6 tips for decoding college financial aid award letters


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(BPT) – Whether you’re a high school senior or an adult looking to change careers, a college degree can be the key to a bright future. As acceptance letters arrive in the mail, another important document is not far behind: financial aid letters.

“College is a major investment, and many people require financial assistance to pay for it,” says Harlan Cohen, New York Times best-selling author and creator of the Naked Financial Minute. “It’s vital to understand financial aid so you can make informed choices and avoid surprises in the future.”

The average cost of tuition and fees for the 2016–2017 school year is $33,480 at private colleges, $9,650 for state residents at public colleges, and $24,930 for out-of-state residents attending public universities, according to the College Board.

In order to find out what aid you qualify for, you should start by filing your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). After your information is processed, and you’ve applied to the colleges of your choice, you’ll receive financial aid award letters in the mail with the results from each school where you were accepted.

Not all financial aid letters are the same, so deciphering and comparing them can be confusing. To help get you started, the experts at College Ave Student Loans share tips and tricks for how to easily understand your financial aid letter.

Look carefully at symbols and terms: College award letters may use different wording and abbreviations. For instance, rather than spelling out the word “loan” you could see “L” or “LN”. You might also see “net price” and “net cost.” Look carefully at how each school calculates these amounts. Some schools will subtract loan amounts from these figures. Just remember that loans need to be paid back, usually with interest; loans can help you spread the cost of college over time, but they don’t eliminate the expense.

Know the difference between gift aid and loans: Gift aid is money that is awarded to qualifying students that isn’t expected to be paid back. Gift aid includes things like scholarships, grants, and housing or tuition waivers. Not all applicants will qualify for gift aid, but most will be eligible for federal loans. As a general rule, you should expect that you’ll need to pay loans back, usually with interest.

Be aware of the impact of outside scholarships: If a student is awarded a private scholarship, the financial aid letter may list its effect on the amount of money offered by the school or in federal aid because the student’s financial need has already been partially covered. This could impact gift aid, loan amounts, or both.

Keep an eye out for work-study offers: If you indicated an interest during the FAFSA application, your financial aid letter may list approval for a work-study job that provides money toward your studies and fits with your class schedule. The money you earn is typically applied directly to your school expenses.

Understand your expected family contribution (EFC): Depending on your personal circumstances, there may be a line item for expected family contribution. This is the amount of money your family is expected to contribute toward your college education based on their tax and savings information. This will impact your overall award package.

Think about additional costs: Your financial aid letter may not include all of the costs associated with going to school. Think beyond tuition and make sure you have an idea of what you’ll be spending on housing, food, transportation, books, supplies, additional fees, and other living expenses.

If you find the amount of financial aid provided isn’t enough (including the amount offered in federal loans), families may want to research and explore private student loans as an option to cover the additional expenses. Look for competitive interest rates and flexible repayment options that match your budget. College Ave Student Loans also offers a calculator that showcases how much families can save with various loan options at www.collegeavestudentloans.com.

Finally, if you’re still unclear about the terms and conditions of any college award letter, it’s important to reach out to the school to ask for clarification or discuss your options. You don’t want to leave any money on the table.

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Control mobile data costs by connecting to Wi-Fi at home

(BPT) – American’s use of computers has shifted dramatically in the last five years. In the past, desktop computers were the main tools for accessing the Internet and communicating with others. Today, mobile devices like smartphones and tablets are taking over.

The use of mobile devices has skyrocketed, with nearly 7 out of 10 U.S. adults (68 percent) having a smartphone, up from 35 percent in 2011, according to the Pew Research Center. Tablet computer ownership is growing too, with 45 percent of adults owning this type of mobile device.

Mobile devices are popular because they provide instant access to virtually anything a person wants to do. From watching videos to online shopping and interacting on social media, mobile makes any task easy — and it’s all within an arm’s reach.

Along with this move to mobile devices comes a sharp increase in mobile data usage. Many Americans are quickly learning how expensive data on mobile devices can be.

One easy way to control mobile data costs is to connect mobile devices to your Wi-Fi network at home. Simply go into your devices’ settings, select Wi-Fi and make your home connection your default option. Most mobile devices will then automatically connect to your Wi-Fi when at home and reduce your mobile data consumption.

This is a useful technique, but what if you live in one of the 18 million households across the United States that does not have access to “traditional” wired Internet or are stuck with a slow connection?

