If You Drive A Car, I’ll Tax The Street

It may be foolish to even consider writing a post about taxes in an election year (and amidst the 1,875th Republican primary debate…) but if there are only two things that you can count on in life, it’s death and…you know.

Ah, tax season.  That time of  year where you realize that the rich really do get richer and the poor help pay for it.  Or for some, that time of year where you can finally pay down some debt or upgrade your television or just feel flush for a couple days.  I’ve done taxes in good years (2011 wasn’t so bad, really) and in bad years (2010, you horrid little bugger) and a few in  between, so I thought I would share a few tips for the un/under-employed to help you make the most of your money.

  • Keep track of everything:  Ideally, you’ve been holding on to all your receipts (yeah, right…) but if not, go back through your monthly bank statements and highlight expenses that might be deductible, specifically expenses related to job-seeking, education, donations, medical expenses, and even a move, if it’s for a job.  I set up a GMail label for any expense I think I might deduct, so it’s easy to go back at tax time.
  • Government aid is almost always taxed:  If you received unemployment benefits or compensation, you will need to report that and pay taxes on it, unless you read my post on unemployment and had the taxes taken out in advance (a lifesaver!)  However, programs like WIC or TANF or other food assistance generally are not taxed.  Be sure to ask a professional or check online before filing to make sure you’re paying no more than you have to!
  • No need to report wages from Bank of Mom/Dad/Grandparents/Sugar Daddy: Unless you are receiving Romney-levels of assistance, you don’t have to report gifts!  Even if the gifts are at a taxable level, it is the responsibility of the giver to pay any required federal taxes.  Unless you were given a gift that produces interest (stocks, bonds, funds, trusts, etc.), you have no obligation to the government.  You’d be surprised, but I have friends who have included monthly parental money under wages – don’t be that guy!
  • File your taxes every year:  Times is rough, y’all.  I get it.  But for most people out there, you’re either missing out of money you could have in your pocket OR you’re setting yourself up for even greater debt down the road by not filing.  If you do owe the government, ’tis better to file and set up a monthly payment plan than it is to ignore it.  Trust me, it will not go away.
  • Doing your taxes shouldn’t cost you an arm and leg:  E-filing is so easy and inexpensive (often free on the federal level based on your income.)  Unless you have a very complicated return or unusual financial situation, you can file yourself – or get a friend to help you!  Take advantage of reputable sites such as TurboTax, H&R Block, etc. that will process your return quickly and get you your refund.  Save time by setting up direct deposit and don’t be tricked into money-sucking options like refund debit cards (watch for hidden fees!), filing fees taken from your refund ($29.95 additional cost if you don’t pay upfront), or opening additional accounts you don’t need.
  • Refunds are not bonus money:  I know that tax refunds often feel like a year-end bonus – but they’re not.  It’s just your money that the government has been holding on to.  If you notice over the course of a year or two that you are getting significant refunds (without any major credits or unusual circumstances), you may consider having less tax withheld from your paycheck each period.  Instead of a $2,500 “bonus” in April, you could be getting an extra $200 a month!  It’s much easier to maintain a budget, pay down debt, boost your savings, and generally try to be a responsible adult if you’re maximizing your take home pay.

Anything that I’ve forgotten?  Anyone have a crazy tax story?  Or do we all just have Taxman stuck in our head now?

Living On The Dole

Unemployment happens.  Google unemployment rates if you want to look at some numbers that will make you sad or check out any of the many posts here about the ups and downs of the job market.  As oft-described, it is the suck to be unemployed.  But there are some resources for those who find themselves job-less.

One of those resources is unemployment benefits.  Benefits vary state to state but essentially are a weekly payment based on previous wages and salary that are made to those who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own and are actively job searching but are unemployed or partially-employed.  I encourage any one who is in that situation to take advantage of unemployment. If you have been working, you have earned that money.  I’ve spoken to many people who are concerned about the stigma of receiving benefits – trust me, most people have received benefits at some point in their life.  It’s not a permanent solution but it can really make the difference during your job hunt.

How to Apply for Unemployment

1.  First, be sure to document all the information regarding your termination.  Generally, benefits are only extended when you lose your job through no fault of your own but if you feel that you were wrongfully terminated, there are opportunities to still receive benefits and address that issue.

2.  Before you file your first initial claim, visit your state’s employment/workforce commission website.  It will have all the details regarding filing.  Read the fine print – policies vary from state to state. Many local library branches have volunteers on hand to assist with understanding this process – take advantage of speaking with someone before you get started! 

3.  Some information to have on-hand when you’re ready to file – your past employment history for the last 12-18 months including wages, employment dates, supervisor contact information, reason for leaving, etc, and the details regarding your most recent termination.

4.  Generally, you will file an initial claim online.  This will determine if you qualify and for how much.  Once you receive a letter stating that you may receive benefits, you will still need to file weekly to receive payment (generally through direct deposit or a pre-loaded card).  All states require you to document your job search, so be sure to do thoroughly.

Tips for Filing Painlessly

  • Most states require a waiting period 1-2 weeks after your last day.  Do not expect a check to come sailing in right away!
  • It’s important to communicate with your most recent employer if you plan to file – contact human resources to see if there will be any challenges to your claim.  This shouldn’t necessarily stop you but if there is going to be an issue, it’s better to know going in.  No money will be dispersed during any fact-finding process.
  • Benefits are determined based on previous wages/salaries, so if you were terminated from a full-time, high-paying job 8 months ago and then let go from your seasonal part-time gig 2 months ago, your benefits will be based on all the work you’ve done.  It also won’t matter that you were previously fired if the claim you’re filing is from an employer who lets you go due to lack of work.
  • Be organized!  Write down EVERYTHING pertinent to your job hunt – I used a label in Google Mail to track all job-related correspondence for weekly filing.  You do not have to accept every job offer you may receive but you have to document everything that happens!
  • Benefits usually only last for 26 weeks.  Some extensions may be available.  Keep this in mind when job-hunting – you’ll need a plan for when your benefits do stop.
  • Benefits are taxed!  I recommend having taxes taken out prior to being dispersed.  It makes life easier.

My final word of advice?  Keep in mind that, like many government-operated programs, there is a lot of paperwork (mostly on-line) and very few staff members.  Stay on top of the progress of your claims and find out who the deputy assigned to your case is that you can have a point person to talk to.  Also, any delays (as small as a misspelled name to as serious as an employer challenge) will freeze your money, so be prepared!  Unemployment benefits can be a great help for paying bills when you’re not working but you’ll want to try to have a safety net or plan in case that money doesn’t come through.

Readers, how many of you have filed for unemployment?  Please share tips or suggestions, especially state-specific, in the comments.  Any questions?  I’m happy to share more about my experiences.