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Check Please

November 1, 2012 1 comment

The Congressional Research Service  issued a report to the Senate Budget Committee outlining the federal spending for benefits to lower income people in the U.S. during Fiscal 2011 (year ending September 30, 2011).  The U.S. government spent $746 billion on programs for lower income people.  If you add in state spending, the total exceeds $1 trillion.

According to the Census Bureau, there were 16.8 million families living below the poverty level in 2011 ($23,000 for a family of 4).  By simple math, this means the federal and state government spent nearly $60,000 for each family in poverty, which is nearly three times the amount they earned during the year.

Less than 10% of the support is in the form of direct cash payments.  Of the $746 billion spent by the federal government, $318 billion is for Medicaid and prescription drug subsidies.  Approximately $66 billion is in the form of direct cash assistance and $73 billion is in the form of tax credits.  The remaining $290 billion of support is delivered through 80 different programs designed to help lower income families.

Given the choice, a number of families might choose to ask for a $17,000 in lieu of the other programs.

It might seem crazy, but do you think it’s efficient to have 84 different programs to help needy people?  Each program has its own objective and purpose, but there is a cost for employees, office space, computers, etc.   The more money spent on overhead, the less is being spent on actually helping people.

A few years ago I helped a school with a grant for an afterschool educational program.  I was surprised and dismayed to discover that over 20% of the grant money was going to be spent for a grant administrator, who would do nothing but complete reports and monitor the work of others.  Sadly, I think that grant is indicative of how many government programs and grants operate; a large chunk of the money is gobbled up in administrative costs.

I’m not against helping lower income families.  In fact, I think we have an obligation to help those who are most vulnerable and in need.  The issue is how the assistance is delivered.

It has been nearly 50 years since Lyndon B. Johnson declared a war on poverty and introduced the Great Society.  Trillions of dollars have been spent over the past 5 decades, yet the poverty rate in the U.S. is almost exactly the same as when this great endeavor began. 

Maybe we should consider eliminating a number of programs and giving more cash to those who are in need.  This seems outrageous to most conservatives, who often think people are abusing the system.  Many of us have witnessed people using their food stamps to purchase cigarettes and alcohol.  There will always be people who abuse the system, and they should be punished when possible.  I also believe the current bureaucratic morass often aids them in taking advantage of the system.

Conservatives frequently complain about people being dependent upon the system.  Part of the solution may be giving people more money, which will allow them to be more independent and self-sufficient.  However, this independence must be coupled with more responsibility for their choices.

Your willingness to embrace such an idea is probably influenced by your view of people.  Do you see them as lazy and untrustworthy, requiring a rigid bureaucracy to monitor and keep them in line, or do you trust people to be independent, make good decision and do what’s right when given the opportunity?  Personally, I would rather be trusted to do the right thing, than have some bureaucrat watching over me.  Given the choice, I would prefer to forego all the programs and simply say… “Check Please.”

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Should I Refinance My Mortgage?

Mortgage interest rates are at historically low rates.  Consequently, you may be wondering if it makes sense to refinance your mortgage.  Although there may be a variety of reasons for refinancing your mortgage, there are probably three primary reasons for you to refinance your mortgage.

  1. Lower your payments by borrowing money at a lower interest rate
  2. Convert your adjustable rate mortgage to a fixed rate
  3. Access some of the equity in your home (this isn’t as common or easy as it was a few years ago)

Since there are costs associated with refinancing a mortgage, the decision to refinance may not be a slam-dunk.  Essentially, you are paying money today, to save more money later.  As an example, assume that refinancing reduces your monthly payments by $50 per month.  If you have 25 years remaining on your mortgage, you will save $15,000 over the life to the loan.  If you assume you will pay $5,000 in closing costs to refinance, you save $10,000… over the next 25 years.

There are many different mortgage calculators available which will help you calculate your savings.  You can click here for one, or search the internet.  Keep in mind, internet calculators are only estimates, and the computations from your lender may be different.

Here are a few additional things to consider in your decision to refinance.

