Four simple tips for organizing your finances

In our busy lives, it’s sometimes tough to corral our financial records. Bills, paycheck stubs, tax returns, and bank statements can disappear into dusty attic corners and bulging desk drawers. Important insurance policies can hide out beneath bins of holiday ornaments and electrical supplies. Mortgage documents can sneak into old books or ensconce themselves in nooks and crannies throughout the house.

Take the time now to coax those papers out of hiding. Here are four suggestions for getting organized.

1. Find a system that works for you. Many people use a computer program such as Mint,  Intuit’s Quicken or Microsoft’s Money to track everyday spending and bank accounts. Others use pencil, paper, and a shoebox. Some people use file folders, labeled for various expenses and accounts; others scan into a computer.

The key is to use whatever system makes sense to you and helps you maintain your finances with a reasonable amount of effort.

2. Dedicate a space and a time. To ensure that bills are paid on time, bank statements are reconciled, and important documents are properly filed, set aside a specific location in your home for financial tasks. It may be a place where you keep a computer or filing cabinets or shoeboxes. Once that area’s set aside, pick a time each week (or each day, if you’re really zealous) to pay bills, enter financial information into check registers, and organize documents.

3. Keep the important stuff in a safe. Don’t leave your only copies of wills, tax returns, stock certificates, or emergency contacts in a pile on the desk. Such documents should be tucked away in a safe deposit box or home safe. Ask your attorney or financial advisor to store the signed copy of your will in a secure location.

4. Don’t keep documents forever. Many papers (such as regular household bills) can be shredded soon after receipt. Other documents, such as those supporting the cost of investments and real estate, should be retained longer for tax purposes. A good general rule for tax returns (and documents that support the returns) is seven years. When it’s time to discard those old pieces of paper, fire up the shredder.

If you’d like additional guidance in organizing your finances, give us a call.

David Bradsher, CPA

Don’t lose out on the 2014 gift tax exclusion

Time is running out for making 2014 tax-free gifts. You have only a few more months to use your annual gift tax exclusion for this year, or it’s gone forever.

Each year you can make gifts up to a certain dollar limit to an unlimited number of people, free of any gift tax. For 2014, the dollar limit per recipient is $14,000. These gifts do not reduce your lifetime exemption from gift and estate taxes.

Why would you want to make annual tax-free gifts? There are a number of possible reasons. Tax-free gifts are often used in estate planning as a way of steadily reducing the value of a taxable estate during the owner’s lifetime. Another strategy is to transfer income-producing assets to children or other family members who are in a lower tax bracket. If done carefully to avoid the “kiddie tax,” the result can be a lower overall tax bill for the family unit.

If you fail to use this year’s exclusion, it is not carried over to future years. To qualify as a 2014 gift, the transaction must be completed by December 31, 2014. If you are writing a check as a 2014 gift, do so in time for the recipient to deposit it before year-end.

Check with us if you would like more information about making tax-free gifts in your situation.

David Bradsher, CPA

Avoid these six mistakes in selling your business

Most entrepreneurs eventually think about selling their businesses, whether as a prelude to retirement or to pursue other activities. In doing so, they often underestimate the effort required for a satisfactory outcome and overestimate the value and salability of their enterprises. If you’re contemplating selling, here are some common mistakes to avoid.

1. Overestimating the value of your business.

Your price should be based on the fair market value of the business in its current form. Buyers won’t care about the work you’ve put into building your business or your unique vision for its future.

2. Failing to account for the nature and make-up of your business.

The values of most businesses proceed from a mixture of variables. If your business includes significant equipment, real estate, intellectual property, or other such assets, their values should be separately established before being factored into the overall price. If you’re selling a service or professional firm, much of its value may depend on the experience and skills of your managers and employees. In such a case, the price may vary according to the expected retention of key individuals.

3. Failing to base your sale price upon independent appraisals.

Even if you think you know the value of your business, you should obtain two or more outside appraisals from professionals familiar with your industry. If the appraisals conflict with your opinion, they’ll provide a much-needed reality check. If they confirm your opinion, they’ll become a useful sales tool.

4. Not hiring a professional business broker to handle the sale.

Owners are often too personally invested (and/or eager to sell) to effectively negotiate sales of their businesses. A broker familiar with your type of business will know what issues are important to buyers and what characteristics to emphasize or de-emphasize, without becoming emotionally involved.

