As Scammers try harder, just be more clever!

We are assaulted by people trying to access our information for their benefit or trying to trick us into sending a payment fraudulently.  Now, with all the news on artificial intelligence, we will see even more ways we may be assaulted. 

How do you protect yourself?

The first step:  Think before panicking and reacting; careful observation could save you from a scam!

Here are some examples, starting with familiar ones:

  • Do you really think you won a lottery you never entered?  There is an old joke about not buying a ticket.
  • Do you think you won a gift on Ace Hardware or Walmart when you haven’t been shopping there? Check the e-mail address – if it’s not from the company, then someone is trying to gain access to your information.
  • Do you actually think you are the one randomly chosen to receive an inheritance from someone in another country that supposedly has no heirs?  The estate mentioned is often from a country you may never have visited, and the estate is an enormous amount, so probability says it cannot be real.
  • If Amazon really thinks there is fraud, why does the person answering the call say “Thanks for calling Amazon” when the call came from them, and why do they know nothing about your account so that they have to ask for your information?  If there was a fraud, they would be telling you about the transaction instead of asking for all your account details.
  • No one stole your credit card, and you know you did not buy a MacBook or Airpods, so why is someone calling from the Netherlands to claim a purchase was made on your account?  Often you can tell that the callers are not from the companies they claim. 
  • It may look like a Microsoft message or some other legit message, but why do you suddenly need to update your account or sign for a matter you don’t recognize?  Check the source of the message – we have seen official-looking messages from many dubious senders, including some from India, Japan, Russia or somewhere else.  Be wary of e-mails from random accounts rather than the actual vendor.  
  • Why is the border patrol in Texas calling you claiming that the opened your mail and need to put a hold on your social security number? What does it even mean to “put a hold on your social security number” and how does that even relate to contraband?

If you receive notice of an unauthorized payment or overdue bill, or even a payment authorization you didn’t expect, don’t click on the link, go to the vendor’s website to access via a browser you trust to check before responding.  The link in a text or e-mail may appear okay but close examination reveals some flaw.  

The same applies if you receive a DocuSign notice:  make sure the sender is legitimate.  Clicking on the link could allow them to install malware and gain access to your financial information. 

Here’s another example:  We recently had someone claim to have seen our website and want to hire us for tax work.  When we asked for more information about their situation, including the state in which they filed, the response was a message asking to click on links to their information.  The fact that they did not respond to questions about hiring a tax professional was a tip-off.  The IRS warns:

Thieves take time to craft personalized emails to entice tax professionals to open a link embedded in the email or open an attachment. Tax pros have been especially vulnerable to spear phishing scams from thieves posing as potential clients. Thieves might carry on an email conversation with their target for several days before sending the email containing a link or attachment. The link or attachment may secretly download software onto tax pros’ computers that will give the thieves remote access to the tax professionals’ systems.

IRS

You can avert risks by being very suspicious, as well as being cautious. 

More steps:  you will also want to monitor your credit, even freeze your credit accounts, make sure your computer and smartphone software is up to date, use two-factor verification, run your malware and antivirus scans frequently, and respond to any alerts.  For more ideas such as getting an PIN from the IRS, see our post on Phishy Phone calls.  Here is good reminder from the IRS:

  • The IRS will never contact a taxpayer using social media or text message. The first contact from the IRS usually comes in the mail. Taxpayers who are unsure whether they owe money to the IRS can view their tax account information on IRS.gov.
  • For more on scams, see the annual IRS dirty-dozen list.

Let me know if you have any questions or comments and stay cautious! You can always call me if you are not sure what to do.

Steven

Year-end Tax Planning 2022-2023 and Inflation

Why year-end planning?

We are told to act before year end because it is our last chance to have an impact on our 2022 taxes.  Planning throughout the year could be even better, if you recognize when to act, but most of us are pulled in so many directions that it is hard to organize and act until there is an external pressure, such as the looming end to the calendar year.  So, when you are ready to take stock of your situation, you can make the planning effort even more productive by reviewing your investments, estate plan, and finances, not just your taxes – consider it a “financial checkup.” 