The best solution for these households is satellite Internet. Hughes, the inventor of satellite Internet, has recently announced their new HughesNet Gen5 service. HughesNet Gen5 is the first and only U.S. satellite Internet service to offer Federal Communications Commission (FCC) defined broadband speeds — 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload — from coast to coast. HughesNet Gen5 high-speed satellite Internet even comes with built-in Wi-Fi making it easy to connect wireless devices at home.

For these 18 million households, HughesNet Gen5 is a major breakthrough, providing speeds much faster than the slow DSL that many of these consumers are currently using.

In addition to fast speeds and built-in Wi-Fi, HughesNet Gen5 also comes with generous, affordable service plans. It is no longer necessary to rely on mobile data at home. Get the most out of your devices with a reliable, high-speed connection. HughesNet Gen5 lets you do more of what you love online, wherever you live. Learn more about HughesNet Gen5 at www.hughesnet.com.

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5 mistakes to avoid when buying your first home

(BPT) – Buying a home for the first time is comparable to the first time you ride a bike. You can learn about how it works from your parents and observe it from a distance, but you really won’t know the ins and outs until you actually sit down on the bicycle and start riding.

Like most beginners, first-time homebuyers will likely make a few mistakes as they initially go through the home-buying process in the upcoming year. Here are five mistakes first-time homebuyers often make, and how to best avoid them.

1. Waiting too long to make an offer

One of the biggest mistakes first-time homebuyers will make in 2017 is simply waiting too long to get into the real estate market, according to Jay Carr, a senior loan advisr for RPM Mortgage in Newport Beach, California. Because the rates look like they’re going to continually increase over the year, it’s important for buyers to get in as early as they can so that they can avoid paying more later on. If you see a home that you’re interested in and you have been thinking about entering into the market for some time, don’t hesitate too long.

2. Trying too hard to get less than the asking price

Many first-time buyers are younger, tech-savvy and are comfortable researching homes on their own. Overall, these are positive traits in a buyer. However, because these buyers are typically self-sufficient when it comes to other purchases, they often think they know best when it comes to what price they want to offer.

“Buyers rely too much on what they see on the internet instead of the good advice of what they would hear from a real estate agent,” Carr says.

Of course sometimes it pays off to be bold in an offer (in that you get to pay a lot less than the asking price), but often it can end up that the buyers are negotiating themselves out of a deal. It’s important to pay attention to your real estate agent, who is a seasoned professional, when it comes to putting in an offer so you don’t offend the seller and lose the house you want.

3. Not exploring all your financing options

Carr says many first-time buyers have grown up thinking that they need to save up for a 20 percent down payment before they can enter the housing market. While it is always great to have as much money to put down as possible before you purchase a home, it’s important to consider many of the new options available today.

One option is a home ownership investment such as the Unison HomeBuyer program, which typically provides up to half of the down payment you need. The money is an investment in the home, not a loan, so there are no interest charges or monthly payments. This new type of financing — which works in combination with a traditional 30-year mortgage — can offer greater flexibility and control to the home buyer. It allows you to cut the time needed to save for a down payment in half, lower your monthly payments and avoid mortgage insurance, or increase your purchasing power so you can buy the home you want.

4. Wanting the dream house right away

Everyone has a picture in their minds of what their first home will look like. Whether you envisioned a craftsman bungalow near all your favorite bars and restaurants or a classic ranch-style home with tons of land and no neighbors, chances are you’re going to have to trade up to that dream home from your first starter home.

“If you really like the house, you probably can’t afford it. If you think the house is just kind of below what you want it’s probably right in your price range. Get in the market rather than wait to get the dream house,” Carr says.

Carr advises those in the hunt for their dream home to focus on becoming homeowners now and to wait on their dream home until they have built up equity and have higher incomes in the future.

The median tenure of a homeowner in 2017 is about 10 years, but for the 20-year period before that it was only six. Believing that this won’t be your last house can take a bit of pressure off the home being perfectly suited for you.

5. Not having your own representation

Another mistake a first-time homebuyer can make is not having their own representation (meaning that they use the seller’s agent as their own buyer’s agent). While this is not always a bad situation, Carr cautions buyers to be careful that they have selected a good and trustworthy real estate agent that is looking after their best interests. In other words, you don’t want to pay an unfair price because someone is looking after their own best interest.

To learn more about the Unison HomeBuyer program and how it could help you, visit www.unison.com/homebuyer.

