Don’t Miss these Tax-Saving Tips

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If you have not yet gotten around to filing your 2016 taxes, below is a list of some of the most often overlooked tax write-offs. Use these tips to potentially cut your tax bill and keep more money in your pocket.

We’ll start with a Win Win favorite – charitable contributions:

Out-of-Pocket Charitable Contributions

It’s hard to overlook the big charitable gifts you made during the year by check or payroll deduction. But the little things add up, too, and you can write off out-of-pocket costs you incur while doing good deeds. Ingredients for casseroles you regularly prepare for a nonprofit organization’s soup kitchen, for example, or the cost of stamps you buy for your school’s fundraiser count as a charitable contribution.

For a list of local charitable non-profits, please click here to see the folks on our list.

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State Tax Write-Offs

This write-off is primarily for those who live in states that do not impose an income tax. You must choose between deducting state and local income taxes, or state and local sales taxes. For most citizens of income-tax states, the income tax deduction usually is a better deal. IRS has tables for residents of states with sales taxes showing how much they can deduct. But the tables aren’t the last word.

Union Dues

If you belong to a labor union and you pay dues every year, deduct them.

Student Loan Interest Paid by Parents

In the past, if parents paid back a student loan incurred by their children, no one got a tax break. To get a deduction, the law said that you had to be both liable for the debt and actually pay it yourself. But now there’s an exception. If Mom and Dad pay back the loan, the IRS treats it as though they gave the money to their child, who then paid the debt. So a child who’s not claimed as a dependent can qualify to deduct up to $2,500 of student loan interest paid by Mom and Dad.

First Jobs and New Jobs

While job-hunting expenses incurred while looking for your first job are not deductible, moving expenses to get to that first job are. And you get this write-off even if you don’t itemize. If you moved more than 50 miles, you can deduct 23 cents per mile of the cost of getting yourself and your household goods to the new area, (plus parking fees and tolls) for driving your own vehicle.

Costs associated with looking for a new job in your current occupations are tax-deductible. This includes fees for resume preparation and employment of outplacement agencies.

Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit

It’s easy to overlook the child and dependent care credit if you pay your child care bills through a reimbursement account at work. This is a tax credit which will reduce your tax bill dollar for dollar, so do not miss it.

Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC)

Twenty five percent of taxpayers who are eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit fail to claim it, according to the IRS. Some people miss out on the credit because the rules can be complicated. Others simply aren’t aware that they qualify.

The EITC is a refundable tax credit – not a deduction – ranging from $506 to $6,269 for 2016. The credit is designed to supplement wages for low-to-moderate income workers. But the credit doesn’t just apply to lower income people. Tens of millions of individuals and families previously classified as “middle class” – including many white-collar workers – are now considered “low income” because they:

  • lost a job
  • took a pay cut
  • or worked fewer hours last year

If you were eligible to claim the credit in the past but didn’t, you can file any time during the year to claim an EITC refund for up to three previous tax years.

State Tax Paid Last Spring

Did you owe taxes when you filed your 2015 state tax return in 2016? Then remember to include that amount with your state tax itemized deduction on your 2016 return, along with state income taxes withheld from your paychecks or paid via quarterly estimated payments.

Refinancing Mortgage Points

When you buy a house, you get to deduct points paid to obtain your mortgage all at one time. When you refinance a mortgage, however, you have to deduct the points over the life of the loan. That means you can deduct 1/30th of the points a year if it’s a 30-year mortgage—that’s $33 a year for each $1,000 of points you paid.

Cleaning Up

Cleaning and laundering services when traveling are deductible as long as they aren’t reimbursed by your employer.

 

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The Time is Always right to do What is Right

black-historyFebruary is Black History Month, or National African American History Month, an annual celebration of achievements by black Americans and a time for recognizing the important role of African Americans in U.S. history. The event grew out of “Negro History Week,” the brainchild of noted historian Carter G. Woodson and other prominent African Americans. Since 1976, every U.S. president has officially designated the month of February as Black History Month.

In honor of Black History Month, I want to highlight some wonderful organizations serving the black community.

Booker T. Washington Foundation  A not-for-profit foundation that operates in five different areas: resource development, international development and cooperation, science and technology, telecommunications, and public policy research.