  • The time value of money – In my simple example above, you save $15,000 over the next 25 years, but you have to pay $5,000 up front.  Not only does it take you over 8 years to recoup your $5,000, you also lost the opportunity to invest that money and earn a rate of return (hopefully).  With interest rates on liquid assets near zero, the time value consideration may be nil.
  • Income taxes – The only refinance costs you can deduct are points paid to reduce the interest rate.  Unlike points you pay when you initially purchase your home, points paid on a refinanced mortgage must be amortized over the life of the loan (25 years in our example).  With a lower interest rate, your current mortgage interest deduction will also decrease, which could cause your current tax liability to increase slightly.  Although you’ll come out ahead by paying less interest over the life of the loan, your total benefit might be reduced by a smaller mortgage interest deduction.
  • Length of ownership – Since it’s likely to take you a couple of years of reduced payments to recoup the closing costs, you need to consider how long you plan to stay in your home.  If you expect to move in the next few years, the monthly savings may not be sufficient recoup your out-of-pocket costs for the refinance.
  • The loan process – The mortgage financing industry has changed dramatically.  It’s not easy for anyone to get a mortgage in today’s market.  I’ve had clients who experienced difficulties and delays in getting their refinancing approved, even though they could have easily written a check to pay off their existing mortgage.  The aggravation may be worth it, but expect the approval to be a hassle.
  • Market value – The fair market value of your home may be one of the biggest stumbling blocks to a refinance.  Market value is what prevented many people with subprime and adjustable rate mortgages from being able to refinance.  If you don’t have sufficient equity in your home, you won’t be able to refinance, even if you’re making your current payments, and the refinance will make it easier for you to continue making your payments.

Many advisors will tell you that the interest rate should at least 0.75-1.00% lower than your current rate for a refinance to be economically feasible, but depending upon your situation and long-term goals, a smaller rate differential might still be beneficial.

My advice is to run the calculation with an online calculator and see if it makes sense to you.  If the closing costs can be recouped within the next 5-7 years, and you don’t plan to sell before then, talk to a mortgage broker and get their advice.  A reputable broker will be able to give you a more accurate estimate of what it’s going to cost, the savings you can expect, and the process involved.

Refinancing your mortgage can save you money.  However, there are costs involved, and you want to make sure the benefits exceed the cost.

Can credit card debt management help you to save dollars?

People in this part of the world are used to using credit cards rather than cash for their day-to-day expenses. The proportion of credit use is far more than their retirement savings. Credit cards have given them immense portability and convenience to make frequent purchases. However, this has given rise to several financial diseases which is affecting the fragile US economy. One of the major setbacks is the accumulation of credit card debt. This makes it imperative for the people to know the ways of credit card debt management to avoid getting into a financially sticky situation.

The ways of credit card management

Here are few methods of reduce credit card debt as well as save dollars:

  1. Transfer your credit card balances – This means transferring all your multiple credit card balances into a zero interest credit card. This may be for a year or so as offered by the credit card company. This creates a great opportunity to clear out all your outstanding bills within the promotional period. In this process, you’ll be paying for the principal balance and not for the interest. However, there is a transfer fee for this procedure which hovers around 3-5% of the balance amount. By this method, you’ll save a lot of money even after paying the transfer fee.
  1. Create a budget: Start developing the habit of spending less. Vow to start living a frugal life. This is because the more you spend on useless things, the less you save. Therefore, to fight back such irresponsible behavior, plan a budget that will be comfortable for you to follow. Keep in mind that this budget should not become a burden for you; instead it should motivate you to spend smartly and save money for the rainy day. Use those savings towards debt repayment and you’ll see a remarkable decrease in the number of outstanding bills.
  1. Lower your interest rates: This is one of the most effective steps in the credit card debt management plan. Be vigilant and do your market research to learn about the recent market offers which various creditors are making. After a getting a thorough knowledge of the market offers, contact your current creditors. Request them to lower your card’s interest rate. The creditors will welcome this sort of gesture from you and will readily oblige. If you’ve been a good customer who has been punctual in making the payments, then the creditors will surely consider your request.

