Saving Money

Hardly Taxing: Making the most from your return doesn't have to be difficult

01/31/14 by Jackie Russo

Tax season is on the horizon, and depending on how you view the slow build toward April 15 ultimately will determine whether you attack your W2 or 1040 Form with vigor or a vexing attitude.
If you have your taxes done professionally, you're either a business owner or so many intricacies that relate to your return that attempting to take a crack at it yourself is pure insanity.
Going the route of an accountant isn't all bad, if you don't mind spending a nice piece of change on a pro and the thought of doing it on your own isn't something your accustomed to doing.
That said, today's tax software, particularly the online module, makes piecing together a positive return fairly routine. This is especially true for the 1040EZ form, which takes only a few minutes and even the likes of Turbo Tax and H&R Block will do it free.
So if you've decided that this year will be the year you take the reigns from the professionals and opt to become your own personal tax adviser, you can save yourself money with only a few simple strategic moves that anyone, even you, can do.

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A lot of what makes your tax refund check larger than you'd expect has little to do with the actual return and more to do with how you've allotted your withholding. You can simply reduce your dependents to as little as possible to get a larger return. It might mean a little less in your pay but some would argue that the bulk return more than makes up for a few dollars lighter during the work week.
And when it doubt, deduct any chance you get. You'll obviously want to stay within the guidelines set forth by the IRS, but those deductions can change the landscape of the entire return.
Deductions include but are hardly limited to donations, work related expenses (especially if you work from home), medical expenses that are excessive or even if you've spent countless amounts of money searching for a job.
All of those are pertinent when putting together your return. Far too often people ignore expenses figuring that they won't make much a difference.
Probably the easiest way to make sure you not only get the most money but get it quicker than traditional means is to file electronically. It's hard to imagine that anyone files through the mail these days or that a mass of humanity is rushing to the mailbox at midnight on April 15 in the hopes that the return will get to Uncle Sam in time.
Filing electronically typically costs a few dollars more but you'll have your refund within a week tops, compared to three weeks or more the old fashioned way.
Thinking outside the box bodes well for tax enthusiasts or those who have opted to take the reigns of their refund into their hands in hopes of maximum results.



Cheap Eats: Sometimes Health and Wealth Go Together

01/26/14 by Rennie Detore

Eating healthy is difficult. It also can be quite expensive.
If you've ever passed by a fast food restaurant, they're quick to lure you into the friendly confines of their establishment with value meals and dollar menus that make eating breakfast, lunch and dinner relatively inexpensive.
All of your fatty favorites are well represented on that illuminating menu board that beckons your full attention, especially when you're stomach is telling you its time to eat but your bank account reminds you that you're not quite ready for a $30 lunch.
The flip side to saving plenty of money is adding inches to your waistline and pounds to your frame, along with potentially exacerbating health conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes or the epidemic that is obesity.
Those same fast food chains like Wendy's or McDonald's will sell you a double cheeseburger for $1, but if you're interested in a grilled chicken sandwich or salad, then be prepared to spend closer to $5 for those choices.

