Archives For February 2010

Uncle Sam says,        You can lower your taxable income by remembering to deduct the student loan interest you have paid for the year. Deducting that interest can reduce your taxable income by as much as $2,500. Additionally, it will lower your adjusted gross income (AGI) and possibly make you eligible for even more deductions and credits. Here’s what you need to know:

What Counts as Student Loan Interest?

       Student loan interest is the interest you paid on a qualified student loan. There are a few requirements to meet before a loan can be considered a qualified student loan:

  1. It must be a loan taken out solely to pay qualified education expenses (tuition, fees, room, board, books, supplies, equipment, and other necessary expenses for attending an eligible education institution – a college, university, vocational, or other postsecondary institution eligible to participate in a student aid program administered by the Department of Education).

  3. The expenses must have been for you, your spouse, or a person who was your dependent when you took out the loan.

  5. The expenses must have been paid within a reasonable amount of time before or after you took out the loan. This means the expenses must relate to a specific semester or period of study and the loan proceeds were disbursed any time within the three months before the semester began or three months after the semester ended.

  7. The expenses were for a student who was enrolled at least half-time according to the school’s standard.

  9. The loan can’t be from your spouse, brothers, sisters, half brothers, half sisters, ancestors, or descendants. It also can’t come from certain corporations, partnerships, trusts, exempt organizations, or a qualified employer plan (like a 401(k) or similar program).

       If your loan meets all those criteria, you can deduct any interest you pay as student loan interest up to $2,500 per year. Most standard student loans will meet all of these criteria.

Can You Claim the Deduction?

       You can claim the deduction as long as:

  1. You’re not filing married filing separately.

  3. No one else is claiming you as their dependent on their tax return.

  5. You are legally obligated to pay interest on a qualified student loan.

  7. You actually paid interest on a qualified student loan.

       You can even count interest paid by other people on your behalf if you’re the person who’s legally obligated to make the payments. The payments other people make are considered gifts to you, and you are treated as if you are paying the interest.

How Much Can You Deduct?

       For the 2009 tax year, the amount of student loan interest you can deduct is generally the smaller of:

  • $2,500, or

  • The amount of interest you paid in 2009

       However, the amount you can deduct is gradually reduced if your AGI before taking the student loan interest deduction is:

  • Between $60,000 and $75,000 if you’re filing single, head of household, or qualifying widower, or

  • Between $120,000 and $150,000 if you’re filing married filing jointly

       If your AGI is over $75,000 or $150,000 (depending on your filing status), then you’re out of luck. No student loan interest deduction for you. To figure out your allowable deduction, you can use this IRS worksheet (at the bottom of the page). (Or you could just use tax prep software…)

Where Do You Claim the Deduction?

       To claim the deduction, enter the allowable amount on line 33 (Form 1040), line 18 (Form 1040A), line 32 (Form 1040NR), or line 9 (Form 1040NR-EZ).

More Free Tax Saving Tips!

       If you want to learn more ways to (legally) reduce your taxes, sign up for free updates to Provident Planning. It’ll only cost you a minute of your time, but you might just learn how to save yourself hundreds or thousands of dollars!

       I’m not posting today because I had a guest post published yesterday on Free Money Finance titled “Is It Possible to Beat the Market?“. Check it out if you want something to read!

       A new law passed on January 22 allows people who donate to charities providing earthquake relief in Haiti to claim those donations on their 2009 tax returns. Only cash contributions made after January 11, 2010 and before March 1, 2010 are eligible. This includes contributions made by text message, check, credit card or debit card. Obviously, this only benefits taxpayers who itemize their deductions.

       All you have to do is claim the donations on Schedule A of your 2009 tax return just as if they were made in 2009. You are still required to keep a receipt with your tax records. If you made a donation by text message, you can keep a copy of your phone bill as your tax receipt. If you gave a cash contribution, you’ll need either a receipt from the charity, a canceled check, or a bank statement. Finally, remember that this law is only for cash contributions – non-cash contributions do not qualify for this special treatment.

       So you’ve still got a couple weeks to make charitable donations that you can count for 2009 – as long as they’re for Haiti earthquake relief efforts. However, be very careful about which charities you give to as many scammers are taking advantage of the situation and stealing donations using false charities. Your best option is to stick with well-known charities or charities you’ve donated to in the past. Make sure you initiate the donation yourself rather than giving out your information on the phone or via email. A couple of suggestions I can give you for good charities are Mennonite Central Committee and YWAM Haiti Relief Fund.

       As you know, I was in Haiti on a short-term mission trip just a few days after the earthquake happened. I met many great people while I was there, so I’m interested to hear how you’re helping the people of Haiti. Share your story in the comments if you’d like!

       I told you when I got back from Haiti that I wanted to take some time to process my thoughts. I’ve done that and now I’m ready to share some of my reflections on the trip. This probably isn’t going to be the most insightful post you’ll ever read, but these are the things I’ve learned from my very short time in Haiti.

