7 Smart Ways to Take Advantage of Your Tax Refund

taxes08Tax season is often a time of stress for many, but it can be a joyful time for the roughly 75 percent of Americans who do receive income tax refunds.

While the refund really means you’re getting back money you loaned to the government at no interest, in practical terms it often means an unexpected infusion of cash into your wallet or bank account. It’s a great problem to have, but what should you do with your windfall?

The best choice for one person may not be the best choice for another. But experts agree on one thing – if you have debt, apply your refund to paying it off, whether it’s credit card debt, student loan debt, or other consumer debt.

If you’re getting a big refund ­– a check in the ballpark of $1,000 or more for taxpayers who don’t have a side business – consider adjusting your withholding so that you’ll have that money available to you during the year.

Here are the seven smartest things you can do with your refund:

Pay down debt. If you have any consumer debt – student loans, credit card balances or installment loans – pay those off before using your refund for any other purpose. Car payments and mortgages aren’t in this category, but you can also consider paying extra on your principal.

Add to your savings. Can you really ever save enough? You can use the money to build up your emergency savings, your kids’ college fund, or put it toward a specific goal, such as buying a house or a car, or financing a big vacation you’ve been dreaming about taking.

Add to your retirement accounts. If you put $2,500 from this year’s tax refund into an IRA, it would grow to $8,500 in 25 years, even at a modest 5 percent rate of return, TurboTax calculates. If you saved $2,500 every year for 25 years, you’d end up with more than $130,000 at that same 5 percent rate of return!

Invest in yourself. This could mean taking a class in investing, studying something that interests you, or even taking a big trip. Think about doing something that might add value to your life, such as taking a photography class or purchasing a special camera that could become a new hobby and potentially a side business in the future.

Improve your home. Consider putting your refund to good use by adding insulation, replacing old windows and doors, or other improvements that are more energy efficient. Or perhaps it’s time to remodel your bathroom or kitchen. You’re adding value to your home, and at the same time you’re improving your living experience too.

Apply your refund toward next year’s taxes. This is common among self-employed taxpayers, who are required to pay quarterly taxes since they don’t have taxes withheld. By applying any overpayment toward upcoming tax payments, you can free up other cash.

Splurge on something you’ve always wanted to do. If you’re out of debt and have substantial savings, this may be the time to take the cruise to Europe or trip to Thailand that you’ve always dreamed of taking. Such an experience can be life-changing, and you never know what impact it will have on your future until you actually do it.

Article Source: Teresa Mears for US News, http://money.usnews.com/money/personal-finance/articles/2014/03/28/7-smart-ways-to-take-advantage-of-your-tax-refund

4 Ways Scammers Can Steal Your Tax Refund

48d9f43eab68404d0dc0def19d14ba6dIdentity thieves LOVE tax season.

Any thief who has your personal information can easily file a tax return, collect the fraudulent refund and leave you waiting months to get your own refund back and clear up the issue. Unfortunately, it’s only getting worse – last year the IRS launched 1,492 investigations into tax-related identity theft, where criminals used stolen personal information like Social Security numbers to claim fraudulent refunds. That’s up 66% from 2012 and more than 200% from 2011.

Here are some of the ways scammers use to steal your identity and how to avoid becoming a victim.

1. Fake calls from the IRS. Last month, the IRS said a nationwide phone scam had swindled $1 million from consumers in what the agency called “the largest scam of its kind.” As part of the scheme, callers impersonating IRS agents told victims that they owed taxes and needed to pay by wire transfer or a prepaid card. Other scams are carried out through email, and ask for personal information like a Social Security number or birthdate — which can later be used to claim tax refunds.

To protect yourself, be wary of any correspondence from someone claiming to be from the IRS. The agency says it usually reaches out by mail, and it will never ask for personal information via email or phone. If you receive something questionable, reach out to the agency yourself and verify that it’s legitimate.

2. Rogue employees. Be careful about giving out your personal information. Don’t ever give away more personal information than you need to and don’t be hesitate to ask someone why they need any of your personal information.

Some tax preparers could potentially be a scam artist. To avoid being fooled, be wary of any preparers who charge fees based on the size of your refund and never let a preparer ask for the refund to be deposited into an account in their control rather than sent straight to you. To help you detect if you’ve been scammed, be sure to regularly monitor your bank accounts and credit card statements for any suspicious charges.

