge Credit Counseling Corp. in Agawam, Mass., says the repeal of the CFPB’s rule is a major defeat for consumers because forced arbitration is often used to scare customers out of taking action against the corporate world.

“That’s not fair, almost by definition,” says Lynch, who is also a member of the board of directors for the Financial Counseling Association of America. “It’s why the concept of consumer protection exists in the first place.”

Still to be determined: The GOP tax bill

It seemed as though 2017 might be yet another slow year for tax legislation. Then earlier this month Republican lawmakers moved to pass what is could be the biggest American tax overhaul since the 1980s.

While the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate still have to agree on a singular version of the new bill, which likely include close to $1.5 trillion in total tax cuts — $900 billion of which will be for businesses alone — they’re rushing to meet President Donald Trump’s Christmas deadline.

“If any or all of the proposed changes get enacted, we will have a lot to be concerned with,” says Cindy Hockenberry, director of tax research and government relations for the National Association of Tax Professionals.

So how will the Republican tax bill—in its current form—most affect consumers? Next year, not very much. The plan’s changes, which technically go into effect on Jan. 1, 2018, will be mostly marginal until 2019 because Americans will mostly be able to file their taxes in April under the current rules.

Being aware of these changes can help you plan in advance because filing taxes in the coming years might be extremely different, depending on your income bracket and your usual deductions. While the bill—officially named the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act—is not yet finalized, here are the parts of the bill’s current form that consumers are likely to feel the most:

  • Your income tax bracket could change: The House version of new law would reduce the number of standard tax brackets from seven to four, meaning many Americans would pay a new percentage of their income in 2019. You can check out this chart of the proposed percentages to see how your taxes might change.
  • Your state and local tax deductions will probably go away: The Senate plan would eliminate the State and Local Tax (SALT) deduction. This means that if you typically itemize your taxes—instead of just taking the standard deduction— you will be unable to write off taxes paid to state and local governments on your federal filing.
  • You will no longer be able to deduct a personal exemption: Currently, you can take a $4,050 “personal exemption” from your return that doesn’t count toward your taxable income. Under both the House and Senate bills, this option would disappear, however the standard deduction you can take each year would almost double—increasing from $6,350 to $12,200 under the House bill.

Hockenberry, who is based in Appleton, Wis., says the most important part of the plan is its proposed elimination of the personal exemption and a number of itemized deductions. Some Americans might have to pay more each year, she added, because the increase in the standard deduction might not be enough to make up for these changes, causing some consumers’ taxable income to grow.

The post 4 Big Legal Changes That Will Hit Your Wallet in 2018 appeared first on MagnifyMoney.