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3 Things to Know About Taxes

I know, I know, some of you are already bored at just the mention of the word “taxes.”  But I’m here to tell you that the U.S. tax code is an incredibly dynamic and exciting piece of literature!  

 

I… I… I just can’t lie to you.  

It’s not really dynamic or exciting.  There are no exclamation points to be seen.  No pictures. It’s 44,000+ pages of I-don’t-know-if-I’ll-ever-regain-my-vision-this-writing-is-so-tiny.

I spent hundreds millions bazillions of hours in college stabbing myself in the hand with a pen just to stay awake during Corporate & Partnership Taxation.

However unfortunate, taxation is an important subject in real life (versus that fake life you’ve been living).  That’s why you’ve been hearing about it non-stop in the news ever since the November election.   

I’m assuming that you’ve never read a lick of tax code (at least not recreationally).  I’m assuming that you are a good and decent human being and do not harbor such sadistic tendencies.

Correct me if I’m wrong.  

Today I’m going to impart a little painless knowledge on ya regarding the subject.  

Hopefully, it’ll make you feel a little smarter, a little less intimidated, and a little bit like me in that you want to yell at the television box whenever a newscaster uses “tax credit” and “tax deduction” interchangeably.  

 

1. Tax Rates – 6th Graders Cannot Do Your Taxes

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Article publié pour la première fois le 17/11/2010

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7 Days to a Budget

If you’re like me, you can sit down for hours at a time and enjoy looking over your budget.  If you’re normal, you have neither the time nor the inclination to spend a perfectly good evening crunching numbers.  I’m assuming that most people are ‘normal’ (at least in terms of budgeting) and for that reason, I have broken the process into seven, doable steps, so that by this time next week you will finally be on a budget. 

What a budget will do:

  • Help you get out of debt.
  • Help you set and achieve financial and savings goals.
  • Help you conserve your resources.
  • Help you anticipate financial problems before they occur.

What a budget will not do:

  • Keep itself – budgets do require monthly maintenance.  
  • Keep track of every little expense – budgeting is about your BIG financial picture; like when lots of little things start to add up.
  • Magic – budgets do not do magic, that part is up to you.

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Article publié pour la première fois le 24/08/2010

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How to Get More Miles Out of Every Tank of Gas

In the last ten years the price of gas has more than doubled, and there’s little evidence to suggest that gas prices are going to return to their previously low levels.  Just take a look at historical prices and other than a few isolated dips the price of gas has consistently increased.

Gas is just one expense that most people completely forget about when considering the cost of owning a car, but the costs can add up pretty quickly.  For example, my daily commute to work involves a 42 mile drive each way.  Luckily I only go the office four days per week, but I still have to fill up the tank an average of once a week (and my car is pretty much used for nothing but commuting to work).

Fortunately it is one expense that you have a good deal of control over.  The tips in this article will help you get the most bang for your buck at the gas pump.

Stick to Regular

Premium gas costs a good twenty to thirty cents more per gallon so switching to regular will save you at least a few bucks with every fill up.  Most cars run just fine on regular unleaded gas so unless your owner’s manual specifically states your car needs premium you’re just throwing your money away.

Slow Down

The faster you drive, the faster you’ll burn through your gas.  Slow and steady wins the race for most mileage so ease off the accelerator and pay attention so you’re not making sudden starts and stops.  This will help your brakes last longer too.

Don’t Be Idle

Don’t leave the engine running while you run into the store or hit the ATM for some cash. Even if you think you’ll just be a minute, you’re using gas for nothing.

Take a Load Off

The more weight your engine has to haul around the harder it has to work and the more fuel it will burn through. That means you shouldn’t carry around all your worldly possessions with you.  That means you should empty your trunk of anything not essential.  In other words, take out the 300 pounds in dumbbells and weights, though you should probably leave the spare tire and jack.

Speaking of weight, maybe this is a good excuse to finally drop a few pounds of your own.  And while losing twenty or thirty pounds from your waistline won’t have a huge impact on your car’s mileage, it will help you live a little healthier and happier.