Jack and Jill of America, Inc.  A charitable group that provides educational, cultural, civic, and social programs for minority youth.

National Association of the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) This organization, based in Baltimore, MD, is the oldest black organization that fights for civil rights and equal opportunity.

National Urban League (NUL) The nation’s oldest and largest community- based movement devoted to empowering African Americans to enter the economic and social mainstream.

Rainbow Push Coalition This organization, led by Jesse Jackson, fights for equal rights for minorities, women, and gays/lesbians.

Southern Poverty Law Center  A not-for-profit organization whose primary task is the upholding of the legal rights of the poor in general.

                               

 

 

Making the Switch – Efficient Lighting

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The switch from incandescent light bulbs to energy-efficient light bulbs is inevitable – so why not start saving money now? In fact, the traditional incandescent light bulb is becoming increasingly difficult to find as they are no longer manufactured. While the initial price of energy-efficient bulbs is typically higher than traditional incandescents, newer bulbs cost less to operate, saving you money over the life of the bulb. This also means (a lot) less time spent changing bulbs around the house.

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An average household dedicates about 5% of its energy budget to lighting. Switching to energy-efficient lighting is one of the fastest ways to cut your energy bills. By replacing your home’s five most frequently used light fixtures or bulbs with models that have earned the ENERGY STAR, you can save $75 each year.

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You have many choices in energy-efficient lighting. The most popular light bulbs available are halogen incandescents, compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) and light-emitting diodes (LEDs).

Halogen incandescents have a capsule inside that holds gas around a filament to increase bulb efficiency. They are available in a wide range of shapes and colors, and they can be used with dimmers. Halogen incandescent bulbs meet the federal minimum energy efficiency standard, but there are now many more efficient options to meet your lighting needs.

CFLs

Compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) are simply curly versions of the long tube fluorescent lights you may already have in a kitchen or garage. Because they use less electricity than traditional incandescents, typical CFLs can pay for themselves in less than nine months, and then start save you money each month.

LEDs

Light-emitting diode, or LED, lights are a newer option for residential lighting. They are significantly more energy-efficient than either incandescent or CFL bulbs and last 8 to 25 times longer than halogen incandescents.

LED bulbs are currently available in many products such as replacements for 40W, 60W, and 75W traditional incandescent bulbs. LEDs work well indoors and outdoors because of their durability and performance in cold environments.

Today’s energy-efficient bulbs are available in the wide range of colors and light levels you’ve come to expect. New lighting standards took effect in 2012, and money-saving options such as halogen incandescent, CFL, and LED light bulbs are available today. For high-quality products with the greatest energy savings, choose bulbs that have earned the ENERGY STAR rating.

Do you use energy-efficient lighting in your home? Have you noticed a difference in your electric bill or how often you are changing bulbs?

Quick, Easy, & Inexpensive Home Upgrades

Looking to add a little value to your home? It doesn’t need to be a cost-prohibitive undertaking to add up to some valuable changes. Invest a few hours of sweat equity, a few bucks (generally under $100), and you’ll be surprised at the results.

All of these projects can be done over the course of a weekend. Several actually, if you are highly motivated.

Frame out your bathroom mirror

Know how to use a saw and have some understanding of how to calculate angles? You can make your builder grade bathroom look more custom by creating a quick and easy frame. According to DIY Network, this easy project should cost about $25 in materials and take approximately four hours to complete and that’s using cedar boards. MDF molding may cost even less. Give it a quick splash of paint or stain to make it your own.

Change your chandelier

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How old is that dining room light fixture? Was it inherited from the previous owners or part of an outdate trend? A quick trip to your local home improvement store can seriously amp up your style. This trendsetting, Kenroy Home Anemone 7-Light Bronze Chandelier will make a huge impact in your space, and, at just $96.25, will have friends and potential buyers (if you’re planning to sell) thinking you spent much more.

Change your light bulbs

Burned out light bulbs may seem insignificant, but they can easily lend the impression of a dark and dreary or, even worse, untended home. How many light bulbs are actually functioning in your house right now? Fresh bulbs can lighten up your home, and your mood. Bulbs are available in a range of options – from soft white to bright, bright daylight to suit any home and any room. Don’t limit yourself.

