Report: IRS Debt Collection Program Cost Taxpayers Millions

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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.

10 Ways to Get a Jump Start on Your Taxes

Taxes

Tax season is fast approaching, with everyone’s employer due to send their W-2s by the end of January. Even though we’re still in the middle of the holiday season, it’s never too early to start getting ready to file your taxes.

It’s helpful to be mindful of your taxes throughout the year, which will help you stay organized and avoid scrambling every year when tax season rolls around. Here are 10 ways to get a jump start on your taxes now, or anytime of year:

Figure out which forms you’ll need

Since everyone’s financial situation is different, there are many different tax forms that suit these different situations. If you’re unsure which tax form to use, visit the IRS’s website or consult a professional.

Keep all receipts in the same place

If you’re someone who itemizes deductions instead of standard ones, you you already know how important it is to store all of your receipts together in the same place. If you lose any, it could cost you. Sort and store them throughout the year to avoid a last-minute scramble.

Store all tax returns together 

Since we often have to reference the previous year’s return when preparing the current one, it’s a good idea to make sure you store them all in the same place, whether it’s a desk drawer, filing cabinet, or even a shoebox under your bed.

Consider filing an extension

It might seem counterintuitive to suggest an extension in a list about being prepared. However, if you file an extension and wait until later in the year, accountants will be less busy and you’ll end up filing in less time. This is also helpful for anyone experiencing any kind of stressful life event, such as those who were involved in any of the hurricanes in Texas, Florida, or Puerto Rico this year.

Review/revise your W-4

If you’ve experienced any life changes from the previous year (adding or losing any family members), ask your employer if you can review your W-4. The IRS actually recommends doing this every year.

Do your research

Are you going to prepare your taxes yourself, or are you going to hire an accountant or tax-preparation service? If you plan to do them on your own, make sure you educate yourself about the deductions you’re entitled to. If you plan to hire someone, check around and make sure they’re reputable.

Save your money

Unless you fill out the 1040EZ form and mail it in yourself, it’s going to cost you money to file your taxes. Some people are happy to pay this to ensure that they’ve done it correctly. You may also still owe taxes in addition to what you’ve already paid in. If you’ve saved for it, it shouldn’t be a problem.

Check your deductions

If you’ve had any major life events this year (bought a house, gotten married, had a child, etc.) you may be entitled to some sizable deductions. It’s a good idea to research all possible deductions to avoid overpaying your taxes.

Choose between itemized and standard deductions

Depending on what type of work you do and your financial situation, you may need to do itemized deductions, where you get credits for everything you’ve spent, rather than taking the standard deduction as dictated by your filing status. If you need to know more, consult a professional.

Track all charitable donations

Charitable donations are tax deductible, so if you have any monthly or one-off donations, make sure to keep track so that you can deduct these expenses from your taxes.

If you’re concerned about your credit, you can check your three credit reports for free once a year. To track your credit more regularly, Credit.com’s free Credit Report Card is an easy-to-understand breakdown of your credit report information that uses letter grades—plus you get two free credit scores updated each month.

You can also carry on the conversation on our social media platforms. Like and follow us on Facebook and leave us a tweet on Twitter.

 

Image: iStock

The post 10 Ways to Get a Jump Start on Your Taxes appeared first on Credit.com.

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.

How to Maximize Your FSA and Transit Benefit Before You Lose It

By Brittney Laryea & Shen Lu

 

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The end of the calendar year is generally an important time to pay attention to your workplace benefits accounts. You may already have gotten an email from the head of your workplace’s HR department about making your elections for the coming year and maybe even made them already. While you’re at it, take a look at the balances in your flexible spending accounts and transportation benefits accounts — they may need your attention.

Workplace benefit accounts like your health flexible spending account (FSA) and transportation benefits accounts help you save money on the important line items in your budget like your healthcare bills and getting yourself to and from work. Since the accounts are funded with pre-tax dollars, you could help your dollars go up to 40% further on common expenses — like getting a checkup or a bus pass — that help you keep and maintain your job. However, if you don’t quite know how to best use these accounts, you could actually end up losing the money you have socked away in your benefits accounts.

Read on or click ahead to learn the ins and outs of using these benefits accounts and what you can do, if anything, to save your money when you’re in danger of losing it.

Flexible spending accounts

What is a flexible spending account?

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A flexible spending account (FSA) is an employer sponsored reimbursement plan. It allows you to set aside pre-tax money and spend it on eligible medical expenses.

For 2018, you can contribute up to $2,650 to your health FSAs, up from the 2017’s limit of $2,600.

In an ideal world, you’ll avoid losing income by using up all your funds for eligible medical expenses by deadline. But the reality is that it’s tricky to budget for medical expenses for the next year (generally you can only adjust your contribution from each paycheck during open enrollment or during a qualifying life event, such as marriage or birth of a child). Many find themselves with excessive balance in their medical FSA at the end of the year.

It’s actually not that flexible given its “use it or lose it” rule — you have to use all the funds by the deadline, otherwise you lose the money. Several plan advisers confirmed to MagnifyMoney that many people underutilize their medical benefits. FSAStore.com, a one-stop-shop website stocked with FSA-eligible products, reported that each year, hundreds of millions of dollars was forfeited back to employers simply because consumers do not deplete the funds in their accounts.

So how can you make the best use of your medical FSA and avoid wasting money? We have done research and asked experts for you.

How can I use my health FSA funds?

First off, the medical FSA reimburses you for you or your dependent’s expenses that are not paid by your health insurance.

The eligible expenses include copayments, coinsurance and deductibles, prescription costs, vision and dental expenses and many over-the-counter (OTC) items — prescribed or unprescribed. But note that you cannot pay your monthly insurance premiums with the FSA.

If you have money left over in your FSA, you may want to consider getting new prescription glasses, prescription sunglasses and contact lenses. Those are some of the most common big-ticket items you can purchase with your FSA.

You can also stock up on things like first aid kits, contact solution, bandages and sunscreen that you may use year-round.

Your FSA plan provider will have a list of eligible over-the-counter items you can purchase at the pharmacy with your FSA, such as this one. Many of the pharmacy sites have sections of their sites that list all the FSA eligible items.

Another possible way to use the money would be scheduling check-ups with all your physicians. Your annual physicals and other preventative care are covered by your health plan, but if you need special medical treatment, you can use the remaining funds for copays, coinsurance or prescriptions.

