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Child Tax Credit Payments Have Begun. Should You Opt Out?

“The advance of the credit reduces the total amount of taxes paid,” said Rob Seltzer, an accountant in Los Angeles. “So there could be a problem with an estimated tax penalty,” depending on how much the taxpayer earns this year compared with last. It may make sense to run a tax projection with a professional to see if it makes sense to opt out.

You need to live in the United States for more than half of 2021 to be eligible for the advanced payments, but expatriate taxpayers can still claim the expanded credit on their return, according to the I.R.S. (The refundable portion of the credit, however, will be curtailed to the prior $1,400 limit.) Military members stationed abroad are still eligible for the advanced payments.

Some households are simply accustomed to getting a large refund when they file, using it as a forced savings plan. If you have come to depend on a big refund, you can opt out of all future payments and receive the full value of the credit when you file your return next year.

“Opting out or making changes to the payment comes down to personal preference of when and how you want to receive the money,” said Andy Phillips, the director of the Tax Institute at H&R Block. “If you prefer monthly payments of smaller amounts, no need to make changes.”

Sheila Taylor-Clark, a certified public accountant and secretary of the National Society of Black C.P.A.s, has practical advice for clients who don’t necessarily want to opt out but who may be uncertain on where they stand: “Drop that money into an interest-bearing account, so if you owe money you can just send that back next April,” she said.

To opt out of receiving the payments, taxpayers should visit the Child Tax Credit Update Portal. If you don’t already have an account, you’ll need to create one. And if you’re married and file a joint return, both spouses will need to create accounts and opt out; spouses who don’t opt out will continue to receive half of the advance monthly payment.

Besides stopping the checks, the portal can be used to check the status of your payments; change the bank account receiving them; or to switch your payments to direct deposit from paper checks.

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The Coronavirus Pandemic Safety Net Is Coming Apart. Now What?

Distressed homeowners with loans owned by private banks or investors should contact their mortgage servicer to see what options they’re offering. Some of them have followed a framework similar to federally backed loans, but others’ terms may be murkier.

No matter what type of loan you have, the most important action to take now is to reach out to your mortgage servicer to find out when your payments will resume and how much they will be. If you cannot afford them, the servicer can lay out your options. For more guidance, you can also seek out a housing counselor.

The changes made to food stamps — now largely known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — during the pandemic were complicated.

But one significant change, a 15 percent bump in benefits for all recipients, runs only through Sept. 30. So if you currently receive SNAP benefits, they may go down then. (Congress is considering an extension, SNAP policy experts said, and other changes unrelated to the pandemic — including a regular inflation adjustment, along with a potential change to the basket of food that benefits are based on — could also help offset any potential cuts.)

A number of other temporary changes will remain in many states for several more months.

Those changes increased benefits for the program, which is federally funded but run through the states. Beneficiaries have received emergency allotments, which increased their monthly benefits to the maximum amounts permitted or higher. All told, the average daily benefit per person rose to $7 from $4 by April of this year, according to Ellen Vollinger, legal director at the Food Research & Action Center.

Access to the program also became somewhat easier: Certain college students became eligible, unemployed people under 50 without children weren’t subject to time limits and there were fewer administrative hurdles to remaining enrolled, experts said.

The extra allotments can continue to be paid as long as the federal government has declared a public health emergency, which is likely to remain for at least the rest of the year. But the state administering the benefits must also have an emergency declaration in place, and at least six states — Arkansas, Florida, Idaho, North Dakota, South Dakota and South Carolina — have either ended or will soon begin to pull back that extra amount, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

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From the Heart to Higher Education: The 2021 College Essays on Money

Despite the loud busking music, arcade lights and swarms of people, it was hard to be distracted from the corner street stall serving steaming cupfuls of tteokbokki — a medley of rice cake and fish cake covered in a concoction of hot sweet sauce. I gulped when I felt my friend tugging on the sleeve of my jacket, anticipating that he wanted to try it. After all, I promised to treat him out if he visited me in Korea over winter break.

The cups of tteokbokki, garnished with sesame leaves and tempura, was a high-end variant of the street food, nothing like the kind from my childhood. Its price of 3,500 Korean won was also nothing like I recalled, either, simply charged more for being sold on a busy street. If I denied the purchase, I could console my friend and brother by purchasing more substantial meals elsewhere. Or we could spend on overpriced food now to indulge in the immediate gratification of a convenient but ephemeral snack.

