Financial

Free Tax Help & Credits to Remember

by The Queen on February 28, 2011

in Financial

It’s the last day of February. That means it’s time to get out your shoebox full of receipts and start working on your taxes. There is only a month and half left until tax day. If you dread doing your taxes because all the forms and calculations are overwhelming and paying a CPA isn’t in your budget, you don’t need to fret anymore. There are many free resources you can turn to for help.

Here are some ways to get your taxes done for free and save more with tax credits. 

Free Help

Free Online File – The IRS wants to make it as easy as possible to prepare and file your taxes. That is why they have teamed up with over a dozen online tax preparation companies to help you complete and file your taxes for Free. There are residency and income requirements. Your adjusted gross income has to be $58,000 or less. And according to the IRS, 70% of taxpayers fall into this category. So this is a great place to start: www.IRS.gov/freefile

Free Help in Person – If all the numbers, deductions and credits start to get confusing and you need an actual person to help you sort it out, there’s IRS help. The IRS has set up offices throughout the state and staffed them with knowledgeable reps to help you. Multilingual help is also available. For locations, times and services visit: http://www.irs.gov/localcontacts/index.html They can’t prepare your entire return for you, but they can answer as many questions as you have.

Free Tax Preparation in Person – Getting your tax questions answered in person is great, but getting your entire return prepared in person is even better. The IRS offers special tax preparation services for free for qualified individuals. The main qualifications are either having an adjusted gross income of $49,000 or less, being over the age of 60 or being a member of the military. For all the details and locations visit: http://www.irs.gov/individuals/article/0,,id=107626,00.html

Other Free Services – For the 30% of Americans that have an adjusted gross income over $58,000 and don’t qualify for other free IRS services, you can take advantage of your relationships. If you are a State Farm customer you can get TurboTax for free. Many banks, credit unions and insurance companies offer free or discounted access to tax prep software, visit your bank’s website to see all their offers.

Tax Credits to Remember

Retirement Savings Credit – Uncle Sam wants to encourage saving for retirement. He is even willing to give you money for saving money. If you contributed to a retirement account in 2010 you may be eligible for a tax credit up to $1000 depending on your income. For income limits visit: http://www.irs.gov/newsroom/article/0,,id=107686,00.html

Home Purchase Credit – If you are a qualified first time or repeat home buyer last year, you may qualify for a tax credit worth up to $8,000. You must have been under contract by April 30, 2010 and closed on the house by September 30, 2010 and meet certain guidelines to qualify.

Energy Efficiency Credit- Did you improve your home’s insulation, replace a water heater or windows and doors last year? You may qualify for a tax credit equal to 30% of the cost up to $1,500. To see which improvements qualify visit: http://www.energystar.gov/index.cfm?c=tax_credits.tx_index.

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Boost Your Credit Score in 2011: Part Two

by The Queen on February 17, 2011

in Credit

Is your credit score as high as you’d like? If it is a work in progress, we are here to help. We are continuing our Boost Your Credit Series. In this monthly series, we provide you easy tips for improving your credit. To kick things off, last month you just had to get your credit report and score. Now that you have your report in hand, it’s time to get to work. This month we will tackle your credit utilization ratio.

What is a credit utilization ratio?

Your credit utilization ratio is simply the amount of money you owe compared to the amount of total credit you have. For example if you owe $5,000 and your total credit limits are $10,000 then your credit utilization ratio is equal to 50%. The closer you are to your limits, the higher your ratio will be.

How much of an impact does my ratio have on my overall score?

Your credit utilization score which represents the amounts you owe affects 30% of your credit score. This is the second most important factor in your overall score. It is also the easiest and fastest way you can improve your score. 

 

What is a good ratio?

Unlike your overall credit score where higher is better, with your credit utilization ratio lower is better. Credit experts generally agree that ratios should ideally be under 35 percent. And studies have shown that those with the best credit have ratios under 20%.

How can I improve my ratio?

There are two ways to improve your credit utilization ratio, either pay off debt or increase your limits. Each method has its own pros and cons.