Overview

This year, there are changes that occurred due to inflation as well as legislation.  While we had expected tax increases, none materialized (there may still be tax law changes, but legislation such as the “SECURE Act 2.0,” child credit and tax extenders all remain in flux).  We review the changes that did occur before turning to actual year-end tax planning strategies. 

Impact of inflation

Is there ever a good side to inflation?  Perhaps the IRS adjustments to several tax-related thresholds that change for 2023 count, such as these:

The standard deduction MFJ             $27,700                       up from $25,900

The gift and estate tax credit              $12.92 million             from just over $12 million

The annual gift tax exclusion             $17,000                       up from $16,000

401(k) maximum contribution             $22,500                       plus $7,500 (for over 50)

IRA max.                                            $6,500                         plus $1,000

SEP-IRA max.                                    $66,000

The tax brackets at which rates increase have also gone up, so more is taxed at lower the brackets.

Inflation Reduction Act

The Inflation Reduction Act passed this summer and included changes to tax laws regarding energy saving credits.  The Act also contained other provisions, such as the 15% AMT for C corporations and 1% stock buyback tax.  It’s unfortunate that the abbreviation for the act is IRA, as we already have that in our tax lexicon. 

Beginning in 2023, this new law changes conditions for obtaining the $7,500 credit for new electric vehicles (EVs) and adds a $4,000 credit for used EVs (EVs that are 2 or more years old).  The Act also expanded the reporting requirements for the credits on your tax returns.  Finally, EV buyers can monetize the credit at purchase to reduce the sale price, rather than wait for their tax filing.  Remember there is also a credit for installing a home charger.

To obtain a credit for new EVs, the battery’s minerals must be extracted or processed in the US or a free-trade partner.  The battery must also be manufactured or assembled in North America.  Final assembly of the EV must be in North America.  There are price ceilings on EVs and income limits on claiming taxpayers. 

The Act extend and expanded home energy credits but also expanded the reporting requirements.

Tax planning

Start with this goal: to lessen the total tax due in 2022 and 2023 combined.  Usually that means delaying income to 2023 and accelerating deductions to 2022.  For 2022-2023, the jump in the standard deduction could mean losing itemized deductions in 2023, so pay special attention to what you can shift to 2022.  As we pointed out our post for 2021 year-end planning, if you are concerned about future tax rate increases, you can use a Roth Conversions to bring future income into 2022.

Now to the planning:  Can you act at all? 

Each year, we advise that you be practical, focusing on where you can actually make moves.  For many, the high standard deduction (which is even more for over age 65 taxpayers) means you will not itemize (i.e., your total for itemized deductions is less than the standard amount so you take the higher standard deduction).  And, if you are not itemizing, you have fewer ways in which to affect change in the taxes due in either year.  If you can itemize, you have more tools for planning. 

Tools – income

You can reduce taxable income by maximizing your retirement contributions with your employer via 401(k) or 403(b) plans and IRA contributions if you are below the thresholds.  If you are self-employed, you can contribute to your own qualified plan such as a SEP-IRA. 

You may also be able to contribute to a health savings or flex account.  Be sure to see to use any flex account balances before they expire. 

Review your investments to see if you can take losses to reduce capital gains and up to $3,000 of ordinary income.  ax loss harvesting reduces net taxable capital gains, but be sure not to run afoul of the wash-sale rule.

Tools – deductions

Review your unreimbursed medical expenses, which you can deduct if the total is over 7.5% of your adjusted gross income. 

State and local taxes are capped at $10,000, so you may not be able to shift much between years.  And it is difficult to accelerate mortgage interest on first and second homes.  

Often, the place for the most change is in charitable deductions, where you can bunch two- or three-years’ worth into a single year so you can itemize.  You can use a donor advised fund (“DAF”) to bunch, by contributing all in one year, then having the DAF send annual amounts.  Also, you can transfer up to $100,000 from a traditional IRA directly to charity if you are over 70½.  Note that Congress has not extended the $300 above the line charitable deduction. 

