IRS: 2021 Filing Season Begins February 12

IRS: 2021 Filing Season Begins February 12

Taxes, without a doubt, conjure up emotions from elation to dread! Do you owe? Are you getting a refund? Are you uncertain?

 

This is a significant statement because income tax returns cannot be filed electronically or by mail until the IRS has opened the season.

Please, do not be influenced to apply for a tax refund loan, typically known as a RAL (refund anticipation loan), if you are not in a crisis for the money. An RAL is a loan based on the anticipated amount of your federal income tax refund. Many tax filing services will offer you a RAL if… you file with their service. Your loan amount will be the value of your anticipated refund minus fees and/or interest charges.

Know, too, that your loan will go directly to the lender once the IRS processes your income tax return.

Be VERY careful with refund anticipation loans. An obvious positive attribute of the loan is you get money quickly – before the season even opens. Another, once the lender receives your refund, the loan is paid. But, what happens if your tax refund is smaller than the anticipated income tax return? You now will have an outstanding loan that will need to be paid back.

The Earned Income Tax Credit (EIC or EITC) is a refundable tax credit for low- and moderate-income workers. For 2020, the earned income tax credit ranges from $538 to $6,660. The amount depends on income and number of children; people without kids can qualify, too.

If you qualify for the EITC, you need to know, by law, the IRS cannot issue refunds for people claiming the EITC or the Additional Child Tax Credit (ACTC) before mid-February. The IRS cannot release these refunds before February 15, but the IRS is saying to expect your refund by the first week of March. Note, too, the law requires the IRS to hold the entire refund − even the portion not associated with the EITC or ACTC. This law change, which took effect in 2017, helps ensure that taxpayers receive the refund they are due by giving the IRS more time to detect and prevent fraud. 

Now, while waiting for the tax filing season to open, is a great time to get income tax documents together. Once the filing season opens, being organized and prepared will help facilitate a seamless transition to filing your income tax return. The IRS recommends that taxpayers file their returns electronically to reduce errors and receive refunds more quickly.

Filing an average income tax form is also easy. There are many FREE income tax filing sites.

Income $72,000 and below: Contact your local UF/IFAS Extension office and they can help you by:

  • Finding FREE federal tax filing on an IRS partner site
  • Finding guided preparation – simply answer questions
  • Providing a link to a FREE Facilitated Self-Assisted (FSA) service with electronic forms you fill out and file yourself

Income above $72,000: Contact your local UF/IFAS Extension office and they can help you by:

  • Providing a link to a FREE Facilitated Self-Assisted (FSA) service with electronic forms you fill out and file yourself
  • Helping you learn how to prepare papers for meeting with a tax professional
  • Providing you with basic tax preparation information

Be careful in your decision making when it comes to filing income taxes. Choosing e-file and direct deposit for refunds remains the fastest and safest way to file an accurate income tax return and receive a timely refund. It is amazing to know the IRS issues more than 9 out of 10 refunds in less than 21 days.

Source: https://www.irs.gov/filing/free-file-do-your-federal-taxes-for-free#what

 

Holiday Gift Ideas

Holiday Gift Ideas

As the holiday season gets underway, shopping for gifts may be on the top of your To Do list. While there is usually no shortage of suggestions for the kids on your list, you may be stumped about what to give to your neighbor, co-worker, best friend, or favorite aunt.

Fresh fruit makes a healthy, colorful gift.
UF/IFAS Photo: Thomas Wright.

Here are a few ideas to get you started:

Fruit basket: Give the gift of health with a basket of fresh fruit – apples, oranges, and grapefruit are seasonal favorites loaded with vitamin C and make convenient snacks or a tasty, colorful complement to any meal. If the recipient has experienced some financial challenges this year, consider tucking in a grocery store gift card to help stretch their food budget.

Gifts of Service: If your gift-giving budget is smaller this year, give of yourself! Give gift certificates for a free housecleaning to an elderly neighbor or relative, a free car wash, pet sitting for a weekend, mowing the lawn, walking the dog, a plate of your famous brownies, or an evening of child care, to name a few. These also make great gifts for children and teens to give. Download gift certificate templates online or design and decorate your own.

