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Why You Need to Read the Fine Print

According to a recent Deloitte survey, 91 percent of people agree to terms and conditions without reading the legal agreement. While reading through the legally complex language may be slow and painful, it’s more important than you think. Here are four reasons why reading entire legal agreements make sense:

  1. You miss a major technicality. Many agreements have an exit penalty that requires you to pay for a period of time after you terminate an agreement. Others automatically renew your agreement for a year with exit penalties unless you tell them in writing you do not wish to renew prior to a key date. In a recent example of missing a legal technicality, eight teachers claimed the Department of Education (DOE) mishandled a debt forgiveness program that promised to reduce student loans after 10 years of public service. In most of the cases, the teacher’s application was denied because, according to the DOE, they were in the wrong type of loan or payment program.
  2. You give something away. With extensive agreement documents (PayPal’s user agreement is over 50 pages long!), it’s easy for a company to add language that grants itself rights to something that’s yours. Here are some examples:
    • Your identity. Companies like Facebook grant itself rights to use your likeness and personal information for targeted advertising unless you catch the clause and take action.
    • Your work. If you create a presentation using some online tools, the agreement might allow the site to use the presentation without your permission.
    • Your location. Most navigation software tracks your location even when not using their application. The same is true with most newer vehicles. The only way to catch these tracking rights is to read the clause in the agreement.
  3. You’re not comfortable with the risks. Data breaches are occurring more often and are hard to prevent. To reduce their exposure to litigation, businesses are continuing to add language to agreements to protect themselves. Your job, as the consumer, is to know these risks when signing up for a new service. The more personal information you provide, the more important it is to understand your legal recourse if the supplier of your service is hacked.
  4. You miss something good. Reading an agreement to the end may pay off. A woman in Georgia won $10,000 just by reading her travel insurance agreement. The company, Squaremouth, had a Pays to Read program that awarded a cash prize to the first person to read the clause with a cash prize. For most people, it’s more likely you’ll find additional benefits that come with the agreement or laugh at some humor injected by the company. Here is an example from social media company, Tumblr: “You have to be at least 13 years old to use Tumblr. We’re serious: it’s a hard rule, based on U.S. federal and state legislation. “But I’m, like, 12.9 years old!” you plead. Nope, sorry. If you’re younger than 13, don’t use Tumblr. Ask your parents for a Playstation 4, or try books.

Help Older Adults Stand Up Against Scams

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau recently reported in financial exploitation cases that older adults lost an average of $34,200. Unfortunately, these funds are often never recovered. You can ensure this doesn’t happen by learning more about scams and how to protect yourself. Here are some tips:

  • Recognize the scams.The best way to protect yourself from a scam is to understand what they look and sound like. Here are a few key elements to look for when identifying a scam:
  • You are promised a great offer or benefits
  • You are forced to make quick decisions
  • You are pressured to provide financial and/or personal information
  • You are threatened

Did you know? IRS impersonation scams are the No. 1 scam targeting older adults, according to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, with more than 2.4 million Americans targeted.

