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Tom's Blog

Word of the Day

January 20, 2014 9:21 pm

Close. Act of finalizing a transaction in which all the concerned parties meet to transfer title to a property. Also, when real estate formally changes ownership.


Q: Can I Deduct a Loss on the Sale of My Home?

January 20, 2014 9:21 pm

A: No. A loss from the sale of personal-use property, such as a home or car, is not deductible. They are considered nondeductible personal losses, and you cannot reduce your tax bill by deducting them the way you would deduct stock and investment losses on your tax returns.


Why Taxes Are Your Biggest Expense and How to Get Them under Control

January 17, 2014 11:12 pm

Where did all my money go? It’s a universal question. And if you’re like most people, it’s one you ask with more than a touch of frustration. You don’t spend extravagantly. You pay the bills, buy groceries, and provide school supplies and clothes for your kids. Sure, maybe you go out to eat on Saturdays and take a once-a-year vacation—after all, you deserve some pleasure in life—but it’s hard to believe these small luxuries account for your stagnant savings or, worse, that credit card debt that’s slowly inching upward.

So where did all the money go? Author John Vento has an answer that might surprise you. Taxes.

“Most people think their biggest expense is their mortgage or rent or their kids,” says Vento, president of his New York City-based Certified Public Accounting firm, John J. Vento, CPA, P.C., and Comprehensive Wealth Management, Ltd., as well as the author of the new book Financial Independence (Getting to Point X): An Advisor’s Guide to Comprehensive Wealth Management. “But believe me when I say that most of your money has gone—and continues to go—to taxes, taxes, and more taxes.

“Just think about it,” he adds. “There’s your federal and state income taxes. Social Security taxes. Payroll taxes. Sales taxes. Property taxes. And on and on. In fact, if you take a close look at how much you pay for various taxes, chances are this number would be more than 50 percent of your overall expenditures. And while no one can avoid taxes completely—not legally anyway—there are almost certainly ways to reduce your bill that you aren’t taking advantage of.”

A Certified Public Accountant and Certified Financial PlannerTM with decades of experience, Vento knows exactly what it takes to sustain and build wealth. His new book is a complete resource for anyone concerned with building wealth and financial security in today’s no-guarantee financial environment. Most importantly, in it, Vento explains how to employ current tax facts and strategies in order to save hundreds—and perhaps thousands—of dollars every year.

“So if you want to increase your savings, what would be the single most important expenditure for you to focus on in order to keep more of what you make and get closer to achieving financial independence?” asks Vento. “The answer, of course, is taxes, taxes, taxes. But the fact is, most people completely overlook the importance of minimizing their taxes in order to help maximize their wealth accumulation.”

If you want to change your taxes from your biggest expense to your biggest saving opportunity, take a look at a few tips from Vento:

Find a trusted financial advisor. Everyone needs a trusted advisor to guide them during good times and bad—someone whose primary goal will be to help you achieve your long-term financial objectives. And while you may assume financial advisors are for “the super wealthy” (i.e., not you), or that your stockbroker or tax preparer adequately fills this role, Vento says you’re wrong in both cases.

Get organized. Don’t walk into your tax preparer’s office with your W-2 and a few receipts and expect to have a wealth-building experience. “Tax records, such as records of income received, work-related expense reports, medical expense information, information about home improvements, sales, and refinances, and so on, should be carefully kept on a year-round basis—not thrown in a drawer or shoebox and then hastily assembled just for your annual tax appointment,” notes Vento.

Retro-file to take advantage of missed deductions. Using your taxes as a way to actually save money is probably a new concept for you. That said, chances are high that you’ve missed out on ways to save in years past. Well, here’s some good news for you: Those savings aren’t lost forever.

Get credit for your kids. Put together a list of all expenses related to your kids. You’ll want to include child care, tuition payments, 529 plan contributions, donations, medical expenses, etc. “Ask your tax preparer to explore every tax credit that might be available to you, such as the child care credit, child tax credit, and the earned income credit,” explains Vento. “For older children who are in college, you must consider the education tax credits, such as the Lifetime Learning Credit and the American Opportunity Tax Credit.

