By Claudia Buck
RISMEDIA, April 10, 2008-(MCT)-April may be the cruelest month, but here are some tips to avoid financial foolery:
1. Don’t forget the April 15 tax deadline; file an extension if you can’t meet it.
Even if you don’t have the money to pay state or federal taxes, you’ll get hit with penalties if you don’t meet certain obligations. With the IRS, you can file for an Oct. 15 extension online at www.irs.gov or call (800) 829-1040. Check with your state comptroller for state information.
2. Don’t get tripped up by those common tax-filing errors.
Three big ones are: Overstating or understating estimated tax payments; using figures that don’t match W-2 forms; and missing out on refunds or credits. One of the most significant-the federal earned income tax credit-provides up to $4,700 for working families, “but at least one of every four eligible taxpayers leaves that money on the table,” says California Controller John Chiang.
3. Don’t fall for “phishing” scams that try to filch your financial information.
One of the latest? Fake IRS e-mails offering to help you get your federal “stimulus check” faster. “The IRS will never send an unsolicited e-mail,” says IRS spokesman Bill Steiner. “And if you get a call from someone representing the IRS, it’s also not likely legit as well.” Whether it’s about taxes or banking, do not give out any personal information by phone or e-mail until you call the financial institution to verify.
4. Don’t get suckered into “quick-fix” mortgage solutions.
If you’re facing mortgage troubles, be wary of unsolicited offers from “foreclosure consultants,” some of whom may be scam artists. Instead, contact your lender about renegotiating your loan or call a nonprofit mortgage counselor.
5. Don’t put off writing a will, especially if you have kids.
Drafting a will is crucial for parents, so they can name a guardian for minor children, says Sacramento, Calif., estate attorney Michelle Goff. “If you don’t,” she says, “it’s a free-for-all, and a judge will decide who would best care for your kids in the event you’re gone.” If you don’t specify your wishes in a will or a revocable trust, your children could inherit all your assets at age 18. “I always recommend that your estate plan delays distribution … until the kids or grandkids are at least in their 20s, if not older.”
6. Don’t overpay on your health care prescriptions.
Shop around. If you’re on Medicare, check yearly by Dec. 31 to see if your medication is still listed or can be found at a better rate from another insurance company. The Medicare website lists rates at www.medicare.gov. If you’re on a group health plan at work, check prices among pharmacies when purchasing prescriptions. “There can be a big variance between pharmacies, especially with brand names,” says health care specialist Jim Dills of Dills and Associates insurance agency in Cameron Park, Calif. In most cases, you can save by buying a three-month supply by mail and by looking for generics.
7. Don’t withdraw cash too early-or too late-from your 401(k).
Either way, the penalties for early withdrawals before age 59 and a half or for missing your required withdrawal starting at age 70 and a half are “onerous,” says Hal Young of Brecek & Young Advisors Inc. in Folsom. For example, taking out $10,000 from your 401(k) before age 59 and a half triggers 10% penalties and taxable income. That $10,000 would net only about $5,500 after setting aside penalties and federal/state tax withholding. Missing your minimum withdrawals after age 70 and a half is worse, Young says. The IRS charges a 50% penalty on the amount you should have withdrawn that tax year.
8. Don’t throw away credit card or other financial applications in the trash: Shred ‘em.
“Those credit offers that stuff your mailbox make a tempting target for identity thieves,” says Joanne McNabb, chief of California’s Office of Privacy Protection. Even better than shredding: Remove your name from most credit marketing lists for five years by calling (888) 567-8688 or go online to www.optoutprescreen.com.
9. Don’t think it’s too late to start saving. It’s never too late.
There are plenty of places to see this spelled out, but here’s a vivid example of how compounding interest adds up: If you’re in your 20s, start stashing just $5 a week-about the cost of one latte-into a savings account at a measly 2% interest rate. In 30 years, that one cup of coffee will have grown to $10,688.92, according to the Credit Union National Association. If you’re in your 50s and thinking you haven’t saved enough, don’t despair. In addition to contributing to your 401(k) and other investments, start trimming your expenses, stay healthy to avoid medical bills-and keep working.
10. Don’t panic. Hold on for the long run.
In a turbulent economy, sometimes the best investing advice is the simplest: Sit there. “Even a well-balanced portfolio has occasional declines. It’s to be expected during volatile times,” says Kevin Rose, vice president/branch manager of the Charles Schwab & Co. office in Roseville, Calif. Stay diversified, seek professional advice if you don’t feel confident and don’t let fear drive your investing decisions.
© 2008, The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.).
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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