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Ultimate Guide to Maximizing Your 401(k)

Editorial Note: The content of this article is based on the author’s opinions and recommendations alone and is not intended to be a source of investment advice. It may not have not been reviewed, commissioned or otherwise endorsed by any of our network partners or the Investment company.

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You’re probably familiar with the basics of a 401(k). You know that it’s a retirement account, offered by your employer. You know that you can contribute a percentage of your salary, and that you get tax breaks on those contributions. And you may know that your employer might offer matching contributions.

But beyond the basics, you may have some confusion about exactly how your 401(k) works and what you should be doing to maximize its benefits. This guide will tell you everything you need to know so that you maximize your 401(k) contributions.

The 4 types of 401(k) contributions

When it comes to maximizing your 401(k), nothing you do is more important than maximizing your contributions. While most investment advice focuses on how to build the elusive perfect portfolio, the truth is that your savings rate is much more important than the investments you choose.

While it is important to build a balanced portfolio, make sure you don’t neglect the easy stuff like maxing out a 401(k). This is especially true when you’re just starting out.

There are four different ways to contribute to your 401(k), and understanding how each one works will allow you to combine them in the most efficient way possible for your needs. By adding more money, you’ll be inching closer to a financially secure retirement.

1. Employee contributions

Employee contributions are the only type of 401(k) contribution that you have full control over, and they are likely to be the biggest source of your 401(k) funds. That’s because these are the contributions that you make to your 401(k). Employee contributions are typically a percentage of your salary, automatically deducted directly from your paycheck each pay period.

The key here is that it’s up to you to decide what percentage to have deducted—up to a certain amount. In other words, employee contributions are your chance to get the most bang for your buck.

Let’s say that you earn $3,000 every two weeks. If you decide to contribute 5% of your salary to your 401(k). In this case, $150 will be automatically taken out of each paycheck and deposited directly into your 401(k). Automation is the advantage: Everyh week, a percentage of your pay is out of sight and stashed safely away for your golden years.

Maximum personal contributions

The IRS sets limits on how much you can contribute to your 401(k) in a given year. For 2019, employee contributions are capped at $19,000, or $25,000 if you’re age 50 or older. These limits will increase to $19,500 and $26,000, respectively, in 2020. In subsequent sections we’ll talk about how much you should be contributing in order to maximize these contributions.

Traditional 401(k) vs. Roth 401(k) contributions

There are two different types you need to choose from—a traditional 401(k) or a Roth 401(k)—each with a different set of tax benefits:

  • Traditional 401(k): Traditional 401(k) contributions are tax-deductible in the year that you make the contribution and grow tax-free while inside the 401(k). They are taxed as ordinary income when you withdraw the money in retirement.
  • Roth 401(k): Roth 401(k) contributions are not tax-deductible in the year you make a contribution, but they grow tax-free while inside the account—and you won’t pay taxes when you withdraw the money in retirement.

Both the Roth 401(k) and the traditional 401(k) have the same contribution and catch-up contribution limits, as well as a 10% early withdrawal penalty. The main difference between the two types of plans comes down to taxes, as reflected above.

If you have both options available, how do you choose the right one? It typically comes down to age. If you’re younger and just starting out in your career, the Roth 401(k) makes more sense, as you’re likely in the lowest tax bracket you’ll ever be in and thus you’ll pay lower taxes on contributions. If you’re more advanced in your career, it might make sense to go with a traditional 401(k), because 100% of your contributions are invested, giving them maximum chance to grow.

2. Employer matching contributions

Many employers match your contributions up to a certain point, meaning that they contribute additional money to your 401(k) each time you make a contribution.

Employer matching contributions are only somewhat in your control. You can’t control whether your employer offers a match or the type of match they offer, but you can control how effectively you take advantage of the match they do offer.

Taking full advantage of your employer match is one of the most important parts of maximizing your 401(k). Skip ahead to this section to learn more on how to maximize your employer match.

3. Employer non-matching contributions

Non-matching contributions are contributions that your employer makes to your 401(k) regardless of how much you contribute. Some companies offer this type of contribution in addition to, or in lieu of, regular matching contributions.

For example, your employer might contribute 5% of your salary to your 401(k) no matter if or how much you contribute. Or, your employer might make a variable contribution based on the company’s annual profits.

It’s important to note that these contributions are not within your control. Your employer either makes them or not, no matter what you do.

However, these contributions can certainly affect how much you need to save for retirement, since more money from your employer may mean that you don’t personally have to save as much. Or, these contributions could be viewed as additional free savings that help you reach financial independence even sooner.

4. Non-Roth after-tax contributions

This last type of contribution is rare. Many plans don’t even allow this type of contribution, and even when they do, these contributions are rarely utilized. To find out if your 401(k) plan does allow these contributions—many do not allow them—you can refer to your 401(k)’s summary plan description.

And even if these contributions are allowed, it typically only makes sense to take advantage of them if you’re already maxing out all of the other retirement accounts available to you.

But if you are maxing out those other accounts, you want to save more and your 401(k) allows these contributions, they can be a powerful way to get even more out of your 401(k).

How non-Roth after-tax 401(k) contributions work

Non-Roth after-tax 401(k) contributions are sort of a hybrid between Roth and traditional contributions. They are not tax-deductible, like Roth contributions, which means they are taxed first and then the remaining money is what is contributed to your account. The money grows tax-free while inside the 401(k), but the earnings are taxed as ordinary income when they are withdrawn. The contributions themselves are not taxed again.

