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A Guide to Doing Your Taxes for the Very First Time

Editorial Note: The editorial content on this page is not provided or commissioned by any financial institution. Any opinions, analyses, reviews, statements or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and may not have been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities prior to publication.

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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.

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

Matt Becker
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Matt Becker is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Matt here

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How Fed Rate Hikes Change Borrowing and Savings Rates

Editorial Note: The editorial content on this page is not provided or commissioned by any financial institution. Any opinions, analyses, reviews, statements or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and may not have been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities prior to publication.

Since late 2015, the Federal Reserve has raised the upper limit of its target federal funds rate by 2.25 percentage points, from 0.25% in December 2015, to 2.50% in 2019.

The Fed is no longer expected to raise rates. Now, the question is whether the Fed will cut the federal funds rate sometime this summer. The market is increasingly confident that at least one rate cut will occur this calendar year.

MagnifyMoney analyzed Federal Reserve rate data to illustrate how the rates consumers pay for loans and earn on deposits have changed since the Fed started raising them two and a half years ago.

  • Credit card borrowers are currently paying $113 billion in interest annually, up $34 billion from the annual $79 billion they paid prior to the first Federal Reserve interest rate hike in December 2015, making introductory 0% APR deals all the more attractive.
  • Meanwhile, depositors earned significantly more from savings accounts. In the 12 months ending in June 2018, depositors earned $26.8 billion in interest on their savings accounts, up $16.8 billion from the $10 billion they earned in 2015.
  • According to our analysis, credit card rates are most sensitive to changes in the federal funds rate, almost directly matching the rate change with a 3 percentage point increase since December 2015. Credit card rates will continue to rise in line with the Fed’s rate increases, and if the Fed raises them again, the average household that carries credit card debt month to month will pay over $150 in extra interest per year compared with before the Fed rate hikes began. MagnifyMoney estimates 122 million Americans carry credit card debt month to month.
  • Student loan and auto loan rates have also risen  — but by less than half as much as credit card rates — in part because they are long-term forms of lending that are less reliant on the short-term federal funds rate. Federal student loan rates are set based on the 10-year Treasury note rate each May.
  • Savers at big banks have seen little change, with the average savings and CD account passing through only a fraction of the rate increase. However, that masks a big opportunity for savers who shop around and move deposits to online banks. Online banks have aggressively raised rates, and now often offer rates of more than 2%, versus just 1% in 2015. That’s over 20 times what typical accounts pay.

In addition, MagnifyMoney also looked at the impact on consumer rates the last time the Fed reduced rates in 2007.

 

Generally, unsecured loans like credit cards and personal loans are more rate-change sensitive than secured loans like autos and home mortgage rates, no matter the direction of the rate change. However, savings products like Certificates of Deposit are a stark exception. Even after 3 years of fed funds rate increases, CD rates generally languished at rock-bottom rates until very recently, and then only increased modestly, relative to other financial products. Compare that to 2007, when it was the product most sensitive to interest rate cuts.

 

Let’s take a closer look at how the Fed rate hike impacts different financial products:

Credit cards

Most credit cards have a rate that’s directly based on the prime rate, for example, the prime rate plus 9.99%. As a result, card rates tend to move almost immediately in line with Fed rate changes. In the current cycle, the rates on all credit card accounts tracked by the Federal Reserve have increased 3 points, even more than the Fed’s increase of 2.25 points.

That said, consumers can still find attractive introductory rate offers.

For example, 0% balance transfer offers have continued to have long terms even as the Fed hiked rates, with offers still available for nearly two years at 0%.

Credit card issuers make up for the rate hike with the automatic rise in variable back-end rates, as well as the increasing spread between the prime rate and what consumers pay on new accounts. They can also increase other fees, like late payment fees or balance transfer fees to keep long 0% deals viable.

The Federal Reserve tends to hike up interest rates gradually over time. And people in credit card debt will barely notice the rate increase in their monthly statement. When rates are increased by 0.25%, the monthly minimum due on a credit card will increase $2 for every $10,000 of debt.
The danger of such a small increase in the monthly payment is complacency. Remember that by paying the minimum due, you could be in debt for more than 20 years.

Rates are expected to keep rising, so it makes sense for consumers to lock in a low rate today. The best ways to lock in lower rates are by leveraging long 0% balance transfer deals or by consolidating into fixed rate personal loans.

Savings accounts

On average, savings account rates haven’t changed much since the Fed started raising rates. That’s largely because big banks with the biggest deposits and large branch networks have less incentive to offer higher rates, and this skews national data on rates earned because most savers don’t shop around to find higher rates at online banks and credit unions.

Consumers who shop around can find much higher savings account rates than three years ago, and shopping around for a better rate on your deposits is one of the best ways to make the Fed’s rate hikes work in your favor.

