Investments

How Long Should You Save Your Tax Returns and Financial Records?

The IRS says that you should normally keep your records for 3 years, and for some situations you should keep them for 6 to 7 years. However, I strongly disagree and here is what you should do and how to do it:

Tax returns: Do you want to know the prudent answer to how long you should save your tax returns? Until you are dead, and even then your heirs should probably keep them until years after the estate is settled. Why should you do this even though the IRS has 3 years to audit your returns and 6 years if you under report more than 25% of your income? Here are several real-world practical reasons:

  1. It is far too common that the State of New Jersey will send a letter to you stating that you never filed a tax return from more than 10 years ago. Additionally, if you are selling your business, trying to obtain a specific license, dissolving a business, or for any number of reasons, then the State will perform research to see if you filed all of your tax returns. Even though the State may be wrong, you will still generally need to file the returns.
  2. Information carries over from year to year. As your tax return becomes more complex, your income tax information tends to carry over for many years, such as investment losses and rental property purchases.
  3. A safe way of storing your tax returns is to keep both digital and hard copies.

Financial records/receipts: What if social security has incorrect information about your earnings from 25 years ago? If you have the actual records then you can prove your case more easily. This includes tax information, such as W-2’s and paystubs. Here are some timeframes based on the types of documents:

  1. Tax documents should be saved forever, just like you save your tax returns. This especially relates to business tax records. Brokerage statements should be included as part of your tax information as they contain purchase price information.
  2. Bank and credit cards statements can be discarded after a few years. However, if they contain tax information or are connected to a business or real estate, then you should save them forever.
  3. Utility bills can be discarded after about 6 months. Sometimes you need these to prove your residency, but the timeframe needed is generally a few months.
  4. ATM and purchase receipts can be discarded once you view the transaction on your bank statement or online. However, when purchasing from a restaurant, you should make sure that the amount after a tip is accounted for actually settles, which can take several days.
  5. Receipts for improvements to your home or for large business purchases should be saved forever.
  6. If you are short on physical space then save your records electronically, but make sure that you have a cloud backup.

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Is It Better to Pay Off Debts or Invest?

Almost everyone has some sort of debt and economic data shows that this is the case. Between mortgages, student loans, credit cards, business debts, and auto loans and leases (yes, a car lease is debt), many people find themselves allocating large portions of their income towards debt payments. When you are in a position to start paying off debts, should you do so or invest your extra funds? Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of each.

Pay off debts: Pros: Paying off debts with your extra cash will help you to decrease your liabilities, save interest, which can be significant with credit card debts and some business loans, and eventually enable you to free up cash flow. A non-conventional way to pay off debts is to start with the smallest balance debt to get the momentum going.  Cons: If you focus solely on paying off debts while ignoring investing then you will have no assets for long-term or short-term needs. If a short-term emergency arises, then you will be forced to incur debt to pay for it.

Invest your extra funds: Pros: Investing and savings will hopefully produce a much larger amount of assets over time and enable you to take care of emergencies that arise. Keep in mind that funds for emergencies should be kept very liquid, and a reasonable amount to set aside should be 3 to 6 months of expenses. Cons: Your liabilities will decrease slowly, interest expense will remain high, and you most likely will earn less on your investments especially when factoring in risk, then if you were to pay off debts.

Alternative: The decision to pay off debts or invest does not have to be an either or. Some well-known experts advocate at both ends of the spectrum. Why not do both? Assess your debts and savings to see where you will get the most bang for your buck. For example, let’s say you are able to allocate 6% of your income to savings or investments, then you can use 2% to pay off high interest debts, 2% to save for short term needs, and the remaining 2% can be used to save for retirement.

What if you don’t have extra funds?: The solution is simple, but not easy. Assess your lifestyle to see where you can cut expenses while working to increase your income. If you spend everything that you make currently and work to increase your income by 3% and decrease your expenses by 3% then you will now have extra funds. If your situation is more extreme, such as expenses that are higher than your income, then you will have to take stronger action. For smart ways to cut expenses, then type “expenses” in the search function of this blog.