Skip the Gimmicks

It’s amazing how many products promise to boost your mileage to amazing levels and there is no shortage of frugal drivers willing to buy them.  But they’re really just throwing their money away with fuel boosts and gas additives that do little good.

You can even buy a kit that will supposedly convert your car to run on water instead of gas.  If that sounds shady, you’re right.  It probably won’t work at all and you could end up damaging your car and even voiding the warranty.  Buyer beware.

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How to Save Money on the Great American Road Trip

There is nothing that says “summer” more than loading up the old minivan, throwing the kids in the backseat, and taking off across America to see the sights. Road trips have become such a part of the American aesthetic that movies are made about them, songs are sung about them, and books are written, simply to capture the spirit of such a trip. Unfortunately, like many good things in life, road trips can be quite expensive. Gas prices, car maintenance, toll roads, and eating out can add up quickly. Here are some simple tips for enjoying a classic road trip without paying through the nose.

Make your car more fuel efficient. While it is difficult to dramatically alter your car’s gas mileage, there are things you can do to improve it. These small changes really add up when you consider you’ll be driving for hundreds, maybe even thousands of miles. Make sure your tires are properly inflated, not overly inflated and not under inflated. Reduce the weight of your vehicle by only bringing those things you need. Try to improve your wind resistance by packing items in your car rather than on top of your car. All of these will give you more miles for the dollar.

Pack your own food. The cost of constantly eating out can really kill a budget. Being away from home means even more opportunity to eat out. Cut down on food expenses by investing in a good cooler and bringing your food with you. Cut up fruit and veggies, along with sandwiches make for a healthy and delicious meal while on the road. Also, once you arrive at your destination, take a trip to the grocery store so you can eat in your room and save some money.

Consider renting a car. While most people own their own vehicles, there are benefits to renting a car for a road trip. Road trips, while fun, can put a lot of wear and tear on a car. Let the rental company bear that burden. Also, you might be able to rent a more fuel efficient car or a roomier car, depending on your needs. You may just find that shelling out a few more dollars a day for a rental will save you more in the long run by spacing out maintenance on your own car.

Utilize technology. Technology is a wonderful thing. It is amazing how much information you can access through your pocket smartphone. Utilize the wealth of apps to help you find cheap gas, avoid traffic, find rest stops, find good food, hit up the closes tourist attractions, and a million other uses which can and will save you time and money.

What about you and your family — how do you save money when out on the road? Any apps or tricks you recommend for a safe and cheap summer road trip? Sound off in the comments below and enjoy the summer weather!

Article publié pour la première fois le 02/09/2013

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Bank Rewards: Read The Fine Print

I’ve long been a fan of my credit card’s cash back system, so when my dad started touting his bank’s rewards program, he piqued my curiosity. Then, just a week later, I got an email from my bank advertising the very same rewards program. It felt like a sign from above, urging me to learn more about it. So I did.

The bank rewards its account holders for doing business with it, everything from automatic online bill payments to cashing a check at the ATM. Since I do all of these things on a routine basis, it sounded like an easy way for me to put a little extra money back in my pocket – my bank’s rewards calculator showed that just by following my usual banking habits, I’d nab about $50 in cash back each year. Not bad for doing something I already do.

So I signed up for the program, excited to start earning my cash back rewards. Then I logged on to my online banking account, and saw a $40 annual fee for the program.

I’d read all the fine print for the rewards program, so I was baffled as to why I was charged the annual fee, which would wipe away the majority of my cash back – and basically make my participation in the program worthless.

I called my bank’s 1-800 number, and was transferred from person to person, trying to get an answer to my question: why had I been charged the $40 annual fee, when I was pretty sure my upgraded checking account qualified to have the charge waived. When I finally spoke to a (knowledgeable) human, they gave me the answer: a few months back, the balance on my checking account had temporarily dipped below the minimum threshold required to maintain the upgraded account, so my bank automatically switched me to a standard account. They also didn’t change me back to the upgraded account once my balance was restored to the acceptable level (we were only below that so-called threshold for about 72 hours, over a holiday weekend). They’d notified me electronically, via my online banking account, due to my contact preferences. However, I’d never seen the message (I’m pretty bad about reading the messages that land in my online banking inbox, as they almost always are promoting some service I don’t need).