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You can get a chicken sandwich for $1, only if you don't mind that it is fried.
The same can be said for grocery store food as well for the most part. The deli counter can't keep the chipped ham for $1.99 per pound on the shelves but good luck moving that $7 per pound turkey breast. Healthy dinner dishes like salmon, chicken or lean sirloin checks in much higher from a price point than fattier meats, burgers or hot dogs.
The list, whether you're shopping or perusing a restaurant menu, goes on and on.
The real dilemma is not only the price of food but the realization that wealth is directly related to how healthy you are. Poorer populations tend to be the ones that are overweight, and the secret to that correlation centers on a lack of income and cheaper, unhealthier foods costing less and marketed to that particular buying group.
So how is poverty linked to income exactly?
The Diabetes Journal maintains that if you live in a part of the country that can't get their hands on food that is deemed fresh, like fruits and vegetables, then you're most likely headed toward obesity. That same study suggests that households below the poverty line, as of 2010, of $21,756 are deemed "food insecure," and aren't certain that acquiring foods they'll need or proper nourishment is even possible.
"We know its a problem, and is mostly due to the fact the cheaper, processed foods are mostly consumed by lower income people," said Josh Anderson, a certified personal trainer and owner of Always Active Athletics LLC. "A lack of education could be the primary culprit. If people are not educated in the nutritional value of certain foods or produce, they may never know what they're missing out on."
Anderson brings up a valid point with education as it relates to poor food choices. He also hits another important caveat in this discussion: a link between overweight parents and kids who are following in those fat consumption footsteps.
Parents who adopt a poor diet most likely have kids who already are struggling to eat healthy before they become a teenager. When it comes to diet and kids, income isn't always the best barometer. Kids who come from an upper middle class or wealthy background still may struggle to eat the right foods, regardless of price.
That element comes courtesy of parents who might be working long hours or are too busy to make home cooked meals with appropriate servings of fruits, vegetables, starches and proteins.
Jon Wade of MotleyHealth.com argues the point that income and poor eating correlate, and believes that not only kids from a better income tax bracket still can have a hard time eating right but also the parents.
"Much is talked about how poorer people make bad lifestyle choices, but wealthy middle-aged men are more likely to become obese than their partners," Wade laments. "Wealthy men often do not care, enjoy good food."
According to Wade, however, the wealthy sector of the population still has hope, in the form of the women from that same household.
"Wealthy women are more concerned with their appearance and have a far less stressful life than those less fortunate," Wade said.
Finding a happy medium when it comes to your household income and the foods you buy is a slippery slope, but one that might have some sure footing in the future.
The trick to taming your diet and eating shortcomings centers on the ability to find unprocessed options and lean meats that are universally lauded for being less expensive.
Those who aren't financially equipped to buy the best meats, supplements or restaurant foods that aren't refined carbohydrates combined with fat still might find salvation is foods that are a combination of less expensive and good for you.
Apples stand pat as one of the healthier foods on the market and in the market, and cost about $1 per pound. Rice, whole grains and sweet potatoes won't sink your spending, either. And if you're looking for protein, the best bet for money hungry people who are short on the money part is tuna, eggs or even a lesser expensive, supplemental whey protein powder.
Even the more expensive, aforementioned protein options still aren't completely off the market to the shopper that is savvy enough to buy when the food is discounted. The idea of eating clearance meats might not sound too appealing but what's wrong with a 50% off piece of steak that only has a shelf life of a few days. Why not just plan to eat it the day you buy it?
That system is far from perfect but, at the very least, provides a viable option to maintain health and wellness and keeping your wallet intact. The key for the demographic that falls below the poverty line as far as income is overhauling how you buy food and eat, versus the convenience of stopping for a quick bite, which takes a huge chunk out of your efforts to stay healthy.



Bullet Proof: Target takes aim at fraud but what can you do to prevent it

01/14/14 by Rennie Detore

Target made headlines around the holiday season, and it had nothing to do with how much they were charging for a flat screen TV or how many $25 gift cards you could earn just for buying a new iPod.
Instead, they were cards of a different ilk, namely the millions of debit and credit cards compromised as part of a data breach. This identity theft nightmare affected nearly 40 million customers who made purchases between November 27 and December 15, easily the busiest time of the year for shoppers.
To Target's credit, it reacted quickly and did its best to minimize the damage to not only its customers but their own image as a national retailer and renowned brand.
Even the best efforts of a highly regarded company like Target can't completely quell the concern of the average consumer, who probably thought twice and then a third time before they whipped out their debit or credit card in the days following this debacle. One can only assume that the negative press put a damper on the holiday sales for Target.
Today's customer isn't totally blinded by sales, "Black Friday" deals or clearance merchandise to the point that they forget that technology can turn ugly rather quickly. Hackers have a field day when it comers to identity theft, and Target just happens to be a larger scale heist in the grand scheme of stolen identity.