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The data dilemma: How to choose a monthly plan

(BPT) – How much data do you really need on your monthly cellular plan? Buy too much and you’re simply wasting money. Buy too little and you could end up socked with overage fees, or find your data speeds slowed significantly.

The average U.S. wireless customer consumes about 1.8 gigabytes (GB) of data each month, far below what’s included in many standard wireless plans. As a result, many carriers are beginning to shift away from rigidly structured monthly data allowances. Consumer Cellular, for instance, offers no-contract plans tailored to the 50-plus crowd that allow you to change your data plan whenever you need, without paying any additional fees.

Whether you’re a heavy or a light user, the data plan you choose represents a significant part of your investment in wireless service. By understanding some of the basics, as well as the potential pitfalls involved, you’re sure to find the plan that’s right for you.

How it’s measured

Anytime you send email, download a photo, stream video, view a web page, or post on social media, your phone is sending or receiving data. A megabyte (MB) and the larger gigabyte (GB) are the units used for measuring data.

It’s hard to determine exactly how much data an activity consumes, since file sizes and download times can vary significantly. As a general rule, for most cellphones, one megabyte of data is typically required to perform each of these tasks:

* Sending or receiving 50 emails, without attachments;
* Streaming 2 minutes of music;
* Viewing one web page;
* Posting three photos to your Facebook page;
* Watching 30 seconds of video on YouTube.

One gigabyte, equal to 1,000 megabytes, is consumed by:

* Sending or receiving 50,000 emails (without attachments);
* Streaming 33 hours of music;
* Viewing 1,000 web pages;
* Posting 2,800 photos to your Facebook page;
* Watching more than 8 hours of video on YouTube.

Tracking your usage

The best way to accurately assess your cellular data use is to review your monthly bill, which provides precise details about your utilization. Most carriers now even offer mobile account management apps so you can keep tabs right from your phone. This will give you a feel for how much you’re actually consuming, and let you develop an accurate forecast for the future.

In addition, both smartphone and iPhone models give you the ability to track overall usage, as well as the individual usage of specific apps, right from the Settings menu on your phone. You can choose to receive usage alert notifications from your carrier, either by text or email. These are helpful reminders that are triggered when you’ve used certain percentages of your monthly allotment of data. It helps to eliminate surprises and avoid running over your plan.

Unlimited has its limits

Regardless of how closely you track it, your data needs can fluctuate wildly from month to month. This is often due more to life events than technology; you might be in more places with Wi-Fi access one month versus the next. As a result, some cellular companies will push you to sign up for plans with a higher data cap, including expensive “unlimited” plans.

Like an all-you-can-eat buffet, most “unlimited” plans are more enticing than practical. In fact, some carriers promising “unlimited data” will actually limit your high-speed data to just a couple of gigabytes per month. Once you use up that allotment, you’ll have unlimited access, but it’s at much slower speeds. This makes it more difficult to load pages quickly, or to stream video, even though you’re paying a premium for “unlimited” access.

The choice is always yours

Cellular competition is fierce, so make sure you get what you pay for. Before you buy an unlimited plan, shop around. You may very well find a less costly plan that offers far more data than you’re likely to use.

Ultimately, your choice will be driven by the type of data user you are, or at least the one you plan to be. Invest time in a little analysis of your current habits. You’ll come away with the information you need to find the plan that fits both your needs and your budget.

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Tips for paying less in taxes all year long

(BPT) – American taxpayers file roughly 140 million tax returns annually, according to the IRS. Of those, just 14 percent are the simplest type of form, the 1040EZ. In fact, all the 1040EZs, 1040s and 1040As filed — the least complex types of returns that you should, in theory, be able to do for yourself — account for just 22 percent of all tax returns, IRS data show.

“It’s not what you make that counts. It’s what you keep,” says Bill Harris, CEO of Personal Capital and author of a new book “Investment Tax Guide.” “Tax time is a great time to review your strategy for saving taxes on your investments — all year long. You need more than basic tips and last-minute tricks to efficiently benefit from all the complexities of the tax code.”

Several key strategies can help investors manage their tax liability.

Focus on tax-efficient investments

Of course the goal of any investment is to generate returns. Tax-efficiency refers to how much of those returns you have left after Uncle Sam has taken his share. The more you have left, the more tax-efficient your investments are.