During the negotiation phase with your creditors, tell them that you are considering balance transfer as an alternative to lowering the interest rate. This will give them the necessary nudge to accept your terms.

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This article was written by Grace Ruskin.  Grace is a financial writer and is associated with DebtCC Community.

The Buffett Rule

On Monday President Obama unveiled his deficit reduction plan.  In addition to reducing the deficit, he outlined his ideas to pay for the American Jobs Act he proposed two weeks ago.   No surprise his plan includes tax increases on more wealthy Americans.  Phrases such as “shared sacrifice” and people paying “their fair share” make for good sound bites.  However with Washington, the challenge is often deciphering what their pithy sayings mean.

He referenced the “Buffett Rule” as one of his proposals.  It’s named after Billionaire Warren Buffett who has been rather outspoken about the need to raise taxes on the super-wealthy.  Cueing off of a New York Times op-ed piece written by Mr. Buffett a few weeks ago, the Buffett Rule is supposed to make sure people who make over $1 million a year will pay a higher percentage of their income in taxes than someone who makes less than the $1 million threshold.

You may agree or disagree with the concept of the Buffett Rule.  Regardless if you think it’s a good idea, I have three primary issues with the proposed Buffett Rule.

  1. Additional Complexity.  As a tax professional, I can attest that the tax code is exceptionally complex and at times unwieldy.  With the myriad of deductions, exemptions and exceptions, it will be virtually impossible to make sure some making over $1 million will pay taxes at a higher rate than someone making less.  Everyone’s tax situation is unique, so it’s near impossible to offer such a guarantee.  It may sound simple, but it’s going to be very difficult to achieve.
  2. Increased Tax Avoidance.  While it may be good for those of us in the tax business, I can assure you that there will be a host of tax professionals looking for ways to minimize the tax liabilities of their clients under whatever new rules are enacted.  It’s simple economics.  The higher the tax rate, the more cost-effective it is to pay someone to find strategies which minimize your taxes.   You may have your opinions about what’s fair and right, but there is nothing illegal or immoral about structuring your affairs to pay less tax.  Tax evasion is illegal, but tax avoidance is not.  As I recently wrote, if you personally feel like you aren’t paying your fair share, then I would encourage you to make a voluntary contribution to the U.S. Treasury.  Trust me… they’ll take your money.  Political discourse and debate are fine, but it’s wrong to castigate someone who is abiding by the law because you don’t think the result is fair.
  3. Unintended Consequences.  Congress has a lousy track record of using the tax code to target certain persons.  The Law of Unintended Consequences often kicks in, and the negative ramifications are often much more detrimental than anyone anticipated.  Two great examples come to mind; one recent and one from decades ago.  The 1099 reporting provision included in the health care reform is the most recent Congressional bumbling.  As soon as it was passed, it became clear the administrative nightmare would far exceed any benefits obtained.  Fortunately, Congress repealed it before it became effective.  The Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) is the classic example of unintended consequences.  The AMT was enacted in 1969 to tax 155 wealthy families who were viewed as not paying their fair share.  By 2008, 3.9 million taxpayers were subject to AMT, and 27% of them made less than $200,000. This probably isn’t what the 91st Congress had in mind.

The Buffett Rule may cause some wealthy people to pay more in taxes, but if history is a predictor of the future, the long-term results will be much different than expected.  Such targeted tax policy generally hasn’t yielded the desired results.  I’m not sure why they think the Buffett Rule will be any different.

Paying for Stimulus II

President Obama unveiled his latest jobs plan before a joint session of Congress last night.  Click here to read the summary of the proposals included in the American Jobs Act.  Since many of the proposals are essentially the same as the $827 billion Stimulus Bill passed in February 2009, many people consider the recent proposal to be Stimulus II.

The debates and discussions about the effectiveness of such the programs can be tackled later.  In this article, I simply want to explore the way the government is going to pay for any new spending, should it pass Congress.