The mature approach: If you have large excess funds then don’t incur more debts and pay off existing debts quicker once your savings rates are much greater than needed. You can be the only one on your block that doesn’t have debt and no one has to know. I am sure that the quality of your sleep will improve!

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So You Want to Flip Homes?

Buy a house, put in a few improvements, and then sell it for a much higher price. Do it again and again. It sounds so simple, but here are a few pointers to keep in mind if you want to succeed with house flipping:

Experience: If your experience in real estate is performing repairs on your home during weekends, then you do not have the required experience. Ideally, you should have experience in both residential construction and real estate sales.  Experience as a general contractor will help you to determine the amount of time and costs to improve a potential flip, while experience in real estate sales will help you to locate a property, determine the market characteristics, and eventually sell the property.  Both are extremely important because you want to maximize your profit by investing your time and money in the right house and the smartest improvements. If you do not have this experience then you need to spend the time to learn as much as possible before purchasing a flip to minimize costly errors.

Know your costs and potential selling price: Before purchasing a property you need to estimate your cost of purchasing the property, the necessary improvements, and carrying costs such as real estate taxes, loan payments, utilities, and insurance. Just as important is the estimated selling price. If you underestimate your costs, overestimate the selling price, or underestimate the time to improve and sell the property, then your chance of profit will be greatly decreased. The formula is simple, but not always easy to accomplish; profit = the selling price minus all costs. With this in mind you want to make sure that you leave enough wiggle room to make a profit in case your estimates are off.

Capital: If you don’t have the necessary capital to purchase a fixer upper, make improvements, and pay the carrying costs, then you need to either obtain a loan or partner with someone who has the necessary capital. Make sure that you have a cushion just in case your estimates are wrong.

Time and opportunity cost: Let’s say that you are a contractor and are looking to flip a house. Make sure that you estimate that you will make more money on the time spent with your flip than during your regular construction activities. The same goes for anyone else trying to invest their time and money in a flip.

Start small: If just starting out then make sure that your first slip does not have the potential to decapitate you financially. Just think back to what happened to many house flippers about a decade ago.

Taxes: Most likely your profit will be taxed at ordinary income tax rates and possibly self-employment taxes vs. long-term capital gains rates. This is due to the fact that you are usually considered to be a dealer with the intent to buy, improve, and sell a home in a short time frame.

Alternatives: An alternative and close cousin to house flipping is to rehab a rental property, rent it out, and hold it for the long term. It is not as exciting as house flipping, but it can be very worthwhile, while also carrying less risk.

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5 Financial Truths

There is a lot of information out there about finances, and it’s hard to figure out what is exactly true or not true. Always seek the truth, especially from someone that is not trying to sell you something. Here are some examples:

College: We are led to believe that all of our children must go to college to be successful and make a lot of money. While I am a big believer in education and college, it is not the only route and it is not for everybody. With the high cost of college, the decision to attend college should not be automatic. There are alternatives, such as becoming a tradesman, learning a special skill that does not require college, starting a business, sales positions, military or government positions that do not require college, stay at home parent (yes, this is a vocation), etc.

Retirement savings: Saving for retirement is a good thing, however, it should be balanced with both short and mid-range needs. For example, if you allocate virtually all of your savings towards retirement accounts and ignore having a cash cushion, then your risk of financial catastrophe increases. If a financial crisis arises or a large purchase needs to be made, then you will have to withdraw from your retirement accounts, which is one of the worst financial decisions to make due to both income taxes and penalties on the withdrawals. Furthermore, if you do not have withholdings taken from your distributions, then you will probably end up with a tax problem once you file your return. The prudent action is to have a cash cushion of 3 to 6 months of expenses for emergencies and to save for mid-range goals, such as a house purchase.