Investment accounts can be taxable, tax-deferred or tax-exempt. For taxable investment accounts, such as money market mutual funds and individual or joint investment accounts, you pay taxes on income from those accounts in the year you earn it. Tax-deferred accounts like IRAs, Roth IRAs and 401(k)s allow you to put off paying taxes on returns as long as the returns remain in the account. When you finally withdraw returns in retirement, you will — in theory — be paying a lower tax rate because your income will be less.

Of course, tax-exempt accounts mean you never pay taxes on returns. Municipal bonds, REITs and 529 college savings accounts are examples of tax-exempt investment accounts.

Invest in tax-advantaged accounts

“You have numerous options for investing and each has different tax implications,” Harris says. “To maximize your portfolio’s tax efficiency, it’s important to invest in accounts that offer tax advantages.”

Harris offers these tips for choosing tax-advantaged accounts:

* Instead of investing in mutual funds, which have notoriously high tax impact, put your money in exchange-traded funds (ETFs). ETFs are generally more tax-efficient than mutual funds; their passive management means lower turnover and lower tax bills. ETFs are also traded like stocks, so you don’t need to sell the securities in your ETF in order to raise cash for redemptions.

* Municipal bonds can be a good option for people in very high tax brackets. You’ll pay no federal income tax on the returns, and if you live in the state where the bonds were issued, you won’t pay state tax either.

* Properly managed individual stocks are the most tax-efficient way to invest. Certain stocks do pay taxable dividends, but it’s up to you whether to invest in them or not. Mutual funds and ETFs both take that decision out of the investor’s hands.

Individual stocks, when properly managed, are the most tax-efficient way to gain exposure to equities. They leave control over realizing gains entirely in the hands of the investor. Of course, certain stocks pay taxable dividends; but the choice to own dividend-paying stocks is up to the investor. This is not the case with mutual funds or ETFs, where investors lack control over underlying securities.

Make losses work for you

Of course, not every investment produces returns. Sometimes you lose money, and that can be a good thing from a tax perspective. Tax-loss harvesting is a strategy that helps you benefit from investment losses.

By selling losing investments such as individual stocks, ETFs or mutual funds, you can offset the amount of return you gather from taxable accounts. For example, if you sell individual stocks for a loss of $3,000, you may be able to reduce your taxable income by that amount.

Consider a conversion to a Roth IRA

Roth IRA gains are tax-exempt, you can contribute at any age, you can withdraw without penalty whenever you want, and you can use the Roth to leave a legacy for your heirs if you choose. However, high earners don’t qualify to open Roth accounts.

You can tap the tax advantages of a Roth IRA by converting a traditional IRA to a Roth at a later date. There are no income restrictions on Roth IRA conversions. However, because Roth IRAs are funded with taxed income, and your traditional IRA was funded with pre-tax income, when you convert to a Roth IRA, you’ll pay a conversion tax based on your ordinary income tax rates.

To get more information, you can download Harris’ book at www.personalcapital.com/tax.

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The lowdown on leasing

(BPT) – If you’re in the market for a new car, you might be thinking about leasing. After all, it seems very attractive on the surface — so attractive that leases accounted for one-third of all vehicles sales nationally in 2016. Taking a closer look though, you may be surprised to see there’s more than meets the eye in some lease offers. So, here are a few need-to-know nuggets about leasing a car.

Cash up front is required.

If you’re thinking that leasing gets you out of needing cash for a down payment, think again. That low monthly payment you’re after comes with upfront costs like taxes, registration, tags and other fees all due at signing. This could cost you thousands of dollars. And, if you want to lower the monthly payment even further, you’ll have to put additional funds toward the cost of the lease to get your payment where you want it to be.

Bells and whistles cost extra.

Just like when you’re buying a new car, the extras cost more. Advertised lease specials are usually for the base model — not the one with the navigation and safety packages you’re probably coveting. Adding on all the bells and whistles to your vehicle will mean higher payments because that raises the price of the car. Again, you may have to put an additional deposit down to land the payment you think you can afford.

Not owning means no asset.

Leasing is basically renting a car for an extended period of time — three to five years or so. Unlike buying a car, you won’t have an asset at the end of your lease. Which means you’ll have a decision to make: pay the residual value (the value of the car at the lease’s end) to own the car outright, finance the residual or turn in your leased car for another. Regardless, you’ll again need the cash for a down payment or the upfront costs for your next lease — whereas with buying a car you’ll have a definitive end to monthly payments. Once your loan is paid off, you can put that money toward savings or paying down debt. Or, you can use your car as a trade-in on another ride or for cash if you ever need to sell it.