3. Data breaches. Data breaches occur when hackers break through a company’s privacy walls and access private customer information and scarily enough, it’s becoming increasingly common. Once that information is in a fraudster’s hands, it’s easy for them to file a tax return in your name. If you know or suspect that your information was compromised during a data breach, consider signing up for identity theft protection (see below) or start regularly monitoring your accounts on your own. Be sure to investigate any charges you don’t recognize, no matter how small they are.

Most of the time if someone has a stolen card, the thief will often test it with a small transaction first in order to see if the card is activated, to make a bigger purchase. And because there’s a good chance you will be more susceptible to identity theft after a data breach, make sure to strengthen your passwords utilizing at least 8 characters, including upper- and lower-case letters as well as numbers and special characters (!@#$%).

4. Snail mail. It’s not as common as online identity theft these days, but many fraudsters still use the old-school strategy of stealing mail from mailboxes to piece together the information they need to file a tax return in someone else’s name. Other times, thieves will go as extreme as dumpster diving – it’s a low-tech way to easily retrieve your information, so make sure you ALWAYS shred any personal documents.

Another easy way to protect yourself is to file early. Many scammers are able to get fraudulent refunds because they file before the victim does. If you file first, the IRS will be forced to investigate when a second return from the same person arrives.

LifeSizePennyDon’t wait until it’s too late! Check out First Financial’s ID Theft Protection products – with our Fully Managed Identity Recovery services, you don’t need to worry. A professional Recovery Advocate will do the work on your behalf, based on a plan that you approve. Should you experience an Identity Theft incident, your Recovery Advocate will stick with you all along the way – and will be there for you until your good name is restored.

Our ID Theft Protection options may include some of the following services, based on the package you choose to enroll in: Lost Document Replacement, Credit Bureau Monitoring, Score Tracker, and Three-Generation Family Benefit. To learn more about our ID Theft Protection products, click here and enroll today!*

*Identity Theft insurance underwritten by subsidiaries or affiliates of Chartis Inc. The description herein is a summary and intended for informational purposes only and does not include all terms, conditions and exclusions of the policies described. Please refer to the actual policies for terms, conditions, and exclusions of coverage. Coverage may not be available in all jurisdictions.

Click here to view the article source by Blake Ellis of CNN Money.

What’s Your Number? 5 Financial Figures You Need to Know

When we talk about personal finance, a lot of terms often get tossed around: APRs, credit scores, mortgage principles … you get the idea. It’s easy to get lost in all of these numbers, so we’re here to break it down for you. These five may be the most important – they’re the difference between a healthy bank account and debt collectors knocking at your door. Expenses.

1. Your credit score. This may be the most important number ever attached to your name. Your credit score decides your approval for a mortgage or auto loan; it also plays a role in what credit card offers you qualify for. It influences your rates on loans too, and much more. Moreover, many employers evaluate an applicant’s score during the hiring process.

To build a high score, you have to be a responsible borrower. That job is a little more complex than it might sound, so we’ll start at the beginning: Pay your credit card bills on time and in full.

Once you’ve got that down, another way to boost your credit score is to take out different types of loans to show you’re creditworthy.

That said, don’t take out all those loans at the same time, as each results in a hard inquiry, which takes a slight hit on your credit score. Your length of credit history has an impact on your score, and too many accounts opened at the same time may not look too good.

Does your credit score need some work?  Have no fear, check out First Financial’s low cost First Score program.  First Score is an interactive session with a financial expert, which simulates your credit score with various scenarios.  We’ll show you how to get your credit score back on track!

2. Your tax rate. When you file your taxes, you’ll find yourself in one of six brackets, from 10 to 35 percent. Don’t assume, though, that if you fall into the 15 percent bracket, you pay a flat 15 percent to the federal government every year — you’ll pay less.

That’s because the 15 percent bracket isn’t your effective rate (the final amount you end up paying); it’s your marginal tax rate, which says how much your last dollar is taxed.

Confused? Think of taxes as a stepladder: for single people, the 10 percent bracket ends at $8,700. The next rung on the ladder is the 15 percent bracket, from $8,701 to $35,350.

If you made $30,000 last year, the first $8,700 you made is taxed 10 percent; and the rest, that other $21,300 you earned, is taxed 15 percent. In sum, you end up paying $4,065, which means, again, your effective rate isn’t 15 percent but rather 13.55 percent, assuming you don’t claim any tax deductions, credits, or the like.