Many FSA providers recommend you visit FSAStore.com.

How much should I contribute to my health FSA?

Becky Seefeldt, director of marketing at Benefit Resource, a benefits programs provider, said the average 2017 contribution was $1,250, based on the company’s 300,000 participants. That’s roughly half of the maximum amount one could contribute for the year. For those who over-contribute to their FSAs, by the end of the year, Seefeldt said, they usually have less than $100 left in their account.

Experts suggest you contribute conservatively because there is a chance that the unspent money might be forfeited. But everyone has a different situation; it’s hard to give a single guideline that fits all.

You really need to do the math when budgeting your contribution for the next plan year during open enrollment.

Nicole Wruck, a national health practice leader at Alight Solutions, told MagnifyMoney that most of the company’s clients over-contribute every year. She suggests consumers keep track of their health care expenses they had over the last year and plan accordingly for the coming year.

You will need to do the math based on the factors below:

  • What did you spend on prescription drugs?
  • What did you spend at the doctor, or the dentist, or the eye doctor?
  • Do you have any upcoming things planned in the next year that might make you experience some additional costs? For example, are you or your dependent expecting a baby? Will you need new glasses?

To help yourself run the numbers, you will want to study your health care plans. Know your deductibles — the amount you pay for health care services before your health insurance begins to kick in — as well as your copays and coinsurance. Learn what your out-of-pocket maximum is — the most you have to pay for health care services in a plan year. After you hit your out-of-pocket max, your insurance company covers your healthcare costs for the rest of the year.

Visiting your doctors can also help. Sometimes your year-end doctor visits can help you estimate your next year’s out-of-pocket medical expense. For instance, if your dentist tells you that you will need orthodontic treatment in the near future, then consider maxing out your FSA for the next plan year to cover the big dentist bills your insurance company won’t pay.

What happens to leftover funds at the end of the plan year?

Traditionally, you would have to use up all your remaining funds by Dec. 31. But there are two options employers can adopt to make the rules more lenient now.

The roll-over option. It allows up to $500 in your FSA per year to roll over into the next plan year, so participants don’t have to rush to use the remaining funds. Seefeldt said about 40 percent of employers now adopt the roll-over option.

An extended grace period. This gives participants an additional two and half months — through March 15 — to use up the money from the previous year. At the end of the grace period, all unspent funds will be forfeited to the employer.

Depending on how your company decides to do with the FSAs, you may have a little bit more leeway to use your funds by the year end. Check with your human resource department and your FSA plan provider to find out which option is available to you.

What happens if I leave the company before I use all my FSA funds?

If your eligible expenses incurred before you left the company, you may be able to request reimbursement through your company’s claim submission deadline.

If you leave the company in the middle of the year but you have used more funds in your flexible spending account than contributed. You may not be required to pay back your company.

You have access to the total amount you have allocated for the year after your first medical FSA deposit, regardless of the balance in your flexible spending account. You are reimbursed based on your company’s pay schedule as you submit claims.

For example, if you elected to put $2,000 into your FSA throughout the year, and you have a $2,000 dental expense in May, your FSA would reimburse you for the whole $2,000, even though you’ve only contributed about $833 by then.

If you jump ship in August, you may not have to pay back the rest of your contribution. Your company will cover it: It agrees to take the potential financial risk when it signs up for the FSA program. Don’t feel too guilty just yet — your company may be able to offset the financial loss with the unspent funds forfeited from other employees.

Now, if you have money left unused in your FSA, first, try to use it as much as you can before you part ways. But If you can’t use it up by your last day, you may have a chance to extend your FSA benefits if you choose to enroll in COBRA.

COBRA allows former employees, retirees, spouses and dependents to get temporary continuation of health benefits at group rates. FSA is one of the COBRA-eligible benefits.

Generally, you have until the end of plan year to use up money left in your FSA through your prior employer, but it’s most common for someone to take their FSA COBRA for one or two months and use the funds quickly, Seefeldt said. Under COBRA, you can continue to make your health plan contributions (but pay an additional 2 percent administrative fee) before the new plan kicks in, according to the Society for Human Resource Management.

Say you leave your company in August but there is $400 left in your FSA, and you plan to continue your health insurance coverage through your previous employer for two months before your new insurance plan kicks in, you can keep submitting expenses up to $400 in that period of time but pay an administrative fee that’s 2 percent of your monthly premium. But you are not required to purchase the health coverage in order to use your FSA balance.

Again, money in your FSA cannot be used to pay your premiums. But you can use it to cover eligible medical costs.

If you’re not eligible to continue your FSA through COBRA, try to use up the money before your job ends so that you won’t leave it on the table.

Transportation benefit accounts

What are commuter benefits?

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Transportation benefit accounts, also known as commuter benefits accounts, let employees use pre-tax dollars to pay for the costs of commuting. The accounts are meant to act as an incentive for employees to use eco-friendly transportation options like carpools, mass transit or bikes on their commute to the workplace.

Commuter benefits help many workers save on their transportation costs. But, it’s possible just as many workers aren’t completely sure how their transit benefit account works, or how to make the most of it.

How can I use my commuter benefits?

If you drive to a park-and-ride, catch mass transit or ride a bike to get to work, you may be able to use pre-tax dollars contributed to a commuter benefits account to cover some or all of the cost of your commute. However, if you ride solo to work or don’t use a bike or mass transit options available to you, you won’t be able to use commuter benefits to, let’s say, pay for the gas your personal vehicle burns during your bumper-to-bumper commute each morning.

However, you may be able to take advantage of parking benefits, which we’ll explain below.