Back in 2015, it was rare to see savings accounts pay 1% interest.

Today, many online banks are competing for deposits by offering savings account rates in excess of 2%, flowing through about half of the Fed’s rate hike into increased rates for depositors. These rates will continue to rise as the Fed hikes rates. The increases are already apparent in the data. Depositors are currently earning more than $26 billion in interest on their savings accounts annually, versus $10 billion in 2015.

CDs

CD rates have moved faster than savings rates, up 0.41 points for 12-month CDs since the Fed started raising rates. That’s in part because they are a more competitive product that forces consumers to rate shop when they expire at the end of their 6-month, 12-month or longer term.

But that rate rise doesn’t fully reflect what some smaller banks are passing through, as the banks with the largest deposits have been slow to raise rates.

The rates on 1- and 2-year CDs at online banks have been increasing rapidly, and are now well over 2%, reflecting much of the Fed’s rate increases since 2015.

The rates on 5-year CDs have also finally begun to increase, with some banks offering 60-month CDs with rates above 3.50%. As a result, the rate curve has been steepening.

Still, a reasonable strategy would be to invest in short-term (1- and 2-year) CDs. If competition on the short end continues, you can get the benefit in a year on renewal.

Student loans

Federal student loan rates are set based on a May auction of 10-year Treasury notes, plus a defined add-on to the rate. Today, rates for new undergraduate Stafford loans stand at 5.05%, up from 4.30% before the federal funds target rate began to rise.

Since student loan rates are determined by the 10-year Treasury rate, rather than a short-term rate, they are less directly related to changes in the federal funds rate than some shorter-term forms of borrowing like credit cards. Instead, future market views of inflation and economic growth play a role. Federal student loan rates are capped at 8.25% for undergraduates and 9.5% for graduate students.

For private refinancing options, rates depend on secondary markets that tend to follow longer-term rates, rather than the current federal funds rate, but in general, a rising rate environment could mean less attractive refinancing options.

Personal loans

Personal loan rates tend to be driven by many factors, including an individual lender’s view of the lifetime value of a customer, funding availability and credit appetite. Most personal loans offer fixed rates, and in a rising rate environment overall, we expect these rates will go up, making new loans more expensive, so consumers on the fence should consider shopping for a good rate sooner rather than later. Since the end of 2015, rates on 2-year personal loans tracked by the Federal Reserve have increased by 0.61 basis points.

Auto loans

Prime consumers who shop around for an auto loan can still find very low rates, especially when manufacturers are offering special financing deals to move certain car models.

But the overall rates across the credit spectrum have gone up since the Fed raised rates, in part due to the rate hikes and because of recent greater than expected delinquencies in some parts of the auto lending market.

Mortgages

Since the Fed started raising rates in late 2015, the average 30-year fixed mortgage rate has increased from approximately 3.90% to 4.55% as of Dec. 27, 2018. The mortgage market tends to follow trends in longer term bond markets, like the 10-year Treasury, since mortgages are a longer-term form of borrowing. That shields them from the impact of Fed rate hikes, and it’s not unusual for mortgage rates to decline during some periods when the Fed is raising rates.

What can consumers do

Eve if rates are no longer going up, life is still expensive for debtors, and more rewarding for savers than in recent years.

If you are in debt, now is the time to lock in the lowest rate possible. There are still plenty of options at this point in the credit cycle for people to lock in lower interest rates.

If you are a saver, ignore your traditional bank and look online. Take advantage of online savings accounts and CDs to earn 20 times the rate of typical big bank rates.

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

Nick Clements
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Nick Clements is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Nick at [email protected]

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How to Pay for Transition-Related Expenses Without Going Broke

Editorial Note: The editorial content on this page is not provided or commissioned by any financial institution. Any opinions, analyses, reviews, statements or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and may not have been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities prior to publication.

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Once a trans person has accepted their gender identity and decided to begin transitioning, it’s an exciting and liberating time. Everyone’s transition looks different, and each person may choose varying interventions. But as soon as someone starts looking at the costs, which could include doctor appointments, bloodwork, hormones, legal name and gender marker changes, a whole new wardrobe and potentially, surgeries, the costs can skyrocket quickly.

This is an especially tough pill to swallow for the trans community, which already faces significant financial disadvantages compared to the general population, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality. As revealed in their 2015 report, this is because many trans people face unsupportive families and suffer from discrimination with employment and housing, which results in financial distress and homelessness at higher rates than cisgender people.

“In the trans community, we see the highest amount of unemployment and housing insecurity,” said Emmett Schelling, executive director of Transgender Education Network of Texas. “Most trans people can’t save money because they’re worried about their day-to-day survival.” This makes it difficult to find money for binders, electrolysis or other transition-related needs when just getting by can be a struggle.

