THIS IS MY FOURTH year serving in AARP Foundation’s TaxAide program. I prepare federal and state tax returns three days a week for a mixture of retirees and lower-income citizens.
Each week, I see clients who are baffled by the complexity of our tax code. Many have been paying hundreds of dollars to commercial preparers because they’re afraid of making a mistake.
And no wonder. The federal tax code has myriad twists and turns that can confound the average taxpayer.
I LEARNED SOMETHING new while preparing a tax return recently for a widowed senior citizen. I volunteer for AARP Foundation’s TaxAide program. A widow in her mid-70s had received her 2021 required minimum distribution (RMD) from her IRA—and it consisted entirely of Exxon Mobil stock.
Her account’s custodian, instead of selling the stock and distributing cash, gave her the actual shares. This had never happened to her before, and she hadn’t requested it. Why did the custodian do it?
MY WIFE AND I PAID just $234 in federal income taxes on 2021 adjusted gross income of $98,370, giving us an effective tax rate of less than 1%.
How did we end up paying so little? It all started with my October 2020 layoff. I was age 57 and had, until then, enjoyed a 34-year newspaper career. One of my immediate concerns: getting health insurance coverage.
That turned out to be easy in 2021.
NEW HAMPSHIRE’S state motto is “live free or die.” But for my wife and me, the first part might be better expressed as “live tax-free.”
We just moved to New Hampshire from Maryland. The move’s main purpose is to be near our kids, enjoy lake and mountain activities, and experience cooler summers. But New Hampshire’s zero tax rate on earned income, pensions and capital gains is a major bonus.
Eight states have no tax on personal income,
I HATE LOOKING at life through the lens of taxation. But at this time of year, it’s hard to avoid.
I’ve been doing my own taxes for more than four decades. But this year represents a new milestone in my tax return preparation career. We moved from Pennsylvania to New Jersey at the end of March 2021, so I’ve had to prepare 2021 tax returns for both states. Although I’d researched New Jersey’s tax code and made an estimate of what the differences would cost,
WILL YOU BE WORKING with a CPA to file your tax return? For eight years, I was one of the folks on the other side of this annual ordeal. Want to make life easier both for yourself and for us green-shade types? Here are 22 insights:
1. Time is money. CPAs sell expertise by the hour. They track everything they do, all day long, in six-minute increments—or perhaps 15. For the business to survive,
WOULD YOU BASE important financial or life choices on false or misleading information? Of course not. Yet, when deciding on key economic and social issues, that’s exactly what people often do.
I’m addicted to social media. I follow advocacy groups focused on Social Security, health care and taxes, as well as the politicians who are especially engaged in these issues.
Some tweets and memes reinforce what people want to believe or provide the easy answers they seek.
IN HINDSIGHT, my wife and I made a mistake by over-saving in tax-deferred accounts. It’s not that we saved too much overall. Rather, we ended up with retirement savings that aren’t diversified among different account types. In fairness, this was caused by the limitations of our work-sponsored retirement plans, coupled with the stock market’s handsome appreciation in recent years.
The classic approach is to build a three-legged stool for retirement—Social Security, a pension if available,
I’D LIKE TO START with a seemingly simple question: If you purchased an investment for $19,000 and later sold it for $287,000, would there be a gain or a loss? If you answered that there would be a gain, I’d agree with you. Specifically, it appears the gain would be $268,000. But what if there was no gain and the investment was actually sold at a loss? Could that be the case?
WHEN A FRIEND TOLD me about his newfound interest in buying and selling sports trading cards, it reminded me of the joy that collecting brought me in my childhood. And when he asked me to explain the relevant taxation, it got me thinking: The core of the tax code is more logical than we give it credit for. It’s the ever-changing details that make it squirrelly.
If you buy and sell collectibles—whether it be sports cards,
MANY FOLKS SPEND December frantically hunting for ways to cut their taxes, whether it’s realizing losses in their taxable investment accounts, making charitable donations or raising their 401(k) contributions for the year’s final few paychecks.
A better strategy: Manage your taxes year-round rather than just at year-end. Filing a tax return is a reactive process—a record of income and deductions that have already occurred. It takes foresight and action to shape what those lines will look like on next year’s tax return.
AS THEY APPROACH retirement age, workers sometimes get to choose between a monthly pension and a lump-sum payout. It’s a choice I recently made—one I researched carefully. In the end, I made an unusual decision that took a few extra steps.
Let me start at the beginning. In 1984, I began working for American National Insurance Company as an investment analyst. I left the company in 1991, but still qualified for a small pension.
IF YOU’RE LIKE ME, you almost dread looking at the morning newsfeed. This is why I’m happy to share some good news: The U.S. poverty rate has been cut nearly in half. What’s more, it was accomplished while the economy was practically flat on its back, with tens of millions out of work.
When I was a Washington, D.C., reporter in the mid-1990s, I reported from some of the poorest neighborhoods in Baltimore, Camden and Washington.
AFTER YOU QUIT the workforce and before you start Social Security, you may find yourself with little or no taxable income. As many financial experts have pointed out, this can be a great time to convert a traditional IRA to a Roth and pay taxes at a relatively low rate.
But here’s another tax-savings opportunity to consider: If you have winning stocks and funds in your regular taxable account, this period can also offer the chance to realize long-term gains and pay taxes at a 0% federal rate.
AT THE START of the pandemic, we picked up a nice chunk of capital losses. I say “nice” because these were intentional. When the market dropped significantly, we realized losses and immediately reinvested the proceeds in other fallen stocks.
What about capital gains? In 2020, some of our mutual funds distributed capital gains, but we didn’t intentionally realize any other gains. Some of our realized losses offset the distributed fund gains. Another $3,000 was applied against ordinary income.