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You Don’t Have to Worry: Tax Answers from Jeff Schnepper

You Don’t Have to Worry: Tax Answers from Jeff Schnepper

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    No matter how prepared you are for tax season, you probably worry at least a little whenever April 15th is getting close. We’ve covered your last-minute tax options in the past, but no matter how close that deadline is getting, we want to reduce your worry. Jeff Schnepper, MSN’s tax expert, agreed to answer a few questions for us, and offered a little reassurance.

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    Tax Misconceptions — and Problems

    One of the major reasons that our taxes keep us up at night, according to Jeff, is that there are so many myths and misconceptions about taxes: topics like who you can claim as a dependent and what you can take as a deduction involve as many urban legends as a bad horror movie. And it doesn’t stop there. Jeff says: “The most common misconception people have about taxes is that everybody else is cheating and getting away with something….giving them the “right” to fudge. Cheating is wrong and I’ve found that the taxpayers I work with understand, and want to do the right thing. The problem is that the law changes every year, and sometimes three and four times in a single year. The professionals are overwhelmed and the average taxpayer completely lost. It’s not that people are cheating – they’re making errors because they don’t know the rules.”

    The past few months have shown the truth of that statement. If you consider just the appointments that President Obama has made (or attempted to make), it becomes obvious very quickly that even politicians who can afford the best tax preparers in the country can’t get their taxes done correctly.

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    What We Can Do to Reduce the Worry

    Just because the tax system is complicated doesn’t mean that the average taxpayer needs to spend the time between now and April 15th cringing, however. Even the biggest tax bogeyman of them all — an audit by the IRS — isn’t something you should spend too much time worrying about. While you can minimize your overall chances of being audited by following the rules as closely as you can, and by having the right documentation, there’s a certain element of chance.

    “You can’t avoid an audit. Returns are selected randomly as well as based on the IRS DIF computer program,” says Jeff. If there’s nothing left that you can do to make sure that your tax return is filled out accurately, you can stop worrying. If the computer picks your number, you may have to sit down with an auditor, but there’s nothing else you can do to affect the process.

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    A Few Last Minute Options

    Even though you’ll get the best results for preparing your tax return by starting as early as possible, Jeff was able to point out a few last minute deductions that you can pick up after December 31st: “Do you qualify for a deductible IRA or would a Roth be better. Can you contribute to a SEP?” He suggests looking into your IRA options if you’re still searching for deductions.

    Jeff also notes that there are a few extra things to consider this year, if you’ve been affected by the current economic situation. Jeff says, “Sit down with a tax pro if you may lose your house. Congress passed a law that wipes out any taxes on debt discharge income on a principal home. But, you have to do it right and file the appropriate forms.” He also pointed out that if you’ve refinanced your mortgage, you can deduct any points you pay over the life of the refinance. You can even deduct any unamortized points on your original refinance if you refinance a second time.

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    “The laws are in flux and are changing as you read this. For example, now the first $2,400 received in unemployment benefits escapes tax. You can get a $1,000 deduction for real estate taxes even if you take the standard deduction. For 2009, you can deduct sales tax on a new car even if you don’t itemize. If you don’t know the rules, you’re going to have a hard time playing the game,” says Jeff. He makes it clear that if you aren’t staying up to date on the changes in tax laws, you’re going to have a hard figuring out your taxes.

    Getting Ready for Next Year

    You can make your 2009 tax return easier by starting now. The secret to making tax season simple is setting up a system to document both your income and your deductible expenses throughout the year and keep it up to date. Jeff described one system his clients have been known to use: “For substantiation, I have clients who throw all their checks and receipts in a box. Once every month or so they sit down and put those checks and receipts into envelopes with tax classification. So, there’d be an envelope for contributions, investment expenses etc. At the end of the year, they add them up, don’t double count, and put the number outside the envelope. Those are the numbers they give me for their tax returns. And, they never have to fear an audit. An audit can only ask them to substantiate the numbers on the return. They already have the backup available in each envelope!” It doesn’t matter exactly what system you use, though, as long as you have one in place — and you keep it up to date throughout the year.

    If you have a question about your taxes, Jeff Schnepper is MSN.com’s Tax Expert. You can find him at money.msn.com, where he answers questions every day. In addition to his MSN columns, Jeff is the author of How to Pay Zero Taxes, which is now in its 16th edition, as well as several other finance and tax-related books.