5. Neglecting to work with the buyer to ensure a smooth transition.

Nobody likes being thrust into unfamiliar circumstances without preparation. Notifying your managers, employees, and customers in advance and doing all you can to allay their concerns will serve your own best interests, as well as being the honorable thing to do. Discontent on the part of any of the affected parties could result in conflicts, reduced revenue for the buyer, withheld sale payments, and litigation.

6. Being unwilling to help finance the sale.

If you’re unwilling to take back a note, your sale price is limited to the buyer’s cash and ability to obtain outside financing. At best this could limit the number of potential buyers, and at worst it could limit your sale proceeds. (Conversely, if you finance too much of the sale price, you’ll increase the risk of default.)

Selling your business is too important to attempt without professional help. If you’re considering selling, call us for an appointment to help formulate your plan.

David Bradsher, CPA

Use the 80-20 rule to increase your business profits

How well do you know your customers? Which ones are the most profitable? Which ones take most of your time? It’s worth taking the time to find out. If your business is like most, the 80-20 rule applies. That is, 80% of your profits come from 20% of your customers.

If you can identify that top 20%, you can work hard to make sure this group remains satisfied customers. Sometimes all it takes is an appreciative phone call or a little special attention. Also, by understanding what makes this group profitable, you can work to bring other customers into that category.

Keep in mind that it’s not always profits alone that make a good customer. Other factors, such as frequency of orders, reliability of the business, speed of payment, and joy to deal with are important too. Ask your accounting staff and your sales staff. You’ll soon come up with a list of top customers.

There’s another way in which the 80-20 rule applies to your business. Very likely, 80% of your problems and complaints come from 20% or fewer of your customers. If you identify those problem customers, you can change the way you do business with them to reduce the problems. Consider changing your pricing for those customers so that at least you’re being paid for the extra time and effort they require. Sometimes the only solution is to tell these customers that you no longer wish to do business with them.

The bottom line is that understanding your customers better can only help your business. Contact us if you need help analyzing your customer profitability.

David Bradsher, CPA

No, you’re probably not saving enough

How much money did you save last year? If you didn’t save at least 10% of your earnings, you didn’t save enough. If your savings in 2013 fell short, the only solution is to take charge of your financial future right now and start saving more money.

Saving money doesn’t have to be hard work. In fact, many successful savers have found simple ways to cut spending and increase their savings. Here are some tips to help you get started and stay on track.

* Set goals. To give your savings purpose, set specific financial goals. For example, it’s advisable to have an emergency fund of approximately six months’ worth of living expenses to cover any cash outlays that may catch you by surprise. Nothing can derail your financial plans faster than a series of mishaps that force you to take drastic financial measures. Other saving goals may include a college savings fund, vacation fund, or a fund for major purchases.

* Treat your savings as your most important monthly bill. Write a check to savings first, or have your savings automatically deducted from your checking account or paycheck.

* Tax-deferred retirement accounts offer a smart way for you to save money for retirement. If your employer offers a 401(k) or SIMPLE retirement plan, contribute the maximum amount allowed. If your employer offers no plan, contribute to an individual retirement account (IRA). The money you contribute to a retirement account can reduce your taxable income and grow tax-free until withdrawn.

* Another way to maximize savings is to track your expenses for a few months. This is a great way to spot unnecessary or wasteful spending; it doesn’t take much work to see potential cutbacks.

* When it comes to saving, think “control.” For example, control the use of your credit cards. The amount you pay each month in finance charges could go to savings instead. Also, control the use of your ATM card. Get in the habit of giving yourself a regular cash allowance, and try to live with it.

You should be saving at least 10% of your earnings. Seem impossible? If you took a new job at 10% less pay, you would get by. For help in setting financial goals and developing a savings plan, call us.

David Bradsher, CPA

IRS issues another warning

Another strong warning from the IRS is alerting taxpayers to phone scams that have already resulted in 90,000 complaints and the theft of millions of dollars. Here’s how the typical scam works: The caller claims to be from the IRS and, using hostile and abusive language, demands immediate payment of taxes by a prepaid debit card or wire transfer. The IRS reminds taxpayers it will never contact you by phone about owed taxes; the first contact will be by mail. It will never ask for credit, debit, or prepaid card information in a phone call, and it will never request immediate payment over the phone.