  • Know why you are a target.You and other older adults may be targeted because you own a home, and have retirement savings and exceptional credit — a treasure trove for con artists to pillage. Scammers take advantage of trusting older adults because they’re less likely to say no and sometimes have cognitive issues that affect decision-making skills. In other cases, family members and non-related caregivers may have easier access to their funds, making them more susceptible to theft.
  • Keep your personal and financial information safe. Keep your bank information, Social Security card and other finances stored somewhere secure in your home. Think twice about what you are sharing on Facebook, and don’t give out your Social Security or account numbers without vetting the person or company asking you for it. Con artists find useful information on social media sites about your family members and then pretend to be a relative who asks for money, or they could directly ask you for sensitive information over the phone or via email.
  • Hang up if you feel uncomfortable. Don’t worry about being impolite if someone on the phone is pressuring you into sharing sensitive information. Hang up. If the call comes from a company you trust, you can call back and ask for the department that handles your account to determine if the call is for a legitimate reason.
  • Turn down unsolicited offers. If you receive a call or an in-person visit from someone you don’t know selling you a product or service you didn’t request, turn it down or tell them you’ll decide at a later time. If the service or product interests you, conduct independent research on three suppliers. Proactively contact all three and determine the best offer. Include a trusted family member in the decision-making process. Doing this can effectively eliminate most scams.
  • Use direct deposit. You can avoid having your checks stolen when you arrange for your checks to be directly deposited into your bank account. Ask your bank to show you how.
  • Speak up if you think you’re a scam victim. There’s no need to feel embarrassed or ashamed if you think you’ve been scammed. Instead, let people know right away.
  • Call your bank and/or credit card companies.
  • Reset your account passwords.
  • Call the police to report stolen property.
  • Submit a consumer complaint using the FTC consumer Complaint Assistant.
  • Report the scam by calling the United States Senate Special Committee on Aging Fraud Hotline at 1-855-303-9470.
  • If you suspect elder abuse is also involved, contact adult protective services.

Select the Right Health Insurance for Your Business

If you have employees, you know how important health insurance is for your benefits package. It also takes a big bite out of your budget. Selecting the right insurance for your company is extremely important for employee retention and maintaining your bottom line. Here are tips to help you find the best health insurance for your business:

  1. Know the size of the network. A popular way to lower insurance costs is opting for a smaller network of health care providers. Known as narrow provider networks, coverage is limited to a much smaller group of clinics and hospitals than traditional plans. But while the cost savings are nice, employee satisfaction is likely to decline as some of them will have to change doctors to stay in network. When researching insurance options, be sure to compare the network size to industry averages.
  2. Watch for coverage limits. Lifetime and annual dollar limits for essential health benefits were banned in 2014, but limits still appear in other ways. Dental services, for example, are exempt from the dollar limits and often have annual and lifetime coverage limits. Another way insurance providers hedge their risk is by limiting the number of a certain type of visits, like for chiropractic care or physical therapy.
  3. Don’t forget prescription coverage. Many health insurance programs don’t include full coverage for prescription drugs, so you may need to add supplemental insurance. Pay special attention to the coverage differences between brand name and generic drugs. Also review any deductibles and other limits. Another type of coverage available is a prescription discount program. Discount plans simply charge you a subscription cost that allows you to use a contracted discount.
  4. Understand what isn’t covered. When trying to sell you on their plan, insurance providers do a good job showing you what they cover. What can be harder to figure out is what they don’t cover. Some of the types of services that may not be covered are vision care, nursing home care, cosmetic surgery, alternative therapies like massage therapy or acupuncture, and weight-loss procedures.
  5. Be prepared to provide employee data. The process of obtaining a quote for health insurance can be an overwhelming task. Health insurance companies will want, at a minimum, a list of employees with some pertinent details like age, sex, coverage details (self, spouse and other dependents), and home zip code. They will want the forms filled out by all employees, even those that are opting out of insurance coverage. If you are working with a benefits broker, they can help you prepare what will be needed in advance to speed up the process.

Shopping for health insurance for your business is complicated. Taking the appropriate time to understand each coverage option and the associated costs will benefit both your business and your employees’ well-being.

The IRS Is Not Always Right

A letter in the mailbox with the IRS as the return address is sure to raise your blood pressure. Here are some tips for handling the situation if this happens to you:

