Taxes 
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How to Avoid a Tax Audit

Red FlagsNo likes the idea of going through a tax audit. Indeed, many of us get downright nervous about being audited. There is no way to completely avoid an audit; some IRS audits are performed randomly. You never when your number will come up. Most audits, though, are performed because of some red flag the IRS sees when looking at your tax return.

If you want to reduce the chances that you will be audited for something that is in your tax return, you will need to be careful about you fill out the forms. For the most part, avoiding IRS red flags is fairly simple: Only take the deductions and credits you are actually entitled to, and double check your return for mistakes.

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 Banking 
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How Are Bank Promotions Taxed?

You may have seen an increase in the number of bank deals listed on Bargaineering lately. The reason for the uptick has to do with the economy. As the economy recovers and banks start offering more incentives and promotions to attract new customers, the number and size of these bonuses has been increasing. Two years ago, the bank offers were paltry, if not extinct. If you got more than a toaster out of a new account, you were doing well.

With the return of $100 and $150 cash offers for new accounts, you might be wondering whether or not you have to pay tax on the promotions.
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 Reviews 
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TurboTax 2011 Review

TurboTaxI had the opportunity get a demonstration of the new TurboTax 2011 online tax preparation package and I came away very impressed with the level of automation they included. Last year, the most impressive new additions was the ability to flag certain parts (which would’ve prevented me from having to file an amended return after I put in a placeholder value) and their audit scanning feature (looks for red flag mistakes like mismatching numbers).

This review of TurboTax applies to the software used to handle Tax Year 2010 returns.

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 Taxes 
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Official 2011 US Income Tax Brackets (IRS Tax Rates)

Tax BracketsWith every new year comes a little tweaking of income taxes and this year is no different. Three weeks ago, we didn’t what was going to happen to our tax rates since Congress had yet to act on the expiring Bush era tax cuts. With the clock winding down, they opted to extend them by two years and so the only change you’ll see is an adjustment for inflation.

These tax brackets are for the tax year 2011, here are the current tax brackets.

This year we’ll be presenting them a little differently. Some readers are here just to find out their marginal tax rate and others want to find out how much in taxes they’ll be paying. So this year you’ll see a listing of all the marginal tax rates first, followed by a breakdown of taxes due (without accounting for deductions and other adjustments).

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 Government 
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You Fix The Budget

A lot of the political rhetoric during the mid-term elections focused on reducing government spending and reducing the deficit (I found it a little hypocritical considering the average household credit card debt was in the thousands of dollars). That likely prompted the New York Times to put together a little “game” in which you get to fix the budget.

Today, you’re in charge of the nation’s finances. Some of your options have more short-term savings and some have more long-term savings. When you have closed the budget gaps for both 2015 and 2030, you are done. Make your own plan, then share it online.

You get a list of programs with estimated savings to the deficit (out to 2015 and 2030), and you’re charged with saving $418 billion by 2015 and $1,355 billion by 2030. The sources of those estimates come from a litany of organizations, many of which you’ve probably seen referred to in other articles, and I’m inclined to take their savings estimates at face value. By playing this game, you start to appreciate how difficult it is to cut the deficit (despite out easy it is to put “fiscal responsibility” on political “to do” list) especially after the reaction to the draft Bowles-Simpson Plan.


 NEWS 
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Pascrell, Capuano Propose Adding New Tax Brackets

With the Bush tax cuts expiring, there have been several proposals out there suggesting what we do. We’ve looked at the three major solutions to the expiring Bush tax cuts as well as one less well known alternative, but there’s a new one on the table that seems to make a lot of common sense (just not political sense).

Representative Bill Pascrell (D-NJ) and Representative Michael Capuano (D-MA) suggest the introduction of a new tax bracket starting at $500,000, an idea (known as the Pascrell Compromise) they floated before the mid-term elections. It also includes a five year extension on current middle class tax rates (individuals < $200,000 and families < $250,000) and long term capital gains and qualified dividends. It also includes a one year extension on tax rates for filers making under $500,000 annually (effectively creating a $500,000 tax bracket).

This effective “decouples” the tax brackets at the $500,000 income level and political experts are claiming that this will not get Republican support. Once you decouple the higher tax brackets, it’d be political suicide to vote against continuing the middle class (income under $200,000 and $250,000) tax cuts. The interesting part will be to see if all the voters to voiced their opinion about the national deficit and debt will do the same about continuing huge tax cuts for everyone, including themselves. :)

In case you were wondering, Bargaineering readers weighed in on the subject just recently.


 NEWS 
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Economists Recommend Extending Bush Tax Cuts

CNN Money surveyed 31 economists for their economic forecasts and asked what they would recommend Congress doing about the expiration of the Bush tax cuts. From a list, eighteen of the thirty-one chose to extend the tax cuts for everyone, not just those outside the two top tax brackets. Three of the thirty-one supported President Obama’s proposal and nearly all of them opposed doing nothing and letting the cuts expire.

For those not entirely familiar with the backstory on this, President Bush signed into law back in 2001 and 2003 a series of tax cuts now known as the Bush tax cuts. It lowered tax brackets, capital gains taxes, and are set to expire at the end of this year. With the sunset provisions set to take place in a few months, there has been much debate on what should be done. President Obama’s proposal would extend the tax cuts for all but the two top tiers, individuals making more than $200,000 and families making more than $250,000. If Congress were to do nothing, tax rates would increase back to pre-Bush tax cut levels.

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 Personal Finance 
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University Pre-Tax Parking Deduction Benefit

The best kind of benefit is a fringe benefit, right?

As it turns out, the IRS has a guide for Federal, State, and Local Governments (FSLG) governing the tax rules of fringe benefits and the reporting of fringe benefits! We ran into this the other day as my lovely wife was signing up for a parking pass at her school. As a graduate student, she’s technically faculty and an employee. Since it’s a public university, the University of Maryland, that makes her a government employee.

So she’s signing up for this parking pass and one checkbox surprised her:

I understand and agree that by giving authorization to have automatic parking deductions taken out of my paycheck the deduction will be on pre-tax basis and will not be included in my Federal, State or FICA wage base.

That’s when she asked me if she was reading it right – “Does that mean I’m paying for my parking pass with pre-tax money?”

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