Magazines: A magazine subscription is a gift the recipient can enjoy throughout the year. Check renewal offers that come with your favorites – many publishers offer free or greatly reduced gift subscriptions when you renew your own.

Donations: We all have that one hard-to-shop-for person on our list – they have everything or aren’t involved in any hobbies. Or perhaps they have downsized to a smaller home and have limited space for “things.” Consider donating in their honor to one of their favorite charities or causes. There are several humanitarian organizations that provide needed supplies to persons in Third-World countries and even here in the U.S. Your donation can purchase a “share” of a farm animal that can provide income for a family, or you can select school supplies, clothing, sports equipment, or other items to benefit persons in need. Gifts of this kind always fit, take up no space in the recipient’s home, and help others in the spirit of the season. To check how well a charity uses donations for their intended purpose, visit the IRS Searchable Database of Charities, Charity Navigator, or Guidestar.org.

Gift giving doesn’t have to be expensive. With a little creativity, you can celebrate the season with fun, meaningful, budget-friendly gifts! Happy Holidays!

Thanksgiving Savings Tips

Thanksgiving Savings Tips

It has often felt like time has dragged on in 2020, but despite all the challenges, time has continued to march on, and that means the holiday season is right around the corner. Thanksgiving is fast approaching; November 26th will be here before we know it. And while this year has been tough in many ways, we also have a lot for which to be thankful.

One of the ways we celebrate that gratitude is through a nice meal with friends and family. However, many of us have experienced financial difficulties over the last several months, which may put a damper on our traditional celebrations.

With that in mind, here are a few tips for saving money this Thanksgiving:

side salad

Keeping the sides simple and having guests contribute items to the meal are two ways to reduce the overall cost of a Thanksgiving meal. (Photo source: Tyler Jones, UF/IFAS)

Shop with a list. This is good advice for everyday shopping, too, but especially at the holidays, when there are just so many delicious seasonal goodies available and we might feel like splurging. Don’t get carried away, though! Stick to traditional favorites everyone enjoys and only get enough to feed the number of guests, not an army. And remember, if it’s not on the list, don’t buy it.

Shop early. Supermarkets often begin putting holiday food items on sale weeks before the main event. Planning ahead and purchasing ingredients early can save money in the long run. Also, think about purchasing canned and dry goods for next year’s festivities right after this Thanksgiving, as ingredient prices are reduced in order to sell them more quickly and make room for other items. Just remember to check the expiration/sell-by dates to make sure they do not expire before next year.

Choose one type of meat. Turkey is the traditional centerpiece to most American Thanksgiving meals, but it doesn’t have to be. Other popular meats include ham, lamb, roast, and prime rib. The key to saving money on the meat, however, is to choose just one. Meat is one of the most expensive items on a Thanksgiving menu, and, odds are, if there is an abundance of side dishes, there won’t be a need for as much meat.

Frozen over fresh. As for the turkey, go with a frozen store brand turkey. The savings could be significant over a name brand or fresh turkey. Just remember, frozen turkeys take time to thaw safely in the refrigerator. Plan for 24 hours of thawing time per five pounds of turkey. For example, a 15-pound turkey will take at least three days to thaw in the refrigerator. Remember to place the turkey in a pan to prevent juices from dripping onto other food in the refrigerator.

Make it a potluck. Ask guests to bring a dish to share with everyone else. This way, the expense is spread out over several people and everyone saves money. There are some really great free websites that allow people to sign up to bring certain items. Customizing the sign-up helps ensure that everything is accounted for and that there isn’t a pile of pumpkin pies but no side dishes.

For more information about holiday savings tips, contact Samantha Kennedy, Family and Consumer Sciences agent, at (850) 926-3931, or reach out to your local Extension office.

Additional Resources:
Five Steps to Seasonal Savings (UF/IFAS Extension)
Food Safety Tips for the Holiday Season (UF/IFAS Extension)

UF/IFAS is an Equal Opportunity Institution.