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    Last Updated on November 5, 2019

    How to Cultivate Continuous Learning to Stay Competitive

    How to Cultivate Continuous Learning to Stay Competitive

    Assuming the public school system didn’t crush your soul, learning is a great activity. It expands your viewpoint. It gives you new knowledge you can use to improve your life. It is important for your personal growth. Even if you discount the worldly benefits, the act of learning can be a source of enjoyment.

    “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” — Mark Twain

    But in a busy world, it can often be hard to fit in time to learn anything that isn’t essential. The only things learned are those that need to be. Everything beyond that is considered frivolous. Even those who do appreciate the practice of lifelong learning, can find it difficult to make the effort.

    Here are some tips for installing the habit of continuous learning:

    1. Always Have a Book

    It doesn’t matter if it takes you a year or a week to read a book. Always strive to have a book that you are reading through, and take it with you so you can read it when you have time.

    Just by shaving off a few minutes in-between activities in my day I can read about a book per week. That’s at least fifty each year.

    2. Keep a “To-Learn” List

    We all have to-do lists. These are the tasks we need to accomplish. Try to also have a “to-learn” list. On it you can write ideas for new areas of study.

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    Maybe you would like to take up a new language, learn a skill or read the collective works of Shakespeare. Whatever motivates you, write it down.

    3. Get More Intellectual Friends

    Start spending more time with people who think. Not just people who are smart, but people who actually invest much of their time in learning new skills. Their habits will rub off on you.

    Even better, they will probably share some of their knowledge with you.

    4. Guided Thinking

    Albert Einstein once said,

    “Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking.”

    Simply studying the wisdom of others isn’t enough, you have to think through ideas yourself. Spend time journaling, meditating or contemplating over ideas you have learned.

    5. Put it Into Practice

    Skill based learning is useless if it isn’t applied. Reading a book on C++ isn’t the same thing as writing a program. Studying painting isn’t the same as picking up a brush.

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    If your knowledge can be applied, put it into practice.

    In this information age, we’re all exposed to a lot of information, it’s important to re-learn how to learn so as to put the knowledge into practice.

    6. Teach Others

    You learn what you teach. If you have an outlet of communicating ideas to others, you are more likely to solidify that learning.

    Start a blog, mentor someone or even discuss ideas with a friend.

    7. Clean Your Input

    Some forms of learning are easy to digest, but often lack substance.

    I make a point of regularly cleaning out my feed reader for blogs I subscribe to. Great blogs can be a powerful source of new ideas. But every few months, I realize I’m collecting posts from blogs that I am simply skimming.

    Every few months, purify your input to save time and focus on what counts.

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    8. Learn in Groups

    Lifelong learning doesn’t mean condemning yourself to a stack of dusty textbooks. Join organizations that teach skills.

    Workshops and group learning events can make educating yourself a fun, social experience.

    9. Unlearn Assumptions

    You can’t add water to a full cup. I always try to maintain a distance away from any idea. Too many convictions simply mean too few paths for new ideas.

    Actively seek out information that contradicts your worldview.

    Our minds can’t be trusted, but this is what we can do about it to be wiser.

    10. Find Jobs that Encourage Learning

    Pick a career that encourages continual learning. If you are in a job that doesn’t have much intellectual freedom, consider switching to one that does.

    Don’t spend forty hours of your week in a job that doesn’t challenge you.

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    11. Start a Project

    Set out to do something you don’t know how. Forced learning in this way can be fun and challenging.

    If you don’t know anything about computers, try building one. If you consider yourself a horrible artist, try a painting.

    12. Follow Your Intuition

    Lifelong learning is like wandering through the wilderness. You can’t be sure what to expect and there isn’t always an end goal in mind.

    Letting your intuition guide you can make self-education more enjoyable. Most of our lives have been broken down to completely logical decisions, that making choices on a whim has been stamped out.

    13. The Morning Fifteen

    Productive people always wake up early. Use the first fifteen minutes of your morning as a period for education.

    If you find yourself too groggy, you might want to wait a short time. Just don’t put it off later in the day where urgent activities will push it out of the way.

    14. Reap the Rewards

    Learn information you can use. Understanding the basics of programming allows me to handle projects that other people would require outside help. Meeting a situation that makes use of your educational efforts can be a source of pride.

    15. Make Learning a Priority

    Few external forces are going to persuade you to learn. The desire has to come from within. Once you decide you want to make lifelong learning a habit, it is up to you to make it a priority in your life.

    More About Continuous Learning

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