While there are some transition-related expenses that are difficult to avoid, many can be reduced or wiped out with the help of certain resources and strategies. Here’s how to save on several of the most common expenses.

How much does it cost to medically transition?

Not every trans person desires hormone therapy or surgeries. But for those who do, the costs can be high and vary greatly depending on the provider and whether you have health insurance that covers it.

For some ballpark figures, below are the costs of some of the most common transition-related surgeries at The Philadelphia Center for Transgender Surgery, including hospital and anesthesia costs. Note that this clinic and others provide a discount when multiple surgeries are done at once.

For trans women seeking hair removal, electrolysis and laser hair removal are used because they’re the most permanent methods. However, costs may vary drastically, since the number of sessions required to achieve results is unique to each individual and the amount providers charge can differ significantly.

Male-to-female confirmation surgeries and procedures

Breast augmentation

$9,000

Vaginoplasty

$25,600

Rhinoplasty

$9,000

Thyroid cartilage reduction (trachea shave)

$5,400

Female-to-male confirmation surgeries and procedures

Basic chest masculinization

$7,800

Phalloplasty

$24,900

How to finance your transition

Apply for grants

If you want a surgery or procedure that’s still beyond what you can afford, consider applying for a grant. There are several specifically for people who need assistance while transitioning.

“There are a few different nonprofit organizations out there that provide financial assistance for people seeking gender affirming surgery or electrolysis or binders,” said Ryan Sallans, a transgender author, public speaker and diversity trainer. He is also a volunteer vice president of The Jim Collins Foundation, which has an annual grant cycle that awards financial grants for gender-affirming surgery to a limited number of applicants. They offer one type of grant that pays for 100% of surgical fees.

“It makes us a unique organization,” Sallans added. “Being able to tell people that 100% of surgical fees are covered is completely life changing, because a lot of people aren’t able to even put down $1,000 or $2,000 for a surgery.”

Through a legacy donation by a trans woman, they also have a grant available that provides 50% of funding and requires the individual to put down the other 50%. “I actually really love that grant — sadly it’ll be gone in two years — because there are many people who may have most of the money,” he said. “They just don’t have that last piece.”

According to Sallans said each year, they typically receive 400 to 500 applications, and in the past, they were only able to award one to three grants annually. For the last two years in a row, they’ve been able to provide three grants that covered surgeries at 100% and two that covered 50%. The amount they can give out each year depends on how much they’re able to fundraise.

The nonprofit Point of Pride also started offering surgical grants for the trans community a few years ago, and they’ve given out more than $103,000 total in grants. They also have a program to help with the costs of electrolysis for permanent hair removal.

Get creative with fundraising

If you’re struggling to piece together enough money for transition-related expenses, you may turn to credit cards or a loan. But rather than getting into debt, consider fundraising first. Many trans people turn to GoFundMe, Schelling said, which allows them to raise money from their friends and family.

Some people also organize fundraisers; for example, working with local LGBTQ bars to have a percent of one night’s proceeds go toward their surgery. Schelling said he’s seen people in Texas do “plate sales,” where they hold an event and make food, like homemade enchiladas, and sell plates of it to raise money for their surgery. If you get creative with fundraising, he said, and combine it with any savings you do have, you can meet your goals a lot faster.

Explore your insurance

If you have health insurance, read your policy carefully to determine what types of transition-related care is and isn’t covered. If you’re not able to figure it out, call your insurer or ask your job’s human resources team to help you understand your coverage.

Be aware that under the Affordable Care Act, health insurers and medical providers are not allowed to discriminate against you because you’re trans. While this doesn’t mean they have to cover every procedure, an insurer cannot categorically exclude transition-related care, and providers aren’t allowed to deny you care simply because you’re trans — though unfortunately it sometimes still happens.

If you have faced discrimination from an insurer or medical professional, you can file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. If you need assistance, contact The Transgender Law Center Legal Helpline or call (415) 865-0176 x306.

If you’re on Medicare, know that transition-related care that’s deemed “medically necessary” is supposed to be covered. However, attempts to get surgeries covered by Medicare are not always successful, so ask your doctor about their history with the program and whether or not previous claims have been accepted.

Consider borrowing to help cover the costs

If you’re not able to pay for transition-related costs with savings, you might be able to finance them with one of these options.

Credit cards. Credit cards offer an easy way to borrow funds. Your credit limit might not be enough to pay for an entire major surgery, but it could cover smaller procedures or miscellaneous costs. If your credit card’s interest rate is high, many credit cards offer 0% interest rates for a year or longer, giving you time to make a dent in your debt. If you go that route, just make sure that if you carry a balance, you can handle the payments once the regular APR kicks in. Also keep a lookout for annual fees, and be aware that carrying a high balance can hurt your credit score since it increases your credit utilization ratio.