You can use the money in a transportation benefits account to pay for any of the following eligible expenses:

  • A ride in a “commuter highway vehicle” to or from home and work.
    • This is another way of saying carpooling. Riding to work in a commuter highway vehicle counts if the vehicle can seat at least 6 passengers, according to the IRS. You might not have to go through the hassle of organizing a carpool with your coworkers or neighbors to use your transportation funds this way. Some commuter benefits programs allow you to carpool using rideshare apps like Lyft or Uber, too. All you’d need to do is use your commuter benefits card to pay for UberPOOL or Lyft Line rides and join the carpool when it arrives to pick you up.
  • A transit pass.
    • A transit pass is any pass, token or other tool that permits you to ride mass transit — like a train, ferry or bus — to work.
  • Qualified parking.
    • If you need to pay to park on or near your workplace, or you have to pay for parking in order to catch a ride on public transit for work or you pay for parking for any other work-related reason, you can use your transportation benefits to cover the charge.
  • Qualified bicycle commuting reimbursement.
    • You can use up to $20 per month in transportation benefits to purchase a bicycle, make improvements or repairs to the bike, and pay for bike storage as long as you use the bicycle for regular travel between home and your workplace. Be warned: If you use your transportation benefit to be reimbursed for commuting via bicycle at some point during the month, per IRS rule, you won’t be able to use the transportation funds for any of the three aforementioned eligible expenses in that particular month.

How much should I contribute to my transit benefit?

How much you contribute to your commuter benefits account will depend on how much you spend on transportation to and from work each month. Look at your monthly commuting expenses. Do the math to figure out what you would need to contribute from each paycheck to cover the cost of your commute to work. To avoid over-contributing to your transportation benefits account, be sure to to pull out a calculator.

Step 1: Estimate how much you spend on transportation expenses — monthly parking pass, bus pass, etc. — each pay period.

Estimating your commuter benefits should be easier than, say, trying to guess how many doctor’s visits or prescriptions you’ll need to cover in the coming year. “With a commuter benefit you are making an estimate,” says Joseph Priselac, Jr., CEO P&A Group, a Buffalo, N.Y.-based employee benefits administration company. “As long as you have a job and you know you’re going to keep going to it, you know how much you will spend.”

Step 2: Elect to contribute that amount for the year. The amount you elect will be divided by the total number of remaining pay periods for the year. The benefit will be deducted from each paycheck and placed in your transportation account for your use when you need it. If you change your annual contribution, the remaining number of deductions will be adjusted accordingly to reflect the change. If, for example, you elect $1,200 for the year and are paid monthly, $100 pre-tax will be deducted from your paycheck to your transportation account.

Beware of contribution limits

Commuter benefits: In 2017, the maximum monthly pre-tax contribution limit for commuter benefits is $255, or $3,060 in a year. Moving forward, the IRS may decide to change that limit. The federal agency reviews and sets the limit annually. If you bike to work, you max out at $20 per month.

Parking benefits: An additional $255 per month. If you’ve got to ride mass transit to get to work and pay for parking, Priselac says that limit is technically doubled, since you can max out $255 for parking and another $255 for mass transit passes each month.

Unless you are certain sure you will use up the maximum in transportation spending for the year, don’t simply contribute the maximum amount you can to your transportation benefits account.

What if I want to reduce my contribution?

If, for whatever reason, you decide you don’t need to contribute as much or you want to contribute more to your transit benefit fund during the year, that’s not a problem.

Unlike an FSA, for which your contribution election can’t be changed during the year, “you can change your election anytime you want,” says Priselac.

To clarify, you can change your commuter benefits election as often as your company allows. For some, that may be once per pay period, for others, it may be once per quarter. It’s one of the few benefits you can change mid-year. Consult with your employer’s human resources department to find out how often you are able to change your election.

“If you’re not sure how much you will be spending, start by contributing a small amount,” says Caspar Yen, Senior Director of Product Management at Zenefits, a human resources software company. “There’s no need to over contribute to play it safe.”

That said, if you feel you’ve contributed too much to your commuter benefits account to use up within the period, you can stop the deductions and use up the balance you’ve accumulated until it runs out, then restart your contributions. Just be sure to keep an eye on your transportation benefits balance so you know when to restart your contributions.

What happens to leftover funds at the end of the year?

Transit benefits rollover each year so long as you are still with the company and the company still offers the benefit. That means you don’t have to rush to use leftover funds at the end of the year.

This is in contrast to a flexible spending account, which has a ‘use it or lose it’ rule, which we covered above.

In a sense, there is no ‘plan year’ for transportation benefits, although your company may ask that you confirm you’d like to stay enrolled in the program each year when you elect your annual benefit contributions. Transportation benefits accounts roll over each pay period and should roll over into the coming period at the end of the year. That means there’s no danger of losing any of the money you’ve contributed so far, as long as you remain employed with that particular employer.

What if I quit my job or get laid off?

“As long as you are still working there and you have work related transit expenses the money stays,” says Priselac.

But if you quit your job or are laid off you could lose some or all of the money remaining in your transportation benefits account. If you’ve been over-contributing, any money you don’t use up will be lost to you, and returned to your employer.

The good news is that some benefit programs will give employees a grace period to submit reimbursements requests for any transportation expenses incurred during their employment — even if they quit.

If you know you may no longer be with the company or the company is planning to terminate its program, there’s one thing you can do to save your money.

“Before leaving a company, employees can make a large eligible purchase,” says Yen.

In the Bay Area, for example, an employee can purchase a clipper card with up to $300 in credits. If the transit method you take offers individual tickets, you could purchase a large number. Or, if you are able to load your transit pass with cash, you could place a large amount on your pass.

For example, those in the New York City metro area might load a large amount of money onto their MetroCard and use it up until it’s depleted.

Whenever you’re making a decision about benefits, it helps to talk to your HR department or the benefit provider, just to be sure you understand the rules. Mistakes you make when choosing benefits can end up costing you a lot of money, so ask questions and avoid leaving your decisions to the last minute of open enrollment.

The post How to Maximize Your FSA and Transit Benefit Before You Lose It appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

4 Ways the House Tax Bill Could Affect College Affordability

Congress is working around the clock to get a new tax bill to President Trump’s desk before the year is out. In addition to a host of tax cuts, both the Senate and House GOP tax plans include several proposals that could make saving and paying for higher education more costly for families. Considering Americans hold a collective $1.36 trillion in student loan debt and 11.2 percent of that balance is either delinquent or in default that’s not-so-good news for millions of Americans.

Both plans  include proposed ideas that could impact how students and families finance higher education. The House plan, for instance, includes proposed provisions that would affect the benefits parents, students and school employees like graduate students receive, which could ultimately impact the price students pay.

In a Nov. 6 letter to the House Ways and Means Committee opposing the provisions, the American Council on Education and 50 other higher education associations states that  “the committee’s summary of the bill showed that its provisions would increase the cost to students attending college by more than $65 billion between 2018 and 2027.” They reaffirmed their opposition in a Nov. 15 letter.