Once you’re in it, stay in it.

If you get halfway through your lease and decide it’s not for you, you’ll be charged for early termination, something to keep in mind if your financial lifestyle changes often. In some cases, you might be required to continue to pay all regularly scheduled payments or your credit could take a hit.

Understand complex negotiations.

Understanding how a car loan works can sometimes be difficult for a first-timer, and things get even more intricate when you lease. Here are a few terms you may hear during lease negotiations:

Capitalized cost: Cost of the vehicle today.

Lease term: Length of the lease, usually expressed in months.

Residual value: Vehicle’s expected value at the end of the lease.

Depreciation: The difference between the capitalized cost and residual value.

Lease factor, or money factor: Cost of leasing, or interest — usually expressed as a very small number such as .003. Multiply this number by 2,400 to get your interest rate. In this example, that’s 7 percent. As a note, interest rates on leases tend to be higher than those on auto loans.

If you want to ace your lease negotiation, you should study the vocab and have A+ credit, too. You may not get the best deal if you’re unsure about your credit score, leasing terminology or the calculations mentioned above.

Mind your miles.

Depending on how often you get behind the wheel and how far you go, you could be forced to make some lifestyle changes if you lease. Most leases cap mileage somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 miles per year, or a total of 30,000 to 45,000 miles. Driving over this limit could cost you up to 25 cents per mile.

If you drive 30 miles round-trip for your commute, you’re traveling 150 miles over a five-day workweek. That’s nearly 8,000 miles just driving to work each year — 24,000 miles over the course of your lease. Depending on your limit, that doesn’t leave much wiggle room for things like road trips, traveling to sporting events, chauffeuring the kids to extracurriculars or even grabbing a bite to eat downtown. Those things could be taken off the table if you lease. If the freedom of driving whenever, wherever is something you enjoy, a lease may not be the best option.

The choice is yours.

Leasing might be for you if you want to drive a new car every three to five years, can drive within the limits and maintain good credit. On the other hand, today’s cars can easily last 10 years if maintained well, and once fully paid for, allow you to sock away monthly payments for other things. There are sites that offer side-by-side comparisons of buying and leasing to help you make the right choice. This calculator from Navy Federal Credit Union is just one example. In the end, it’s up to you. Armed with the details on the real deal of leasing and your buying options, you’re on the road to making the right choice.

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Key retirement milestones everyone should know about

(BPT) – Retirement can seem like a very distant destination in your early working years. However, as you age, that once distant destination starts to become more real. As you enter your 50s you can really start to think about how much you have saved and how that will translate into retirement income. You can also start to better understand the idea of allocating part of your retirement nest egg to guaranteed income based on your calculation of how much pension income and Social Security you will receive. Also critical during this final phase of working is understanding the key retirement milestones and how they will impact your ability to retire.

The following are the critical retirement milestone ages:

Age 55

If you are fortunate enough to consider the possibility of an early retirement, attaining age 55 is a critical date since you can start withdrawing from your 401(k) without the application of the 10 percent penalty tax applicable to premature plan distributions. This exception from the general applicability of the penalty tax, however, depends on you retiring from the company sponsoring your 401(k) plan during or after the year you reach age 55. You cannot continue to work at the company and decide you want to start using your 401(k) assets at age 55. In that circumstance the 10% penalty tax will still apply.

Age 59 1/2

At age 59 1/2 you are no longer subject to the 10 percent penalty tax for premature withdrawals on all of your retirement assets, such as your IRAs, 401(k) or annuities. Therefore, for many this is really the earliest that one can consider retirement as a possibility. Of course, retirement at age 59 1/2 will increase the length of your retirement and the risk that you will outlive your assets.

Age 62

At age 62 you become eligible for a reduced Social Security benefit. In terms of managing your guaranteed income for retirement, in general you will be better served to not start taking Social Security at such a young age since the benefit will continue to grow. Only those with a shortened life expectancy should consider starting Social Security benefits at this age. And even someone with a shortened life expectancy might consider delaying benefits if married, since turning on benefits early will reduce a surviving lower earning spouse’s benefit. Unfortunately, the reality is many individuals do turn on their benefits at age 62, either because they have not saved enough for retirement or because they want to start getting money back from the system they have contributed to over the years.