  • Stay calm. Try not to overreact to the correspondence. They are often in error. This is easier said than done, but remember the IRS sends out millions of notices each year. The vast majority of them correct simple oversights or common filing errors.
  • Open the envelope. You would be surprised at how often people are so stressed by receiving a letter from the IRS that they cannot bear to open the envelope. If you fall into this category, try to remember that the first step in making the problem go away is to simply open the correspondence.
  • Carefully review the letter. Understand exactly what the IRS thinks needs to be changed and determine whether or not you agree with its findings. Unfortunately, the IRS rarely sends correspondence to correct an oversight in your favor, but its assessment of your situation is often wrong.
  • Respond timely. The correspondence should be very clear about what action the IRS believes you should take and within what timeframe. Delays in responses could generate penalties and additional interest payments.
  • Get help. You are not alone. Getting assistance from someone who deals with this all the time makes going through the process much smoother.
  • Correct the IRS error. Once the problem is understood, a clearly written response with copies of documentation will cure most of these IRS correspondence errors. Often the error is due to the inability of the IRS computers to conduct a simple reporting match. Pointing the information out on your tax return might be all it takes to solve the problem.
  • Use certified mail. Any responses to the IRS should be sent via certified mail. This will provide proof of your timely correspondence. Lost mail can lead to delays, penalties and additional interest on your tax bill.
  • Don’t assume it will go away. Until a definitive confirmation that the problem has been resolved is received, you need to assume the IRS still thinks you owe the money. If no correspondence confirming the correction is received, a written follow-up will be required.

Cash Flow Concepts That Can Save Your Business

A sad and oft-repeated truth is that half of all new businesses fail within the first five years. Although many factors contribute to business failure, a common culprit is poor cash management. All businesses, large and small, must deal with the uncertainty of fluctuating sales, inventories and expenses. Follow these practices to moderate the ebb and flow of cash in your business:

Analyze cash flow. If you don’t know it’s broken, you can’t fix it. The starting point for any meaningful action to control cash is discovering where the money’s coming from and where it’s going. Get a handle on cash by monitoring your bank accounts for at least one complete business cycle; then use that information to establish a realistic forecast. This should be done throughout the year to help you understand your seasonal cash needs.

Monitor receivables. Extending credit to risky customers, failing to identify late payers, refusing to collect payment on a timely basis — these practices amplify cash flow problems. Mitigate receivable fluctuations by generating aging reports. Use the report to follow up when payments are late. You may even wish to offer discounts to customers who pay early.

Slow down payments. Prudent cash flow management dictates that you retain cash as long as possible. So pay your vendors on time — not too early. Of course, if suppliers offer discounts for early payment, take advantage of cost savings whenever possible. Also consider negotiating with suppliers to extend payment terms.

Time large expenses. If you know a property tax payment is due in May, start setting aside money in a separate fund in October. The same holds true for any large payment that comes due during the year. If your equipment is nearing the end of its useful life or your roof is showing signs of wear, start saving now. Don’t let big expenditures catch you by surprise.

By taking these steps and endeavoring to smooth out cash fluctuations, proficient managers keep their companies strong throughout the business cycle.

Smart Tactics to Manage Student Debt

According to the Federal Reserve, U.S. student loan debt is now $1.5 trillion with more than 44 million borrowers. Only mortgage debt currently has bigger numbers among types of consumer debt. Even worse, more than 10 percent of these loans are past due. Here are some tactics to help make student debt easier to manage:

  • Know the loan terms. Not all student debt is created equal. Understanding the terms of all your student loans is important. With this knowledge, select the correct loan option and know which loan to pay first. Things you should know about each loan include:
    • The interest rate
    • The term of the loan
    • Amount of any upfront fees
    • Pre-payment penalties (if any)
    • When interest and payments start
    • Payment amounts
    • Payment flexibility
    • How the interest is calculated

Suggestion: Create a spreadsheet with a student loan in each column. Then note the terms under each loan. This will create a strong visual of your situation and show you which loans are most important.

  • Avoid accruing interest. Some student loans accrue interest while you are in school. With the compounding of this interest, your student loan amount continues to grow with each passing year before repayment begins. Banks love this — you should not.

Suggestion: Figure out how to make some or all of the interest payments while in school. This will not only lock the amount you owe, it will reduce the amount of overall loan payments.

  • Pay a little extra in the early days. The math of loans benefits banks in the early years of the repayment period. This is because the vast majority of interest is paid in the first years of repayment. By the time you get to the last year of repayment, payments are primarily the principal balance and interest is nil.