The council and other higher education associations weren’t satisfied with the Senate’s version of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, either. In a Nov. 14 letter, the council says it’s pleased the Senate bill retains some student benefits eliminated in the House version, but remains concerned about other positions that it says would ultimately make attaining a college education more expensive and “erode the financial stability of public and private, two-year and four-year colleges and universities.”

Where are the bills now?

Updated: U.S. senators voted 51-49, to pass a revised, 479-page version of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act in an early morning vote Dec. 2. The vote was almost entirely along party lines. Only one Republican senator, Bob Corker (Tenn.), voted against the tax bill, citing concerns about adding to the federal deficit. No Democrats backed the bill. Analysis of the bill as-passed is ongoing. However, the Joint Committee on Taxation posted its most-recent analysis of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act to its Twitter account just after the bill’s passing Saturday.

The House version of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act passed by a 227-205 vote on Nov. 16, just before the chamber’s Thanksgiving holiday. No Democrats backed the bill. The two chambers will now need to hash out many differences between the proposed tax plans before sending legislation to the president’s desk by year’s end.

In its plan, the Senate committee says the goal of tax reform in relation to education is to simplify education tax benefits. MagnifyMoney took a look at a few of the major proposed changes to the tax code that would impact college affordability most.

Streamline tax credits

The House tax bill proposes to repeal the Hope Scholarship Credit and Lifetime Learning Credit while slightly expanding the American Opportunity Tax Credit. The new American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC) would credit the first $2,000 of higher education expenses (like tuition, fees and course materials) and offer a 25 percent tax credit for the next $2,000 of higher education expenses. That’s the same as it is now, with one addition: The new AOTC also offers a maximum $500 credit for fifth-year students.

The bigger change is the elimination of the other credits. Currently, if students don’t elect the American Opportunity Tax Credit, they can instead claim the Hope Scholarship Credit for expenses up to $1,500 credit applied to tuition and fees during the first two years of education; or, they may choose the Lifetime Learning Credit that awards up to 20 percent of the first $10,000 of qualified education expenses for an unlimited number of years.

Basically, in creating the new American Opportunity Tax Credit, the House bill eliminates the tax benefit for nontraditional, part-time, or graduate students who may spend longer than five years in the pursuit of a higher-ed degree. According to the Joint Committee on Taxation, consolidating the AOTC would increase tax revenue by $17.5 billion from 2018 to 2027, and increase spending by $0.2 billion over the same period.

The Senate bill does not change any of these credits.

Make tuition reductions taxable

The House bill proposes eliminating a tax exclusion for qualified tuition reductions, which allows college and university employees who receive discounted tuition to omit the reduction from their taxable income.

A repeal would generally increase the taxable income for many campus employees. Most notably, eliminating the exclusion would negatively impact graduate students students who, under the House’s proposed tax bill, would have any waived tuition added to their taxable income.

Many graduate students receive a stipend in exchange for work done for the university, like teaching courses or working on research projects. The stipend offsets student’s overall cost of attendance and may be worth tens of thousands of dollars. As part of the package, many students see all or part of their tuition waived.

Students already pay taxes on the stipend. Under the House tax plan, students would have to report the waived tuition as income, too, although they never actually see the funds. Since a year’s worth of a graduate education can cost tens of thousands of dollars, the addition could move the student up into higher tax brackets and significantly increase the amount of income tax they have to pay.

The Senate bill doesn’t alter the exclusion.

Eliminate the student loan interest deduction

Under the House tax bill, students who made payments on their federal or private student loans during the tax year would no longer be able to deduct interest they paid on the loans.

Current tax code allows those repaying student loans to deduct up to $2,500 of student loan interest paid each year. To claim the deduction, a taxpayer cannot earn more than $80,000 ($160,00 for married couples filing jointly). The deduction is reduced based on income for earners above $65,000, up to an $80,000 limit. (The phaseout is between $130,000 and $160,000 who are married and filing joint returns.)

Nearly 12 million Americans were spared paying an average $1,068 when they were credited with the deduction in 2014, according to the Center for American Progress, an independent nonpartisan policy institute. If a student turns to student loans or other expensive borrowing options to make up for the deduction, he or she could  experience more financial strain after graduation.

The Senate tax bill retains the student loan interest deduction.

Repeal the tax exclusion for employer-provided educational assistance

Some employers provide workers educational assistance to help deflect the cost of earning a degree or completing continuing education courses at the undergraduate or graduate level. Currently, Americans receiving such assistance are able to exclude up to $5,250 of it from their taxable income.

Under the House tax plan, the education-related funds employees receive would be taxed as income, increasing the amount some would pay in taxes if they enroll in such a program.

A spokesperson for American Student Assistance says if the final tax bill includes the repeal, it may point to a bleak future for the spread of student loan repayment assistance benefits, currently offered by only 4 percent of American companies.

Take care not to confuse education assistance with another, growing employer benefit: student loan repayment assistance. The student loan repayment benefit is new and structured differently from company to company, but generally, it grants some employees money to help repay their student loans.

The Senate plan does not repeal the employer-provided educational assistance exclusion.

The post 4 Ways the House Tax Bill Could Affect College Affordability appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

1099-Cs and Your Taxes: What You Should Know

Photo of a young couple going through financial problems

Not many know what a 1099-C is or why they receive it. But these forms can be a little scary because they’re tax documents—and no one wants to mess up their taxes. When you get one, it’s because you had a portion or all of a debt canceled.

It’s important to understand what a 1099-C is and what to do about it to ensure you are filing your taxes correctly. Here’s what you need to know.

What’s a 1099-C?

A 1099-C falls under the 1099 tax form series of information returns for the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). These forms let the IRS know you’ve received income outside of your W-2 income. Any company that pays an individual $600 or more in a year is required to send the recipient a 1099. You often receive a 1099-C when $600 or more of your debt is forgiven or discharged.

When you use credit or take out a loan, that borrowed money is still currency you can use—even if you don’t pay it back. So when debt is canceled, that money is considered ordinary income and is therefore taxable (if over $600), which means you have to report it on your tax return. Yep, Uncle Sam gets a cut of the portion of your debt that was forgiven or discharged.