Before you finish, check withholdings and estimates paid

Especially if you increase income in 2022, review your total paid to the IRS and state via withholdings and estimates make sure that you meet the safe harbor rules.  If not, you could owe interest for under-withholding.

And remember your estate plan review

As noted above, the federal gift and estate tax credit  is close to $12 million for 2022 and increases to $12.92 million in 2023.  If you have excess wealth, you may want to gift while you can, especially if you want to use certain trusts, like a GRAT or QPRT.  For more on estate planning updates, see our estate planning checkup post

  • If you do review your estate plan documents, also review beneficiary designations and asset ownership to make sure everything is current and flows correctly. 

Summary

As you review your 2022-2023 tax planning, determine what you can shift and project the impact.  Then follow through on the details. 

Let us know if you have any questions. 

Good luck and best wishes for happy and healthy holidays!

We address the impact of inflation on tax thresholds for 2022 and 2023 that affect your year-end tax planning.  We also review the Inflation Reduction Act and EV credits.  As in the recent years, many taxpayers will not be itemizing because of higher standard deduction (rising to $27,700 for married couples in 2023), unless they bunch charitable deductions from two or more years into one year.

Mid-Year planning – Rates, Roths and Rules

Checking your income tax planning now is a good idea – tax planning can be done year-round.  As with any planning, acting while you can have an impact is best.  Tax laws may change before the end of 2022, e.g. Secure Act 2.0 may be adopted, but it’s still wise to know where you stand now. 

The IRS seems to have a similar thought about tax planning as they created a website with tools and resources at Steps to Take Now to Get a Jump on Your Taxes – if you check it out, let us know what you think.

First question:  did you get a tax refund, or did you owe? 

Refunds

Some people enjoy seeing a big refund, but as you may have heard, you are giving the government an interest-free loan with your money.  If you want to save, there are better ways, like an auto-debit to an IRA or to a savings account.

Not sure what happened to your refund?  There is a updated IRS tool for “where’s my refund” that now goes back three years at “Where’s My Refund?” 

The tool confirms receipt of your tax return, shows if the refund has been approved and indicates when it will be or has been sent.  If three weeks pass without receiving the refund, then you may want to contact the IRS.

Owed taxes

If you owed a significant amount for 2021, the IRS has another tool that helps make sure you have enough withheld for 2022 at Tax Withholding Estimator.  This way you can avoid penalties and interest for under withholding. 

If you do not get clear answers using the estimator tool, try comparing your 2022 paystub to your 2021 tax return, review the IRS guidance at Publication 505, or contact us for help.  

Second question: what happens if you act now?

Marginal vs. average tax rate

Knowing the rate at which additional net income will be taxed helps you make decisions such as the one in the next section, whether to convert an IRA to a Roth IRA or not. 

The marginal rate is your tax bracket, the rate at which the last portion of your income is taxed.  Any additional income would be taxed at this rate.  Your average tax rate is the percentage of income taxes to total taxable income.  You can have a low average rate but hit a high marginal rate, which may mean that taking more income into the current year would be costly. 

Time to convert to a Roth IRA?

The decision to convert a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA depends on several factors.  One is the rate of tax you pay now compared to the rate you expect to pay in retirement.  If your rate will be the same at retirement as now, then there are many reasons to convert, such as no required minimum distributions at retirement for a Roth IRA.  If your tax rate at retirement will be significantly less than currently, then converting now would be less tax efficient. 

If you want more on this decision, see “To Roth or not to Roth?” or check out Pros and Cons here.

Also, we discussed the back-door Roth IRA in our year-end post on 2021 tax planning.  

Last question:  how with this affect the rest of your finance?

Coordinate with investing and estate planning

Make sure any changes take for tax reasons do not foul your investment or estate planning. For more on estate planning, see estate planning checkup post

Summary

As you review your 2022 tax planning, check your 2021 returns for ideas on what to adjust, consider the impact of future tax rate increases and act when the impact on other planning also makes sense. 

Let us know if you have any questions. 