Here’s a quick example to illustrate how the taxation works:

  1. You make $10,000 of non-Roth after-tax contributions to your 401(k). You are not allowed to deduct these contributions for tax purposes.
  2. Over the years, that $10,000 grows to $15,000 due to investment performance.
  3. When you withdraw this money, the $10,000 that is due to contributions is not taxed. However, the $5,000 that is due to investment returns — your earnings — is taxed as ordinary income.

The value of non-Roth after-tax 401(k) contributions

This hybrid taxation means that on their own non-Roth after-tax contributions are typically not as effective as either pure traditional or Roth contributions.
However, they can be uniquely valuable in two big ways:

  • You can make non-Roth after-tax contributions in addition to the $19,000 annual limit for 2019 on regular employee contributions, giving you the opportunity to save even more money. They are only subject to the $56,000 annual limit in 2019 ($62,000 if eligible for catch-up contributions) that combines all employee and employer contributions made to a 401(k).
  • These contributions can be rolled over into a Roth IRA when you leave your company or even while you’re still working there. And once the money is in a Roth IRA, the entire balance, including the earnings, grows completely tax-free. This contribution rollover process has been coined the Mega Backdoor Roth IRA, and it can be an effective way for high-income earners to stash a significant amount of tax-free money for retirement.

How to maximize your 401(k) employer match

Now that you have an understanding of the types of contributions available to you, it’s time to start maximizing them. The first step is making sure you’re taking full advantage of your employer match.

Simply put, your 401(k) employer match is almost always the best investment return available to you. Because with every dollar you contribute up to the full match, you typically get an immediate 25%-100% return.

How a 401(k) employer match works

While every matching program is different, a typical plan offers a partial match or a dollar-for-dollar match. The names clue you into how they work. A partial match means your employer agrees to match a certain percentage of your contributions, up to a specified point. For example, your company could match 50% of your contributions up to 6% of your salary. That means if you contribute 4% of your salary, your employer will contribute 2%.

A dollar-for-dollar match means that your employer has agreed to match 100% of your contributions, up to a specified point. So if you contribute 5% of your income to your 401(k), your employer also contributes 5%. Just like the partial match, anything above the match limit is not matched.

How does this work in the real world? Well, let’s say that you make $3,000 per paycheck and that you contribute 10% of your salary to your 401(k). That means that $300 of your own money is deposited into your 401(k) as an employee contribution each paycheck, and your employer matching contribution breaks down as follows:

  1. The first 3% of your contribution, or $90 per paycheck, is matched at 100%, meaning that your employer contributes an additional $90 on top of your contribution.
  2. The next 2% of your contribution, or $60 per paycheck, is matched at 50%, meaning that your employer contributes an additional $30 on top of your contribution.
  3. The next 5% of your contribution is not matched.

All told, in this example, your employer contributes an extra 4% of your salary to your 401(k) as long as you contribute at least 5% of your salary. That’s an immediate 80% return on investment.
That’s why it’s so important to take full advantage of your 401(k). There’s really no other investment that provides such an easy, immediate and high return.

How to find your 401(k) employer matching program

On a personal level, taking full advantage of your employer match is simply a matter of contributing at least the maximum percentage of your salary that your employer is willing to match. In the example above, that would be 5%, but the actual amount will vary from plan to plan.

So your job is to find out exactly how your employer matching program works, and the good news is that it shouldn’t be too hard. These are the two main pieces of information you’re looking for:

  1. The maximum contribution percentage your employer will match. This is the amount of money you’d need to contribute in order to get the full match. For example, your employer might match your contribution up to 5% of your salary, as in the example above, or it could be 3%, 12% or any other percentage. Whatever this maximum percentage is, you’ll want to do what you can to contribute at least that amount so that you get the full match.
  2. The matching percentage. Your employer might match 100% of your contribution, or they may only match 50%, or 25%, or some combination of all of the above. This has a big effect on the amount of money you actually receive. For example, two companies might both match up to 5% of your salary, but one might match 100% of that contribution, and one might only match 25% of it. Both are good deals, but one is four times as valuable.

With those two pieces of information in hand, you’ll know how much you need to contribute to get the full match and how much extra money you’ll be getting each time you make that contribution.

As for where to find this information, the best and most definitive source is your 401(k)’s summary plan description, which is a long document that details all of the ins and outs of your plan. This is a great resource for all sorts of information about your 401(k), but you can specifically look for the word “match” to find the details on your employer matching program.

And if you have any trouble either finding the information or understanding it, you can reach out to your human resources representative for help. You should be able to find their contact information in the summary plan description.

Two big pitfalls to avoid with your 401(k) employer match

Your employer match is almost always a good offer, but there are two pitfalls to watch out for: vesting and front-loading contributions. Both of these could either diminish the value of your employer match or cause you to miss out on getting the full match.

Pitfall #1: Vesting

Employer contributions to your plan, including matching contributions, may be subject to something called a vesting schedule.

A vesting schedule means that those employer contributions are not 100% yours right away. Instead, they become yours over time as you accumulate years of service with the company. If you leave before your employer contributions are fully vested, you will only get to take some of that money with you.