When you get a 1099-C, you can find the reason you received it in the sixth box of the form. Some common reasons you may get a 1099-C are included below:

  1. You negotiated a settlement to pay a debt for less than the amount you owed and the creditor forgave the rest.
  2. You owned a home that went into foreclosure and there was a forgiven deficiency (a difference between the home’s value and what you owe on it).
  3. You sold a home in a short sale where the lender agreed to accept less than the full amount you owe.
  4. You didn’t pay anything on a debt for at least three years and there has been no collection activity in the past year.

Are My Debts Erased with a 1099-C?

If you know you received a 1099-C because of a settlement agreement, where you paid off debt for less than the full amount due, then you don’t owe anything. If the form was filed because you haven’t made payments for three years and they haven’t tried to collect recently, then you may still owe the debt. Your state’s statute of limitations may determine what debt you are and are not responsible for.

Anytime you receive a 1099-C, check the form for errors. If you find any, first work with your creditor to get the information corrected. If that doesn’t resolve the issue, then you can include an explanation with your tax return. To find out if a 1099-C has been filed, you can request a wage and income transcript from the IRS for the tax year or years in question. The transcript should list any 1099-Cs that were filed under your Social Security number.

Do I Have to Pay Taxes on the 1099-C Amount?

The IRS will automatically assume that the amount listed on the 1099-C is accurate and will expect you to include that amount in your ordinary income when you file your tax return. Depending on the other income you earn and your tax bracket, you could receive a larger tax bill or a smaller refund. However, if you can demonstrate that you qualify for an exclusion or exception, you may be able to avoid paying taxes on part or all of that phantom income.

One of the most commonly used exclusions is the insolvency exclusion. It works like this: you are insolvent to the extent that your liabilities (what you owe) exceed your assets (what you own). If the total amount by which you are insolvent is larger than the amount listed on the 1099-C, you can exclude the entire amount listed on the 1099-C from your income. You’ll have to file Form 982 with your tax return to claim this exclusion.

If the amount by which you are insolvent is less than the amount on the 1099-C, then you may be able to avoid including part of that amount in your income. However, the insolvency exclusion may not be the perfect fit for everyone—there may be another exclusion that fits your situation better.

What if I Don’t Receive a 1099-C for Canceled Debt?

Even if you don’t receive a 1099-C, you are still responsible for reporting canceled debt as taxable income. Make sure you do not leave any forgiven or discharged debt off of your tax return. If you do, you will more than likely hear from the IRS in the future for failure to pay, which will cost you more money in the long run. Look at your credit report to ensure you don’t have any unpaid debt from the last three years.

What if I Receive a 1099-C for Old Debt?

Be careful when it comes to old debt and 1099-Cs. Creditors who follow IRS guidelines should send out 1099-Cs when a debt lies dormant for three years and there has been no significant collection activity for the past year.

Specifically, the IRS 1099 instructions state that debt is canceled “when the creditor has not received a payment on the debt during the testing period. The testing period is a 36-month period ending on December 31.”

However, the creditor can rebut this cancelation if “the creditor (or a third party collection agency on behalf of the creditor) has engaged in significant bona fide collection activity during the 12-month period ending on December 31.”

If a creditor sends out 1099-Cs years (or decades) after the 1099 deadlines, the responsibility falls upon the taxpayer to explain to the IRS why they believe it should not have been filed that year. Again, there is no specific form for reporting this kind of dispute. You’ll have to include an explanation, and you may wind up arguing with the IRS to get it resolved.

What if I Receive a 1099-C for Debts Canceled in Bankruptcy?

You don’t have to pay taxes on personal debts discharged in bankruptcy. And creditors aren’t required to file 1099-Cs for those debts. If they do, however, you can file Form 982 and claim an exclusion because the debt was included in bankruptcy.

Don’t panic if your bankruptcy occurred long ago and you don’t know where to find a copy of your bankruptcy papers to prove the debt was discharged. Although it’s anyone’s guess why a creditor would send an unrequired 1099-C years after the fact, you likely won’t have to jump through hoops to prove the debt was discharged.

Getting a 1099-C can be confusing, especially if you don’t have a handle on your credit. Avoid future credit surprises by using Credit.com’s free credit report tool.

Image: David Sacks

The post 1099-Cs and Your Taxes: What You Should Know appeared first on Credit.com.

1099-Cs and Your Taxes: What You Should Know

Photo of a young couple going through financial problems

Not many know what a 1099-C is or why they receive it. But these forms can be a little scary because they’re tax documents—and no one wants to mess up their taxes. When you get one, it’s because you had a portion or all of a debt canceled.

It’s important to understand what a 1099-C is and what to do about it to ensure you are filing your taxes correctly. Here’s what you need to know.

What’s a 1099-C?

A 1099-C falls under the 1099 tax form series of information returns for the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). These forms let the IRS know you’ve received income outside of your W-2 income. Any company that pays an individual $600 or more in a year is required to send the recipient a 1099. You often receive a 1099-C when $600 or more of your debt is forgiven or discharged.

When you use credit or take out a loan, that borrowed money is still currency you can use—even if you don’t pay it back. So when debt is canceled, that money is considered ordinary income and is therefore taxable (if over $600), which means you have to report it on your tax return. Yep, Uncle Sam gets a cut of the portion of your debt that was forgiven or discharged.

When you get a 1099-C, you can find the reason you received it in the sixth box of the form. Some common reasons you may get a 1099-C are included below:

  1. You negotiated a settlement to pay a debt for less than the amount you owed and the creditor forgave the rest.
  2. You owned a home that went into foreclosure and there was a forgiven deficiency (a difference between the home’s value and what you owe on it).
  3. You sold a home in a short sale where the lender agreed to accept less than the full amount you owe.
  4. You didn’t pay anything on a debt for at least three years and there has been no collection activity in the past year.

Are My Debts Erased with a 1099-C?

If you know you received a 1099-C because of a settlement agreement, where you paid off debt for less than the full amount due, then you don’t owe anything. If the form was filed because you haven’t made payments for three years and they haven’t tried to collect recently, then you may still owe the debt. Your state’s statute of limitations may determine what debt you are and are not responsible for.