 

Be Aware of Spending Temptations and Triggers

Be Aware of Spending Temptations and Triggers

 

Fall is in the air! In addition to the crisp, cool weather comes the season of two of the top consumer spending events: Halloween and the winter holidays.

black and white receipts

Receipts add up quickly
Photo Source: Heidi Copeland

In 2019, according to the National Retail Federation’s annual survey, U.S. consumers spent $2.6 billion on Halloween candy alone, about $25 per person. This does not even take into consideration all the other bits and pieces that can go into more elaborate Halloween celebrations: decorations, entertainment and activities, costumes (for kids, adults, and animals), cosmetics, food and drink, and even stationery such as cards and party invitations. Overall, Halloween retail spending was estimated at $8.8 billion in 2019.

Next in line are the winter holidays. These include Thanksgiving, Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday, Super Saturday, and Christmas. Even with the Covid-19 quarantine, consumers are on track to start the 2020 seasonal spending spike. For many, Covid-19 has provided a state of anxiety, isolation and uncertainty. The upcoming seasonal events can be a big boost in providing a bit of nostalgia, normalcy and fun.

It is important, however, to heed the words of The Cat in the Hat: It’s fun to have fun, but you have to know how!

The truth is the US economy thrives on consumer spending! But, be honest, does derailing your budget for stuff you might have to pay for later really make you feel better? Seasonal spending is the type of spending that can lead families into the New Year with stress and anxiety. Be aware of spending temptations and triggers.

Wikipedia defines temptation as a desire to engage in short-term urges for enjoyment. Anything that promises pleasure can be tempting. Triggers are a stimulus that alerts your brain and body to an old, known experience, which makes it more likely that we will engage and buy something.

For example, a trigger could be a smell. You might think, “I smell cinnamon. Cinnamon reminds me of fall at grandma’s. Her house always smelled like cinnamon.” The temptation would then be: “Cinnamon brooms are at the check-out cashier. I think I will buy one.”

Recognize what sets you up – smells, prices, product placement, etc. There is a method behind the madness of marketing, all of which is geared to attract a consumer to make a purchase. This year especially, anything that offers nostalgia, normalcy, or fun will be a hot commodity.

Knowing your values and goals, and creating a plan for spending (budget), will help you organize your spending. Know, too, it is reasonable to spend money on fun stuff this season of spending.  But also remember: happiness is a sense of well-being, joy, or contentment. It is very hard to buy that!

Know How to be Safe, Not Sorry Regarding Household Food Safety

Know How to be Safe, Not Sorry Regarding Household Food Safety

Deep regret and guilt are feelings I experience every time I throw something  away in my pantry or refrigerator that I have not quite exhausted. What stays? What goes? Does an expiration date really tell you the WHOLE story?

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), under the jurisdiction of the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), manufacturers put dates on food products to let retail stores and consumers know how long their products are expected to be their best quality. Except for infant formula, product dating is not required by Federal regulations.

“Best By” date refers to product quality, not safety. Photo source: UF/IFAS NW District

BEST apparently has many interpretations. Food items only need to be labeled in a manner that is truthful and not misleading and in compliance with FSIS regulations.

Many factors determine these quality dates. Additionally, manufacturers and retailers follow strict procedures in the manufacturing, distribution, and storage of food products. However, there is no strict rule to dictate what BEST practices need to be followed once the food leaves the distribution chain and enters, most specifically, our homes. Because of this, food product dating errs on the side of caution.

It has been suggested that date labeling on food products results in consumer confusion and can result in the extraordinary amount of waste at both the retail and consumer level (>30%). Thus, it is important that consumers understand the dates applied to food are for quality, not for safety. The USDA even recognizes that food products are safe to consume past the date on the label, and, regardless of the date, consumers should evaluate the quality of the food product prior to its consumption.

However, it is up to the consumer to understand the significance of product dates and handle food products appropriately.

  • “Best if Used By/Before” date indicates when a product will be of best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
  • A“Sell-By” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale for inventory management. It is not a safety date. 
  • “Use-By” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality (it is not a safety date except when used on infant formula).
  • “Freeze-By”date indicates when a product should be frozen to maintain peak quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
  • Can codes are a type of closed dating which enables the tracking of product in interstate commerce. These codes also enable manufacturers to rotate their stock and locate their products in the event of a recall. Can codes appear as a series of letters and/or numbers and refer to the date the product was canned. The codes are not meant for the consumer to interpret as a “Best if Used By” date.