Debts: Debt truly is a double-edged sword. There are some who advocate staying away from debts at all costs and others who encourage you to leverage yourself to make more money. The truth is that debt should be used wisely and sparingly, if necessary and as a last resort, and it should not cripple you. If you are able to avoid debt, then that is excellent, as debts increase your risk and they also encourage risky behavior and increased spending in many cases.  To prove this point, why do you think McDonald’s started to accept credit cards, why do auto loans have 7 year terms, and why can young adults take out massive loans for college?  It is to get you to spend more than you would have otherwise.  As you mature financially you should seek to decrease your debts.

Most people would not be able to afford a house without obtaining a mortgage, and if they waited to purchase a house and rented instead, then they would most likely be worse off financially over the long term. Also, some businesses may need to incur debts to purchase expensive equipment, inventory, or improvements that would not be possible if they did not incur debts. To emphasize, it should be used wisely and sparingly.

Expenses, income and savings: Most likely your expenses are way too high. If you are able to save 15- 20% of your income and have no debts then spend whatever you want. Otherwise, set aside money towards savings to steadily increase the percentage that you save each time you get paid. This way you will spend whatever is left over. If you are not able to do this then you need to take a serious look at decreasing your expenses and increasing your income. The truth is that it is really not that hard, but most people have a hard time doing this. As Yogi Berra said, “Baseball is ninety percent mental. The other half is physical.”

Home and health = wealth: In the quest for success, don’t ignore your most valued relationships or your health. Nothing can cripple your finances as quickly as health or family issues, such as divorce. With either of these issues your expenses increase exponentially while your income suffers at the same time. Make sure to prioritize.

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IRS and NJ Taxation Highlights

 

Yesterday I attended a continuing professional education seminar with speakers from both the IRS and the State of New Jersey. Here are some highlights after all of the recent Federal changes and also many New Jersey changes that most people are not aware of:

Your paycheck may be under withheld: After the new Federal tax law changes, many people have seen an increase in their take home pay due to the tax cuts, but it is quite possible that too little has been withheld. If you want to be safe then ask your employer to increase your withholdings, and you can also use the withholding calculator at irs.gov. Beware that it is really meant for simpler tax situations versus being self-employed, having rental income, and investments. If you are one of our business clients that we already prepare a year-end tax projection for, then we will take care of this for you.

Private debt collectors: The IRS uses private debt collectors, and the State of New Jersey has already been doing this for years through Pioneer Credit Recovery. This can cause concern especially with all of the fraud that is taking place nowadays. By the way, the IRS will not ask you to drop off cash somewhere, send a money order, or purchase gift cards to settle your debts.

New Jersey tax amnesty: There are many unknowns to all of the changes that NJ has made, including the start date of a tax amnesty program. The program will likely start on November 15th of this year and end on January 15, 2019, and allows a reduction of interest charged and elimination of penalties for old tax debts from February 1,  2009 through September 1, 2017. You should receive a notification on this program if you have old debts, but you can file and pay your old debts even if you do not receive a notice from the State.

New Jersey property tax deduction increase : The property tax deduction on your New Jersey tax return has been raised to $15,000 from $10,000.

Penalties for not having health insurance in New Jersey: New Jersey now requires residents to have health insurance or they have to pay a tax penalty. New Jersey has taken the opposite approach of the Federal government.

Increased pension exclusions in New Jersey: This will be phased in over the next several years, however, there is an income limitation of $100,000, which has not increased.

There are many, many more changes related to New Jersey, including reinstatement of Urban Enterprise Zones, increased tax rates on income over $5,000,000, taxes on ride sharing, taxes on liquid nicotine, and changes to payments plans.

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Does Money Really Matter? 3 Different Views

People tend to fall into 3 different categories of how they view money, which ultimately impacts how they manage it. How important should it be to you?