For example, a common vesting schedule gives you an additional 20% ownership over your employer’s contributions for each year you stay with the company. If you leave before one year, you will not get to keep any of those employer contributions. If you leave after one year, you will get to keep 20% of the employer contributions and the earnings they’ve accumulated. After two years, you will get to keep 40%, and so on, until you’ve earned the right to keep 100% of your employer’s contributions after five years with the company.

Three things to know about vesting:

  1. Employee contributions are never subject to a vesting schedule. Every dollar you contribute and every dollar that money earns is always 100% yours, no matter how long you stay with your company. Only employer contributions are subject to vesting schedules.
  2. Not all companies have a vesting schedule. In some cases, you might be immediately 100% vested in all employer contributions.
  3. There is a single vesting clock for all employer contributions. In the example above, all employer contributions will be 100% vested once you’ve been with the company for five years, even those that were made just weeks earlier. You are not subject to a new vesting period with each individual employer contribution.

Should vesting affect how you invest?

A vesting schedule can decrease the value of your employer match. A 100% match is great, but a 100% match that takes five years to get the full benefit of is not quite as great.

Still, in most cases it makes sense to take full advantage of your employer match, even if it’s subject to a vesting schedule. And the reasoning is simply that the worst-case scenario is that you leave your job before any of those employer contributions vest, in which case your 401(k) would have acted just like any other retirement account available to you, none of which offer any opportunity to get a matching contribution.

However, there are situations in which a vesting schedule might make it better to prioritize other retirement accounts before your 401(k). In some cases, your employer contributions might be 0% vested until you’ve been with the company for three years, at which point they will become 100% vested. If you anticipate leaving your current employer within the next couple of years, and if your 401(k) is burdened with high costs, you may be better off prioritizing an IRA or other retirement account first.

You may also want to consider your vesting schedule before quitting or changing jobs. It certainly shouldn’t be the primary factor you consider, but if you’re close to having a significant portion of your 401(k) vest, it may be worth waiting just a little bit longer to make your move.

You can find all the details on your 401(k) vesting schedule in your summary plan description. And again, you can reach out to your human resources representative if you have any questions.

Pitfall #2: Front-loading contributions

In most cases, it makes sense to put as much money into your savings and investments as soon as possible. The sooner it’s contributed, the more time it has to compound its returns and earn you even more money.

But the rules are different if you’re trying to max out your employer match. The reason is that most employers apply their maximum match on a per-paycheck basis. That is, if your employer only matches up to 5% of your salary, what they’re really saying is that they will only match up to 5% of each paycheck.

For a simple example, let’s say that you’re paid $18,000 twice per month. So over the course of an entire year, you make $432,000. In theory, you could max out your annual allowed 401(k) contribution with your very first paycheck of the year. Simply contribute 100% of your salary for that one paycheck, and you’re done.

The problem is that you would only get the match on that one single paycheck. If your employer matches up to 5% of your salary, then they would match 5% of that $18,000 paycheck, or $900. The next 23 paychecks of the year wouldn’t get any match because you weren’t contributing anything. And since you were eligible to get a 5%, $900 matching contribution with each paycheck, that means you’d be missing out on $20,700.

Spreading out contributions to take full advantage of your employer match

Now, most people aren’t earning $18,000 per paycheck, so the stakes aren’t quite that high. But the principle remains the same.

Still, to get the full benefit of your employer match, you need to set up your contributions so that you’re contributing at least the full matching percentage every single paycheck. You may be able to front-load your contributions to a certain extent, but you want to make sure that you stay far enough below the annual $18,000 limit to get the full match with every paycheck.

Now, some companies will actually make an extra contribution at the end of the year to make up the difference if you contributed enough to get the full match but accidentally missed out on a few paychecks. You can find out if your company offers that benefit in your 401(k)’s summary plan description.

But in most cases, you’ll need to spread your contributions out over the entire year in order to get the full benefit of your employer match.

When to contribute more than is needed for your employer match

Maxing out your employer match is a great start, but there’s almost always room to contribute more.

Using the example from above, the person with the $3,000 per-paycheck salary would max out his or her employer match with a 5% contribution. That’s $150 per paycheck. Assuming 26 paychecks per year, that individual would personally contribute $3,900 to his or her 401(k) over the course of a year with that 5% contribution.

And given that the maximum annual contribution for 2019 is $19,000 for 2019 ($25,000 if you’re 50+), the person in the above example would still be eligible to contribute an additional $14,100 per year. In fact, this individual would have to set their contribution to just over 23% in order to make that full $18,000 annual contribution.

3 big questions to answer to decide whether to save more

To figure out if you should be contributing more to your retirement savings, there are three big questions you’ll need to answer

  1. Do you need to contribute more in order to reach your personal goals?
  2. Can you afford to contribute more right now?
  3. If the answer is yes to both #1 and #2, should you be making additional contributions to your 401(k) beyond the employer match, or should you be prioritizing other retirement accounts?

Questions #1 and #2 are beyond the scope of this guide, but you can get a sense of your required retirement savings here and here.

Question #3 is what we’ll address here. If you’ve already maxed out your employer match and you want to save more money for retirement, should you prioritize your 401(k) or other retirement accounts?

We’ll dive into that in the next section.

What other retirement accounts are available to you?

Your 401(k) is almost never the only retirement account available to you. Here are the other major options you might have to invest outside of your 401(k).

