Keeping Track

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A reader asks: How to keep track of all the accounts, taxes due; how to measure progress in meeting financial objectives. I hate administrative tasks myself, so I sympathize with this correspondent’s anxieties.  Here is a walk through a typical year with my advice on what to do when, and what information to have on hand when you are obligated to undertake certain actions.  Some dates on what follows are dictated by federal, state, and local governments. Other dates are arbitrary.  For instance, I suggest calculating your net worth every January.  You could do it at any time, but do it at least once a year.

January

  • Calculate a personal statement of your net worth. By the third week of January you should have obtained statements from the financial institutions holding any of your savings and investment accounts.  Add the value of these to the value of your other assets, large pre-paid items such as college tuition and the value of your house and car, if you own them.  The total figure is your assets.  Do the same for your liabilities — large expected bills, the amount remaining on the house’s mortgage, and other outstanding debts, including credit card debt.  The difference between your assets and your liabilities is your “net worth.”
  • Review your financial goals. Revisit the plan described in this post.  Write down how your efforts in the previous year have advanced it and then how you will advance it further in the coming year.
  • Create folders for all the financial and tax information you will receive over the coming year so that you will have easy access to this material when you need it, especially at tax time. In particular, you will want to file receipts for business expenses to write off against your taxes. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) website provides guidance on what expenses do and do not qualify as deductions. irs.gov.
  • Pay off as much credit card debt from the holidays as you can, starting with the card that charges the highest interest rate. You should do this even if it means delaying other purchases, and even if it means interrupting your saving schedule, because no investment offers a rate of gain equal to the interest cost on a credit card.
  • January 15 is a tax date, the last of four for estimated taxes due on income from the previous year. If your employer withholds taxes from your paycheck, you will not need to do much.  But if you run your own business or do freelance employment, you will need to make a payment to avoid an IRS penalty.  Consult an accountant on how much you must pay.
  • Take advantage of post-holiday sales to shop for next year. 

February

  • Contact any bank or financial institution that has failed to send you statements, because you will need them to file your taxes based on the previous year’s income.
  • Make an appointment with your accountant.  Taxes are due April 15, but having this conversation in February will avoid scrambling at the last minute for needed material.
  • If you expect a tax refund, file early and use the money to pay down credit card or other debt, or put it to work in your savings and investment accounts.
  • February 15 is a tax date. If your child works but will not earn enough to owe any tax, this is the latest date when you can file an IRS form W-4 with his or her employer token that employer from withholding taxes.

March

  • Finish preparing your tax return (if you did not file in February).
  • Confirm that all colleges and other schools have received your financial aid forms. The deadline for federal student aid varies from school to school, but earlier is always better.
  • Review your property tax bill. Deadlines to challenge it vary depending on where you live, but most allow appeals in early spring.  About half those who appeal win reductions –– on average some 10 percent.  The National Taxpayers Union website, ntu.org, offers guidance here.

April

  • April 15 is a tax date. Filing on income for the previous year is due to the IRS and to those states that impose state income taxes.
  • April 15 is also when you have to pay the first installment of your quarterly estimated taxes if you are self-employed or if your employer is not withholding at all or is not withholding enough. You should pay these estimated taxes equal to at least 90 percent of what you will eventually owe.  Your February conversation with your accountant should inform this calculation.
  • The 15th of April is also the last date on which you can take care of some previous tax-related business (of which more in an upcoming post) from the year before, for example:
    • funding your Individual Retirement Account (IRA);
    • funding your Keogh or Simplified Employee’s Pension (SEP) plan, if you have self-employment income;
    • paying your IRA fees. (Use a separate check, since this expense is tax deductible.);
    • filing for an extension. (If you and your accountant have failed to get your return in order on time, you are entitled to a six-month extension, which brings you to October 15th.  That is an extension for filing, not for the payment of tax.  You will have to pay estimated taxes together with an extension for filing your return.)
  • If you’re planning to move, try to do so in April.  Moving costs are some 50 percent higher between May and October than between November and April.  Save all receipts if the move is job related.  Many moving expenses are deductible.  For guidance, visit the IRS website, irs.gov.

May

  • Contact the IRS if by month’s end you have not received any refund due you. Use the refund to pay down credit cards or to invest.
  • Book your summer vacation. This is usually the last month to get reduced rates for early reservations.
  • Because this is otherwise a light month for financial tasks, May might be a good time to take an inventory of your household items and check your insurance coverage.Take pictures of any valuable items.

June

  • June 15 is a tax date.  If you are self-employed or your employer is not withholding enough, the second installment of your quarterly estimated taxes will be due.
  • June 30 is a filing date.  It marks the deadline to file with the U.S. Treasury if you have a bank or other financial account in a foreign country worth more than $10,000.
  • Meet with your financial advisor to review your investments.  Beginning investors will have little need for such meetings, but for others, this is a good time to review.
  • Have a yard sale to raise more investable cash.  Donate to charity whatever you fail to sell.  Get a receipt from the charity to use as a write-off on your taxes. Guidance on what applies is available on the IRS website, irs.gov.
  • Pay off your credit card so it has room for you to charge items on summer vacation.

July

  • This is a good month to sell your old car.  Seasonal pricing patterns show that now is a likely time to get a better price.
  • Enjoy a month of financial leisure.

August

  • Provide children and grandchildren who are going off to college with information on managing their checking account, credit cards, and budgeting.
  • Travel that combines with work may have tax-deductible elements. Keep receipts.  Check with your accountant and/or consult the IRS website, irs.gov.

September

  • September 15 is a tax date.  It marks the due date for the third installment of your quarterly estimated taxesif you are self-employed or if your employer is not withholding enough.
  • Calculate what your child earned on a summer job and ask your accountant whether your offspring needs to file a return. Again, you can get guidance from the IRS website, irs.gov.

October

  • October 15 is a filing date for your previous year’s tax return if you received an extension the previous April.
  • October 15 also is the last day to make a Keogh or SEP contribution, if you received an extension last April.
  • With little else pending, this is a good month to review your will.

November

  • A good month to buy a car.  Dealers have to clear their lots for next year’s models and are inclined to offer good deals.
  • If you have a flexible spending account with your employer, plan to use it now, before the end of the year, because if you don’t use it, it will revert to your employer.
  • Check your credit score and correct any irregularities. You are entitled to do so free once a year.

December 

  • December 31 marks the last day you can set up a Keogh plan for the following year. You have until April 15 to fund it, but you must do the paperwork by Dec. 31.
  • Though you can wait until January 15 to make estimated income tax payments to state governments, you can deduct all or a portion of them from this year’s federal tax if you pay by December 31.
  • You can make cash gifts to individuals, up to $15,000 each without them having to pay a gift tax or suffer any complications on your future estate taxes.
  • Make all charitable contributions before December’s end to receive write-offs on the current year’s taxes. For gifts over $500, the IRS recommends that you receive a letter of acknowledgment from the charity.
  • Arrange, if possible, to push income and bonuses into January to keep them off the current year’s tax liability. You will eventually have to pay taxes on the income, but this way you get the earning power in your investment account for a whole year before you have to pay the tax.

 

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