Anytime you receive a 1099-C, check the form for errors. If you find any, first work with your creditor to get the information corrected. If that doesn’t resolve the issue, then you can include an explanation with your tax return. To find out if a 1099-C has been filed, you can request a wage and income transcript from the IRS for the tax year or years in question. The transcript should list any 1099-Cs that were filed under your Social Security number.

Do I Have to Pay Taxes on the 1099-C Amount?

The IRS will automatically assume that the amount listed on the 1099-C is accurate and will expect you to include that amount in your ordinary income when you file your tax return. Depending on the other income you earn and your tax bracket, you could receive a larger tax bill or a smaller refund. However, if you can demonstrate that you qualify for an exclusion or exception, you may be able to avoid paying taxes on part or all of that phantom income.

One of the most commonly used exclusions is the insolvency exclusion. It works like this: you are insolvent to the extent that your liabilities (what you owe) exceed your assets (what you own). If the total amount by which you are insolvent is larger than the amount listed on the 1099-C, you can exclude the entire amount listed on the 1099-C from your income. You’ll have to file Form 982 with your tax return to claim this exclusion.

If the amount by which you are insolvent is less than the amount on the 1099-C, then you may be able to avoid including part of that amount in your income. However, the insolvency exclusion may not be the perfect fit for everyone—there may be another exclusion that fits your situation better.

What if I Don’t Receive a 1099-C for Canceled Debt?

Even if you don’t receive a 1099-C, you are still responsible for reporting canceled debt as taxable income. Make sure you do not leave any forgiven or discharged debt off of your tax return. If you do, you will more than likely hear from the IRS in the future for failure to pay, which will cost you more money in the long run. Look at your credit report to ensure you don’t have any unpaid debt from the last three years.

What if I Receive a 1099-C for Old Debt?

Be careful when it comes to old debt and 1099-Cs. Creditors who follow IRS guidelines should send out 1099-Cs when a debt lies dormant for three years and there has been no significant collection activity for the past year.

Specifically, the IRS 1099 instructions state that debt is canceled “when the creditor has not received a payment on the debt during the testing period. The testing period is a 36-month period ending on December 31.”

However, the creditor can rebut this cancelation if “the creditor (or a third party collection agency on behalf of the creditor) has engaged in significant bona fide collection activity during the 12-month period ending on December 31.”

If a creditor sends out 1099-Cs years (or decades) after the 1099 deadlines, the responsibility falls upon the taxpayer to explain to the IRS why they believe it should not have been filed that year. Again, there is no specific form for reporting this kind of dispute. You’ll have to include an explanation, and you may wind up arguing with the IRS to get it resolved.

What if I Receive a 1099-C for Debts Canceled in Bankruptcy?

You don’t have to pay taxes on personal debts discharged in bankruptcy. And creditors aren’t required to file 1099-Cs for those debts. If they do, however, you can file Form 982 and claim an exclusion because the debt was included in bankruptcy.

Don’t panic if your bankruptcy occurred long ago and you don’t know where to find a copy of your bankruptcy papers to prove the debt was discharged. Although it’s anyone’s guess why a creditor would send an unrequired 1099-C years after the fact, you likely won’t have to jump through hoops to prove the debt was discharged.

Getting a 1099-C can be confusing, especially if you don’t have a handle on your credit. Avoid future credit surprises by using Credit.com’s free credit report tool.

Image: David Sacks

The post 1099-Cs and Your Taxes: What You Should Know appeared first on Credit.com.

Is Your 401(K) Tax Break on the Chopping Block?

Republican lawmakers are under pressure to put out new tax reform legislation by year’s end, but to make that happen, they need ways to pay for the hefty tax cuts proposed so far.

A proposal from President Trump calls for tax cuts for taxpayers at every income level, a reduction in the corporate income tax to 20 percent from 35 percent, and the end of the estate and alternative minimum taxes, among other things.

So far, implemented as is, the plan would add $1.5 trillion to the federal deficit, according to the Tax Policy Center. The deficit is the amount by which total government spending exceeds tax revenues for the fiscal year.

Such calculations have Republicans scrambling to figure out a way to achieve tax reform without adding to the deficit.

This week, Republicans lawmakers were rumored to be considering offsetting the cost of their tax cuts by reducing the 401(k) contribution limit for workers. (Trump swiftly denounced that plan on Twitter.)

At the moment, workers under 50 are able to contribute up to $18,000 in pre-tax dollars each year to a 401(k) retirement account. The amount is tax-deductible and reduces the overall amount the worker pays in annual federal income tax. The tax-deductible contribution limits are set to rise to $18,500 and $24,500, respectively, in 2018.

The Wall Street Journal reports Republican house leaders were considering a plan that would cut annual tax-deductible contribution limits on 401(k)s and, possibly, IRAs, down to just $2,400.

Workers would need to place any amount they’d like to save above that limit in a Roth IRA, which would be a boon to the federal government. Contributions made to Roth accounts are taxed immediately, not when the benefit is drawn out as with 401(k)s, so it would be one way to drive up tax revenue in the face of tax cuts.

On Oct. 23, Trump tweeted, “There will be NO change to your 401(k).”


Started by the IRS in 1978, retirement savings plans like the 401(k) and Individual Retirement Account (IRA) have been financial staples among middle-class families. And as pension plans have been phased out over time, defined contribution plans like the 401(k) plan have taken their place as a principal retirement vehicle for those families.

The proposed limit could prove costly to many Americans, as they are likely contributing above $2,400 annually to a 401(k) retirement account. According to Fidelity Investments, the average 12-month savings rate for 401(k) accounts in 2016 reached a record high of $10,200.

The notion of cutting back the amount workers can contribute, tax-free, to retirement accounts is understandably unsettling to many workers and members of the asset management community. That’s in part because, as Trump has noted on Twitter, 401(k) contributions allow many middle-class Americans a tax break.

Here’s how it works. For this example, we based our estimates on 2016 income tax brackets.

Let’s say Robin is  head of her household and drew a base salary of about $55,000 in 2016, placing her in the 25% tax bracket. She deferred 15% of her pre-tax income, or $8,250, to her 401(k) retirement account. Her $8,250 contribution reduces her annual taxable income to $46,750.

That newly calculated income not only dropped Robin to the 15% tax bracket, but she also saved nearly $1,700 in federal income taxes.

