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Hack Your Taxes Before Jan. 1

Hack Your Taxes Before Jan. 1

    If you live in the U.S., the due date to file your tax return isn’t until next April. If you want to get some major benefits on your taxes, though, you have to take action before the end of the year: after all, in April, you’re paying taxes for the year of 2008. There are plenty of loopholes that can provide you with some significant advantages, depending on your financial situation. The list below is only a smattering of possible opportunities; it may be worth consulting with a tax professional about your own situation, especially since not all of these opportunities will be useful for everyone.

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    1. Make early payments. If you make your first mortgage payment of 2009 before Jan. 1, you can deduct the interest on this year’s taxes. The same goes for any property taxes that are deductible. However, if you expect to owe more taxes in 2009 than in 2008, it might be worth holding off on those payments so you can take the deductions on next year’s taxes.
    2. Get elective surgery. If you’ve already paid for medical expenses this year totaling 7.5 percent of your adjusted gross income, you can deduct any medical costs over that amount. If you’ve been planning to get some sort of surgery, scheduling it before the end of the year can pay off. Stocking up on your medical supplies and can also qualify, as can making improvements to your home for medical purposes (installing a ramp or pull bars, for example).
    3. Take a look at your investment losses. If you’ve taken significant losses in investments recently, you can offset capital gains on your taxes or — if you have more losses than you have gains, you can reduce your taxable ordinary income by up to $3,000 on your tax return.
    4. Sell a second home. If you’re working on selling a second home and you can close before Jan. 1, try to do so: a loophole closes at the end of the year that allows homeowners with multiple houses to defer the gain from the sale of other properties.
    5. Buy a Honda hybrid. I’d never suggest running out and buying a car just to get a tax break, but if you’re planning to buy a Honda hybrid soon anyhow, be aware that you can get a tax credit of $525 on it — up until Jan. 1, at which point the tax credit will be eliminated. There are other credits available for other clean-fuel cars.
    6. Sign up for a conference. Paying professional dues, getting certified, going to conferences and other job-related expenses are tax deductible after you’ve passed a certain threshold — two percent of your adjusted gross income. You’ll want to make the payment before the end of the year, however.
    7. Give to charity. A favorite way to reduce taxes for quite a while, giving a few dollars to charity now can help your taxes come April. Quite a few charities are struggling to meet demands right now, especially food banks, by the way. Before you sign the check, however, check IRS Publication 78 to make sure that you’ll be able to deduct the donation. You don’t have to give cash, by the way.
    8. Spend money on your class room. If you are an educator, you can deduct up to $250 for purchasing educational materials for your classroom.
    9. Top off your retirement account. There are a whole stack of tax advantages associated with 401(k), 403(b), and IRA accounts — I won’t go into all of them right here, but check what opportunities your retirement account gives you. You may need to put more money in to get the full benefit, though.
    10. Open a business. The amount of deductions you can take even if you’re just posting garage sale finds on eBay are incredible. You can deduct everything from a percentage of your mortgage to bank fees. You can even write off business debts.
    11. Refinance your home. If you have to pay points to refinance your home, you can deduct them over the life of your new loan.
    12. Get your taxes prepared. You can deduct the cost of having your taxes prepared either as a miscellaneous deduction on your personal return or as a business expense. The same is often true for any legal, accounting or financial planning fees that relate to tax planning.
    13. Go back to school. There are both deductions and credits associated with higher education. If you pay for next semester before Jan. 1, you can take advantage of the deduction this year.
    14. Search for a new job. If you’re on a job search, related expenses like hiring a resume writer or paying a fee to an employment agency can be tax deductible. If you have to move to accept a job, those expenses are also deductible.
    15. Take money from Mom and Dad for your student loans. If your parents help you to pay down your student loans, you can still deduct the interest. If anyone else helps you out, though, no one gets to deduct that interest.

    It’s important to remember that a lot of these moves don’t make sense if you’re just doing them for the tax break. However, if you were planning to get some sort of elective surgery or buy a Honda hybrid, for instance, it may be reasonable to move up your schedule for the tax benefit. Take a close look at your overall financial picture before moving forward. Because everyone’s situation is different, you may want to consult with a professional and rely on his advice.

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    Last Updated on January 21, 2020

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

    The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

    Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    How to Self-Taught Effectively

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

    More About Self-Learning

    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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