Suggestion: Pay extra every month as soon as payments start. While this seems impossible as you enter the workforce, even $25 extra per month can dramatically reduce the amount of total payments you make over the life of your loan. For example, a $25 extra payment on a 10-year $50,000 student loan with 5 percent interest would cut six months off the loan, save $834 in interest, AND save $3,180 in future loan payments!

  • Make small cuts elsewhere. Having a hard time finding a few extra dollars to make extra payments? Consider observing and then changing your spending habits.

Suggestion: Purchase one less latte a week. Drop one monthly service from a bill. Eat in more often. Then use these savings as a bonus payment on your student loan principal.

While student debt is often an unavoidable outcome of getting a college education, it can be minimized if actively managed. Small changes can yield results if planned for in advance.

Headed to the Fair? Avoid These Spending Traps

If you’ve ever attended a state or county fair, you know it’s really easy to spend a lot of money, and fast. The best way to avoid overspending is to know the problem areas and be prepared. Here are five typical fair spending traps (and tips to avoid them):

Paying full price for admission. In 2019, the price of admission for a state fair can cost a family of four well over $50. Most fairs offer pre-sale discounts or set aside days with special rates. Some examples include half-price admission days, opening day, closing day or certain days during the week. In addition to admissions discounts, you can often find discounted ride tickets or coupons for food or attractions before the day you head to the fair.

Not having a food strategy. Do you really need that whole deep-fried onion? Or entire bucket of fries? If you go to the fair with some friends, opt for the small portion, wide variety strategy. Take turns buying the goodies and share. It’s a perfect way to try new things without overindulging! Your budget (and digestive system) will thank you later.

Impulse buying. While it’s really cool that the blender can turn a bushel of apples into a smoothie in six seconds, it doesn’t mean it’s worth $300. There are a lot of fun and unique products to buy at the fair, but have a plan. If you will be doing some shopping, identify your needs and create a spending budget prior to taking in the product demonstrations.

Ignoring the weather. All it takes is a pop-up thunderstorm or unexpected heat wave and you can watch the prices on ponchos and bottled water shoot up faster than Old Faithful at Yellowstone National Park. Before you go, check the weather, bring appropriate gear and empty water bottles to fill at free water stations.

Falling for carnival gimmicks. All you need to do is make one of three basketball shots to win that huge pink gorilla. Don’t fall for it. Chances are the rim is one foot higher, two inches narrower and the ball might even be egg-shaped. Go ahead and give it a try for fun — just try not to get frustrated if you don’t hit the shot. Carnival games can be a good time if you have the right mindset. Treat them as entertainment, not a way to easily win a valuable prize.

Fairs are a great way to spend a late summer or fall day and make some memories. Saving some cash with some savvy decisions makes it even better!

I Owe Tax on That?

5 Surprising Taxable Items

Wages and self-employment earnings are taxable, but what about the random cash or financial benefits you receive through other means? If something of value changes hands, you can bet the IRS considers a way to tax it. Here are five taxable items that might surprise you:

1. Scholarships and financial aid. Applying for scholarships and financial aid are top priorities for parents of college-bound children. But be careful — if any part of the award your child receives goes toward anything except tuition, it might be taxable. This could include room, board, books, travel expenses or aid received in exchange for work (e.g., tutoring or research).

Tip: When receiving an award, review the details to determine if any part of it is taxable. Don’t forget to review state rules as well. While most scholarships and aid are tax-free, no one needs a tax surprise.

2. Gambling winnings. Hooray! You hit the trifecta for the Kentucky Derby. But guess what? Technically, all gambling winnings are taxable, including casino games, lottery tickets and sports betting. Thankfully, the IRS allows you to deduct your gambling losses (to the extent of winnings) as an itemized deduction, so keep good records.

Tip: Know when the gambling establishment is required to report your winnings. It varies by type of betting. For instance, the filing threshold for winnings from fantasy sports betting and horse racing is $600, while slot machines and bingo are typically $1,200. But beware, the gambling facility and state requirements may lower the limit.