Age 65

Age 65 is a critical year for considering retirement since you will become eligible for Medicare. Prior to age 65, retirement requires you to consider the cost of paying for your own health care insurance, which can be a very costly proposition. This health care analysis gets more complicated if you have a spouse who is not working and has not attained age 65 when you do, since you will need to consider the cost of health insurance for that spouse until he or she attains age 65. While the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has helped ensure that you can obtain health insurance regardless of your medical condition, the cost of such health insurance remains a significant deterrent to those considering retiring before Medicare eligibility. Also, as this is written, Congress is planning to repeal and replace the ACA, and you will need to understand the replacement plan and how that impacts health care planning for those who are not Medicare eligible.

Age 66-67

At this age you will become eligible for full Social Security benefit payments, and not the reduced payment you can take at age 62. The full retirement age has been raised over time and varies depending on your year of birth. For those born from 1943 through 1954, age 66 is the full retirement age. For those born in 1955 through 1959, the full retirement age is 62 plus 2 months for each year. For example, someone born in 1955 has a full retirement age of 62 and 2 months, and someone born in 1958 has a full retirement age of 66 and 8 months. For those born in 1960 or later, the full retirement age is 67. Bear in mind that while attaining the full retirement age allows you to take an unreduced Social Security benefit, it does not maximize the benefit payment.

Age 70

Age 70 is the delayed Social Security benefit age, or when you must start taking your Social Security payments. By delaying to age 70 you can increase your full retirement age benefit by 8 percent a year from your full retirement age. Given that Social Security is an annuity that pays you for your lifetime, and the benefit itself is increased by inflation costs each year, the increase in benefit payments from the full retirement age to age 70 can have a material impact on your benefit payment in future years. Maximizing Social Security should be your first consideration when thinking about how to ensure that your assets last as long as you do. Unfortunately, many nearing retirement do not understand the importance of maximizing this benefit, from an insurance perspective, and take the reduced payout at age 62 or at the full retirement age.

Age 70 1/2

At age 70 1/2 you must start taking Required Minimum Distributions, or RMDs, from your retirement assets such as your 401(k) or IRA. Your RMD amount is determined by an IRS table, which effectively requires you to take an increasing percentage of your assets. The idea is that you will be forced to liquidate your account gradually over your lifetime. For example, at age 71 the table requires you to take out around 3.77 percent of your account value, determined on Dec. 31 of the year prior to the RMD withdrawal. At age 80 you must take out around 5.35 percent. At age 90 you must take out around 8.77 percent. You have a choice for the year in which you attain 70 1/2 to take your first RMD amount in that year or defer the distribution to before April 15 of the following year. Keep in mind that if you do defer this first RMD amount you will have to take two RMD amounts in the following year. You may want to consider carefully whether this makes sense since you could be increasing your overall tax liability.

RMDs are not required from a Roth IRA but are required from any funds you have in a Roth account in an employer plan. You may want to consider rolling funds, for example, from a Roth 401(k) to a Roth IRA, if you want to eliminate RMD requirements on these funds. You should know, however, that the time you have invested in the Roth 401(k) does not carryover to the 5-tax-year period for income tax free withdrawals from a Roth IRA. So if that is part of your future strategy, you may want to open a Roth IRA ahead of time to start the 5-tax-year clock running, which could include making a Roth IRA contribution or converting some traditional account assets to a Roth IRA. Once the 5-year-clock has run it applies to all future contributions, even if a particular contribution has not been in the account for 5 years.

The above analysis of retirement milestone ages highlights the importance of delaying your retirement as long as you can. Delaying your retirement ensures that you will not be subject to the 10 percent penalty tax on premature distributions from retirement plans and IRAs, that you will have affordable health care coverage under Medicare, and that you will maximize the Social Security lifetime benefit payment. Importantly, it also reduces the length of your retirement which, of course, increases the likelihood that you will be able to make your retirement assets last as long as you live.

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Secrets smart investors use year-round to save on their taxes

(BPT) – Come tax time, many people work to locate tax breaks. While this is always a smart financial move, a little-known way to help build your net worth is to keep taxes top of mind throughout the entire year.

Reducing taxes means you keep more of what you earn, according to Nick Holeman, a financial planning expert at Betterment.com.