Here’s why this is important: If your employer withholds significantly more than you owe to the federal government, you might ask them to withhold a little less. That way, rather than get the extra cash back as a federal tax return in springtime, you can deposit the money into a savings account or save it for retirement by depositing it into an Individual Retirement Account (IRA), which are both Federally Insured by the NCUA.

3. Your personal savings rate. In America, saving a large portion of your earnings may be a thing of the past. The personal saving rate — how much of your disposable income is socked away rather than spent — is at just 4.6 percent as of the fourth quarter of 2012.

While this is much improved from a shocking low of 1.5 percent in 2005, it still represents a major decline from decades past, when Americans overall saved more than 10 percent of their income. What’s worse, in 2010, according to the Federal Reserve, just 52 percent of Americans spent less than they earned.

If you’re looking to save, check out your local credit union like First Financial! We offer a great variety of options in savings accounts and savings certificates, which are Federally Insured by the NCUA.

4. Your student loan debt. Americans hold more debt in student loans than in credit cards, to the tune of $1 trillion. Although rates on most federal and private loans are less than those for credit cards, the sheer amount of debt — sometimes as much as $100,000 or more — can make it difficult to afford even the minimum payments. Be sure to know your future obligations when taking out student loans, and take advantage of any beneficial repayment programs offered by your lenders.

You need to get a handle on your student debt, as it will affect the loans you take out in the future. The way you treat your student debt, and really any debt, has a bearing on your credit score, which in turn has a bearing on your future rates — or if you’ll be approved for a loan at all.

If you have student loan debt and need to consolidate your student loans, be sure to check out our Student Loan Consolidation program.  You can apply right online, quickly and easily!*

business finance5. Your net worth. It sounds daunting to try to put a dollar value to your name, but knowing this value will help you set smarter goals and create a sound financial plan. To calculate your net worth, you need to make a list of everything you own, everything you owe, and then subtract to find out the difference.

First, add up your assets, then your liabilities (or your total debts). Your rough net assets equation should be as follows:

Net worth = (cash + properties + investments) – (credit card debt + loans + outstanding payments of any other kind).

If you’re in the positive, ask yourself: “Am I allocating my resources as best I can to my short, medium, and long-term goals?” If all of your money is sitting in a low-yield savings account, consider investing a portion of it to diversify your portfolio. The Investment & Retirement Center located at First Financial, can help you do just that.**

If you’re in the negative, don’t stress – but rather develop a plan. The most important step you can take is to begin paying off your debt as soon as possible, starting with the loans that have the highest rates.

Once you know where you stand overall, you can budget better for future expenses, such as preparing to buy a car or saving for retirement.

*The cuGrad Private Student Loan Consolidation is available to borrowers who are carrying private student loan debt. Federal student loans cannot be consolidated with the cuGrad Private Student Loan Consolidation. If you are seeking a federal student loan consolidation, you can learn more details about the process here: http://www.loanconsolidation.ed.gov/

**Representatives are registered, securities are sold, and investment advisory services offered through CUNA Brokerage Services, Inc. (CBSI), member FINRA/SIPC , a registered broker/dealer and investment advisor, 2000 Heritage Way, Waverly, Iowa 50677, toll-free 800-369-2862. Nondeposit investment and insurance products are not federally insured, involve investment risk, may lose value and are not obligations of or guaranteed by the financial institution. CBSI is under contract with the financial institution, through the financial services program, to make securities available to members.

Article Source: http://money.usnews.com/money/blogs/my-money/2013/03/18/whats-your-number-5-financial-figures-you-need-to-know

4 Wise Ways to Spend Your Tax Refund

A vacation would be fun, but you’ll get more bang for your buck if you invest in energy-saving improvements or maybe even a new car.

taxes refunds uncle samDespite the late start to this year’s tax season, refund checks are already rolling in. About 75% of taxpayers are expected to receive refunds this year, according to estimates from the Internal Revenue Service, with the average check about $3,000. And as this winter windfall arrives, Americans wrestle with competing desires to spend, save or invest the cash.

Many people say they are being responsible with their refunds: 42% plan to use the money to pay down debt and cover bills and 25% plan to save it, according to a 2012 survey by TurboTax.

