Do This to Avoid a Big Tax Surprise

If there is one recurring theme from this tax season that caused the biggest tax surprise it is this:

Double-check your withholdings: The withholding tables were revised and many taxpayers were under withheld, which caused them to owe taxes versus receiving a refund. The easiest way to correct this is to see how much you owed and then divide it by the number of paychecks left in the year. Then, either ask your employer to withhold this extra amount or complete a new Form W-4 to request this additional amount to be withheld from your paycheck.

Remember, a lower refund does not mean a lower tax liability. A refund is a function of your withholdings and estimated tax payments versus your tax liability.

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The Instructions Said 20 – 25 Minutes

Recently, I purchased a bed from Wayfair that had to be assembled from four large boxes that it was delivered in. I waited until the weekend to assemble it and learned a few things:

After spending hours and hours assembling and completing the bed, I took a look at the assembly time to see if I was in line with how long it should take to assemble. Over the years I have, or at least I thought I have, become proficient with assembling toys, bikes, trampolines, furniture, and just about everything else. However, the instructions said that it should take 20 – 25 minutes for two people to assemble the bed. It took about that long just to take the pieces out of the box. This made me realize either: I assemble way too slowly (hope this isn’t true, but it is humbling), the time on the instructions apply to professionals who assemble beds on a daily basis, and most importantly, you can’t believe everything that you read.

To apply this in business (hopefully you are not putting together a bed when you should be working), are you spending the proper amount of time on the right activities and minimizing or eliminating tasks that you should not be doing? Are you seeking the help of professionals when necessary? Are you seeking the correct information to determine what you need to do to succeed?

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Business Lessons from a Paperboy

I was a paperboy when I was a kid and I also mowed some of my neighbors’ lawns. These are two activities that have become extinct in modern times. I was fortunate to learn some good business lessons from these entrepreneurial endeavors.

The value of money : If I worked not only hard, but did a good job then I made more money. I learned the value of money, how to save up for larger purchases, spending money wisely, and also saving for the future. Unfortunately, kids and adults nowadays tend to ignore these basic financial principals and choose impulsive, debt-incurring decisions.

Customers are interesting: Each customer is unique and interesting. Some more than others, but if you take the time to learn about your customers then you will find out about their lives, families, interests, personalities, and unique characteristics. Positive interactions create a wonderful experience and help to make your job or business responsibilities easier to handle, especially on a rainy day.

Responsibility: Take responsibility for your actions. There are many things that are out of your control, but many things that are. Be accountable to yourself and others even when it is the hard thing to do.

Sometimes bad stuff just happens: The owners of the newspaper I delivered newspaper for decided to replace us all with adults. I believe we had some notice of the transition, but we had no control. It was just like a corporate layoff or having your largest customer go bankrupt.

I could probably list another dozen or two lessons from my experience as a paperboy, which have stayed with me through all these years.

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Should You Market to Existing Customers or Search for New Ones?

Much of the marketing advice today focuses on marketing to obtain new customers, which is full of excitement and challenges. While you should always be seeking new customers, what about your existing ones? What is most effective?

New customers: It is especially important to market to new customers when you are just starting up and also when trying to grow your business. The benefits are new customers to develop and grow your customer base, to replace ex-customers (there is always natural attrition that is not your fault), and increase cash flows.

There are also several downsides to marketing to new customers. The first downside is that it is much more expensive and time-consuming to obtain new customers. Some studies show that it is about five times more expensive to obtain a new customer than to retain an existing customer. Additionally, depending upon your business, a new customer may be less profitable than an existing customer, which means that your profits will not keep up with your sales growth.

Existing: There are two types of marketing that should be performed for your existing customers. The first should be to develop stronger relationships, loyalty, and ultimately higher customer retention. Unfortunately, many small businesses and professionals greatly lack a plan to keep in touch with their customers and wait until they are contacted by their customers for an urgent need. The second type of marketing should be to increase sales of existing products or services, and also to provide additional products and services to their existing customer base. Studies also show that existing customers are much more likely to purchase from you vs. new customers.

When I was in high school I learned this lesson from my dad after finding out that I needed to sell magazines as a fundraiser. He told me to go see the customers from my old paper route that I had several years back, which I reluctantly did even though I thought that he was wrong. It turns out that I was the one who was wrong and met the sales quota with very little effort.

Hybrid: The older and greyer I become I realize that most things in life are not either or, but are a combination of both. The wisest approach is to market to new customers, make efforts to retain your existing customers, and to offer new products or services to your existing customers.

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Is There a Link Between Strong, Healthy Relationships and Financial Success?

