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Last Minute Tax Help

Last Minute Tax Help
Taxes are due April 15

    The deadline for filing your federal income tax return (if you’re a U.S. citizen) is five days away. If you haven’t gotten around to filing yet, you’re in good company: one-third of all Americans file in the two weeks just before the deadline, and TurboTax reports that 200,000 taxpayers used their software in the last two days alone. The IRS has actually made it easier to file your taxes at the very last moment, and offers other choices for taxpayers feeling a too-tight deadline. You still have options, although I’m not an accountant or a tax lawyer and your situation may require the advice of a tax professional.

    Make Sure You Need to File

    According to the IRS, millions of people file tax returns every year even though their incomes are below the minimum required to file. In general, that means that it’s worthwhile checking to make sure that you actually have to file — although this year is a special case. That economic stimulus check the government’s promised? You are absolutely required to file a tax return in order to get your $600. If you made less than $3,000 total in 2007, however, go ahead and skip the paperwork.

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    In most years, however, the question of whether to file a tax return boils down to whether you either expect a refund or expect to owe the government more money. If neither of these cases apply to you, you may be able to skip the paperwork. The IRS offers a page that can help you decide based on your answers to a series of questions.

    File Electronically

    80 million taxpayers filed electronically last year. The IRS brags about the greater accuracy of electronic filing, the faster processing of refunds and the ability to avoid postage. But what we procrastinators really care about is the fact that we can file 24 hours a day and 7 days a week — even the night of April 14th.

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    To file online, you’ll need the same paperwork you would to fill out your 1040 by hand:

    • Last year’s tax return
    • Social Security cards for your dependents, if any
    • W-2s from all your employers
    • 1099s from any other income you received, as well as income receipts from real estate, royalties, trusts, Social Security and other sources of income
    • Any receipts pertaining to your small business

    If you plan to itemize your deductions, you’ll also need the paperwork to document your itemizations — claiming the standard deduction may be faster if you get down to the wire, but many taxpayers could save a lot of money by itemizing.

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    Once you’ve gathered up the necessary paperwork, you’ll need to choose your e-file provider. To file electronically, the IRS requires taxpayers to go through authorized e-file providers: companies that are not actually affiliated with the IRS but have been authorized to file electronically through secure methods. These companies are broken down into two groups — Free File options and e-File options.

    Free File providers do just what the name says: they allow you to file your tax return for free. There is a catch though: you are only eligible to use Free File if your adjusted gross income for the year was under $54,000. To find your AGI, add up any income you received including wages, alimony, unemployment compensation, capital gains and anything else you can think of and subtract off your deductions using the standard deduction can make the process go faster if you aren’t sure just what deductions you are eligible for.

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    Everyone making over $54,000 but wanting to file electronically must pick an authorized provider off of the IRS’ list. To be honest, most of these companies operate in pretty much the same way and have similar pricing. However, many do not offer state tax preparation. It’s up to you to find a provider who can also determine your state tax burden and help you file. To make matters harder, there are still a few states that do not accept electronically filed tax returns.

    Request an Extension

    For some of us, even filing electronically won’t get our paperwork in before April 15th. The IRS does give taxpayers the option of requesting an extension until August 15th. You have to submit Form 4868 (PDF), which is actually pretty easy to fill out: you list your name, address, Social Security number and answer four questions about the taxes you owe for the year. You can send in the form through the mail, electronically or through an authorized outside service provider. There’s only one drawback to the extension process — no matter why you might request an extension, you must pay whatever taxes you expect to owe when you submit your Form 4868. Uncle Sam doesn’t care so much about the paperwork, because he still gets your money. File for an extension without paying off your estimated balance and the IRS can slap you with some serious fees and penalties, making it worthwhile to over-estimate and err on the side of caution when making your payment. You’ll still get your refund, although it can take an extra four months.

    File Regardless

    Before April 15th rolls around, it’s crucial to have filed something with the IRS. File a tax return or a request for an extension — either way, you’ve filed. As long as the IRS has a Form 1040 or a Form 4868 (and that all important check from anyone owing taxes beyond what may have been automatically deducted), you’re cool with the IRS. It’s the guy who’s required to file, but hasn’t, who will be having trouble down the line.

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    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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