“You can’t control the stock market, but you can control some of your taxes,” Holeman said. “Knowing how your investments affect your tax bill can help you save money not just on April 15th, but for years to come.”

Check to see whether your long-term investment strategy is running efficiently with these tips from Holeman.

Invest your tax refund: One smart place to invest your tax refund is in an IRA. Normally, investors might divert a portion of the refund into this account as part of a well-rounded investment strategy and claim the deductions for next year’s tax time. Invest your refund, and you may get a portion of that back in tax savings. Stay in the habit of investing that refund if you can and watch those small returns add up over time.

Think several moves ahead: Investing is complex and from time to time you will have to sell some of your investments; everybody does. It might be to rebalance your portfolio or maybe your goals have changed and your investments no longer match their intended purpose.

Still, smart investors need to think ahead before blindly selling parts of their portfolio. This is because selling could potentially lead to taxes. By carefully choosing which investments to sell, you can help minimize that hefty tax consequence.

One way to do this is to partner with an investment company that has the tools to make this information easy to access and understand. Betterment.com, for example, offers Tax Impact Preview, which lets investors see estimated potential tax on a sale before making the trade. If you don’t think the pros outweigh the cons, don’t do it.

Reorganize your investments: Another way to potentially leverage even small tax advantages into long-term growth is to build your portfolio like an energy-efficient engine, built to run for more miles with less need to refuel. You can help accomplish this by reorganizing your portfolio. Move inefficient investments like international stocks and other assets that are taxed more often into a tax-deferred account, such as an IRA or a Roth IRA. That way, you can enjoy the high growth for less tax. Then, move less-taxed assets, such as municipal bonds, into taxable accounts.

Benefit from losses: Help keep your portfolio in balance by selling off the laggards and replacing them with a similar investment. You can receive a tax deduction from your losses that can help cancel out the taxes you owe on assets that have gains. This is done automatically for investors at many automated services through a strategy called tax loss harvesting. Smart investors should always remember that investments involve risk and may result in loss.

Give to a worthy cause: While it’s important to secure your future, many investors see community support as an important goal. Consider donating a to a nonprofit organization in your community. Not only are you helping to improve the quality of life in your locale, you can potentially claim a deduction from your income tax. It can pay to do the right thing.

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Small nest egg, big dreams? Tips for buying your retirement home

(BPT) – Planning for retirement means making a lot of decisions, including when you’ll stop working, how much you’ll withdraw from your savings each year, and where you’ll live. Many Americans view retirement as an opportunity to move into a house they’ll love and live in for all their golden years. In fact, 64 percent of retirees either have moved or plan to move, according to a Merrill Lynch survey.

Some retirees move to be closer to children or grandchildren, to down-size into a more manageable home, live in a warmer locale, or to secure a more luxurious home where they can easily age in place.

“The decision of where to live in retirement is important and can directly affect quality of life in your golden years,” says Geoff Lewis, President of RE/MAX, LLC. “Research by Trulia shows that in virtually all areas of the country, it makes better financial sense for retirees to buy a home, rather than rent. In fact, buying is nearly 42 percent cheaper than renting for seniors across the country.”

With offices in more countries than any other real estate brand, RE/MAX agents have helped millions, including retirees, find the home of their dreams. Lewis and the RE/MAX team offer some advice for buying your retirement home:

Have a plan

Ideally, you should think about where you want to live long before retirement, but it’s never too late to think about your priorities. Do you want to be close to family or health care resources? Do you desire a home in the mountains or somewhere you’ll never see snow again?

Trulia’s research shows that some of the cities most popular for retirees are also ones where buying a home can save you the most money over renting. Desirable, warm-weather locations in Florida and Arizona offer significant value, even in regions where average home prices are higher.

Make a list of what you want in a home location so you’ll have a starting point for your search.

Don’t delay

If possible, don’t wait until poor health or declining finances force you to move somewhere that’s not your ideal location. Move while you’re still young enough to enjoy your dream retirement home.

Get professional financial advice

It’s important to protect your nest egg and keep it growing throughout retirement. A professional financial planner can help you understand what size mortgage is right for you, so your dream home doesn’t strain your finances.

Be mindful of amenities

When choosing a location and a home, in addition to your personal priorities, it’s important to keep in mind accessibility to amenities important to seniors. Community features such as good transportation, quality of roads, safe neighborhoods, and access to health care, socialization opportunities, shopping and cultural venues are all options to consider.