Although many of the details are still being hammered out, President Obama estimated the cost of his proposals to be $450 billion.  He expects to pay for the additional spending by closing corporate tax “loopholes” and raising taxes on wealthier Americans.  Closing loopholes usually involves minor tweaks to selected tax provisions, and typically don’t raise huge amounts of revenue.  For the past few months, President Obama has been touting the need to close a “loophole” for corporate jets.  The “loophole” is all about depreciation, which is merely a timing issue.  Jet owners will still get to depreciate their aircraft, but it will take a little longer.  The additional tax revenue from closing this “loophole” is estimated to be $3 billion, over ten years, or the equivalent of $300 million a year in additional revenue.

See the graph below of the total government revenues.  You’ll notice total tax revenues are approximately $2 trillion annually.  Thus, total tax collections would have to increase by nearly 25% to raise an additional $450 billion.  Congress will need to close a lot of “loopholes” and increase rates substantially to raise an additional $450 billion, which is extremely doubtful in the current political environment.

Although this may seem like simple arithmetic, but there is a twist.  You need to understand Washington code to decipher what President Obama really means.  Just like the $3 billion in savings from closing the corporate jet depreciation “loophole,”  the $450 billion will come trickling in over the next decade, not next year.

Members of Congress and the President frequently talk about the current budget and the 10-year budget horizon simultaneously and interchangeably.  It most applications, it means spending will be paid in the current year, and any additional revenues or spending cuts take place over the next decade.

Time will tell if I’m correct, but I expect the President wants us to borrow the $450 billion over the next 12 months in an attempt to spur economic growth and pay it back over the next decade.  Given our current economic situation, you may think this is a wise decision and/or necessary.  I’m not convinced.  With a $14.7 trillion debt, which is growing by $100 billion a month, I’m not sure adding another $450 billion is the best for our long-term financial future.

Before you decide if it’s a good idea or not, at least make sure you know what the President and Congress want to do.  Like so many other things in Washington, you may think they mean one thing, only to find out our leaders meant something else.

If anyone says the American Jobs Act will be fully paid for, check to see how and when.

Do Rich People Pay Taxes?

What do you think… do rich people pay taxes?

Here is a quick answer… Yes!

You may not think that they pay enough, or their fair share, but let me assure you that rich people pay taxes.  Having practiced public accounting for over 20 years and dealing with millionaires and billionaires, I know they pay taxes.  A select few pay more income tax in one year than the average American will make in a lifetime.  When you look at the statistics, it’s actually low-income people who don’t pay income taxes.

Despite the facts, it makes great headlines to claim that rich people don’t pay taxes.  Last week, a CNNMoney article reported that 4,000 millionaires didn’t pay any federal tax in 2010.   The Tax Policy Center was their source of information.  Since I’m always looking to learn and stay abreast of innovative ideas, I read the article hoping to glean something useful.   Not surprising, the details of the article didn’t exactly support the headline.  Here are a few points of contention and contradiction that I noted.

  • Although the article references 2010, it’s unclear how they can make claims about 2010.  The IRS is still processing 2010 returns filed a few weeks ago.  Plus, many high-income taxpayers’ returns are on extension until October 15, 2011.  They don’t cite the source of their statistics, but it certainly isn’t the IRS.
  • The exclusion of municipal interest income from federal income tax was mentioned as a prime example of how millionaires avoid paying taxes.  This is not a tax break for the wealthy.  All interest income from municipal bonds is exempt from federal taxation, irrespective of your wealth or tax bracket.  The contributors failed to mention that this not a tax issue.  It’s a Constitutional issue dealing with the sovereignty of the States.  If Congress could tax municipal interest income, I’m suspect that they would.
  • A capital loss carryover was cited as another possibility.  Capital loss carryovers are generated from the economic loss incurred when you sell something for less than you paid for it.  I don’t think offsetting prior losses with current gains is a great “loophole.”
  • The mortgage interest deduction was another.  This is completely bogus.  You can only deduct interest on $1.1 million of mortgage debt.  Even if you were paying an incredibly high interest rate of 10%, your mortgage interest deduction would be $110,000; far short of being able to shelter $1 million of income each year.
  • Charitable contributions were listed as another possibility.  This is a little better than the mortgage interest deduction, because you can deduct up to 50% of your adjusted gross income to certain qualified charities.  It may get you closer to eliminating your tax liability, but it’s still only 50%.  Furthermore, you have to give the money away. The tax savings might make it more affordable to give, but you’re still out the economic value of what you contributed.
  • Foreign tax credits are also cited.  Generally, you are allowed a credit for taxes paid to another jurisdiction on income that is also taxed in the U.S.  It’s supposed to prevent you from  being taxed twice on the same income.  There are limitations on foreign tax credits which make it extremely difficult to eliminate your U.S. tax liability with foreign tax credits.  Even if it is possible, you’re still paying tax, just not to the U.S.  Furthermore, you would have to pay more to the foreign jurisdiction than the IRS to avoid the imposition of U.S. taxes.