We don’t live in a vacuum. We are surrounded by family, friends, acquaintances, employees, bosses, clients/customers, colleagues, advisors, vendors, and everyone else. Financial success is not just all about you, but your support system. Let’s take a look:

Family and friends: A common theme is to go to college, move out (possibly out of state), and do it all yourself. Nowadays you can keep in touch with family more easily with the use of technology, but nothing beats geographical closeness. If you have a medical emergency or even something minor requiring the help of family or friends, then finding support is more problematic. Another example is the support system inside your marriage, which is why a healthy relationship with your spouse is so important. Divorce does not help your finances, but your attorney’s. No one is going to support you more than your family and friends.

Bosses: There is a saying that it does not matter where you work, but who you work for. Look at your past and see if this is true. Having a healthy relationship with your boss can catapult your career much easier than constantly questioning if your boss is going to fire you today. I’m sure that your stress levels will be lower too.

Clients/customers: If your customers see you as just another provider of products or services then that is what you are to them, which is not very beneficial to either of you. This is why it is so important to have good rapport with your clients. There are always times when someone isn’t satisfied, and if the relationship is strong then it can overcome hiccups along the way. Remember, no one is perfect and everyone annoys someone or makes mistakes along the way.

Advisors:  Anecdotally, individuals that have tax and/or financial issues tend to have had poor relationships and communication with their advisors.

Everyone else: The examples are unlimited and healthy relationships should even extend to your neighbors, landlord, and every single business that you patronize. People who tend to have poor relationships seem to struggle more than those who do.

Strong, healthy relationships are important and our goal should be to build them vs. thinking that we can always rely on our own strength.

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Is Your House Really Considered an Asset or Just a Place to Live?

Is your house an asset? Some would say yes, and I am sure that some would say it’s actually a liability. Here are different ways of thinking about your house.

Asset: Hopefully your house will appreciate in value over time, but this is not always the case. Because of the often high amount of leverage that most people take on when buying a house, the increase in value can often be multiplied. If it goes down in value and you are underwater, then your asset turns into a nightmare.

Even if your house does appreciate in value it usually does not make much of a difference. This is because most people end up selling their first house and using the proceeds, if any after considering all of the costs of selling a house, to purchase a larger house. Any equity is then “locked up” in their new house again.

No income generation: Unfortunately, your house does not generate income, unless you own a multi-family property, which is not a bad idea, but shunned by most. As a side note, a good strategy is to purchase and live in a multi-family house as your first home, stay for a number of years, move to a new home, and then rent out your unit.

Place to live: Economically, over the long-term owning a home is much better than renting, although life does seem much simpler when renting.  If you think of your home as a place to live vs. an asset than your perspective will change, including funds spent on  improvements. A cost benefit should be considered when making improvements, but know that improvements to your home are not usually the best investment.

Using it as an asset: If your home appreciates in value and your mortgage balance has steadily increased then you have the opportunity to tap into the equity of your home. Just make sure to use this equity wisely as you don’t want to find yourself unable to pay your equity loans and then end up in financial turmoil. Investments considered should be high return, low risk, which they should always be.

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Some Horrible Ways to Lower Your Tax Bill That are Not Recommended

I don’t think that I ever met anyone that likes to pay taxes. Everyone feels better when their taxes are paid in full with no outstanding balances, but not actually paying them. Sometimes this hatred of paying taxes can go too far and here are a few examples of what not to do:

Understate your income: As a business owner there is a huge temptation to “pocket” any cash that is received or cash checks instead of depositing them to your account. However, if you understate your income too much then you may be facing jail time and massive penalties.

Overstate expenses: Maybe you really like cars and use multiple cars for your business. However, if your spouse does not work in your business then her car payment is not a tax deduction. The same goes for personal meals, personal expenses, and outright lying about your expenses and deductions. Most likely you do not give 15% of your income to charitable. It’s possible, but not very probable.

Losing money in a side business: The main purpose of starting a business is to make money. Maybe some contemporary experts think that you should try to change the world, but most likely you are selling a product or service that is not going to cure illnesses. Sometimes a newer business owner is so intent on losing money to not pay taxes that they never let their business actually become a business. A business can only lose money for so long. The same goes for real estate investments and traditional investing.

Spend a dollar to save a quarter: Do not ever spend money on an unnecessary tax deductible expense just to save taxes. The math is very simple – spend $1 to produce $.25 of tax savings, which equals $.75 lost.

Multi-state taxation: The tax laws are extremely complex and each state has its own set of rules. However, don’t let this stop you from doing business or working in other states to take advantage of opportunities.

Tax-exempt investments: Even though municipal bonds are exempt from Federal taxes and possibly state taxes, this does not mean that they are appropriate for you. You must do the math to make sure you compare after tax returns of taxable investments to tax exempt investments, otherwise you may be worse off economically.

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What is all the Hype About Generating Passive Income? Here are Four Examples

I’m sure that you have seen YouTube commercials about generating passive income while lounging in a pool with your collection of high-end sports cars collecting dust in your oversized garage. Is this really practical and can you really generate massive amounts of passive income? The answer is yes and no . . .

Passive income defined: Passive income is any income that is derived from sources that you do not actively participate in to generate that income. Examples can include rental real estate, businesses that you do not materially participate, and royalties.