Love of money/materialism: Thus is the most extreme view whereas you practically worship money. Earning more and obtaining more just to earn more and have more. It can be a trap that creates a lack of satisfaction. Although it may at first seem hard to digest, poor people can worship money and wealthy people may not because it is not about the amount that you have.

Don’t care: Another extreme view is not to care at all about money, although this doesn’t seem as common. This can cause problems because you may not use your money wisely and will probably be rather reckless.

Balanced approach: Thus is where you view money for what it is; a resource that has been given to us to use wisely. But what exactly is the wise use of money? It is taking care of your family, the poor, investing and saving wisely, spending within your means, and not being too emotionally wrapped up with money. It may mean owning a 5,000 square foot house or it may mean renting a small apartment; shopping at Wal-Mart or Neiman Marcus. Confusing, isn’t it?

Just realize what the purpose of money is and don’t let anyone tell you how much or how little you need. Learn, seek advice, and try not to get stressed out over it.

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Why Everyone Should Start and Run a Business Even if it’s Just Part-Time and Temporary

Why should everyone start a business? Because it will completely change the way you see the world, view people, money, and everything else. Not to mention that it will humble you.

Just to be clear, not everyone should be a business owner full-time or for the long-haul. However, by starting a part-time business or even operating it full-time it will change the following:

Appreciation: You will appreciate the skills of business owners that you know, including friends, family, local restaurants and other business owners, or even your own boss/owner if you work for a small company. There are many, many skills that are required to run a successful business that can only be appreciated if you actually are a small business owner.

Humbling: Nobody likes rejection that I know of, but it is very common in business. A small business owner is usually the head salesman and must learn how to sell their products or services. As with any sales position, you’ll quickly realize that not everyone wants to buy what you’re selling, even if you believe that it is better than chocolate fudge brownies, if that is possible. Even if you are selling your products on the Internet and do not have to sell face to face, you may wonder why nobody is visiting your website or buying your products on Amazon. Don’t take it personally. You will also experience the ups and downs of a business vs. a steady paycheck from an employer.

Direct relationship between results and income: Unless you work as a commission-based sales person, there generally is not a short-term relationship between your income and your results. For a business owner, great results equal greater income. As an employee, compensation increases tend to happen over time and you are highly dependent upon your direct boss and the company’s performance.

Complaining: You will probably laugh when a friend complains how much they have to pay towards their health insurance, retirement benefits, and their company’s paid time-off policies. Guess who fully pays for these benefits when you own your own business?

Commitment: Having a small business means being committed. As with any endeavor that you seek to achieve positive results, a strong commitment will dramatically increase your chance of success. If you can commit to a business then you can commit to other important items.

 

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Cost of College = $1,000,000?

If it costs approximately $30,000 per year to attend college, although that figure can be much higher, then the cost of college for my children will be over $1,000,000 when the time comes, especially as rates keep on rising. In case you are wondering about the math, here it is:

7 children times $120,000 (for 4 years) = $840,000. Multiply that by an average annual tuition increase of 3% over the next 7+ years and the cost is over a million dollars.

When I get asked the question, “How are you going to send your children to college?” I usually reply with a snide remark that I am going to discourage them from attending college. However, there is some truth in that, and here are some alternatives from paying high tuition that we have discussed with our children:

Military: One of my sons wants to be in the Army. This is extremely noble and brave and not for everyone. If he stills wants to be in the Army when he comes of age, then he can also apply to and hopefully get accepted to West Point to accelerate his military career. There is no tuition at West Point.

Entrepreneur: I’m very biased with this one because I work with entrepreneurs all day long. Aside from certain professionals, such as doctors, attorneys, CPA’s, etc., you usually do not need to go to college to start your own business. Some do very well and some don’t, but I would hope that they would receive my guidance to help them to succeed.

Nursing: There are many good local colleges to choose from, which will eliminate the cost of room and board. This will dramatically reduce the cost.

Famous: Who says you can’t get paid to be famous?

