Seven Deadly Sins to Avoid During Tax Season

MONEY TALKS – Anyone who has poked their head outside the last two weeks couldn’t help but notice that winter is fading and spring is steadily approaching. While the melting snow and chirping birds may give some solace that the dark and cold days are behind us, it’s also a reminder that tax season is quickly approaching. Each year millions of Americans make simple mistakes hastily trying to get their tax returns filed before the deadline. Before you file this year’s return, be sure to check this list to make sure you are not making one of the seven deadly tax sins.

1. Missing the Deadline – If you procrastinate getting your tax documents together, there is a good chance you could miss the April 15th filing deadline. Missing the deadline itself is not a huge issue unless you fail to notify the IRS in advance. Be sure to file a Form 4868 extension request if you are going to be late filing your taxes, which will give you an automatic six-month extension to file your return. Keep in mind that the extension is only on the filing of the tax return, not the payment due. If you think you may have a balance due with your tax return, be sure to make an estimated payment with your 4868 to avoid any penalties and interest.

 2. Filing the Wrong Tax Forms – Opting to use the Form 1040EZ because, as the name suggests, it’s easy to file could be a costly mistake. The 1040EZ forces you to take the standard deduction and does not allow you to itemize your deductions. Opting to file Form 1040 instead will afford you the option of choosing to itemize your deductions or take the standard deduction, whichever is higher. If you had significant medical or dental expenses, live in a state that taxes your income, paid real estate taxes or mortgage interest, donated to charity, or had a home office, then you should seriously consider filing a 1040 to maximize your deductions.

3. Spelling Your Name Wrong – Believe it or not one of the more common mistakes you can make on your tax return is to misspell your name. Whether it was a typo, you didn’t use your full legal name, or you recently married or divorced and haven’t registered a name change with the Social Security Administration, you need to make sure the name listed on your tax return matches your Social Security Card. Making a simple error could lead to a rejected return. Even if your return is accepted your refund could be delayed if the name on the check doesn’t match that on your bank account.

4. Wrong or Missing Social Security Number – Forgetting to include or entering the wrong Social Security number for you, your spouse, or your dependents is one of the most common errors you can make when filing your tax return. The IRS uses Social Security numbers to cross-reference information it receives from your employer and other financial institutions. If unable to do so, the IRS could reject your tax return. Avoid this simple mistake by verifying each Social Security number on your tax return matches the corresponding Social Security card(s).

5. Selecting the Wrong Filing Status – Filing under the wrong status is commonly made by single parents whom mistakenly file as Single instead of choosing Head of Household. If you have a qualifying dependent living with you and provided more than half the cost of maintaining the home then you may be eligible to file as Head of Household, which will give you an extra $3,000 in deductions. Another common mistake is for a recent widow or widower to file as Single. Widows or Widowers can file as Married Filing Jointly (MFJ) in the year of death. Furthermore, you may be able to file as a Qualifying Widow(er) for two more years if you have a dependent child in the house.

 6. Forgetting to Sign and Date Your Return – Technically speaking an unsigned return is incomplete in the eyes of the IRS. This means that your return may not be accepted and could be considered late, leaving you liable for penalties and interest. Be sure to sign and date your return! Keep in mind that if you are MFJ, then your spouse has to sign as well. Remember, if you are electronically filing you are not exempt for this requirement. If you are e-filing you need to sign the return using an electronic Personal Identification Number (PIN).

 7. Making Math Errors – The most common error year over year on tax returns is mathematical mistakes. In fact, every year the IRS catches millions of math errors as a result of poor arithmetic and/or inaccurate transposition. Using a tax software program will dramatically reduce the likelihood of a math error. That being said, tax software does not guarantee your return will be mistake free. It’s imperative that you double check the numbers you input because the software is not smart enough to know whether or not you are entering the correct figures. Filing an inaccurate return due to a math error could lead to big trouble with the IRS and less money in your pocket.

A Beginners Guide to Maximizing Your 401(k) Plan

MONEY TALKS – In today’s workplace environment, unless you are working as a teacher, police officer, firefighter, or state/federal employee, the chances are you do not have a pension plan. In other words, when it comes to funding your retirement YOYO (you’re on your own). For most private sector employees, defined contribution (DC) retirement plans are their primary savings vehicle. DC plans are a type of retirement plan where an employer and/or employee make regular contributions. They differ from a pension plan in that there is no guaranteed income stream at retirement. Instead, both the employer and employee contributions, plus any investment earnings, grow together in an account where the employee has control over the cash distributions during their retirement. The most common DC plan is the 401(k) plan which has grown to become America’s de facto retirement savings plan since its inception in the late 1970’s.

A 401(k) plan is a great savings vehicle for a number of reasons. First and foremost any contributions made by the employee are tax deductible. Secondly, any earnings in the account grow tax free until they are withdrawn. Unfortunately many Americans are not taking full advantage of the benefits a 401(k) plan has to offer. There are two primary culprits behind this underutilization; lack of participation and low contribution rates. In order to ensure you are getting the most out of your 401(k) plan, make sure to follow these guidelines.

Start Contributing Early
During your first week of work you will likely be given a large packet of information listing everything from your vacation accrual to your medical benefits. Included in this packet should be an enrollment form for your employer’s 401(k) plan. You should sign up for your 401(k) plan immediately. Some employers may have restrictions on when you can start contributing or an elimination period before the employer themselves match any contributions; however, these restrictions typically do not prevent you from enrolling in the plan.

If you have already been working but have yet to sign up, there is no time like the present. To borrow a line from a colleague of mine, “You will never be younger than you are today.” When it comes to investing, the longer the time horizon, the greater the growth potential.

Maximize Your Employer Match
Most employers will make a modest contribution to your 401(k) plan presuming you do one thing; contribute to the plan yourself. While there is a wide range of company match levels, a typical employer match policy might read something like this: XYZ agrees to match 50% of employee contributions for the first 6%-of-salary that an employee contributes. In this scenario, in order for an employee to maximize their employer match, they would need to contribute 6% or more of their salary into their 401(k) plan. Any contribution below 6% means the employer is not obligated to contribute the full match.

Maximizing your employer match is critical to building your retirement nest egg. Not contributing or under contributing to your own plan means you are essentially throwing money out the window. An employer match is a guaranteed return on investment which is rare if not impossible to find in this day and age.

Take It to the Limit
The most common way to contribute to a 401(k) plan is through automatic payroll deductions. Many plans allow you to designate a percentage of your gross income to be allocated to your 401(k) plan. A good rule of thumb is to contribute 10% or more of your salary into your 401(k) plan. Unfortunately, for many young or underpaid employees this figure is simply unrealistic. For those who can’t save 10% or more, start off by saving the minimum allowable contribution that enables you to maximize your employer match. Most employer plans require employee contributions between 4% and 8% to receive the maximum match.

Automatic contribution increases are another great way to get the most of your 401(k) plan. As the name infers, an automatic contribution increase is simply an election you make to annually increase your contribution percentage (typically by 1%). The beauty of this election is it forces you to save more each year and they typically coincide with a merit increase so the effects are negligible. If your company doesn’t offer this election then remember to manually adjust your contribution percentage each time you get a raise.

Keep in mind that the Internal Revenue Service regulates how much an employee can contribute to their 401(k) plan. In 2016 the contribution limit is $18,000. If you are lucky enough to be age 50 or older, the IRS has a special “catch-up” provision which allows you to contribute an additional $6,000 for a total contribution limit of $24,000.