 Buy a new fan

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Winter is a great time to buy ceiling fans because stores are looking to move inventory that might sit until spring and summer. Swap out or install a fan that will add a new element to your rooms. From the very modern to classic, choose a style that fits your home’s personality. Or the personality you want it to cultivate.

Mulch your yard

Mulch is cheap, easy to install yourself, and can add valuable curb appeal that makes your home look fresh and well-taken-care-of. A two-cubic-foot bag will cost you $3–4 a bag, but watch for sales at Lowe’s and Home Depot, when they go on sale for two bucks each. Mulches come in many colors to compliment your house and yard.

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Add a backsplash

You can give your kitchen a little love and make it look more updated easily by adding a backsplash. Subway tile is an easy choice because it’s classic and neutral and has been the favorite backsplash option for several years.

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If you want a bold option that doesn’t require grouting, opt of a peel and stick glass tile. With a multitude of colors and designs to choose from, you can add the look of the real thing with minimal effort.

Freshen the Front Door

A freshly painted (or brand-new, if needed) front door is repeatedly counted among the best updates to make to your home. This is a task you can easily tackle yourself in just a few hours. Not sure what color to pick? This quick and fun HGTV quiz can help you decide. You can also change out the hardware to add a new element to an existing door.

What are some of your favorite, inexpensive home upgrades?

Gifts that Give Back

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Why not give a gift that is a win-win for both the lucky recipient and another person, animal, or organization? Below are some ideas for holiday (or any time!) gifts that not only show you care, but will help make the world a little better. I wish you all a wonderful, safe holiday season!

Something for Absolutely Anyone on Your List

More than 16,000 eco- and socially conscious products are available (some from as low as $2) on WorldofGood.com. Each product is vetted and comes with a short description so you can see exactly where your money is going.

Fair-trade lip balms, organic soaps and craft supplies are all under $15 and make excellent stocking stuffers.

Buy a Gift, Fund a Business

At BuildaNest.com, you will find beautiful, hand-made Guatemalan totes that support local businesses. The site sells original apparel, jewelry, home and paper goods made by more than 100 exclusive artists and designers and gives microcredit loans to women in developing countries, enabling them to start and maintain a business selling their own products—which are then offered on the site itself.

Love the cause but don’t need a handbag? GlobalGoodsPartners.org, sells handwoven bracelets made by native tribes in Argentina and handcrafted beaded bangles made women in Tanzania. Global Goods Partners is dedicated to alleviating poverty and promoting social justice and funds women-led market initiatives in local communities in 24 countries.

For Animal Lovers

The International Fund for Animal Welfare’s Gifts for Animals (AnimalGift.org) program helps protect elephants, as well as bear cubs and seals, and also provides funds for urgent pet care and animal rescue. Starting at $25, each gift comes with a full-color pamphlet telling the story of the animal being helped.

Indulge

Lush’s hand and body lotion is made with fair-trade cocoa-butter, and proceeds—100 percent after taxes—go to the organization featured on the lid of each pot. WaterCan, TreePeople, Amazon Conservation Team, and International Fund for Animal Welfare are only a few available at LushUSA.com .

One Size Fits All Gift Certificates

Good Cards (CharityNavigator.org) are the gift certificates of the philanthropy world. You set the price; recipients pick the charity. Perfect for those bosses, co-workers and clients you’re stumped on.

What are some of your favorite ‘win win’ gifts?

Thanksgiving: Then, Now, & Always

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For many Americans, the Thanksgiving meal has become something of a buffet of seasonal dishes to pick and choose from when filling up a plate (for the first or second time). The often copious leftovers eaten in the ensuing days are one of the few similarities between the modern Thanksgiving meal and the original Plymouth feast in 1621 that lasted three days.

The quintessential American Thanksgiving meal includes seasonal dishes such as roast turkey with stuffing, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie. But how this compare to what was likely served almost 400 years ago?

TURKEY

While no records exist of the exact menu, the Pilgrim chronicler Edward Winslow noted in his journal that the colony’s governor, William Bradford, sent four men on a “fowling” mission in preparation for the event. Wild turkey was a common protein for both English settlers and Native Americans. It is likely that the hunters also returned with ducks, geese, and swan.