3. Unemployment compensation. Unfortunately the IRS doesn’t give you a break on the taxes for unemployment income. Unemployment benefits you receive are taxable.

Tip: If you are collecting unemployment, you can either have taxes withheld and receive the net amount or make estimated payments to cover the tax liability.

4. Crowdfunding. A popular method to raise money for new ventures or to support a special cause is crowdfunding through websites. Whether or not the funds are taxable depends on two things: your intent for the funds and what the giver receives in return. Generally, funds used for a business purpose are taxable and funds raised to cover a life event (e.g., special causes or medical assistance) are considered a gift and not taxable to the recipient.

Tip: Prior to using these online tools to raise money, review the terms and conditions and ask for a tax review of what you are doing. If you need to account for taxes, reserve some of what you raise for this purpose.

5. Cryptocurrency. Cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin are considered property by the IRS. So if you use cryptocurrency, you must keep track of the original cost of the coin and its value when you use it. This information is needed so the tax on your gain or loss can be properly calculated. Remember, the tax rate on property can vary if you own the cryptocurrency more than a year, so record all dates.

Tip: For those considering replacing cash with things like Bitcoin, you need to understand the gain or loss complications. For this reason, many people using cryptocurrency do so for speculative investment purposes.

When in doubt, it’s a good idea to keep accurate records so your tax liability can be correctly calculated and you don’t get stuck paying more than what’s required.

Make Setting Salaries Easier With These 5 Steps

 

Whether you are hiring for the first time, filling an open position, or conducting annual performance reviews, finding a salary range that attracts and retains valued employees can be a difficult task. Here are some suggestions to help make the process a bit easier for you and your company:

  1. Know what your business can afford. Like any business expense, you need to know how it will affect your budget and cash flow. Make a twelve-month profitability and cash forecast and then plug in the high end of the annual salary range you are considering to see if it’s something your business can absorb. After all, the greatest employee in the world can’t help you if you don’t have the money to pay them. Don’t forget to account for increases in benefit costs, especially the escalating cost to provide healthcare. Once you establish a budget, you can allocate your spending plan to your payroll.
  2. Understand the laws. In general, the federal government sets the minimum requirements (minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, overtime rules and record keeping requirements). States and localities often add their own set of rules. For example, the state of Illinois, Cook County and the city of Chicago all have different minimum wage requirements. If you are located in Chicago you need to adhere to the highest rate. So research all payroll rules that apply to your location at the beginning of the process. When reviewing the rules, don’t forget that different rules often apply depending on the number of employees in your business.
  3. Review and update job descriptions. Take some time to review key jobs and update them as appropriate. With new positions, note the exact tasks and responsibilities you envision for the role. Then, think about the type of person that will succeed performing these responsibilities. Once you have a clear picture of who you are looking for, you can begin to build a detailed job description and narrow in on a specific salary range.
  4. Establish value ranges and apply them. Value is key when determining the perfect salary amount. Define the range of value for the position and then apply that valuation to the current person’s performance within the defined pay range. Use websites and recruiters to establish the correct range of pay, then apply experience and employee performance to obtain a potential new salary amount. Remember, size of company, location and competitiveness of the job market are all factors to consider.
  5. Factor in company benefits. A strong suite of employee benefits is a powerful tool to couple with a competitive salary. Don’t be afraid to communicate their value to prospective and current employees (they help with retention, too!). According to Glassdoor, health and dental insurance are the most important, but flexibility is close behind – over 80 percent of job seekers take flexible hours, vacation time and work-from-home options into consideration before accepting a position.

Finding the right salary can be tricky, but with some preparation and research, you can find the balance that satisfies the needs of your business and your employees.

What You Need To Know About IRS Audits

The IRS recently released its 2018 Data Book, including information on its audit activities for the last fiscal year. This infographic details what you need to know regarding your audit risk, how to prepare for and what to expect in an IRS audit.