Personal loans. Another option to pay for transition-related costs or surgery is taking out a personal loan, which gives a lump sum that’s then repaid with interest in fixed payments. You can take out a personal loan from a traditional financial institution, like a bank or a credit union, or from an online lender. Personal loans are typically available anywhere from $1,000 to $50,000, and interest rates vary significantly depending on credit history.

Medical financing. There are also certain financing options specifically for medical expenses. One is CareCredit, a medical credit card accepted by some healthcare providers. CareCredit often offers 0% interest for certain time periods, but if you don’t pay off your balance by the end of that predetermined “promotional period,” you will owe interest retroactively, and at a very high rate. CareCredit should only be used if you know you can pay off your balance in full before interest kicks in. Another option is Prosper — the company known for peer-to-peer lending also offers a special type of healthcare loan in partnership with some doctors. If your doctor uses their system and you’re approved, you can get a loan for up to $35,000 with no retroactive interest.

Find extra work

Another way to help pay for transition-related expenses is to supplement your income. Consider turning to the gig economy, where you can give rides, deliver groceries, charge scooters and a number of other flexible jobs.

Schelling said he’s even encountered many trans people who work at Starbucks for several years. This offers a unique opportunity, he said, since it not only brings supplemental income, but Starbucks also offers extremely trans-inclusive health insurance, even to part-time employees.

3 ways to save on transition-related expenses

Find free clothing

Some trans people slowly start building their new wardrobe over time, but others don’t start purchasing attire that matches their gender identity until they begin socially transitioning. This can get expensive quickly — not to mention, many transitioning people are uncomfortable shopping in public, Schelling said.

One way to get around this is to participate in or start a clothing swap with other members of the trans community. Some organizations put these together, but if there’s nothing in your area, try to organize one yourself. Have everyone bring some clothes they no longer wear, and swap them with those who are now looking for those types of clothes. People can also bring shoes, jewelry, bags, makeup and other items they no longer need.

“In the city next to me, there was a group of trans people who were doing that,” Sallans noted. “They were collecting binders and clothes and giving it out to people when they had a social group meeting or peer support meeting.” Beyond the immediate need, he added that it also helps build a sense of community.

If a clothing swap isn’t an option for you, consider visiting local thrift stores or online marketplaces like Thredup or Poshmark to find gently used clothes at a huge discount.

Schelling added that some organizations and businesses offer free chest binders for trans people who can’t afford one. For example, Point of Pride offers a free binder program.

Look for LGBTQ-friendly healthcare

Many trans people seek out hormone replacement therapy, but if you don’t have health insurance, accessing HRT and any other basic healthcare needs can be extremely expensive. Fortunately, more and more LGBT-focused clinics are currently opening up around the nation, according to Sallans.

“There are different non-profit organizations that can subsidize costs, whether you need access to hormone therapy or general prevention care, like reproductive and sexuality care,” he said. Planned Parenthood is one such organization, he also noted; while not every location offers hormone replacement therapy, many do.

There are also individual clinics, like Kind Clinic in Austin, Texas, that focus specifically on healthcare for the LGBTQ+ community and offer discounted services.

Schelling’s organization has also observed the increase in clinics that offer trans healthcare.

“A lot of times, the upside is there’s access to competent medical care, and some of those clinics assist you with the costs of your medications,” he said. “The downside is that usually there’s a limited amount of days or evenings these clinics are open, so once people find out, the wait list can be two to three months out.” However, he noted that if you’re looking for hormone therapy, once you have your initial blood work completed, you typically only have to go in every few months.

Access free or discounted legal assistance

If you want to legally change your name and/or gender marker, you’ll have to go through your legal system to get new IDs. “Having people who are knowledgeable in this process is extremely important since it can be extremely overwhelming and expensive,” Sallans said. While using a lawyer for this is optimal, especially since laws vary by state, it can be expensive. Sallans said he did his all himself, which was much cheaper, but it was also very daunting.

Across the country, there are law clinics that offer free legal services for name and gender marker changes. For example, in San Antonio, Texas, the local LGBTQ center, The Pride Center, provides free legal gender and name changes through a legal clinic with a local law school. If there’s a law school near where you live, find out if there are any law clinics or programs available to help.

Some individual lawyers also offer free or discounted services for transr members of their community who have these legal needs. If you’re not sure where to start, and your city has an LGBTQ chamber of commerce, see if any lawyers are members. If there are any LGBTQ publications in your city, see if any lawyers advertise in them. Sallans says some nonprofits also offer these legal services for free in various areas.

Transitioning can be an expensive endeavor, but there is an ever-increasing number of resources and organizations available to help make the process more within reach.

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Emily Starbuck Gerson
Emily Starbuck Gerson |

Emily Starbuck Gerson is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Emily here

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