How do I pay off debt to improve my ratio?

You can’t simply just pay more on all your accounts and expect to have a dramatic impact on your ratio. You have to be strategic. You should aim to pay off the balances on the cards and accounts with the lowest limits. For example if you pay an extra $200 on an account with a $10,000 limit, that doesn’t have a big impact. However, if you pay an extra $200 on an account with an $800 limit, you have dramatically decreased your utilization ratio for that card. You will find store credit cards are generally the ones with the lower limits and general credit cards like Visa and MasterCard have the higher limits. So start paying down the store cards first.

After I pay off cards, should I close my account?

It feels great to pay off a debt and be rid of it. Many want to get ultimate closure and actually close their paid off accounts. This may be good for your soul but not for your ratio. When you close the account, you lose your 0% ratio which is the best ratio to have.

What about increasing my credit limit to improve my ratio?

Another way to improve your ratio is to increase your limit. So instead of owing $2,000 on a $3,000 limit and having a 66% ratio, you can increase your limit to $4,000 and drop your ratio to 50%. This sounds like a good tactic but most people end up charging even more and their ratio goes back to where they started and now owe more. And in this day and age, credit companies are very reluctant to give out more credit. So the best way to improve your ratio is to simply pay down debt.

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Boost Your Credit Score in 2011: Part One

by The Queen on January 27, 2011

in Credit

A new year is upon us. The celebrating and fun parties are over. It’s now time to get serious with New Year’s resolutions. We are kicking off a monthly series called Boost Your Credit Score in 2011. Every month we will feature one technique for improving your score. We break it down into easy to follow steps and give you a month to complete each.

Let’s get started!

The Importance of Good Credit

Your credit report is becoming more influential in your financial life. In the past, getting a loan was the only reason for pulling your credit report. But that’s not the case anymore. Your credit report may be pulled for car insurance and even employers are now asking to see your credit history.

What is Good Credit?

Credit scores range from 350 to 850 in the FICO system. A score of 680 is fair, 720 is good and 780 and above is great.

Get Your Credit Reports for Free

Everyone is entitled to one free credit report from each of the three credit agencies. To receive your free credit report, simply go to www.annualcreditreport.com Go and check your reports today. This is the first step in the process.

Pay for your FICO Credit Score

You can get your credit reports for free, but you have to pay for your credit score. Don’t bother paying for Experian or TransUnion’s score, just pay for the credit score offered by Equifax. Equifax offers a true FICO score. This is the score we will focus on throughout the series.

Simple Task for January

Your task for January is to simply review your credit report. Nearly 80% of credit reports have some kind of error, ranging from a misspelled name to strings of late payments. Errors with payments and loans can impact your credit score, so you want to fix those ASAP.

How to Correct Credit Report Errors

Each credit report comes with directions on how to dispute an item on the report. You can do it online or via phone. If there are any mistakes with your identity such as your name, date of birth, etc you should call the credit agency. If there are mistakes with your payment history or collection agency accounts you should first call that specific financial institution or collection agency.

Take Good Notes

Fixing errors can take time and patience. This is when you need to take good notes. Write down who you spoke with and what the resolution or next step is. Follow up to make sure it was corrected. After the financial institution makes their correction, contact the credit agency to make sure they receive the correction.

Complete this step and come back in February

Next month we will tackle your credit utilization ratio which has the biggest impact on your score.

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How many of you still leave a key under the doormat of your front door? In this day and age most of us have learned to avoid this and other obvious ways of hiding the key to our physical home (with Paris Hilton being the exception.) But what about your virtual home? Are you leaving the virtual equivalent of a key under the doormat for online thieves to break into your life and steal your identity? Paris Hilton also made this mistake.

With online banking and online shopping becoming more common, hackers are finding more and more targets. But you can protect yourself with a few precautions.

Passwords

Online passwords open the door to your virtual life just like physical keys open the door to your home. Respect and protect your online passwords the same as you do your valuables.