Good luck

Holiday gift and tipping guide Pandemic style

The holidays are a great time to say “thanks” and show appreciation for those who help us keep our families, homes and businesses on track, keep our homes clean, help us stay fit, and help us in other ways to get through each day throughout the year.  With that in mind, we encourage you to show your appreciation.

Gift giving etiquette may not always be obvious when considering gifts for people outside of your friends and family, so be mindful of the message you send.  Giving should show appreciation and respect.  Sometimes a smile or kind word can really make someone’s day.

Brace for the Holidays! Have a plan

As Halloween passes, we know that the season of over-buying and over-eating is approaching, so it’s time to prepare.  You want to enjoy being with friends and family without having the hangover of overspending, or worse, going into debt to finance all the fun. 

Make the gift giving fit with your cash management

Over-buying does not make you happier and usually makes the recipient uncomfortable.  Also, over-spending is likely to make achieving your long-term goals more difficult, which can add to the depression some feel at this time of year.

For gifts, “it’s the thought that counts” rings true.  Most recipients appreciate being remembered for who they are and what they do.  Think back to what you enjoyed most in past holidays and let that guide you.  This can help you stick to your values as you think through the entire process and devise your holiday shopping plan.  The time spent together may be far more important and rewarding than unnecessary giving.

Have a plan

Technology and social media can make shopping easier, but they also make it easier to overspend and end up with credit card debt from funding your gift giving.  

Part of the reason is that many such purchases are spontaneous.  People often regret these unplanned purchases.  Over 70% of people in one survey exceeded their budget and over half bought items not on their list.  This can make the new year bleak (More than 3 in 4 Americans are stressed about going into debt over the holidays — and technology’s not helping ) Counter this by creating a realistic budget, lookout for sales, review your budget to make sure you are on track. 

Budget – If you determine what you can reasonably spend and allocate that to people for whom you want to buy gifts, or give holiday tips, then you have a spending plan that should get you through.  When devising your plan, go back to your financial goals to remind yourself why staying on track is so important.  Include time for present wrapping to avoid time pressure that encourages splurge buying.  Also, you may want to have small gifts on hand for unexpected guests.  You can use budget apps, such as NerdWallet, to create a budget.  When you do, stick to it! 

If the people for whom you are shopping have wish lists, follow them for ideas.  And leave items in your shopping cart overnight to take a second look and avoid regretting a splurge purchase.  Ask “does the person really want or need this?,” especially if you are shopping for yourself!  (It may be wise to avoid, or at least substantially limit, any buying for yourself.) 

Be Wary of Black Friday, Cyber Monday and other retailer tricks

If you do your homework, you can determine if waiting in line or buying on line will be best.  As stated above, create a budget and stick to it.   

Be on the lookout for retailer other tricks like flash sales, loyalty cards, incentives to return for more purchases, misleading refund policies.  Similarly, procrastinating can lead to splurge buying ruled by emotions such as the need to please everyone and get the shopping done.

Avoid scams

With the pressure of the holidays to address all the gift giving, parties and thank yous, stay vigilant for scams.  These can come in the form of bogus IRS and social security calls, credit card offers, computer software deals and fake invoices.  There are many phishing sites you can use to check out whether the offers are legit

Review our Holiday Tipping Guide

As for tipping, see our post Guidelines for Holiday Tips and Gift.

Remember, if you’re unable to tip or give a gift, a thoughtful thank you note will acknowledge those people who are important to you.  You can even make a donation in their name. 

Brace for over-eating and possibly even depression

This blog is does not profess to have any expertise in psychology.  Nonetheless, we have all heard how holidays can be disappointing if not depressing from some.  The Hallmark gatherings promised on TV or social media rarely happen in real life. 

If the holidays are depressing, consider volunteering somewhere, such as a soup kitchen, or getting out for some serious exercise.  Both can lift your mood as well as either help others or improve your health.  Allow time to rest and recover!  And try a warm drink, tea not bourbon, or a warm bath. 

Take care of yourself – it’s hard to help anyone else if you are not in good shape yourself.  But if you are really experiencing holiday depression, speaking to people can help, be that family, friends or professionals.

We wish you all the best for financially sound, and fun, holidays!  And let us know if we can help you plan.