IRA

An IRA is a retirement account that you set up on your own, outside of work. You can contribute up to $6,000 per year for 2019 and 2020 ($7,00 if you’re 50+). Just like with the 401(k), there are two different types of contributions you can make:

  1. Traditional IRA contribution: You get a tax deduction on your contributions, your money grows tax-free inside the account and your withdrawals are taxed as ordinary income in retirement.
  2. Roth IRA contribution: You do not get a tax deduction on your contributions, but your money grows tax-free and can be withdrawn tax-free in retirement.

The big benefit of IRAs is that you have full control over the investment company you use, and therefore the investments you choose and the fees you pay. While some plans force you to choose between a small number of high-cost investments, IRAs give you a lot more freedom to choose better investments.

One catch for the Roth IRA is that there are income limits that may prevent you from being allowed to contribute or to deduct your contributions for tax purposes. If you earn more than those limits, a Roth IRA may not be an option for you.

Health savings account

Health savings accounts, or HSAs, were designed to be used for medical expenses, but they can also function as a high-powered retirement account.

In fact, health savings accounts are the only investment accounts that offer a triple tax break:

  1. Your contributions are deductible.
  2. Your money grows tax-free inside the account.
  3. You can withdraw the money tax-free for qualified medical expenses.

On top of that, many HSAs allow you to invest the money, your balance rolls over year to year and, as long as you keep good records, you can actually reimburse yourself down the line for medical expenses that occurred years ago.

Put all that together with the fact that you will almost certainly have medical expenses in retirement, and HSAs are one of the most powerful retirement tools available to you.

The catch is that you have to be participating in a qualifying high-deductible health plan, which generally means a minimum annual deductible of $1,350 for individual coverage and $2,700 for family coverage.

If you’re eligible, though, you can contribute up to $3,500 if you are the only individual covered by such a plan, or up to $7,000 if you have family coverage.

Backdoor Roth IRA

If you’re not eligible to contribute to an IRA directly, you might want to consider something called a backdoor Roth IRA.

The backdoor Roth IRA takes advantage of two rules that, when combined, can allow you to contribute to a Roth IRA even if you make too much for a regular contribution:

  1. You are always allowed to make non-deductible traditional IRA contributions, up to the annual $6,000 limit, no matter how much you make.
  2. You are also allowed to convert money from a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA at any time, no matter how much you make.

When you put those together, high-earners could make non-deductible contributions to a traditional IRA, and shortly after convert that money to a Roth IRA. From that point forward, the money will grow completely tax-free.

Though there are some potential pitfalls to backdoor Roth IRAs, it can be a good option to have in your back pocket if you are otherwise ineligible to make IRA contributions.

Taxable investment account

While dedicated retirement accounts offer the biggest tax breaks, there are plenty of tax-efficient ways to invest within a regular taxable investment account as well.

These accounts can be especially helpful for nearer term goals, since your money isn’t locked away until retirement age, or for money that you’d like to invest after maxing out your dedicated retirement accounts.

How to decide between additional 401(K) contributions and other retirement accounts

With those options in hand, how do you decide whether to make additional contributions, beyond the amount needed to max out the employer match, or to contribute that money to other accounts?

There are a few big factors to consider:

  • Eligibility: If you’re not eligible to contribute to an IRA or HSA, a 401(k) might be your best option by default.
  • Costs: Cost is the single best predictor of future investment returns, with lower cost investments leading to higher returns. You’ll want to prioritize accounts that allow you to minimize the fees you pay.
  • Investment options: You should prioritize accounts that allow you to implement your preferred asset allocation, again with good, low-cost funds.
  • Convenience: All else being equal, having fewer accounts spread across fewer companies will make your life easier.

With those factors in mind, here’s a reasonable guide for making the decision:

  1. Max out your employer match before contributing to other accounts.
  2. If your 401(k) offers low fees and investments that fit your desired portfolio, you can keep things simple by prioritizing additional contributions there first. This allows you to work with one account, at least for a little while, instead of several.
  3. If your 401(k) is high-cost, or if you’ve already maxed out your 401(k), a health savings account may be the next best place to look. If you can pay for your medical expenses with other money, allowing this account to stay invested and grow for the long term, that triple tax break is hard to beat.
  4. An IRA is likely your next best option. You can review this guide for a full breakdown of the traditional versus Roth IRA debate.
  5. If you’re not eligible for a direct IRA contribution, you should consider a backdoor Roth IRA.
  6. If you maxed out your other retirement accounts because your 401(k) is high-cost, now is probably the time to go back. While there are some circumstances in which incredibly high fees might make a taxable investment account a better deal, in most cases the tax breaks offered by a 401(k) will outweigh any difference in cost.
  7. Once those retirement accounts are maxed out, you can invest additional money in a regular taxable investment account.

The bottom line: Maximize your 401(k)

A 401(k) is a powerful tool if you know how to use it. The tax breaks make it easier to save more and earn more than in a regular investment account, and the potential for an employer match is unlike any opportunity offered by any other retirement account.

The key is in understanding your plan’s specific opportunities and how to take maximum advantage of them. If you can do that, you may find yourself a lot closer to financial independence than you thought.

Chris O’Shea contributed to this report.

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A Guide to Doing Your Taxes for the Very First Time

Editorial Note: The content of this article is based on the author’s opinions and recommendations alone. It may not have been previewed, commissioned or otherwise endorsed by any of our network partners.