Complicated Passwords – In a recent study, the three most common passwords are 12345, 123456 and password. And people wonder how someone could hack into their account. Stronger passwords are more difficult or time consuming to hack. A hacker will not waste too much time trying to hack your account if he already managed to break into your neighbor’s account with the easy password.

  1. Create complex combinations that include upper and lower case letters as well as numbers.
  2. To create easy passwords to remember but difficult to hack, substitute the numbers 1 and 0 for the letters I, L and O. Or substitute Roman number equivalents for numbers.
  3. For example, you can easily remember your first car: 199VT0y0ta (1995 Toyota)

Avoid Creating Passwords– Nowadays, it seems every website asks you to register with a username and password. Only register at sites that you need to access as you. Otherwise, visit www.BugMeNot.comto find a generic username and password to use to log on to many popular websites including the New York Times, YouTube and Food Network.

Password Vault– No matter how much you try to avoid creating passwords, you still end up with a whole collection of usernames and passwords. Remembering them all can be difficult. There are now many software programs that can help you create and manage complex passwords as well as other personal information. PCMag has a good overview and review of the most popular programs.

Take Control

Monitor Your Accounts – Some people’s fear of hacking and identity theft actually makes them more of a target. Don’t assume that since you didn’t create an online account for your bank that you have eliminated the risk of identity theft. A hacker can create one if they find enough information. It’s important for you to have online access to all your important accounts and monitor them regularly.

Type it Yourself– Phishing emails are emails that appear to be from your bank or other service provider and ask you to click on a link to verify information. Do not fall for these scams. Clicking on the link either installs a virus on your computer or takes you to a fake website asking you to reveal personal information. To protect myself, I go so far as avoiding clicking on any links in any email no matter how legit it appears. Simply type the web address yourself and visit the site to see if it truly is from your bank.

Use Protection – Install virus protection software on your computer and set it up to update  regularly. Make sure the program also includes email protection too. Finally, try to avoid accessing personal information on public computers where you are not certain of their level of virus protection and security.

I know this all seems like a lot of work. But imagine all the headaches, worry and work you could have if your online identity is stolen. It could take months to reclaim your identity. Remember, you don’t have to be famous like Paris Hilton to be a target.

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Penny Wise Dollar Foolish

August 15, 2010

These days everyone is looking to save money. Coupon clipping is becoming a very popular hobby. Getting a deal is a great idea but it shouldn’t be the main goal. Many times people hoping to save money end up being penny wise and dollar foolish. To really get the best bang for your buck you [...]

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Financial Resolutions – Saving for Retirement

January 25, 2010

We buy anti-wrinkle creams, endure Botox injections and even plastic surgery just so we can preserve our looks as we grow older. What about preserving our bank account as we grow older? More Americans are concerned about how well they age in retirement rather than how well they can afford retirement. The main reason we [...]

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Financial Resolutions: Creating a Rainy Day Fund

January 18, 2010

Americans are getting the message. The personal savings rate for Americans in 2009 was the highest it has been in 16 years. We’ve learned we can’t depend on the banks or the government for funds; we have to depend on ourselves. Saving for retirement or a big purchase is great, but it all starts with [...]

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Financial Resolutions: Getting Out of Debt

January 11, 2010

The New Year is here and so are New Year’s resolutions. One of the most popular resolutions for 2010 is to get in shape – financial shape that is. Wwe are kicking off a Financial Resolutions series this week. Join us every Monday in January. We will be tackling your money concerns and offering you tips [...]

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Credit Card Reform

July 20, 2009

Are you looking forward to February? Yes, it’ll be nice to get flowers from your honey on Valentine’s Day. But even better is getting credit card reform from Uncle Sam. The Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act or Credit CARD Act for short was signed into law this spring and most of it goes [...]

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Secret Tips for a Great (and Successful) Interview

July 9, 2009

Continuing our series on Surviving Unemployment, Vocal Point has an insightful article entitled You’re Hired with great interview tips. These aren’t the same boring ones you have heard before. Most of these are new to me. For example, “Ask for the last interview. Don’t scramble to be the first one in line. Studies show that the [...]

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