Mom: My older daughters say that they want to be moms. Although it is not in vogue to be a stay at home mom nowadays, I believe that it is one of the greatest gifts that can be given to your children.

YouTuber/Gamer: I’m not sure what this one means exactly, but I think that it means recording yourself playing video games while narrating what is going on. Although, I am not sure if you can make a living wage from this or for how long, but if so, then great.

My children are not even teenagers yet, so let’s see what happens. I am definitely keeping an open mind and not taking this too seriously at this point!

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Don’t Be Embarrassed if You Have Financial or Tax Problems

There is a stigma attached to having financial and tax problems, but it doesn’t have to be that way or it may make the problems worse. Sometimes these problems develop as you become more successful, which easily happens with both celebrities and business owners. Other times they develop due to a quick downturn in business, withdrawing money from retirement accounts early, losing your job, health issues, or any other negative event. Even some very successful people have had financial struggles and then bounced back, including:

Donald Trump: Although he never filed bankruptcy personally, his casinos and hotels have. He is now president of the United States.

Mark Victor Hansen: One of the co-creators of the “Chick Soup for the Soul” book series.

Walt Disney: He had financial struggles early on.

Jim Rohn: Entreprenuer, author and motivational speaker who went broke after a business expansion went bad. He is credited with the business success of many and some of his talks can be listened to on YouTube.

Also, the number of celebrities that have financial and tax issues is too long to list . . .

What should you do if you find yourself in trouble or better yet, how can you avoid problems? Here are a few ways:

Hire competent professionals and heed their advice: As your success increases, you need to work closely with advisors that can guide you in the right direction to minimize risks, strengthen your finances, and reduce your tax burdens. If you view and treat professionals as purely costs, then you will not only hire the wrong ones, but you will not seek their advice, which is usually worth more than their cost.

Too much leverage, not enough cash: There are those that are 100% against any types of debts, and I can definitely see how this can be a smart strategy to keep you out of trouble. However, there are many times that you will never realize an opportunity if you do not take upon some debts and risks in a wise manner. Having a reasonable cash cushion will also help to thwart many smaller financial setbacks.

Know the tax consequences: Virtually every financial transaction has a tax consequence and it is prudent to seek professional advice to minimize negative consequences. Having a good year in business, followed by a not so good year can easily cause a tax issue if taxes were not properly planned and paid for. Another tax catastrophe is withdrawing from your retirement accounts and not accounting for income taxes and early withdrawal penalties.

Don’t be so hard on yourself or delay seeking the advice of a professional or your problems will just get worse.

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Is a Franchise Right for You?

McDonald’s, Subway, and Chick-fil-A all have one thing in common – they are franchises with proven track records. But is a franchise right for you? Let’s look at the pros and cons:

Pros:

Proven model of business success: Established franchises have a proven model of success that makes it easier for you to be successful. The franchisor takes the guess work out of marketing, which items to sell, systems, and how to operate your business effectively.

Multiple locations: Because of the standardization of the franchise model, it makes it much easier to own and run multiple locations because each location is virtually identical. There may be some minor differences, such as size, but it’s almost like having twins.

Potential to be a passive business: Depending upon the franchise, you may be able to take a more passive role in a franchise business. However, some franchises do not allow this, such as Chick-fil-A, but many do.

Cons:

Capital requirements: Aside from an upfront franchise fee, many successful franchises require you to have a lot of liquid capital before purchasing a franchise. Although this is a very, very smart move on the part of the franchisor, due to the high correlation between undercapitalized businesses and business failures, this requirement makes is harder to purchase some franchises. However, there are many franchises to choose from and the capital requirements and fees vary considerably.

Independence and creativity: Due to the strict model of owning a franchise, you are less able to be “creative.” For example, if you own a McDonald’s franchise, you can’t decide to just add bison burgers to the menu without approval.

Franchises can be a good way to become an entrepreneur or to expand your entrepreneurial empire, but you must weigh the pros and cons to make sure that it is right for you.