We Are Extremely Blessed

       Traveling to one of the poorest countries in the world is sure to open your eyes. Yes, I knew before I left that even poor Americans are extremely wealthy and blessed compared to the rest of the world. Yes, I had read about living conditions in Haiti and other third-world countries. But until you go and see it for yourself, you can’t truly comprehend just how blessed we really are. I still don’t fully understand it because I was only there for a little over a week.

       We have so much that we take for granted every day. Smooth roads to drive on (and cars to drive), solid homes to live in, and access to high quality medical care are all major blessings that we hardly consider day to day. We complain when there’s a pothole on our street, but even the worst roads in America are better than some of the best roads in a third-world country. The streets in Haitian cities and towns are littered with trash (and I mean lots of trash) because there’s no garbage collection. Yeah, there might be a city dump – but it’s too far outside the city for most people to worry about taking their trash out there. Our streets are clean and we have numerous affordable options for getting rid of our garbage.

       We complain about our government and politicians, but it’s ten times better in America than in many other countries. We have our scandals and self-dealings, but the level of corruption in the Haitian government would bog down America’s legal system.

       We have public schools for everyone to attend at no cost (aside from taxes, of course). School in Haiti can cost $200-300/month (US dollars), but the average income in Haiti is $250/year (US dollars). Get an education in the US and you can probably find a decent job. In Haiti, it doesn’t matter if you have a great education – if you don’t know someone in the company (a family member or very good friend), you’re not going to get a job. Period.

       If you can’t afford food in America, you can qualify for food stamps and you’ll be able to eat and feed your family. In Haiti, there’s no such thing. We have breakfast, lunch, and dinner. In Haiti, mealtime is whenever you earn enough money to buy food. For most people, that means they get to eat once a day – if they’re lucky.

       I don’t say these things to make you (or myself) feel guilty. I’m saying them because we need to realize just how blessed we are. Even the worst day for a poor American is far better than what most people in Haiti can even dream about. We need to see how rich we are and appreciate it. We need to see that we have been given so much. And then we need to open our hearts in generosity to share with those who have so little.

Short-term Missions Help You More than They Help Those You Go to Serve

       Our team renovated a building that used to be a hospital. It was run down, filled with trash, completely unsanitary, and had no electricity or working plumbing. We brought it back to an operable condition, but did we (our efforts) have a long-term impact? Probably not. Yes, it helped. Yes, it was needed. But we would be fooling ourselves and full of pride if we thought we made a big difference in the one week we spent there.

       Other people on our team cared for the sick, cleaned their wounds, and put on fresh bandages. They cared for people who had no advocates. They tried their hardest to provide the best medical care they could with the limited skills and supplies they had. The work they did was great, but who will do the work tomorrow? Next week? Next month? Next year?

       I’m not trying to trivialize the work that we did. I know we helped many Haitians while we were there, and I know God will continue to work through the efforts we gave during that week. I’m just saying that it takes much more than a renovated hospital, clean bandages, a new home, or any other number of short-term mission projects to make a lasting change in a community or culture. The truth is that we did more for ourselves on this mission trip than we did for the people of Haiti.

       Short-term missions give you a chance to learn a little about life in other countries and cultures. They’re an opportunity for you to learn how blessed you truly are. They will help you become more aware of other people’s struggles. And I pray they’ll move you to compassion and generosity. But usually, you did not make a huge difference in the community. You were not an enormous blessing to the people. They were a blessing to you, and they made a difference in your life.

Short-term Missions & Money Are Not the Solution

       While I knew it before I left, this trip reinforced the idea that short-term mission trips and money are not the solution that the world’s poor need. They help, but they’re only temporary. There are so many cultural barriers (including language) to overcome that you can’t be extremely effective in just one week, one month, or even one year. Money is needed, but it can’t fix people’s hearts.

       Haiti doesn’t need food for a day. Haiti needs ways to grow its own food. Haiti doesn’t need American doctors and nurses for two weeks. Haiti needs to train its own doctors and nurses. Development is key – not short-term solutions. My discussions with Haitians reinforced this idea and showed me that long-term missionaries and programs are needed much more than quick fixes. Those quick fixes (and short-term missions) are useful and needed, but they’re not the solution to all problems.

If You’re Going on a Short-term Mission Trip, Try to Learn the Language Before You Leave

       Finally, my last reflection is just a tip for anyone who’s going on a short-term mission trip to a foreign country. Try to learn the language before you go. I tried to learn some Haitian Creole before I left, and it helped me form some deep connections with Haitians I met there.

       Learning the local language shows the people that you care enough about them that you took time to learn how to communicate with them. I know that the Haitians I spoke to loved that I was trying to learn their language and they were happy to help teach me. I still don’t know very much Kreyòl (that’s how they’d spell it), but they thought I knew tons just because I was willing to learn.