Others are splurging: 15% of taxpayers plan to treat themselves to a vacation or shopping. But advisors say that even if you’ve done everything right — you have an emergency fund, no debt and are maxing out your retirement account contributions — you might want to reconsider spending the refund on a 70-inch TV or a cruise. Here are some of their suggestions below.

1.       Rebalance your portfolio.

With the stock market hovering near five-year highs, advisors normally would recommend investors rebalance their portfolios by selling stocks and using the proceeds to buy bonds or whatever assets they need to get back to their target allocations. But some investors might be able to rebalance without selling their stocks. 

Have questions about investing?  Set-up an appointment with Lou Paolillo, the Financial Advisor located at First Financial Federal Credit Union.*  Appointments can be made at any branch location, by calling him at 732.312.1565, or emailing Louis.Paolillo@cunamutual.com.

2.       Prepay your bills.

Even if you’re not living paycheck to paycheck and can afford to spend your refund on a new iPad without falling behind on your bills, there may be better uses for the cash. Though it’s not nearly as exciting, one can use the money to pay off future bills. Why not use this money to put yourself ahead of the game?

Prepay your car insurance bills or car loan payments. Write the phone company a check, or save the money for the home insurance bill you know is coming up in a few months. But don’t forget to check monthly statements to be sure you aren’t paying for something you didn’t request, experts say.

3.       Make home improvements.    Yellow helmet full of dollars

If you’re going to spend it, take a look at your house.  If your furnace is on its last leg, now may be your chance to replace it. Have you wanted to install new windows? Using the money on your home could lift your property value and prevent future damage, advisors say.  People who make energy-efficient improvements might also qualify for a residential energy tax credits expiring at the end of this year. To get the maximum credit of $500, taxpayers need to make $5,000 in qualifying improvements to their stoves, heating or air conditioning systems, insulation, roofs, water heaters and windows and doors. Learn more here.

Did you know First Financial has a new home improvement loan?**  This loan is perfect for those who don’t think they have enough equity in their home.  Or maybe you’ve been itching to put in a new deck or pool for the nicer weather.  Stop into any branch to ask us how you can get started with a home improvement loan, give us a call, or apply online here.

isolated red car back view 014.       Buy a car.

If the list of needed car repairs is piling up, some advisors say it might be best to put your check toward a new ride. A $3,000 refund can cover the typical 10% down payment needed on a $30,000 loan for a new car, or the 20% down payment needed on a $15,000 used car.  Don’t forget that First Financial’s auto loan rates are the same whether you buy new or used!***

Those with existing car loans may also have a greater shot at refinancing to get a lower rate (some saving hundreds of dollars a month) if they use some of their refund cash to reduce the size of their loan.

Try our new auto loan calculator called AutoCalcubot to help you see how you might fare with monthly payments on a vehicle you’d like to purchase.  The application works through Facebook, but you don’t need to have an account or even be logged in to try it!  Simply enter what your vehicle costs, the amount you plan to put as a down payment, and your term – and you’ll get our rates and what your monthly payments would be.***  You can also save your results for later, email them to a friend, set up text or email alerts to see when our rates change, or apply right online if you like what you see.

Article Source: http://money.msn.com/tax-tips/post.aspx?post=9a813b25-fba7-4882-b37b-778710cfa8f1

* Representatives are registered, securities are sold, and investment advisory services offered through CUNA Brokerage Services, Inc. (CBSI), member FINRA/SIPC, a registered broker/dealer and investment advisor, 2000 Heritage Way, Waverly, Iowa 50677, toll-free 800-369-2862. Non-deposit investment and insurance products are not federally insured, involve investment risk, may lose value and are not obligations of or guaranteed by the financial institution. CBSI is under contract with the financial institution, through the financial services program, to make securities available to members.

**Available on primary residence only, subject to underwriting guidelines. Subject to credit approval. A First Financial membership is required to obtain a home improvement loan and is available to anyone who lives, works, worships or attends school in Monmouth or Ocean Counties, NJ.

***Subject to credit approval. Rates shown are lowest possible and may not apply to every borrower, and higher rates may be charged depending on credit qualifications. A First Financial membership is required to obtain a First Financial auto loan and is available to anyone who lives, works, worships or attends school in Monmouth or Ocean Counties.