“If your children are young and you’re looking for the best overall savings option, you’ll have the most control and the greatest tax benefits if you save money via a 529 plan,” he adds. “Although you do not receive any federal tax deduction for the contributions you make to these plans, the distributions are generally tax free to the extent that you use them to pay for qualified higher education expenses. For example, assuming you contribute $10,000 to a 529 plan in the year your child is born and this amount accumulates to $30,000 by the time the child is ready to attend college, this entire amount can be used free of tax if used for qualified higher education expenses. Neither you nor your child will be taxed on the profit made with this money.

Know what gets taxed and what doesn’t in regard to insurance payouts. Generally, the cost of personal homeowner’s, automobile, boat, and umbrella liability insurance are not tax deductible. However, insurance reimbursements to the extent of your loss are generally not taxable. So if you receive an insurance reimbursement as a result of damage to your home or car (as long as it is not in excess of your adjusted basis), it isn’t taxable, notes Vento.

Retire from a big tax burden. Many Americans aren’t saving enough for retirement. That’s unfortunate for two reasons. Number one, the earlier you start to save for retirement the better. And number two, retirement saving is a great way to reduce the amount you pay in taxes.

If your employer offers a 401(k) plan, invest as much as it will allow, Vento recommends. Making elective salary deferrals to your company’s retirement plan allows you to defer tax on your salary and get a tax-deferred buildup of earnings within your plan until you start making withdrawals when you retire. Other options include IRAs, which are available to all wage earners at any salary level, as well as to nonworking spouses.

“Contributions to traditional IRAs may be tax deductible if you meet the requirements; your withdrawals will be taxable in the year that you make those withdrawals,” Vento explains. “Therefore, a traditional IRA gives you a tax deduction in the current year and a tax deferral for any earnings, but ultimately you will pay tax when you withdraw from your account.

“In contrast, contributions to a Roth IRA are not tax deductible, but qualified withdrawals are tax free,” he adds. “Therefore, Roth IRAs do not give you a tax deduction in the current year, but ultimately your qualified withdrawals including earnings will be paid out to you tax free. Compare the benefits of a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA and choose the one that is best for your particular situation.”

Get the most out of Social Security. If you are collecting Social Security benefits, up to 85 percent of these benefits could be subject to federal income tax. However, it’s important to note that you can avoid paying income tax on your Social Security benefits if your provisional income is $25,000 or less if you are single, or $32,000 or less if you are married and filing jointly.

“Planning your retirement income to include tax-free withdrawals, such as from a Roth IRA account, may allow you to keep your income under these thresholds and ultimately avoid paying tax on your Social Security benefits,” explains Vento.

Don’t get taxed by your health. Take full advantage of medical insurance premiums paid by your employer on your behalf. This is considered a tax-free fringe benefit. These medical insurance premiums are 100 percent deductible by your employer and tax free to you. All payments made by the medical insurance company to cover your medical expenses are also tax-free payments made for your benefit.

“If your health insurance qualifies as a high-deductible plan, you should establish an HSA and fully fund tax-deductible contributions to cover future medical expenses,” says Vento. “Individuals can contribute and deduct $3,300 for a single policy and $6,550 for a family in 2014. If you and your spouse are 55 or older, you can make an additional tax-deductible, catch-up contribution of $1,000 each.”

Don’t let taxes deflate your ROI. Inflation and taxes are perhaps the two biggest drains on your investment returns. When investing, you must always consider the tax consequences of your investment when determining your true rate of return.

Give a gift. Take advantage of gifting strategies that can help you prevent losing some of the value of your estate to taxes. For 2014, the gift tax exclusion is $14,000 per year. What this means is that you can make a gift in this amount to anyone—and to as many people as you like—every calendar year, and that money will not be subject to gift tax or included in your taxable estate. Furthermore, it will not be added back to your lifetime exemption (which in 2014 is $5,340,000 million). This amount can be increased to $28,000 per year if a nondonor spouse agrees to split the gift.

“This can be a great way to transfer assets to children, grandchildren, and other intended heirs while you are still alive,” says Vento. “Ultimately, this will reduce the taxable value of your estate and, at the same time, your ultimate estate tax liability.”

“Paying taxes doesn’t simply have to mean kissing a large portion of your hard-earned money good-bye,” says Vento. “When you understand how they work and know where to look for opportunities, you can actually minimize your tax payout, and as a result, save a lot more of your money. Those savings can then pave your way to financial independence.”