At every seemingly inconsequential expenditure, I weigh the pros and cons of possible purchases as if I held my entire fate in my hands. To be generously hospitable, but recklessly drain the travel allowance we needed to stretch across two weeks? Or to be budgetarily shrewd, but possibly risk being classified as stingy? That is the question, and a calculus I so dearly detest.

Unable to secure subsequent employment and saddled by alimony complications, there was no room in my dad’s household to be embarrassed by austerity or scraping for crumbs. Ever since I was taught to dilute shampoo with water, I’ve revised my formula to reduce irritation to the eye. Every visit to a fast-food chain included asking for a sheet of discount coupons — the parameters of all future menu choice — and a past receipt containing the code of a completed survey to redeem for a free cheeseburger. Exploiting combinations of multiple promotions to maximize savings at such establishments felt as thrilling as cracking war cryptography, critical for minimizing cash casualties.

However, while disciplined restriction of expenses may be virtuous in private, at outings, even those amongst friends, spending less — when it comes to status — paradoxically costs more. In Asian family-style eating customs, a dish ordered is typically available to everyone, and the total bill, regardless of what you did or did not consume, is divided evenly. Too ashamed to ask for myself to be excluded from paying for dishes I did not order or partake in, I’ve opted out of invitations to meals altogether. I am wary even of meals where the inviting host has offered to treat everyone, fearful that if I only attended “free meals” I would be pinned as a parasite.

Although I can now conduct t-tests to extract correlations between multiple variables, calculate marginal propensities to import and assess whether a developing country elsewhere in the world is at risk of becoming stuck in the middle-income trap, my day-to-day decisions still revolve around elementary arithmetic. I feel haunted, cursed by the compulsion to diligently subtract pennies from purchases hoping it will eventually pile up into a mere dollar, as if the slightest misjudgment in a single buy would tip my family’s balance sheet into irrecoverable poverty.

Will I ever stop stressing over overspending?

I’m not sure I ever will.

But I do know this. As I handed over 7,000 won in exchange for two cups of tteokbokki to share amongst the three of us — my friend, my brother and myself — I am reminded that even if we are not swimming in splendor, we can still uphold our dignity through the generosity of sharing. Restricting one’s conscience only around ruminating which roads will lead to riches risks blindness toward rarer wealth: friends and family who do not measure one’s worth based on their net worth. Maybe one day, such rigorous monitoring of financial activity won’t be necessary, but even if not, this is still enough.

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In the Market for a 529 College Savings Plan? Shop Around

The outcome could have been different, however, if the error had occurred during a downturn, said Madeline Hume, a Morningstar analyst. She advised being familiar with your plan’s performance, so you can gauge if returns seem out of the ordinary, and paying attention when your plan notifies you of changes. “It’s important to keep aware of what communications are coming out,” she said.

The firm rates 529 plans on factors like fees, investment options and plan oversight, and most are rated gold, silver or bronze, indicating they offer a net benefit to investors. However, eight plans received “negative” ratings, mostly because of excessive fees.

Here are some questions and answers about 529 saving plans:

What college expenses can 529 funds be used for?

Savings in a 529 can be used to pay college costs including tuition, room and board, mandatory fees, books, supplies and required equipment.

Can I use 529 funds to pay student loans?

Yes. Under a law passed in 2019, up to $10,000 from a 529 account can be used to repay a beneficiary’s student loans. Another $10,000 each can be used to repay student loans borrowed by the beneficiary’s siblings.

Can grandparents save in a 529 account for a grandchild?

Yes — and an upcoming change to an important financial aid form, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, should help to make that more attractive. Currently, contributions from grandparent-owned 529 plans are reported on the FAFSA as untaxed cash support to the student, which can reduce eligibility for financial aid, said the financial aid expert Mark Kantrowitz. An updated FAFSA, however, will eliminate the question about cash support, he said, so distributions from grandparent-owned 529s will no longer be included on the form. The change is expected to take place with the FAFSA available in late 2022, for the 2023-24 academic year.

The change, however, does not affect a different student aid form, the CSS Profile, which is required by many higher-cost private colleges, Mr. Kantrowitz said.

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How the Pandemic Has Changed Attitudes Toward Wealth

Several key metrics of defining wealth had fallen in the past three years. In 2018, 65 percent of respondents felt that wealth gave them peace of mind, but that number had fallen to 53 percent by this spring. Half of the respondents equated wealth with happiness, four percentage points lower than in 2018.

In another shift, more people said wealth meant success in life — that was up to 50 percent, from 40 percent last time.