Since tax information is personal and private there no actual examples cited.  These were the possible strategies that the contributors cited.  In reality, this article is a headline searching for a story.  None of the examples given are really “loopholes,” nor do they support the notion that millionaires receive special treatment to avoid paying taxes.

Such articles may seem benign, but I disagree.  Whenever one class of people is able to avoid paying taxes (whether real or perceived), it can provide justification for others to be dishonest in filing their taxes.  Additionally, misinformation can easily lead to tax policy with unintended consequences.  The Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) is a great example.  The AMT was enacted in 1970 to target 155 high-income families who supposedly paid no federal income tax in 1969, but today, millions of middle-class families are subject to AMT.  A provision originally designed to snare the “rich people” is now being imposed on many middle-class families.

It might make a great headline to suggest that wealthy people don’t pay income taxes, but it’s not really true.  There is no magic to avoid paying taxes.  More often than not, rich people pay income taxes.  If you’re still not convinced, become wealthy and see what you find out.

Tax Tip: Deducting Sales Taxes

Sales taxes are generally not deductible, unless paid in connection with a qualified business expense.  Even in a business context, sales taxes paid for the purchase of a capital asset must be added to the cost of the asset and are recaptured through depreciation.

In the 2010 Tax Relief Act, Congress extended a provision that allows individual taxpayers to claim a sales tax deduction in lieu of deducting state income taxes.  This provision is allowable for tax years 2010 and 2011.  Frequently, it is only beneficial to taxpayers who reside in those states that do not have a state income tax. 

The deduction amount is determined by either (1) accumulating actual receipts showing general sales tax paid or (2) using IRS tables.  The tables are published in the instructions to Schedule A (Itemized Deductions).  You can also click here and go to an IRS link that will calculate the deduction for you.  The deduction tables are based upon your state, the number of exemptions claimed on your tax return, and your income.  Carefully review the instructions for calculating your income.  Income for this purpose is your adjusted gross income, plus certain nontaxable income such as tax-exempt interest, nontaxable Social Security benefits, worker’s compensation, etc.

Taxpayers who use the IRS tables can also add the sales taxes paid for certain large purchases, such as vehicles, boats, motorcycles, RV’s, etc.   If you made a substantial purchase of one of these items in 2010, you may receive a larger benefit from claiming the sales tax deduction in lieu of state income taxes, especially if your state income tax liability is not that large. 

You must personally pay the expenses in order for the tax to be deductible. This provision may eliminate a potentially large benefit to taxpayers who engaged in a substantial construction project.  The sales taxes on construction materials are often paid by the contractor, which would prevent you from claiming the deduction.

Some of what Congress gives, they also take away.  Keep in mind that no taxes are deductible for the alternative minimum tax.  Thus, your benefit may be reduced or eliminated as a result of the alternative minimum tax.

Sales taxes paid on personal purchases have generally not been deductible since 1986.  Congress added a benefit in 2005, which was primarily targeted towards those individuals living in states without a state income tax.  Although set to expire in 2009, the provision was extended through 2011. 

No matter where you live, if you made large purchases in 2010 and can document the sales taxes paid, you may benefit from the sales tax deduction.