Rely on real estate pros

Once you know where you want to be, it’s time to find a real estate agent. Well-versed on local real estate trends, RE/MAX agents can help retirees sell their current home so they can make the purchase of their dream retirement home a reality. Visit www.remax.com to search for an agent.

Focus on must-haves

Make a list of must-have features and those you would like your retirement home to have. Share the list with your agent to help him or her focus on properties that meet your criteria. Your list of must-haves and desirables will likely be very different from the list you made when you bought your first home. Now, a single-level house with large bathrooms and a level lot may be more desirable than a two-story with lots of bedrooms and a big backyard.

Finally, says Lewis, keep in mind whether you plan to age in place. “More Americans are looking for homes that will allow them to stay independent and living on their own throughout their retirement years,” he says. “If that’s your plan, look for home features that will help facilitate that, like wider doors, few or no exterior stairs, and good lighting.”

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Tax tips for extension filers with investments

(BPT) – It’s a common misconception that if you have investments you need to shell out a large chunk of change to have your taxes prepared by an accounting genius. The truth is, it’s easy and affordable to do your own taxes and maximize tax savings — even if you’re an investor.

“First and foremost, gather all of your tax forms and financial information before you get to work on your return. It will save you time when you prepare your return and the process will be much easier,” says Mark Jaeger, director of tax development for online tax preparation software provider TaxAct. “In addition to tax forms from brokerages, employers and financial institutions, you’ll also want to have all documentation about your transactions readily available. That information will help prevent you from overpaying or underpaying taxes on your investments.”

Many DIY tax preparation solutions import transactions directly from brokerages or provided data files. TaxAct, for example, offers electronic import for most common tax forms including W-2 (Wage and Tax Statement), 1099-B (broker transactions), 1099-INT (interest income), 1099-OID (Original Issue Discount), 1099-DIV (dividend income) and 1099-R (retirement income).

However, if you have hundreds or thousands of transactions and you can’t electronically import the related brokerage statements, Jaeger recommends entering your total short- and long-term gains on Form 8949, Sales and Other Dispositions of Capital Assets. Then, you’ll simply attach the statements that list your transactions individually when you e-file your return.

The following helpful tips from TaxAct can help you save time and money when you prepare your tax return this year.

1. Don’t rely solely on your Form 1099s.

Verify the information shown on your Form 1099-Bs aligns with your records. It is a good idea to review cost basis and date acquired. Whether that information is included on your form depends on where the investment originated and how long you’ve held the asset.

Keep in mind even if you don’t see your cost basis and acquisition date on your Form 1099-B, you still have to report that information on your tax return. Without it, any sales proceeds without a cost basis will be taxed as a capital gain.

If you’re still waiting for 1099s or other investment information, Jaeger recommends preparing as much of your return as possible now, but wait to file until you receive it to avoid amending your return.

2. Make sure you report the correct cost basis.

The cost basis is the purchase price of an asset adjusted for stock splits, dividends, return of capital distributions and any other basis adjustments. It is important to use the correct cost basis to accurately report and calculate a capital gain versus a loss, the difference between the asset’s sales proceeds and the cost basis.

Even if your cost basis is reported on Form 1099-B, it is a good idea to check your investment records to verify it’s correct. The cost basis reported on your Form 1099-B is based on the information available to your brokerage, which may not include data needed to calculate the true cost basis. For example, the sale of certain employer stock options may be reported on your Form W-2 and Form 1099-B. If you don’t adjust your cost basis to account for this, your sale may be taxed as ordinary income and as a capital gain.

If you need to report adjustments to cost basis amounts on your tax return, you’ll include the adjusted amounts and an adjustment code next to each that explains the reason for the change.

3. Short- and long-term gains: Make sure you know the difference.

Assets held for more than 12 months are considered long-term and benefit from reduced capital gains tax rates of zero, 15 and 20 percent based on your tax bracket. On the other hand, short-term gains for assets held for less than 12 months are taxed at ordinary rates.

Verify the asset’s purchase date before selecting the short-term or long-term reporting category for the transaction on your tax return. Remember, the date acquired may not be on Form 1099-B. Incorrectly reporting the term may result in overstating or understating your total tax liability.

For future investments, you may want to consider waiting to sell assets with large gains or holding periods approaching one year. For more investment tax tips visit www.irs.gov. To learn how you can easily and affordably file your own return with TaxAct, visit www.taxact.com.

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