“A big component of success is still making money, but it’s just not making money to increase your financial capital,” Mr. Baker said. “It’s accomplishing something in the process, to build other things, to take some of that financial capital and put it into something else.”

Mr. Norton said his priorities had shifted to focusing more on the people around him, so he decided to pay the first half of his company’s Christmas bonus to employees in May. “I did it just to make sure they were OK,” he said. “I focused less on my net worth and income and more on making sure we’re doing the right thing for our clients but also making sure my staff and my family was OK.”

For others, though, the mandated isolation focused their mind. Douglas Swets, an angel investor in early-stage start-ups, said the pandemic brought greater clarity and focus to the investments he and his partners were making.

“After a year of Zoom meetings, I can have a lot more meetings and it’s improved our due diligence,” he said. “We can have more people doing reference calls. You get all the questions answered.”

At the same time, Mr. Swets, who is married with two adult children, said the investments that he reviewed were not necessarily better given the extra time. If anything, they were actually riskier, but the pandemic gave him a different view on investing.

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How to Navigate a Hot Housing Market

In the end, the sellers accepted her offer, and she closed on the condo on May 7. She learned that the sellers liked that she had shown up promptly to an appointment, which helped seal the deal. “Be on time,” she said. And, she advised, use an experienced real estate agent. The current competitive market moves too quickly for do-it-yourself shopping.

In Nashville, buyers are getting creative. Brian Copeland, the president of Greater Nashville Realtors, said he had recently learned of an offer that promised the seller a “V.I.P.” meet-and-greet with a celebrity musician as an inducement. In another sale, a buyer offered to pay for a party with a bounce house for the seller’s children. And in a third, the buyer saw a Peloton bike in the house and offered to pay for a year’s subscription to online classes.

“We’re seeing all kinds of weird perks,” Mr. Copeland said, noting, “I am not condoning any of these practices.”

Angelica Olmsted, an agent in Denver, said tight markets demanded creative thinking. She tracks listings that have expired to see if the owner might still be interested in selling. “It may have been overpriced eight months ago,” she said, “but now it’s a steal.”

Here are some questions and answers about home shopping:

What are current mortgage rates?

A bright spot for home buyers is that mortgage rates have remained low — below 3 percent, on average, for the past month for a 30-year fixed-rate home loan, according to Freddie Mac’s weekly survey. Rates for fixed-rate 15-year loans averaged 2.26 percent last week.

I can’t pay above the asking price. Is there any hope for me?

Yes — if you’re willing to compromise, agents say. Mr. Copeland, in Nashville, said the majority of homes in Davidson County were still selling at or below the asking price. The most extreme competition, he said, is in a few ZIP codes in the city’s urban core. If you can live a bit farther away, he said, there’s probably a home you can afford.

How long is this going to last?

It is going to take time for construction to catch up to demand, especially for entry-level homes, economists say. But there are some reasons for optimism. A recent survey from Realtor.com suggests that more owners will be putting homes on the market in the next 12 months as the effects of the pandemic wane.

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7 Steps to Take Now to Catch Up on Retirement Savings

Another option is applying for coverage through the Affordable Care Act, which offers a range of plans, including for those still unemployed.

Make catch-up contributions. If you’re 50 or older, the Internal Revenue Service gives you a little savings plum: You can save as much as an extra $6,500 annually in your defined contribution plans (which include 401(k)s, 403(b)s and 457s). If you have a SIMPLE (Savings Incentive Match Plan for Employees) individual retirement account or SIMPLE 401(k), the catch-up contribution is $3,000 annually; it’s $1,000 for a Roth I.R.A.

Automate your savings. If you’re working and offered a 401(k) with automatic payroll withdrawals, you can simply increase your contribution. Want to save even more? Many plans allow you to boost your 401(k) savings when you get a raise. Let’s say you’re 50 or older and save the maximum annual amount — $26,000. That’s $19,500 plus a $6,500 catch-up contribution. Also take your employer’s matching contribution, if it’s offered. This is the low-hanging fruit of retirement savings that most financial planners recommend — again, if you have access to it.

Adjust your portfolio. Just socking more money into a bank money-market account won’t help you catch up much at all. After all, the S&P 500 index is up a stunning amount: more than 40 percent this year. Yields on money markets are awful — the top rate nationally was 0.60 percent, according to Bankrate.com. The best way to achieve your goals is to invest in no-load mutual or exchange-traded funds, preferably with an annual expense ratio below 0.30 percent.