3 Things Every Patient Should Know when Dealing with the Health-Care System

January 17, 2014 11:12 pm

With millions of people newly covered by health insurance, and 11,000 more becoming eligible for Medicare every day, more people will be visiting doctors and hospitals.

And while that’s a positive, patient advocate Ruth Fenner Barash warns that the U.S. health care system is not always the benevolent safety net many people believe it to be. It can be abusive, incompetent, callous toward patients – and worse.

“Patients and their loved ones cannot blindly turn themselves over to this massive, technology-based system and trust that it will care – or take care of them,” says Barash, who shares lessons learned from extensive health-care experiences in a new book, “For Better or Worse: Lurching from Crisis to Crisis in America’s Medical Morass.

Her cautionary tale traces the long medical journey her husband, Philip, endured with her as his advocate. She discovered mismanagement and excess, useless interventions and a sometimes complete disregard for pain – even when there was no hope of healing.

“I learned a great deal from our experience, and with so many people now gaining access to health care, I want others to benefit from what I’ve learned,” she says. “You can navigate the system; you just have to know how.” Barash offers these suggestions for patients and their loved ones, whether it’s a trip to the doctor for a checkup or a diagnosis of a catastrophic illness.

• Avoid the emergency room – for your own sake.  Emergency rooms were developed with the idea that few people would use them – most people would see their physician. But as health care costs rose, they became a primary care facility for those without insurance or the money to pay for services out of pocket. “Patients and their families were not expected to spend a long time in the E.R. – presumably, they would be seen quickly and either admitted to the hospital or treated and released – so they’re not designed for comfort,” Barash says. “They’ve become very crowded, especially in cities, and patients might wait for hours sitting in hard plastic chairs in the waiting room. For someone who’s sick or injured, this can be torture.” Sick people usually are not isolated, so waiting rooms also teem with germs, she notes.

• Be skeptical – question everything.  Too often, we take the first thing we’re told as gospel, Barash says. “If you have the luxury of time, take some of that time to think things through, to research and get second opinions,” she says. Research your physician’s connections. When you’re referred to a specialist, ask why that particular person. If you live in an area with a large academic community, ask around about the physicians and health-care providers with the best reputations. Who has the most experience in a particular niche? Who’s doing the most promising research? How many times have you performed this procedure and what is your success rate?

• Ask what it costs – no matter who’s paying. Our health-care system is absurd in the number of useless consultations, diagnostic procedures and interventions it foists on patients, Barash says. Whether our hospital bills are fully covered by Medicare, Medicaid or private insurance, or we’re paying a portion ourselves, we must all include cost in our discussions with health-care providers. “Part of the blame for having the most expensive health-care system in the world goes to us, the individuals, who don’t question purchases or shop for prices as we would for groceries, clothing, or furniture,” Barash says.  “If a test or consultation is ordered, understand why. Is it really necessary? You can say no!”

Finally, Barash says, we all must come to terms with the fact that death is a given.

“My husband’s problem, and the problem many of us may be doomed to face, is the seemingly endless getting there – a dying we don’t want.”


Word of the Day

January 17, 2014 11:12 pm

License. A privilege or right granted to a person by a state to operate as a real estate broker or salesperson.


Q: How Does Refinancing Work?

January 17, 2014 11:12 pm

A: With a refinancing, you pay off an old loan on your home and take out a new one, usually at a lower mortgage interest rate. To refinance, you will generally need to have equity in your home, a good credit rating, and steady income. You can borrow a percentage of the equity to cover remodeling costs, debt consolidate, and college tuition.

When you refinance, you will incur all the closing costs that go along with getting a new mortgage. So unless you're doing extensive renovations and can get a mortgage interest rate at least two points below your current loan rate, you may want to select another financing option.


7 Steps for Baby Boomers to Secure Their Financial Future

January 17, 2014 11:12 pm

Each generation handles their finances a bit differently, due to economic influences, technology and more. When it comes to baby boomers, a lack of planning and very poor insurance coverage suggests a significant risk for delayed retirement or outliving retirement assets. Below are 7 steps baby boomers can take to secure their financial future, courtesy of Financial Finesse.