Can you really do it?: Yes, you can do it, which is the simple answer. However, it is much more difficult than the commercials let in on. Here are several ways to generate passive income starting from the least amount of capital needed to the most:

Side business: Start a business on the side while you are either working as an employee or if you already have a business. In order to make your endeavor take as little time as possible, then your need to focus on a either a product or information based business, while skipping a service-based business. The reason for not choosing a service business is because it will most likely require much more of your time.

Existing business: No matter which business you are in, you can make your business less and less dependent upon you so that you are not required to materially participate in the day to day activities. However, this can take at least several years or more to make this happen, and you have to make sure that your sales can support the additional expenses. The approach must be methodical whereas each aspect of your responsibilities is either transferred to employees or outsourced. It is easier to do this if you have a business that is not very complex.

Real estate: Depending upon where you purchase real estate, this can take a lot of capital. However, if you choose a rental property wisely and continue to build your portfolio, then eventually your rental income can substitute your regular income over many years. A good place to start is to either purchase a building for your existing business or to rent your home if you plan on moving.

Investor/lender: Once you have a sizable amount of cash, then you can and should look for privately held businesses to provide capital for. This can be in the form of equity or debt. If you are very selective then you can build a great portfolio over time with returns that are much higher than traditional investments, although the risk will usually be much higher.

There you have it now go for it!

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An Observation Regarding Money Worries

There are a few things that I noticed over the years that seem to contradict each other regarding money worries. There seems to be a link between being charitable, concerns over saving too much, and stress about money.

Charitable giving: some people make a lot of money and give little to nothing to charity, especially as a percentage of their income, and the opposite is sometimes true regarding those with modest incomes. Theoretically, the greater your income then the greater should be your charitable giving. Why does this make sense? I believe that it has to do with a scarcity mentality and a fear of letting go. If you are overly concerned with not having enough money, whether real or imagined, then why would you part with your money?

Overly concerned about saving: Let’s face it, it is daunting to think that we have to make sure to save enough for retirement, college, a house or a larger house, 6 months of expenses for an emergency fund, weddings, sweet 16 parties (they can be over the top nowadays), vehicles, business ventures, and everything else. It even makes me exhausted just writing that! However, some take it too far and save so much or are concerned so much about saving that they get really stressed out. Although I am an advocate for saving up for most of the above (I’m not a big fan of massive weddings and outlandish sweet 16 parties), you have to balance that with current needs or you will be miserable. Who wants to eat the cheap steak to save an extra $10 for their retirement?

Do any of these apply to you? Maybe just a little?

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If You Are Looking for a Good Business Partner Then Pay Attention to What They Do, Not What They Say

Running a business is probably one of the most challenging, while equally rewarding endeavors that only the brave embark on. Some go at it alone, while others choose a business partner because sometimes 1 + 1 = 3 or 5 or 10. However, before choosing a partner you must minimize the risk of choosing the wrong partner by paying attention at what they do or have done, not just what they say.

Look at their past: No one is perfect, but generally, when a person is not able to overcome some of their difficulties, then there is a high probability that they will not magically fix their problems when you are their partner. Rather they will bring these issues into your business and wreak havoc. One time events or actions may not be too meaningful, but repeated patterns are a very bad sign.

Specific examples:

Tax problems: It is not uncommon for business owners to have a tax problem at one time or another due to the complexity and burden of an ever increasing number of taxes, fees, penalties, etc. that they need to be aware of. However, if there is a history of not filing tax returns, especially willfully, or not paying their taxes then watch out.

Health, mental, and addictions: The number of times that I speak to people regarding mental issues or addictions is so high that it doesn’t seem real and seems to be on the rise. Just because someone has a mental illness, doesn’t mean that they will make a bad business partner, unless it is not under control and has been for some time. The same goes for addictions, which can include gambling, spending, drugs, alcohol, and everything else. If the addiction was in the way past and has been overcome, then that is a plus. If it constantly resurfaces or is currently happening then that is a sign that it has not been defeated. Unfortunately, it is hard to know these things, especially if you only know a potential business partner casually. Although, thorough background checks and taking a look at the last year or so of bank statements may shed some truth.

Half truths or lies: Maybe your potential business partner ran a business in the past and it didn’t work out, which is not that uncommon. They may have the issues above, they may not be so good at running a business, or maybe there is another reason. One way to find out is to ask a lot of questions and then try to verify their answers with some research and legwork. For example, they may say that their landlord kicked them out of the building because the building was sold. Well, you can easily find out if the building was sold, speak directly to the old and new landlord, and look at their bank statements to see if they were actually paying their rent. Another example is to ask if they ever filed bankruptcy and then look into the public records to see if this is the truth and/or to have them run a credit report in front of you.

These are all of the bad things to look out for, but what are the good things to look out for? The answer is to look for the exact opposite. As I tell my children often: seek truth.

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