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Turkey without stuffing? It happened. Instead of a bread-based stuffing, it is reasonable to assume that native herbs, onions, or nuts may have been cooked with the birds for extra flavor.

Winslow wrote that the Wampanoag guests arrived with an offering of five deer. Culinary historians speculate that the deer was roasted on an open spit and that some of the meat was used to create a hearty venison stew.

FRUITS AND VEGETABLES

The 1621 Thanksgiving celebration marked the Pilgrims’ first autumn harvest, so it is likely that the colonists feasted on the bounty they had reaped. Local vegetables that likely appeared on the table include onions, beans, lettuce, spinach, cabbage, carrots and perhaps peas.

Corn was plentiful during the harvest season, but it was prepared very differently– no corn on the cob or corn pudding. In those days, the corn would have been removed from the cob and turned into cornmeal, which was then boiled and pounded into a thick corn mush or porridge that may have been sweetened with molasses.

Regional fruits included blueberries, plums, grapes, gooseberries, raspberries and, of course cranberries, which Native Americans ate and used as a natural dye. And the cranberry sauce? The Pilgrims might have been familiar with cranberries by the first Thanksgiving, but they wouldn’t have made sauces and relishes. That’s because the sacks of sugar that traveled across the Atlantic on the Mayflower were nearly or fully depleted by November 1621. Cooks didn’t begin boiling cranberries with sugar and using the mixture as an accompaniment for meats until about 50 years later.

FISH AND SHELLFISH

Seafood was one of the staples of the first meal – the coast was teeming with bass, lobster, clams, and oysters. Mussels in particular were abundant in New England and could be easily harvested because they clung to rocks along the shoreline. The colonists occasionally served mussels with curds, a dairy product with a similar consistency to cottage cheese.

POTATOES

Whether mashed or roasted, white or sweet, potatoes had no place at the first Thanksgiving. It would be over fifty years before these staples of the modern meal were introduced -white potatoes, originating in South America, and sweet potatoes, from the Caribbean, had yet to infiltrate North America.

New England’s native inhabitants are known to have eaten other plant roots such as turnips, squash, and groundnuts, chestnuts in particular. Most of these sides would have been served roasted.

PUMPKIN PIE

While both Native Americans and the Pilgrims enjoyed pumpkin, the possibility of pumpkin pie was out. The colony lacked the butter and wheat flour necessary for making pie crust. Even if they did, the settlers hadn’t yet constructed an oven for baking.

No pumpkin pie?! So what did they do instead? According to some accounts, early English settlers in North America improvised by hollowing out pumpkins, filling the shells with milk, honey and spices to make a custard, then roasting the gourds whole in hot ashes.

Whatever your meal consists of this year, I am thankful to all of my clients, family, friends, and readers and wish you all a wonderful, peaceful, and safe thanksgiving.

 

 

 

Hope in the Valley

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I am pleased to announce that Valley Hope Counseling Center is one of the newest recipients of Win Win for a Cause donations. At the close of every sale, my clients will have the opportunity to choose Valley Hope to receive a portion of my commission instead of a traditional closing gift.

Valley Hope Counseling Center is a United Way agency and has provided affordable, quality mental health care for the residents of Waynesboro, Staunton, and Augusta County since 1997. Their staff of trained counselors work with patients of all ages and income levels and are committed to the principle that quality care is of greater importance than financial gain.

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The important issues they address include anxiety and depression, relationships, domestic violence, sexual abuse and recovery, substance abuse, eating disorders, parenting, issues, grief and loss, and more. In addition to individual therapy, they also offer some group therapy, including anger management. This vital service helps clients cope with life issues and address them in a healthy way, allowing them to lead more productive lives – affecting more than just individuals, benefiting our entire community.

Valley Hope is hosting a Yoga for Hope benefit event October 1st  at Birdseed YOGA at 504 West Main Street. There will be yoga classes from 9a.m to 3p.m. for all ages and skill levels. 100% of the proceeds go to helping Valley Hope continue their amazing work. Hope to see you there!

Please visit Valley Hope Counseling Center’s website for more information about this wonderful organization and the services they provide in our community.