Run a retirement calculator.  As Boomers approach retirement age, many have no idea whether they’ll actually be able to afford to retire since less than half of them have run a retirement estimate. Fortunately, many employers offer tools like Financial Engines, Schwab’s GuidedChoice, or our own retirement estimator that provide a projection of your retirement income and how much more you may need to save to achieve your goals.

Don’t forget to factor in health care costs. With Fidelity estimating that a 65-yr old couple will need $220k on average to cover health care costs in retirement, medical expenses will be a big part of that calculation. This is even more true if you plan to retire before you qualify for Medicare at age 65 since you may have to foot the entire bill. If you don’t have access to retiree health care coverage, you can purchase insurance on the new exchanges without having to worry about pre-existing conditions and depending on your taxable income, you may also qualify for tax subsidies that can significantly reduce your cost of insurance.

Catch up on tax-advantaged savings plans. The bad news is that less than 30% of Boomers are on track for retirement. The good news is that they are generally in their peak earning years, many are empty nesters and some have even paid off their mortgages so this can be a great time to make up for lost savings. If you turn 50 or older this year, you can take advantage of catch-up provisions in tax-advantaged retirement accounts. For your employer-sponsored plan, this means you can save an additional $5,500 on top of the standard $17,500 IRS limit for 401(k) or 403(b) deferrals. For an IRA, you can deposit an additional $1,000 on top of the standard $5,500 IRA contribution limit for 2014. (If you neglected to contribute to an IRA last year, there’s still time since you have until 4/15/14  to make your 2013 IRA deposit.) If you’re eligible to contribute to an HSA and are age 55 or older, you can contribute an extra $1k in addition to the $3,300 limit for individuals and $6,550 limit for families in 2014. (HSAs can be used tax-free for qualified medical expenses and penalty-free for any purpose after age 65.)

Consider alternative retirement strategies. If you don’t have enough time to save for your retirement goals, you may want to think about other ways to supplement your retirement income or reduce your expenses in retirement. Some options include working in retirement, paying off your mortgage, downsizing, purchasing an immediate annuity, moving to an area with a lower cost of living (maybe even overseas), and getting a reverse mortgage.

Downshift your investment strategy. If you have accumulated a hefty retirement account balance, you may find that your investment earnings outweigh your contributions so a good investment strategy is crucial. While the recent performance of the stock market may make it tempting to be more aggressive or take gains and get out of the market altogether, neither market timing approach has been shown to be consistently successful in the past. Instead, you’ll want to maintain a balanced portfolio that gradually becomes more conservative as you get closer to retirement. This is easiest with a target retirement date fund, which is a one-stop shop that does that automatically and is increasingly available in employer-sponsored plans. For a more customized portfolio, you might be able to get face-to-face financial advice or guidance through your employer or by hiring your own financial advisor.

Don’t let education expenses jeopardize your retirement. Before raiding your retirement accounts to help children or grandchildren, you might want to consider ways of minimizing college costs and explore all the options for low cost student loans. If you can afford to help with college bills without hurting your retirement, IRAs can be used penalty-free for qualified education expenses and appreciated stocks can be gifted to a child and taxed at the child’s capital gains rate when they sell it (unless they’re subject to the kiddie tax).

Protect your wealth. College costs aren’t the only threat to your retirement assets. After not saving enough for retirement, lack of wealth protection was the Boomers’ biggest vulnerability. Whether you’re already on track for retirement or feel you don’t have much wealth to protect, you should make sure you have adequate liability and long term care insurance. Otherwise, a single lawsuit or nursing home stay can wipe out a lifetime of saving and investing. Long term care insurance is particularly important to purchase before age and deteriorating health could make it unaffordable.

Source: Financial Finesse


Spruce up Your Home This Year

January 17, 2014 11:12 pm

(BPT) - Making a New Year's resolution is common, and many people set goals for ways to improve themselves. If you have set a goal to lose weight, learn a new skill or get promoted, congratulations. But while you are striving to attain your personal goal, have you ever thought of setting a goal to refresh your home in a way that will have your friends talking?

Setting a home improvement goal is more common than you may think and you can make a dramatic improvement to your home with a complete remodel. You can take on several smaller projects - any time of the year - that will leave you loving your home all year long. Here are a few ideas to get you going.

