The IRS has its hands full this year

The government’s partial shutdown has everyone on edge this year. Despite assurances from the powers that be, many taxpayers are concerned that their tax returns won’t be processed on time. Should you be worried? One misconception many have is that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is closed. Not true, the IRS remains open, despite having no budget since December 21, 2018. The agency is running under a contingency plan, which includes operating with only 12% of its staff. Usually, you can e-file your returns in late January, and that remains doable. The IRS announced it will be accepting 2018 tax returns starting January 28, 2019.   They also said they would be issuing refunds. To do so, they will be bringing back a large portion of their laid-off workers. Those workers, like the other 800,000 furloughed Federal workers, won’t be getting a pay check until the shutdown is over. The question remains: how many of those workers are willing to return to their jobs without a paycheck? We are already seeing some departments (such as Homeland’s TSA workers) balk at working for free any longer. But the government shutdown is not all the IRS needs to worry about. Thanks to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act passed in a hurry by Congress last year, the IRS has been working overtime to deal with the mountain of new changes and adaptions necessary to reflect the new tax laws. To add insult to injury, it took months before the new rules were actually delivered to the IRS from the legislative branch. At the time, the Inspector General said that it would take...

This year brings change to Social Security and Medicare Benefits

As the year begins, those who are retired, or who plan to soon, need to know the changes the government has recently announced to your benefits. The good news is that retirees will get a 2.8% increase in Social Security payments. While that doesn’t sound like much, it happens to be the largest cost of living adjustment in seven years. What that amounts to for the average couple in retirement is about $67 per month, or an average monthly payment of $2,448. If you are one of those workers like me, who waited until 70 years of age before collecting benefits and are considered a “high earner,” then you will be receiving as much as $73 more per month up to $2,861. On the opposite end of the scale, individuals who want to claim their benefits earlier than their full retirement age, (but still plan to work) get a benefit. The amount of money they can make before their social security benefits are reduced or eliminated has increased. This year, a worker younger than 66 can earn up to $17,640 before losing any social security benefits. That is $600 more than last year. After that, they will lose $1 in benefits for every $2 of earnings over that limit. If you are going to turn 66 this year, you can earn as much as $46,920 without jeopardizing your benefits, which is $1,560 more than you could last year. Anything over that new limit will mean you will lose $1 in benefits for every three bucks you make. The earnings cap goes away once you reach full retirement age. That...

Time to check your risk tolerance

It is a good time to take a reality check on how aggressively you are invested. The 6.9% decline in the S&P 500 Index over October was gut-wrenching. But entirely within the realm of probability given the historical data. Here are some questions to ask. Did you find yourself checking your investment portfolios every day? How about every hour? Did you have trouble focusing on other, possibly more important, things like your job, or your family and friends? Was it more difficult to sleep at night, or did you lay awake worrying about the markets? How much time did you spend checking the averages and listening to the talking heads on television or in the print media? Did you call your broker or investment advisor and, if so, how many times? Did you want to blame someone for the market’s decline? Did you need that money for something immediate? If you answered yes to any of the above questions, you are probably invested too aggressively. That’s not to say that a sell-off is in any way pleasant. Everyone feels the disappointment, the pain of losing money, and the fear that tomorrow will bring more of the same. And even though your losses are only on paper, you still feel some anxiety. The question is how you handle it. By now, most of my readers understand that the stock market is not a one-way street. Investors should expect at least three declines of around 5 percent and one decline of 10% per year in the stock market. That’s on average. There have been plenty of times when the averages have...

Textbooks are worth their weight in gold

Forget the stock market, internet, and whatever you might think is worth investing in. The good old college textbook beats them all. That boring first semester hard cover and similar books have risen over 1,000 percent in price since 1977. Textbooks are a big business. Estimates for the total value of the textbook industry range from $7 to $9 billion. And just a handful of companies sell them. The five largest publishers are: Pearson Education, McGraw-Hill Education, Scholastic, Cengage Learning and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. They have been around a long time, carry deep pockets and usually acquire any start-ups or smaller competitors in quick order. Sone analysts compare them to drug companies because they have similar economics. In the pharmaceutical sales model, for example, drugs are marketed to the decision makers—doctors, hospital pharmacies and the like. The patient, at least those with health insurance, end up paying the price, but much of those costs are paid for by the insurance company or Medicare. Medical decision makers’ criteria are usually not how cheap or expensive a drug might be; instead, they select those drugs that are the most efficacious with the least number of side effects for their patients. In the textbook industry, teachers (mostly professors), are the decision makers at colleges, and like doctors, could care less about the costs of a textbook to the student. They demand the most up-to-date educational information possible, since they strive for academic excellence in the classroom. It doesn’t help that today the information advances occur at such a rapid pace that most books are out of date by the time they are...

The student loan crisis

Student loans have now become the second-largest pile of consumer borrowing, after home mortgages. What’s worse, it is the fastest growing slice of American household debt and shows no sign of slowing down. Young Americans are going to college in droves. At the same time, the costs of higher education are at historical highs. That combination has become a lethal cocktail that could hamstring young workers over their entire life and along the way damage the overall economy. Since the financial crisis and Great Recession over a decade ago, student loans have grown by almost 157%. Compare that to auto loans, which have risen 52%. In the case of mortgage and credit card debt, we have seen a decrease by about 1%. At this point, the total loans outstanding amounts to $1.5 trillion, almost the same as this year’s tax cut. If students graduate and land a good-paying job, so the theory goes, they should be able to service that debt and ultimately pay it off, even if it takes half their lifetime to do so. But, if you ask the 44 million Americans with student debt, that is not what’s happening. Many graduating students can only blame themselves for their predicament. During the financial crisis and its aftermath, many students figured going to college would provide the skills that have now become the minimum requirement to land a well-paying job. What’s worse, their parents–who should have known better–allowed their kids to pick and choose what they wanted to study. It turned out that many of those degrees (in liberal arts, for example), failed to provide enough money to...

Estate planning is for all of us

Here is a trick question. What did Aretha Franklin, Tupac Shakur, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Abraham Lincoln have in common? They are all famous people who died without a will. In the case of the “Queen of Soul,” she died in August leaving $80 million and according to Michigan state law, those assets should eventually be divided up among her four children. In the meantime, the entire estate must go through the probate process, which is both expensive and time-consuming. Some other famous people who failed to prepare their heirs and beneficiaries for their eventual death are: Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, Howard Hughes Sonny Bono, James Brown, Prince, and Michael Jackson. Some of these unclaimed estates are still going through the probate process and could remain there for years to come. One might assume that those with a great deal of money would make sure that their estate was protected. After all, they have the money and the opportunity to hire the expertise they needed to put things in order. Obviously, in the above cases, that wasn’t true. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that roughly 64% of Americans don’t have a will. That number is even higher for younger people (over 70% for those 45-54 years old). The most common answer for those questioned is that they simply have not gotten around to it. About 25% just don’t feel that it is urgent. Some other reasons people procrastinate are that it is depressing to face the eventuality of your own death. Others believe that lawyers are expensive and wills and such are costly. The same people...