The administration’s tax plan reduces the seven existing tax brackets to just three — 12,  25 and 35 percent (with a possible fourth tax bracket for the highest-earning individuals). But the plan did not specify income ranges. As of this writing, it is unclear which incomes would fall into which bracket.

For the purposes of this example, let’s assume that Robin’s income would still land her in the 25 percent income tax bracket.

With a  401(k) contribution limit reduced to $2,400, she would have been taxed on $52,600 at a 25 percent tax rate. That would have increased the amount she paid in federal income tax to $7,297.50 from $6,350 in 2016.

Moving forward

It’s unclear if the new tax bill will actually include a reduction in 401(k) contribution limits. But one thing that is clear is this: If the tax-reform measures are to pass, funding for more than $1.5 trillion in lost revenue to tax cuts over the next decade has to come from somewhere.

The plan proposes to reduce the tax burden on middle-class Americans by doubling the standard deduction Americans can make when filing their federal income taxes to $12,000 for individuals and $24,000 for married couples filing jointly. However, it would eliminate the option to itemize deductions instead of using the standard deduction. The proposed plan would also increase the child tax credit — currently $1,000 — by an unspecified amount and create a $500 tax credit for nonchild dependents, like elderly family members. These and other tax cuts may translate to big losses in federal tax revenue.

An independent analysis by the Tax Policy Center, a nonpartisan think tank, claims the new tax plan would reduce federal revenues by $6.2 trillion over the first decade, while federal debt could rise by at least $7 trillion in the same period.

The post Is Your 401(K) Tax Break on the Chopping Block? appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

Moving to One of These 9 States Could Save You Thousands

Should you move to one of the nine states with no income tax? Here's how to decide.

Each year, taxpayers pay trillions in income taxes. In fact, the government collected approximately $3 trillion last year. If you’re like most taxpayers, you owe both federal and state taxes, which means an even bigger chunk of your paycheck goes to the government.

When you’re carrying debt — whether it’s student loans or a credit card balance — it can be frustrating to see so much of your hard-earned money leave your hands. That’s why many people consider moving somewhere with no state income tax.

According to a new study by Student Loan Hero, taxpayers could save an average of $1,977 a year by moving to a state with no income tax. But before you pack your bags, find out what factors you should keep in mind.

States Without Income Taxes

States that collect income taxes use them to fund essential programs and services for residents. More than 50% of state tax revenues go toward education and healthcare initiatives, such as Medicaid. State agencies also use collected income taxes to pay for services, including transportation and law enforcement.

Residents in most of the country must pay federal and state income taxes. However, nine states don’t levy any state income tax: Alaska, Florida, Nevada, New Hampshire, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Washington and Wyoming. Because you don’t have to pay state taxes, you can get a significant yearly savings.

How Much Could You Save?

How much you could save by moving to a state with no income tax depends on your income bracket and where you live now. For example, Oregon workers have a state income tax of 7.75%, the highest rate of any state in the country. Someone earning the median salary in the state — $49,710 — would pay $3,851 in addition to their federal taxes.

Moving to another state to save that kind of cash can be tempting. So tempting, in fact, that 30% of survey respondents would move to a state with no income tax to save money. Moreover, 38% of respondents said they’d use their tax savings to accelerate their student loan debt repayment. (To see how student loans are impacting your credit, check out your free credit report snapshot on Credit.com..)

Using Your Savings for Debt Repayment

The savings you get from not paying state taxes can save you even more money in the long run. Using that money to repay your loan helps you pay off the loans faster, cutting down on interest charges. It can also save you thousands over the life of your loan.

For example, say you had $35,000 in student loans with an interest rate of 6.31% (the current rate for Grad PLUS loans) and a minimum monthly payment of $400 a month. Now, take the average $1,977 you would save by moving to a state without income tax and divide it up over 12 months. That would give you an extra $165 in your pocket each month. If you put that additional amount toward your student loans, you could pay off your debt about three and a half years early and save more than $4,500 in interest.

Other Costs

Before packing up and moving to a new state, consider other costs that may eat into your savings. Between putting down a deposit on a new apartment, moving your belongings and registering your vehicle in a new state, you can spend thousands.

In addition, some states with no income tax make up their revenue through other means, such as sales tax. Florida has a 6% sales tax on goods and services, including essentials such as clothing or food. If you’re not used to paying taxes on groceries, the added sales tax can put a dent in your budget. That’s why it’s important to compare the cost of living when deciding if it’s worth it to move to a new state.

Moving to Save Money

Depending on your circumstances, moving to a state with no income tax can give you a substantial savings. You can use that money to pay off your student loans faster, boost your emergency fund or catch up on retirement savings. But before you make the leap, be sure you understand the added expenses of moving so your decision is financially sound.

Image: xavierarnau

The post Moving to One of These 9 States Could Save You Thousands appeared first on Credit.com.

File Taxes Jointly or Separately: What to Do When You’re Married with Student Loans

Married couples with student loans must make a difficult decision when they file their tax returns. They can choose to file jointly, which often leads to a lower tax bill. Or they can file separately, which may result in a higher tax bill, but smaller student loan payments. So which decision will save the most money?

First, let’s discuss the difference between the two filing statuses available to married couples.

Married filing jointly

Married couples always have the option to file jointly. In most cases, this filing status results in a lower tax bill. The IRS strongly encourages couples to file joint returns by extending several tax breaks to joint filers, including a larger standard deduction and higher income thresholds for certain taxes and deductions.

Married filing separately

Because married couples are not required to file jointly, they can choose to file separately, where each spouse is taxed separately on the income he or she earned. However, this filing status typically results in a higher tax rate and the loss of certain deductions and credits. However, if one or both of the spouses have student loans with income-based repayment plans, filing separately could be beneficial if it results in lower student loan payments.

For help figuring out which filing status is better for married couples with student loans, we reached out to Mark Kantrowitz, publisher and Vice President of Strategy at Cappex.com. Kantrowitz knows quite a bit about student loans and taxes. He’s testified before Congress and federal and state agencies on several occasions, including testimony before the Senate Banking Committee that led to the passage of the Ensuring Continued Access to Student Loans Act of 2008. He’s also written 11 books, including four bestsellers about scholarships, the FAFSA, and student financial aid.