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Filing taxes can be intimidating no matter how many times you’ve done it, but it can be especially challenging if it’s your first time.

What documents do you need to collect? What information do you need to report? What deadlines do you have to meet? What if you make a mistake?

It’s a lot to keep track of and there’s a fair amount at stake as well. Accurately filing your taxes will not only help you avoid potential penalties, but it will ensure that you get the maximum refund possible.

This article will guide you through the entire process so that you know how to successfully file your taxes for the first time.

How to decide whether you need to file a return

Not everyone needs to file a federal income tax return, though if you worked for any significant part of the year, it is likely that you do.

You generally need to file a tax return if you earned more than the standard deduction amount, which for 2018 is $12,000 for single filers, $24,000 for married couples filing jointly and $18,000 for anyone filing as head of household. If you’re claimed as a dependent on someone else’s tax return, such as your parents, you generally need to file a return if you made more than $1,050 during the year.

But even if you don’t meet those thresholds, there are still situations in which it may make sense to file a return.

“If you paid federal and state withholding taxes, you would need to file a return in order to potentially get a refund,” said Chris Panek, a CPA in Avon, Minn.

You also need to file a return to qualify for certain tax credits, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which can put a significant amount of money back in your pocket if you’re working but earning a low income.

At the end of the day, it’s often worth filing unless you’re absolutely certain that you don’t need to file and that you won’t qualify for a refund or any tax credits.

“There’s no risk to filing a return,” said Panek. “You need to file a return in order to potentially get a refund, and if you do file a return and didn’t need to, there shouldn’t be any risk at all.”

If you’d like some help deciding whether it’s worth filing a tax return, you can use the following tool provided by the IRS: Do I Need to File a Tax Return?

The tax filing deadlines you need to meet

April 15 is the standard tax filing deadline, but that date can be adjusted for weekends and holidays. In 2019, the tax filing deadline is April 17.

Meeting this deadline is critical because failure to file on time can have several negative consequences.

First, you may be subject to a failure-to-file penalty, which is typically calculated as up to 5% of your unpaid taxes for each month that you’re late, with a maximum penalty of 25% of your unpaid taxes.

Second, if you haven’t paid your taxes in full by the deadline, you may be subject to a penalty as well, typically calculated as 0.5%-1% of your unpaid taxes for each month that you’re late, though the combined failure-to-file penalty and failure-to-pay penalty can’t be more than 5% in any given month.

Finally, you won’t receive your refund or be able to claim tax credits unless you file. You do have three years from the original due date in order to file and claim a refund, but, again, waiting can subject you to penalties, and in any case receiving that refund earlier is better than receiving it later.

If, for whatever reason, you are having trouble filing an accurate return by the April 17 deadline, you are allowed to request an automatic six-month extension that gives you until Oct. 15 to file your return. There are no eligibility requirements to get an extension, and requesting an extension by April 17 will allow you to avoid the failure-to-file penalties as long as you meet that Oct.15 deadline.

It’s worth noting, however, that the extension only applies to the filing of your return and not to the payment of your tax liability. You still need to pay in full by April 17 in order to avoid the failure-to-pay penalty.

“I would highly recommend that you get your return done by April 15,” said Panek. “A lot of times people aren’t thinking about their taxes by the time extensions are due, and if you do owe money, that’s still due on April 15.”

How to collect and organize the necessary tax documents

One of the most confusing parts of filing your taxes, especially the first time around, is knowing which tax forms you need to collect, when you should expect to receive them and how to keep everything organized so that you’re ready when it’s time to put it all together.

The first step is to simply have a basic system for keeping everything organized so that whenever you do receive a document, you’ll have somewhere to keep it.

“I definitely recommend to clients, especially if they’re getting a lot of documents in the mail, that they keep a folder where they can keep them all,” said Panek. “Every time you receive something, put it in that folder and just let it accumulate so that when [you] start your return, you have all of it ready to go.”

According to Panek, most tax documents have to be sent out by Jan. 31. That includes W-2s that report your earned income from your employers, 1099-INTs that report interest earned on your bank accounts and 1099-DIVs that report dividend income earned from your investments.

Other forms you might need to collect, depending on your situation, include:

  • Form 1098 – Reports mortgage interest paid during the year.
  • Form 1099-MISC – Reports income earned as an independent contractor.
  • Forms 1095-A, B and C – Reports on your health insurance coverage.
  • Form 1098-E – Reports on student loan interest paid during the year.
  • Schedule K-1 – Reports income earned as part-owner of a business. According to Panek, these forms typically aren’t required to be sent out until March 15.
  • Receipts for charitable deductions, medical expenses and child care expenses that could potentially be deductible.

While you don’t want to wait until the last minute to file your taxes, Panek recommends that you do give it some time so that you can be sure you have everything you need before starting the process.

“You want to make sure that you have all your forms before you file so you don’t have to go back and amend that return,” said Panek. “Since everything is sent out by Jan. 31, it wouldn’t be beneficial to file your taxes before then unless you’re absolutely sure that you have all the forms you need.”

How to file your taxes

Once you’ve decided that you need to file a return and you’ve collected all the documents you think you’ll need, it’s time to file your taxes.

There are a few different ways to go about it, and the right choice depends on the specifics of your situation.