Most mutual fund companies offer dividend growth and income mutual and exchange-traded funds. Also avoid the trap in thinking that money in the bank is safe money. If it’s not beating inflation, which is currently running at an annual rate of just under 3 percent, you’re losing purchasing power. “Don’t keep too much money in a bank account,” Ms. Price warned. “You’re getting paid very little to keep it there.”

Retire later. If you’re able, one simple strategy is to retire after the “normal” age for Social Security benefits, which is 66 for most Americans. That will give you more time to save. Social Security will even pay you more each month if you wait until 70 to collect benefits. A “delayed retirement credit” will raise your retirement payments 8 percent annually every year you wait from age 66 until taking benefits at age 70 for those born in 1943 and later.

Set up your own plan. Small-business owners or those who are self-employed can set up their own plans, from Simplified Employee Pension I.R.A.s to 401(k)s. Ms. Price suggests those over 50 consider a Roth 401(k), if your employer offers it. While contributions are taxed, withdrawals are not. “You’re taxed on money going in, not on gains,” she said. “If you can’t afford to pay taxes on withdrawals later, this is a good idea.”

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Beware of Car Towing Companies That Patrol Private Parking Lots

“It’s up to the consumer to advocate for themselves,” Ms. Brombach, the author of the towing report, said. Most states have consumer protection offices that can be a good first stop with a complaint.

It helps to be aware of the possibility of a tow when parking. People assume that a lot near a store or other business is public, Mr. Friedman said, but it’s usually private property — so act accordingly. “It’s a mind-set consumers have to have,” he said.

Scrutinize any signs on the lot that provide information about parking and any restrictions, he advised, and resist the urge to park and run errands at additional locations if the spot is dedicated to a specific store. If you have any doubt, find another spot. It may help to take a picture of your car, noting the time and any relevant signs with your phone, in case it can be used to challenge a towing fee, he said.

Here are some questions and answers about towing fees:

What should I do if my car is towed?

If a phone number is posted in the parking lot, call it. Otherwise, call the nonemergency number of the local police department. In many places, local rules require towing companies to report a vehicle to the police before hauling it away.

There’s typically little you can do to get back your car until you pay the fee. “It’s a highly unusual transaction from the get-go,” Mr. Friedman said, in that you have to pay the money and challenge the fee afterward.

Ask for an itemized bill when you retrieve your car. “Fees can stack up,” Ms. Brombach said. You may be charged a “release” fee, and an “after hours” fee, and you’ll want to be sure you weren’t overcharged.

If you can prove that your car was illegally towed, you are eligible for reimbursement in 27 states, the report notes. In 17 of those states, you are entitled to collect damages as well as reimbursement.

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E.V. Buying Guide: What to Know About Models, Batteries, Charging and More

Buying used could be a cheaper way to get an electric vehicle, though evaluate the car you are buying carefully, particularly the quality of the battery, because it will degrade over time. That said, a used electric vehicle could be a perfect choice for a second car for errands, commutes and other short trips.

As exciting as it may be to own an electric vehicle, it may not be for everyone. Many families and individuals can’t afford an E.V. that meets their needs — there are few electric vehicles with three rows and room for youth sports gear, for example, and they tend to be expensive. Others cannot easily charge at or near their homes. That’s why Mr. DeLorenzo and Mr. Fisher recommend plug-in hybrids.

“If you’re interested but not really sure you want to commit, these plug-in hybrids are kind of a gateway,” Mr. Fisher, of Consumer Reports, said.

For many people, a plug-in like a Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivan or the RAV4 Prime S.U.V. could effectively serve as an all-electric vehicle, he said. Toyota claims the RAV4 Prime can run for 42 miles before switching to gasoline, while Chrysler says the Pacifica has 32 miles on a full charge. If used mostly for short commutes to work and trips around town, the cars could rarely use gas. Those two vehicles and other plug-in hybrids also qualify for federal tax credits.

“You can just plug it into your normal wall outlet and charge it overnight and you can get a taste of what that’s like, having an E.V., and then maybe your next vehicle will be a pure E.V.,” he said.

Of course, gas-powered cars have grown increasingly efficient, and choosing one wisely can help reduce emissions if you are upgrading from an older vehicle. Yet many people buy cars based on what they consider alluring and attractive. And if you are wowed by the features and design of an E.V., you might find it hard to settle for anything else, Mr. DeLorenzo said.

“It’s a different experience,” he said. “It’s not the same as owning a regular car, for sure. So there’s something to be said for that.”

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