Tax Preparation Checklist




Keep in mind, through the Invest in America program, TurboTax® offers some great discounts on TurboTax® Federal Products.* 

Be treated like the unique individual you are and save money with TurboTax – just for being a credit union member. And you can relax knowing that your taxes are done right with TurboTax’s:

  • Step-by-step guidance with customized questions based on your job, family and life – so you’ll get every penny you deserve.
  • Year-round expert help, so you can get one-on-one answers to your tax questions – free.***
  • 100% accurate calculations** and your guaranteed maximum refund – or your money back.****
Member Benefits:
  • $5 Off Federal Deluxe
  • $10 Off Federal Premium
  • $15 Off Home & Business
TurboTax puts the power in your hands to keep more of your hard-earned money.


TurboTax and TurboTax Online, among others, are registered trademarks and/or service marks of Intuit Inc. State filing charges apply. Limited time offer for TurboTax 2012. Terms, conditions, features, availability, pricing, fees, service and support options subject to change without notice. *TurboTax® is a tax preparation software product offered to our members through the Invest in America program and is not a product of this Credit Union. ** Accurate calculations guaranteed. If you pay an IRS or state penalty or interest because of a TurboTax calculations error, we’ll pay you the penalty and interest. ***TurboTax live tax advice service is free and subject to availability, restrictions and change without notice. Available via telephone or live chat. See full offer details by clicking here. ****Maximum (Biggest) Refund Guaranteed or Your Money Back: If you get a larger refund or smaller tax due from another tax preparation method, we’ll refund the applicable TurboTax federal and/or state purchase price paid. TurboTax Federal Free Edition customers are entitled to payment of $14.95 and a refund of your state purchase price paid. Claims must be submitted within 60 days of your TurboTax filing date and no later than 6/15/13. Optional add-on services excluded. Cannot be combined with TurboTax Satisfaction (Easy) Guarantee.

10 IRA Tax Tips

Knowing these 10 IRA tax tips can help you when saving for retirement. When preparing taxes and setting up retirement accounts, it’s important to know how your IRA or individual retirement arrangement affects your tax return. Being knowledgeable will allow you to make smart decisions when contributing to an IRA and how to handle the account in the future until you request disbursement at retirement.

Use these ten IRA tax tips to make smart decisions regarding your retirement future:

  1. Money contributed to a traditional IRA is not taxed until disbursement. Not including Roth IRAs, the person who owns a traditional IRA is not taxed until they request money from the IRA during retirement. Usually, the person’s tax bracket is lower during retirement, saving the person money by waiting to pay taxes until they are retired.
  2. IRAs can only be owned by one person. When the person owning the IRA dies, a beneficiary can be awarded any portion of the monies in an IRA that remains.
  3. Use the correct form. When making nondeductible contributions to a traditional IRA, the taxpayer has to use Form 8606, Nondeductible IRA’s.
  4. Know if you are eligible for a tax credit. Use form 8880, Credit for Qualified Retirement Savings Contributions to find out whether you qualify for a tax credit.
  5. Persons can contribute to a traditional IRA up to the age of 70 years old.  If you are 70 1/2 years or more old at the end of a tax year, you may not contribute to a traditional IRA that year.
  6. To be eligible to contribute to a traditional IRA, the person who takes out the IRA or their spouse must have taxable income from specific sources. Income can come from a salary, wages, self-employment income, tips, commissions, or bonuses. Also included are taxable alimony and maintenance payments that the owner of the IRA received during the tax year. Income that does qualify includes deferred compensation, rental property income, pension or annuity compensation, and dividend and interest income.
  7. Contributions to an IRA can be made up till the tax filing date. You can contribute for the applicable tax year (the previous year) until April 15.
  8. Funds withdrawn from an IRA are taxable the same year they are withdrawn. Withdrawals of only deductible contributions are fully taxable.
  9. Early withdrawal may be taxable. Owners of traditional IRAs who withdraw monies before they are 59-1/2 years old may have to pay an additional ten percent tax.
  10. Late withdrawal may be taxable. Owners of traditional IRAs who do not withdraw the minimum amount after they turn 70-1/2 may owe an excise tax.

Contact the First Financial’s Investment and Retirement Center to set up a no-cost consultation at 866.750.0100 option 6 or visit our website for more information.

Article Source: Made Manual, Instructions for Life http://www.mademan.com/mm/10-ira-tax-tips.html#vply=0