Option #1: IRS free e-file

If you make $66,000 or less, you are eligible to use the IRS’ free tax-filing software that guides you through the process of filling out the return. If you make more than $66,000, you can use the free fillable forms offered by the IRS, though you won’t have the benefit of software to guide you through them.

If your income is low enough to qualify for the free software, and if your overall tax situation is relatively simple, this option may be a no-brainer.

“This can be great if you have a simple return, meaning that you’re simply getting a W-2 from your employer and you potentially have some simple investments,” said Panek.

The fillable forms can also be useful, but Panek warns that since you don’t receive the same kind of guidance, it’s a better option for people who have a stronger foundation in taxes.

“A lot of people will use the free services when they understand the tax law,” said Panek. “But if you are filing a return and you’re not sure about what you should be entering in, I would seek out a professional tax preparer to help you out.”

Option #2: Tax preparation software

If you don’t qualify for the free IRS e-file option, and if your situation isn’t complicated enough to hire a professional tax preparer, paying for tax preparation software may be a good middle ground.

The cost of tax preparation software ranges from just a few dollars to almost $200, depending on the complexity of your situation. And while you don’t get the expertise of a professional reviewing your situation, you do benefit from more guidance than you would get if you filed your taxes on your own.

“The software will guide through some questions to help you understand what you need to report,” said Panek. “If you have a simple enough return and you feel comfortable with the software, it’s fine to do this on your own.”

Option #3: Professional tax preparer

If you have a complicated tax situation, are unsure about anything in your return, or if you’d like a little guidance about how to minimize your tax payments, it may be worth paying to work with a professional tax preparer.

“Whenever you feel that your tax return is getting more complicated, or you’re unsure of how you should be adjusting things within your tax return, I always suggest that you seek out a professional,” said Panek. “The nice thing is that they’ll be able to sit down with you and go more in-depth, and they may ask questions that otherwise wouldn’t come up.”

In addition to making sure that the current year’s return is done right, Panek said that a professional tax preparer could help you make decisions like how much to contribute to your employer retirement plan next year by showing you exactly how those contributions would affect your return. If you’re starting a business, a tax professional could also make sure that you set it up properly with a tax ID and help you understand which expenses are deductible.

The biggest downside to working with a professional is the cost. It can vary a lot depending on the type of professional you use and the scope of service you need, but it will almost certainly cost more than using tax preparation software.

Still, Panek says that in many cases, the cost will be worth it and that it may not be quite as burdensome as it seems on the surface.

“If you’re looking at something like TurboTax, the dollar amount that you’re spending on the software could go right to the person you’re paying to prepare your taxes,” said Panek. “A tax preparer can even first help you with the question of whether you need to file, and then you can decide whether you want to hire them to help you out.”

There are a number of factors to consider when hiring a tax preparer, and the IRS offers two useful resources to help you make a good decision:

When you can expect a refund

One piece of good news when it comes to filing taxes is that if you’re owed a refund, you will typically receive it fairly quickly. According to the IRS, most refunds are issued in less than 21 days and you can check the status of your refund within 24 hours of filing an electronic return.

“It varies in terms of how fast they come back and what you have going on in your tax return,” said Panek. “But I’ve had people who have gotten their refunds back by the next week.”

You can choose to receive your refund either via mail or by direct deposit into your bank account. According to the IRS, choosing direct deposit is both more secure and it allows you to get your refund quicker. You can even choose to split your refund among three different bank accounts if you’d like.

Of course, while it’s always nice to receive a big chunk of money all at once, there’s plenty of debate over the benefits of a refund compared with reducing your withholding so that you receive more money in your paychecks over the course of the year.

On the one hand, getting that refund can help you pay off debt, build savings or fund a college savings account in one fell swoop. On the other hand, a big refund means that you’ve essentially been loaning the government money for the past year, money that could have been yours to do with as you pleased.

“Some people that rely on that big refund because they’re not savers and they would rather have the government save that money for them,” said Panek. “Other people don’t want their money anywhere else. If there’s money that should be theirs, they want to be saving it themselves.”

“I personally like to get my clients as close to their actual tax liability as possible,” added Panek. “That way, they’re not getting a big refund and don’t owe a big tax bill.”

If, after filling out your taxes, you feel like your refund was either too big or too small, you can fill out a new W-4 and submit it to your employer so that they can adjust your withholding up or down. The IRS can help you figure out how to make those adjustments with their Paycheck Checkup tool.

Other common tax questions

Every tax situation is different, so you may still have questions even after reviewing all of the information above. The IRS offers a helpful FAQ that addresses many of the most common questions, and here are a few more answers that may point you in the right direction.

How will the new tax law affect me?

With the 2018 tax reforms in effect, one big question is how the new rules will affect your personal tax return.

The truth is that there are a lot of variables in every tax return, so there’s no way to say for certain how you will be affected. For example, a higher standard deduction will largely help people who don’t itemize their deductions, but a stricter limit on state and local tax deductions may hurt people in high-tax states, such as California and New York.

On the whole, income tax brackets have largely been decreased, which means that many people may see at least a small decrease in their tax bill compared with recent years. But the only way to know for sure is to do your taxes as accurately as possible and see where things land.

How can I reduce my tax liability?

There aren’t many ways to reduce your tax liability after Dec.31, but you do have until April 15 to make traditional IRA contributions for the prior year and those contributions are deductible on your tax return.