David Bradsher, CPA

Here are tax breaks when you do charitable work

If you do volunteer work for a charitable organization and have not kept track of your out-of-pocket expenses, you might be passing up an excellent opportunity to lower your tax bill. To qualify, your unreimbursed expenses must relate directly to the charity, and you must itemize your deductions on your tax return. Here is a brief rundown of some possible deductions.

* Volunteers may deduct the cost of phone calls, postage stamps, supplies, and other out-of-pocket costs incurred in their volunteer work. For volunteers who are required to wear a uniform, the cost of buying and cleaning uniforms is deductible if they are unsuitable for everyday wear.

* The cost of your time, no matter how valuable it may be, is not deductible. That’s true even if you would normally be paid for the type of service you contribute. For instance, accountants who perform free consulting for charities can’t deduct what they would normally charge for their services.

* Using your car in connection with volunteer work can earn you a deduction. The standard mileage rate for volunteers who use their own cars is 14 cents per mile. Alternatively, you may deduct your actual unreimbursed expenses for gas and oil – but not maintenance, depreciation, or insurance. Either way you choose, related parking fees and tolls are deductible as well.

* If you travel overnight for charitable purposes, your expenses are deductible as long as they are reasonable in amount and not connected with personal activities or any element of recreation.

* Special rules apply to conventions. Travel and other out-of-pocket expenses related to attendance at a convention for volunteers are deductible only if you have been chosen as a delegate to represent the organization.

Finally, just remember that it is up to you, the volunteer, to substantiate your deductions. If you take these deductions, you should be prepared to show the IRS the connection between the costs claimed and the charitable work performed.

 

David Bradsher, CPA

Worthless stock and tax timing

In the last few years, you may have purchased stock in a dot-com that’s now out of business, or in another company whose share price is now just pennies. Does this mean you can take a tax loss for a worthless security? Here’s a quick look at the rules.

First, the stock must be completely worthless before you can claim a loss. For example, if it’s a publicly traded company and the share price is as low as a penny, it still doesn’t qualify as worthless. (If this is the case, you may be better off selling it to your broker for a penny and taking a regular capital loss.)

If it is worthless, you must be able to identify an event that caused it to become worthless and a date for that event. For example, even if a company declares bankruptcy, the stock may not be worthless if there’s a chance it will reorganize and emerge from bankruptcy. But if it becomes clear at a bankruptcy hearing that the creditors will own the reorganized company, you can consider your stock worthless at that time.

You must claim a worthless security’s loss in the tax year it became worthless. Because this is sometimes not obvious until later, the IRS allows you to go back seven years to file an amended return claiming the loss.

Because these are general rules and because it is often a judgment call to decide that a stock is worthless, we encourage you to contact our office with any questions you have.

David Bradsher, CPA

Grandparents can help with college costs

Are you a grandparent who wants to help pay for a grandchild’s college education? You’ll find several ways to do this, each with its own limitations and tax consequences.

GIFTS. The simplest way is to make an outright cash gift to your grandchild each year. In 2014, you can give up to $14,000 without any gift tax liability. If your spouse joins in the gift, you can jointly give each grandchild up to $28,000 each year.

DIRECT PAYMENTS. You can give unlimited amounts without gift tax consequences if you make the payments directly to a qualified education institution on behalf of your grandchild. Payments can only be for tuition, not for dorm fees, meals, books, etc.

EDUCATION ACCOUNTS. You could set up a Coverdell education savings account or a Section 529 plan for your grandchild. These plans offer tax-free growth of amounts you contribute to them. Age, income, and contribution limits apply, however.

To discuss the options best suited to your circumstances, contact our office.

David Bradsher, CPA

IRS posts “Taxpayer Bill of Rights

The IRS has just issued a “Taxpayer Bill of Rights” that you should be aware of.

The Rights are divided into ten main categories. According to this “cornerstone” document you have The Right:

* to be informed

* to quality service

* to pay no more than the correct amount of tax

* to challenge the IRS’s position and be heard

* to appeal an IRS decision in an independent forum

* to finality

* to privacy

* to confidentiality

* to retain representation

* to a fair and just tax system

David Bradsher, CPA