Two Advantages to Filing Taxes Jointly:

  • Most education benefits are available only if married taxpayers file a joint return. This can affect the American opportunity tax credit, the lifetime learning credit, the tuition and fees deduction (which Congress let expire as of January 1, 2017, but is still available for 2016 returns), and the student loan interest deduction.
  • Couples taking the maximum student loan interest deduction of $2,500 in a 25% tax bracket would save $625 in taxes. But this “above the line” deduction also reduces Adjusted Gross Income (AGI), which could yield additional tax benefits (e.g., greater benefits for deductions that are phased out based on AGI, lower thresholds for certain itemized deductions such as medical expenses, and miscellaneous itemized deductions).

However, there is a potential downside to filing jointly for couples with student loans.

Income-driven repayment plans use your income to determine your minimum monthly payment. Generally, your payment amount under an income-based repayment plan is a percentage of your discretionary income (the difference between your AGI and 150% of the poverty guideline amount for your state of residence and family size, divided by 12).

  • If you are a new borrower on or after July 1, 2014, payments are generally limited to 10% of your discretionary income but never more than the 10-year Standard Repayment Plan amount.
  • If you are not a new borrower on or after July 1, 2014, payments are generally limited to 15% of your discretionary income, but never more than the 10-year Standard Repayment Plan amount.

Because filing jointly will increase your discretionary income if your spouse is also earning money, your required student loan payment will typically increase as well. In some cases, the difference is negligible; in others, this can add up to a pretty significant cost difference.

“Calculating the trade-offs of income-driven repayment plans versus the student loan interest deduction and other benefits is challenging,” Kantrowitz says, “in part because the monthly payment under income-driven repayment depends on the borrower’s future income trajectory and inflation, not just the inclusion/exclusion of spousal income.”

Fortunately, some tools can help you run the numbers.

An example: Meet Joe and Sally

Here’s a simple scenario that shows how a change in filing status can save on taxes but cost more on student loans:

  • Joe and Sally are married with no children.
  • They live in Florida (no state income tax).
  • Joe is making $35,000 per year and has $15,000 of student loan debt with a 6.8% interest rate.
  • Sally is making $75,000 per year and has $60,000 of student loan debt with a 6.8% interest rate.

First, we can estimate Joe and Sally’s tax liability for filing jointly versus separately. TurboTax’s TaxCaster tool makes this pretty easy. Here’s what we get when run their numbers using 2016 tax rates:

  • Filing jointly, Joe and Sally would owe $13,249 in federal taxes.
  • Filing separately, they would owe $15,178.

So they would save just over $1,900 in federal taxes by filing jointly. But how would filing jointly affect their student loan payments?

We can use a student loan repayment estimator like the one provided by the office of Federal Student Aid to find out. Here’s what we get when we run the numbers and choose the Income-Based Repayment option, assuming they are new borrowers on or after July 1, 2014:

  • Filing jointly, Joe’s minimum required monthly student loan payment under a standard repayment plan would be $143, and Sally’s would be $571, for a total of $714 per month.
  • Filing separately, Joe’s minimum required monthly student loan payment would be $141, and Sally’s would be $474, for a total of $615 per month.

Over the course of a year, Joe and Sally would only save $1,188 on their student loan payments by filing separately. Even with the additional loan payments they would have to make, filing jointly would save them $712 more than filing separately.

What’s best for your situation?

Every situation is different. The simple example above comes out in favor of filing jointly, but you will need to run your own numbers to figure out what is right for you. Here are additional tips to help you figure it out:

  1. Know how much you owe. Make a list of all loan balances, interest rates, and the type of each student loan you have. You can find your federal student loans on the National Student Loan Data System. You can find information on your private student loans by looking at a recent statement.
  2. Estimate your student loan payment options. Using a student loan repayment estimator like the one mentioned above, determine your required payments when filing separately versus jointly.
  3. Calculate your tax liability. Use a tool like TurboTax’s TaxCaster or 1040.com’s Free Tax Calculator to calculate your federal and state tax liability when filing separately versus jointly.
  4. Be aware of long-term consequences. Filing separately might result in lower monthly payments today but more interest paid over time. If you make it to the 20- or 25-year forgiveness point, that could have tax implications down the line. Kantrowitz points out that “forgiveness is taxable under current law, causing a smaller tax debt to substitute for education debt. The main exception is borrowers who will qualify for public student loan forgiveness, which occurs after 10 years and is tax-free under current law.” Keep those long-term consequences in mind as you make a decision.
  5. Consider steps to lower your AGI. Your eligibility for income-driven student loan repayment plans depends on your AGI, which is essentially your total income minus certain deductions. You can reduce this number, and potentially lower both your tax bill and your required student loan payment, by doing things like contributing to a 401(k), IRA, or Health Savings Account.
  6. Keep the big picture in mind. These decisions are just one part of your overall financial situation. Keep your eyes on your big long-term goals and make your decision based on what helps you reach those goals fastest.

Other unique situations

There are a few unique situations that make deciding whether to file jointly or separately a little more complicated. Do any of these situations apply to you?

Divorce and legal separation

Sometimes, determining marital status to file tax returns isn’t cut and dried. What happens when you and your spouse are separated or going through a divorce at year end? In this case, your filing status depends on your marital status on the last day of the tax year.

You are considered married if you are separated but haven’t obtained a final decree of divorce or separate maintenance agreement by the last day of the tax year. In this case, you can choose to file married filing jointly or married filing separately.

You and your spouse are considered unmarried for the entire year if you obtained a final decree of divorce or are legally separated under a separate maintenance agreement by the last day of the tax year. You must follow your state tax law to determine if you are divorced or legally separated. In this case, your filing status would be single or head of household.

Pay as You Earn repayment plans

Pay as You Earn (PAYE) is a repayment plan with monthly payments that are limited to 10% of your discretionary income. To qualify and to continue to make income-based payments under this plan, you must have a partial financial hardship and have borrowed your first federal student loan after October 1, 2007. Kantrowitz says the PAYE plan bases repayment on the combined income of married couples, regardless of tax filing status.

Unpaid taxes, child support, or defaulted federal student loans

If you or your spouse have unpaid back taxes, child support, or defaulted federal student loans, joint income tax refunds may be diverted to pay for those items through the Treasury Offset Program. “Spouses can appeal to retain their share of the federal income tax refund,” Kantrowitz says, “but it is simpler if they file separate returns.”

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