If eligible, you can contribute up to $5,500 to your IRA for 2018 (it’s $6,500 if you are age 50 or older). If you’re married, your spouse can potentially make another $5,500 contribution, allowing you to reduce your taxable income by as much as $11,000.

How do I pay taxes I owe?

If you file your return and find out that you owe taxes, remember that you have until April 17 to make that payment, or else you may be subject to penalties.

The IRS offers several different ways to pay, including paying directly from your bank account, by debit or credit card, or sending in a check.

What if I can’t afford to pay?

If you can’t afford to pay the taxes you owe, you can file an online payment agreement that may allow you to delay payment for up to 120 days or to create an installment plan so that you can make payments over time. You can also call the helpline at 800-829-1040 to discuss your options with a representative.

File without fear

Although filing your taxes for the first time can feel overwhelming and intimidating, the truth is that there’s not much to fear. The main potential penalties are associated with not filing, and as long as you meet the deadlines, there are ways to work with the IRS even if you owe money.

The keys to filing your return successfully are simply to be on the lookout for tax documents that come your way, keep them organized in a place where you’ll remember them and use whatever guidance you need in completing your return on time.

As long as you do those things, you should be just fine.

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Can Student Loans Be Discharged in Bankruptcy?

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Student loans are a large and growing problem.According to the Federal Reserve, student loan debt totaled over $1.5 trillion as of June 2018, up from $1.15 trillion just five years earlier. Over 44 million Americans have some level of student loan debt, and 11.2% of that debt is either in default or at least 90 days delinquent.

It’s no wonder that so many people are struggling to pay bills and save for the future under the weight of their student loans.

If you’re struggling with student loan debt yourself, you’ve undoubtedly wondered how you can get relief. And if you’re really desperate, you may have even considered bankruptcy.

Student loans are more difficult to discharge through bankruptcy than other types of debt, but it isn’t impossible. This article will explain how it works, the steps you need to take in order to discharge your student loans in bankruptcy and alternative strategies you should explore first.

Can you file bankruptcy on your student loans?

While it is possible to file bankruptcy on your student loans and have the debt discharged, it’s a difficult process with strict requirements that can be challenging to meet.

The baseline requirement is proving to the courts that repaying your student loans presents an “undue hardship,” a standard that is interpreted differently depending on where you live and which court happens to hear your case.

“It’s a mushy set of criteria that doesn’t lend itself to a lot of uniformity,” said Adam S. Minsky, an attorney who specializes in helping student loan borrowers. “The cases that I’ve seen come out with favorable decisions tend to be older borrowers, borrowers who have very long periods of unemployment or underemployment, and sometimes there are health issues, injuries, disabilities, things like that.”

Why your student loans are unlikely to be discharged

In the 1970s, a popular narrative began to emerge in the media about borrowers who were taking out student loans to attend college and then playing the system to get them discharged after they graduated.

There was no real data to support this claim, but in 1976, Congress acted on it anyway and passed a law that made it almost impossible to discharge federal student loans until either five years had passed since default or you were experiencing undue hardship. The waiting period was extended to seven years in 1990. In 1998, it was simplified to require undue hardship without a time element.

Then, in 2005, Congress updated the law once more to subject private student loans to the same undue hardship criteria as federal student loans.

At this point most courts, though not all, use something called the Brunner test to evaluate undue hardship.

What is the Brunner test?

The Brunner test looks at three factors to decide whether a particular borrower is facing an undue hardship.

First, you have to demonstrate that you are not able to maintain a minimum standard of living while repaying your student loans.

“This is typically the easiest one to prove,” said Jay Fleischman, a student loan lawyer. “You’re not required to be living like a pauper, but by the same token it’s presumed that you’re not going to be living a life of opulence.”

Fleischman said that while every judge interprets this standard differently, things such as paid sports for your kids, private school instead of public school and excessive cable packages may be deemed unnecessary.

Second, you must show that your situation is likely to persist for a significant portion of the repayment period through no fault of your own. That means that you can’t use your current income as an argument if there’s the opportunity to earn more elsewhere, and you can’t use extended unemployment if it either ended or is likely to end soon.

“It’s forward-looking criteria,” said Fleischman. “Courts will look at the marketability of your skills and the quality of the education you’ve received to determine your earning potential.”

Third, you must have made good faith efforts to repay your student loans prior to filing for bankruptcy.

“In some courts, for a federal student loan, that will mean that you’ve looked at one of the income-driven repayment (IDR) options,” said Fleischman. “For a private student loan, it might mean that you’ve attempted to rework your payments or tried for forbearance.”

Then there are some courts, specifically those in the 1st and 8th circuits, that don’t use the Brunner test at all.

“Some courts use what’s called ‘totality of the circumstances,’ which jettisons that three-part test in favor of looking at the totality of your situation,” said Fleischman. “It tends to be a slightly easier test but it’s not used very widely.”

At the end of the day, even when the Brunner test is used, the specific standards that need to be met to prove undue hardship are inconsistent and difficult to narrow down.

“What that test looks like and how it applies varies depending on where the borrower lives and what court they’re in,” said Minsky.

If you’re successful at proving undue hardship, the court can discharge your loans completely or grant a partial discharge. It can also simply change the terms of your loans to make them easier to pay, such as lowering the interest rate.

How to get your student loans discharged

If you believe that trying to get your student loans discharged through bankruptcy is the right move, here are the steps.