Long story short, the bank was in the right – I no longer qualified for the waived fee on the bank’s rewards program. I asked the bank to refund me the $40 fee and unenroll me from the program, which they did. Although I would have netted about $10, over the course of the year, I figured I had other ways to make that $40 “grow,” so to speak.

So the moral of my tale… whenever enrolling in a program that affects your finances, be sure to read ALL the fine print, and know exactly what you’re getting into!

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What’s The Appropriate Tip For Bad Service?

I need to start this off with a disclaimer, lest anyone think I’m unsympathetic to the plight of sub-minimum wage restaurant employees. You see, I worked as a waitress – for one semester of college – and I know what it’s like to spend hours on your feet, shuttling from table to table, dealing with whiny kids, disgruntled adults, and people who treat you as the working professional that you are, but as someone too lazy to get a “real” job. I’ve been there, I’ve done that.

And so when it comes to leaving the appropriate tip, I tend to be generous. 20% is a pretty standard tip for my family when we’re dining out; if my kids have been particularly messy – and the server has been particularly good-natured about it – I might leave 30%. My dad’s the type of guy who goes even further – he’s been known to leave $100 tips for his favorite servers at restaurants he and my mom frequent week in and week out. So I know what it means to leave an appropriate tip.

Which is why, after a recent meal at a local Italian restaurant, I felt so bad about tipping the waitress well below my usual 20% threshold.

It began innocently enough. We opted for Italian because if was a Friday in Lent and, as good Catholics, my husband and I were trying to avoid eating meat. We thought pizza and spaghetti would be a good choice, both for us and our two young children (ages 5 and 2). We’ve been to the restaurant in question several times before and have always had good (if slow) service.

We didn’t order anything out of the ordinary. My kids split a pepperoni pizza. My husband ordered a sandwich; I ordered a salad.

That’s not what made it to our table.

My kids ended up with a cheese pizza – no biggie, they’re just as happy with all cheese as they are with pepperoni. But instead of getting the caprese salad I’d requested, I ended up with tomato and beefsteak mozzarella on two pieces of bread; my husband didn’t get the portabello mushroom, peppers, and eggplant panini he’d ordered, but rather a salad with those toppings (raw, not grilled). In other words, the kitchen had given us each the inverse of our order.

When we mentioned this to the waitress, she suggested we just “swap” plates. I actually laughed at her, because I didn’t think she was serious, but she totally was. When I explained that I wanted a tomato salad, not a mushroom salad, she realized what was going on. It still took some convincing to get her to accept the fact that she was going to have to take the incorrect meals back to the kitchen and bring us what we’d actually ordered. It took us another 20 minutes to get our actual meals. By that time, the kids were done with their pizza and were antsy to be going (re: they were starting to act like hooligans and disturb other diners). We ultimately took our meals to go.

As we left, I paid the bill, leaving what amounted to a 10% tip. I know some people think that’s an appropriate tip in general, particularly for bad service; I know a few folks who think it’s absolutely okay to stiff a server. Having done the job for a few months, I could never do that. But leaving just 10% left me feeling guilty.

It’s not that the waitress was rude or anything – she was actually just clueless. Things that seemed common sense to me (ie, if you bring out the wrong food to a customer, you immediately replace it with the wrong dish, no questions asked!) puzzled her. My husband suggested I look at my low tip as a way of telling her, “Maybe this isn’t the job for you.” However, if she couldn’t figure out that our meals were wrong and needed to be fixed, I doubt she’d read between the lines of a small tip to see what I was actually trying to tell her.

So my question is, what do you consider to be an appropriate tip for bad service when dining out? Do you stiff a server, and if so, under what conditions? Or do you tip the same percent, regardless of service?

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