Canned goods must exhibit a code or the date of canning. Cans may also display “open” or calendar dates. Usually these are “Best if Used By” dates for peak quality. Discard cans that are dented, rusted, or swollen. High-acid canned foods (e.g. tomatoes and fruits) will keep their best quality for 12 to 18 months; low-acid canned foods (e.g. meats and vegetables) will keep for two to five years.

Additional information on food canning and the handling of canned foods may be found at Shelf-Stable Food Safety.

  • Bar Codes on Food Packages are commonly referred to as Universal Product Codes (UPC) and are a type of code that appears on packages as black lines of varying widths above a series of numbers. The UPC is not required by regulation, but manufacturers print them on most product labels because scanners at supermarkets can “read” them quickly to record the price at checkout.

UPCs are also used by stores and manufacturers for inventory purposes and marketing information. When read by a computer, a UPC can reveal such specific information as the manufacturer’s name, product name, size of product, and price. The numbers are not used to identify recalled products.

  • Dates on Egg Cartons can indicate either a “Sell-By” or “Expiration” (EXP) date. It is not a federal regulation, but may be required, as defined by the egg laws in the state where the eggs are marketed. Some state egg laws do not allow the use of a “sell-by” date.

Many eggs reach stores only a few days after the hen lays them. Egg cartons with the USDA grade shield on them must display the “pack date” (the day that the eggs were washed, graded, and placed in the carton). This number is a three-digit code that represents the consecutive day of the year starting with January 1 as 001 and ending with December 31 as 365. When a “sell-by” date appears on a carton bearing the USDA grade shield, the code date may not exceed 30 days from the date of pack.

In the United States, after purchasing eggs, it is recommended to refrigerate them in their original carton and place them in the coldest part of the refrigerator, not in the door due to loss of coolness from repeated opening of the door.

The restaurant industry standard, first-in, first-out (FIFO), is also a quick and easy way for the consumer to keep track of their food freshness. FIFO simply means to use food in order of freshness dates.  Following the FIFO principle ensures foods with the shortest shelf-life get used first (a permanent marker can help, too).

Throwing something away takes little effort. However, knowing what to keep takes more than a discriminating eye and a keen sense of smell. The Kitchen Companion is a great downloadable resource and reference guide for consumers who are attempting to reduce their own kitchen waste without regret and guilt.

Learn how to be safe, not sorry, without the regret of being wasteful with food products in your home.

Sources:
https://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/food-safety-education/get-answers/food-safety-fact-sheets

https://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/wcm/connect/6c55c954-20a8-46fd-b617-ecffb4449062/Kitchen_Companion_Single.pdf?MOD=AJPERES

Beware of Scams!

Beware of Scams!

Lately, scammers have gotten more sophisticated. So it’s worth reminding everyone that if you receive an unsolicited email, text, or phone call, DO NOT give out any of your personal information! Scammers often update their tactics, using any way they can to trick you into handing over your precious personal information.

Earlier this week, I received an email (see below) telling me I had successfully set up a mobile wallet using my bank account. Since I had not signed up for this service, I was tempted to call the phone number listed in the email to dispute it. I hesitated, and for good reason. If I had contacted them, they would have tried to get my personal identification information, and then used that information to steal my identity or bank funds. I called my bank directly and learned this scam was recently perpetrated against 40,000 debit card users.

Phishing emails and text messages often appear to be legitimate and from a company you know or trust (like my own bank). These phishing emails and text messages often describe a problem with your billing, to trick you into clicking on a link or an attachment.

REMEMBER, if you receive this kind of message, by email or text, do not click on any attachments or call the phone number that is listed.

The Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) Consumer Information page offers these tips for consumers to recognize and avoid phishing scams. View their website for more information. https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/topics/privacy-identity-online-security.

  1. Protect your computer by using security software.
  2. Protect your mobile phone by setting software to update automatically
  3. Protect your accounts by using multi-factor authentication
  4. Protect your data by backing it up

Lesson learned? Protect yourself and don’t believe anything that doesn’t feel right!

 

 

For more information about protecting yourself and your finances, contact your local UF/IFAS Extension Agent.

Extension classes are open to everyone regardless of race, creed, color, religion, age, disability, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, political opinions or affiliations.