* A fresh coat of paint. Nothing reinvents a room like a fresh coat of paint. Yet many people put off painting a room because they can't afford professional painters and they don't have time to do the job themselves. But you can achieve that professional quality finish at a fraction of the time and cost by visiting and renting your own paint sprayer. Use your sprayer to add a neutral color, which provides visual appeal and works with most furniture patterns, leaving you plenty of decorating options.

* Change hardware. Faucets and cabinet hardware can quickly date a room. Replacing hardware can add beauty to your kitchen without adding a lot of extra cost. Be sure to find knobs and pulls that are the same size as the existing ones so you don't have to re-drill the cabinets. Do this for any furniture and in any room for an instant decor face-lift.

* Replace old tile. Outdated tile can make a bathroom look old and dull. Replacing it with new tile that is in style will give the space a rich, modern look. Tiling is a DIY project that anyone can tackle with the right tools. Rent the necessary items like a tile stripper, a tile saw and a mortar mixer to keep your costs down.

* Update curtains and blinds. Textiles play a major role in the overall decorating scheme of a room. New window treatments offer an inexpensive way to introduce bold color and patterns for an instant refresh. Pair your new curtains with decorative throw pillows for a striking impact to the living room.

* Recreate your flooring. If your carpet doesn't need to be replaced but it could use a little refreshing, cleaning your carpets will do the trick. If you can't afford to hire professional carpet cleaners or you feel like taking on the project yourself, renting a carpet cleaner can give your carpets the professional look you've been dreaming of. And if you have hardwood floors that need to be refurbished, renting a floor sander is an excellent first step for this project.

Home improvement projects do not have to include a complete overhaul to provide a new look. These smaller projects will dramatically improve your home all year long. To learn more about the tools you can rent for your next project and to see more ways those tools can help you, visit


Be Ready for Emergencies with These Preparedness Tips

January 17, 2014 11:12 pm

Earthquakes, fires and other emergencies strike suddenly, so it's important to have a handle on your emergency preparedness skills and knowledge.

SoCalGas offers these safety tips:

Before an emergency

  • Know where your gas meter is located and keep a 12" or larger adjustable wrench with your emergency supplies, near your building exit or next to your gas meter shut-off valve. Do not store the wrench on the gas meter or other gas piping. Even in the case of an earthquake or other emergency, turn off your gas meter if you smell gas, hear gas leaking or see other signs of a leak —and ONLY if it is safe to do so.
  • To help prevent your water heater from moving or toppling in an earthquake, strap it firmly to the wall studs in two places —the upper and lower one-third of the tank— with heavy bolts and metal strapping. Be sure to place the lower strap at least four inches above the thermostat controls. Kits are often available at your local hardware store and we recommend having a licensed, qualified professional install it for you.
  • Check safety devices, such as smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, to ensure that they are functioning properly.
  • Call a licensed, qualified professional to inspect your furnace and other gas appliances for safe operation and to make any needed repairs. Make sure flexible connectors are not subject to damage or passing through floors, walls or ceilings.

After an emergency

  • Do not turn off gas to the meter unless you smell gas, hear the sound of gas escaping or see other signs of a leak —and only if it is safe to do so. If you turn off gas to the meter, leave it off. Do not turn it back on yourself. Interior gas piping and appliances must be inspected for possible damage before service can be safely restored.
  • For safety, a shut-off valve should be installed at every gas appliance, and may be required by state and/or local codes. If a leak occurs at a specific appliance, the valve will permit you to turn off the gas at the appliance rather than shutting off all gas service at the meter. Some valves require a wrench to turn them.
  • Check your water heater and furnace vents. If the venting system becomes separated during an earthquake or other event, it could leak hazardous fumes into your home. Do not operate your appliance unless it is properly vented.  Signs of an improperly vented appliance may include moisture on the inside of windows or an unusual odor when the appliance is in operation.
  • DO NOT ignite a flame or use any electrical appliances, light switches or other devices that can cause a spark until you're sure there are no gas leaks.
  • Use flashlights —NOT lanterns, matches or candles— to examine buildings, as flammable gases may be inside.



Word of the Day

January 17, 2014 11:12 pm

Market price. Actual selling price of a property.


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