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While experts in the field of identity theft continue to opine and debate how this Target breach occurred, shoppers around the world wonder what they can do on their end to ensure safety and security when it comes to their accounts.
Employing the services of company's like ProtectMyID or Lifelock would be a perfect starting point as both act as watch dogs for anything that appears out of the ordinary. Lifelock employs the services of 24-7 support and an online interface that is extremely easy to understand and use.
Then again, you must first agree that identity theft is a problem and that everyone, even you, is as much of a target as Target.
Greg Young is Director at Experian's ProtectMyID, a company that is well versed and lauded for its propensity for identification protection. This protection comes in the form of Surveillance Alerts, an immediate notification sent to you so you know the exact moment your identity is being used elsewhere.
Young is immersed in identity protection, but he understands that most consumers aren't. And that, according to him, is where the problems first arise.
"Stop thinking 'It can't happen to me' or that it's something that only happens to other people," Young suggests. "Apathy only benefits thieves; learn about identity theft, and how common it is."
Education and awareness rank remarkably high in terms of truly appreciating just how delicate your identity is; the general malaise mustered by consumers when it comes to haphazardly giving out social security numbers or leaving cell phones or tablets unprotected from a password standpoint is truly amazing.
It's especially surprising given that a modicum of common sense can curtail identity theft, such as only engaging in situations deemed safe as far as your personal data is concerned.
"Don't open email that seems strange or click on attachments from people you don't recognize," Young states. "Keep an eye on your credit report all year, and don't give out your social security number."
You'd also be surprised at the number of consumers who open up a credit card bill on any given day or month, but don't actually pay much attention to the activity. Often times, we're programmed to pay the minimum monthly payment, and rarely do much with pages two or three of that same statement, other than tossing them in the trash.
Meanwhile, identity thieves prey on those who are completely oblivious to their spending. Those same thieves aren't exactly opposed to digging through mounds and mounds of trash in the hopes that just one person tossed aside a credit card application, without properly disposing of it.
"Shred, shred, shred," Young decrees, when it comes to important mail or paperwork you discard.
"Thieves can take the most apparently benign information and piece it together to commit identity theft. Shred anything with personal information that you're going to throw away."
If you're still among the demographic that assumes that thieves digging through the trash is the proverbial wives tale or pure garbage, you're wrong. Granted, those behind the Target data breach may not have spent countless hours in dumpsters to secure the accounts of 40 million people, but thieves love to know as much about you as possible.
And, they don't care how they come upon that information.
"The more they (thieves) known about you, the easier it becomes for them to send you an email (and that email comes from documents) that looks legitimate because it refers to information they pull from your trash. That email contains software that allows them into your computer."
Beyond electronic devices, smart phones and tablets, the simple act of swiping a credit or debit card can wreak havoc on your bank account or credit, much the way it did for the millions of Target users still wading through wads of paperwork and phone numbers en route back to financial and fiscal freedom.
You'll hear a lot of opinions as far as whether using a debit card is safer than a credit card or vice versa. But, as Young points out, they both present the same negative repercussions when used without caution.
"If you want to use a debit card, make sure to keep a close eye on your bank statement and alert the bank immediately if you see any transaction that are not yours."
While that advice seems practical and prudent, you'd be stunned if you asked 10 random people how closely they check that bank statement mailed to their house every month. The majority might glance down at the papers, but most of the time it ends up ripped up (not shredded) and thrown in the garbage. Online banking typically is the more preferred means of checking in on your checking account, which is totally bankable only if you're banking on remembering to log out every time you use it.
If not, that's open season on your savings account.
The general perception is credit cards aren't as risky as debit cards since the former has no official ties to your checking account. But buyer beware, Young says, when it comes to credit cards and how using them too much might save your identity but demolish your debt.
"With credit scanners popping up in checkout lanes and gas pumps, credit cards are the safer bet," Young says cautiously. "If you abuse that credit line, you can pile up debt in a hurry."
In the end, the debate of debit vs. credit or social security numbers tossed around gratuitously gains plenty of momentum but pales in comparison to another tug of war: you and your judgment. Pertinent information, account numbers are for your eyes only, and should be guardedly gauged with your best interest in mind.
Consider the not so enjoyable alternative: Putting a huge bull's eye on your back for thieves to run amuck, while you're left to salvage or sift through the wreckage.
Just ask Target.