1. Hire a lawyer

While it is not absolutely necessary to hire a lawyer, Fleischman said that doing so is a good idea.

“If you’re going to file for bankruptcy to seek a discharge of those student loans, understand that it is very complicated and very skill-intensive,” said Fleischman. “An attorney will help you through that process.”

However, Fleischman also warned that you don’t get those attorney fees back if you are unsuccessful at getting your student loans discharged, which means that you need to be careful about taking on the extra expense when the odds of winning a judgment are low.

The National Consumer Law Center provides some resources to help you find an attorney.

2. File a bankruptcy case

If you do want to move forward, the next step is filing a bankruptcy case.

The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts provides guidance on the paperwork needed to file, and it also advises that you check with your local court to see if there are other local forms you need to file.

3. File an adversary proceeding

Once your bankruptcy case is filed, you then need to file a separate lawsuit within the bankruptcy court against the lender of your student loan. This lawsuit is called an adversary proceeding and it asks the court to find that repaying your student loans would present an undue hardship.

“When you’re dealing with student loans you’re actually dealing with two separate cases, one living within the other case,” said Fleischman, explaining how the adversary proceeding acts as a separate case within the broader bankruptcy case.

You must file a complaint in order to initiate an adversary proceeding. This complaint identifies the court in which it’s being filed, the parties to the complaint, a summary of the situation and reason for the complaint, and the specific relief you are seeking from the court.

The National Consumer Law Center provides a sample of what this complaint could look like.

4. Go through discovery

Discovery is the process of gathering evidence and exchanging information between parties to the lawsuit. It can be complicated, and it is one area where having an attorney can be a big benefit.

“Once you’ve filed the case with a summons and complaint, the lender has the opportunity to answer and to conduct discovery, as do you,” said Fleishman. “This could involve the exchange of documentary information, depositions, expert testimony and the like.”

It’s also worth noting that this process can be time-consuming and expensive. The National Consumer Law Center estimates that the entire litigation process can require a total of 40 to 100 hours, and according to Fleischman, you can expect to pay anywhere from $4,000 to $15,000, on top of attorney fees.

5. Proceed to trial and judgment

After discovery, the case goes to trial, evidence is presented from both sides, and the judge eventually makes a decision.

If you are not awarded a discharge, Fleischman said that you are allowed to appeal. But doing so is both rare and likely unsuccessful.

5 alternative ways to deal with your student loan debt

While bankruptcy can be an effective tool, and in some cases the best way to get out from under the weight of your student loans, it generally shouldn’t be your first option.

Here are five alternative approaches to consider before filing for bankruptcy.

1. Revisit your budget and spending habits

Given that you’ll have to prove to the court that your income isn’t enough to meet your expenses, it makes sense first to take a close look at your budget and figure out if there are any changes you can make that would help you afford your student loan payments.

“I always tell my clients to first look at their spending and determine where their money leaks are and try to plug those leaks,” said Fleischman. “Determine where your expenses can be reduced and start there.”

2. Consider IDR

If you have federal student loans, you may be eligible for IDR, in which your monthly payment is adjusted according to your income and family size. The less you make and the bigger your family is, the less you’ll have to pay.

There are downsides to IDR, such as the fact that you may end up paying more interest over time and that it may take longer to get out of debt. But if you’re truly unable to afford your monthly payment, those downsides may be worth the immediate relief.

3. Work toward loan forgiveness

One of the additional benefits of IDR plans is that they can eventually lead to loan forgiveness.

If you work for the government or a qualifying nonprofit, you may be eligible for Public Service Loan Forgiveness, which forgives your student loan debt tax-free after 10 years of eligible payments.

Otherwise, you may be eligible for forgiveness after 20 to 25 years, depending on the type of IDR plan in which you enroll. The amount forgiven would be taxable, but it could still provide significant relief.

4. Consider refinancing private student loans

Refinancing your private student loans could allow you to secure a lower interest rate and extend your repayment period, either of which could lower your monthly payment.

“You need to be careful about it because you want to make sure that you’re actually saving money instead of spending more,” said Fleischman. “But this may be a situation in which refinancing makes sense.”

Fleischman did warn against refinancing federal student loans, primarily because of the protections offered by the federal government. These protections are lost in refinancing.

5. Strategic default and settlement

In some cases, Fleischman argued, it might be a good idea to strategically default on private student loans in order to create a settlement opportunity.

“Settlement of any debt is seldom an option when you are paying the debt according to the terms and conditions of the loan,” said Fleischman. “It’s just not the way that business is transacted. In those situations, a strategic default may make some sense.”

Fleischman warned that there are negative consequences to default, such as the impact on your credit score, the collection actions that would be taken against you and the fact that there is no guarantee that you will be able to settle at all, nevermind along favorable terms.

But if you’re hoping for a settlement instead of entering bankruptcy, defaulting may be the best way to create that opportunity.

Proceed with caution

At the end of the day, the reality is that discharging your student loans through bankruptcy is a difficult and unlikely proposition.

That doesn’t mean that it should always be avoided, as there are situations in which it’s the right move. You just need to go into the process with your eyes wide open.

“Make sure that you investigate all of your other options first,” said Fleischman. “And if you are going into bankruptcy, make sure you understand completely what you’re getting into and that you have a realistic sense of what your opportunity for success is going to be.”

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