       That’s not a huge insight. I’m sure you thought of it before you started preparing for your trip. But I want to strongly encourage you to make an effort to learn their language and not to be afraid of sounding stupid when you try to speak it. Be humble and friendly, and I’m sure they’ll be excited to help you learn more.

Any Questions?

       I’m sure there are other things I could mention, but those were my main thoughts. If you have a question I didn’t answer or maybe something that would be good for me (or anyone else) to consider, please let me know in the comments!

       A fiduciary is a person in a position of trust who obligates himself to always act in the best interests of those who trust him. For example, the trustee of a trust is considered a fiduciary and must always act in the best interests of the trust’s beneficiaries. Fiduciaries are legally required to act in the best interests of those they’re serving, and they can never put their own interests first.

Why Does It Matter?

       So why should you care what (or who) a fiduciary is? In the financial world, there are two types of advisors:

  1. Those who are fiduciaries.

  3. Those who are not.

       If you understand what a fiduciary is, you’ll see that advisors who are fiduciaries are required to do what’s best for you. Advisors who are not fiduciaries are not held to such a standard. It’s perfectly legal for them to put their own interests first – to act in a way that might not provide the best benefits to you. Obviously, you want to use a fiduciary advisor whenever possible because of their legal responsibility to you.

       There are very clear guidelines on who is considered a fiduciary in the financial world and who is not. The following people are NOT considered fiduciaries:

  • Stock Brokers
  • Insurance Agents
  • Real Estate Agents acting on the other party’s behalf (This is common when you are buying, as most real estate agents are acting on behalf of the seller.)

       “Advisors” in this group do not represent you. They represent themselves, their company, or someone else. They have no legal responsibility to act in your best interest. They are simply not permitted to commit fraud or provide you with “unsuitable” recommendations. But the “unsuitable” standard is very broad and difficult to impose.

       On the other hand, people in these groups are considered fiduciaries:

  • Registered Investment Advisers (RIAs) or Investment Adviser Representatives (IARs)
  • Insurance Brokers
  • Real Estate Agents acting on your behalf
  • CPAs
  • Attorneys

       Advisors in this group are legally required to act and advise you only for your benefit and interests. They can never act in a way that is contrary to what is best for you. They must act with undivided loyalty to you. If they fail to do so, you are entitled to legal action against them. It’s not enough for them to just provide “suitable” recommendations. They must try their hardest to provide you with the best advice possible.

       Let’s use a simple example. If you go to a stock broker, the broker can recommend you invest in Fund A (as long as it’s “suitable”) even though Fund B is better for you. Why would he do this? Probably because Fund A will give him a higher commission.

       Now let’s say you go to a Registered Investment Adviser (or an Investment Advisor Representative – someone who works for an RIA). Because RIAs have a fiduciary duty to their clients, they’ll always be required to recommend you invest in Fund B since it’s your best option. RIAs can’t receive commissions or do anything that’s not in their client’s best interests. So who do you want to get your advice from? The stock broker or the RIA?

       It’s quite clear that fiduciaries are held to a much higher standard than non-fiduciaries. Whenever possible, you should seek to obtain advice from people who are held to a fiduciary standard. Ask your advisors if they are fiduciaries. Ask them if they are required to always act in your best interests. They are required to answer truthfully, and you should be wary of those who cannot answer with a confident and resounding “yes”.

       Have you ever heard of the term “fiduciary” before? Is there any aspect of the fiduciary duty/standard you’re not clear on? Let me know in the comments, and I’ll do my best to answer your questions!

       Listen to advice and accept instruction, that you may gain wisdom in the future.

Proverbs 19:20 (ESV)

       Sound, prudent advice is a valuable tool for those who want to become wise. This admonition in Proverbs counsels us to listen to advice so we can gain wisdom. It’s a good idea to seek the advice of those with knowledge and wisdom. If we fully hear and accept their words, we can learn from them and prepare ourselves for the future.

       But we must be careful to weigh the advice we receive rather than believing everything. The idea behind this verse is not to necessarily do everything people tell you that you should. Rather, we should hear them and try to learn from their advice. Is it good or bad advice? Why? We’ll only gain wisdom when we examine the quality of that advice and how it applies.

       It’s interesting that this verse says you’ll gain wisdom in the future. The things we learn right now may not be of much help currently, but they may help us have a better understanding in the future. I’ve found this to be true in my life. I enjoy learning about a wide variety of topics – many of which are quite useless to me right now. But what I’ve found is that having a broad knowledge helps me understand the issues I’m dealing with now. I can apply concepts from one field to comprehend ideas in another. So it’s prudent for us to listen to good advice and be learning even when we don’t think it is useful now. A love of learning is a great tool for gaining wisdom.

       I pray that my writing on Provident Planning will help you gain wisdom for your personal finances. But please examine what I say, thoughtfully consider it, and see how it may or may not apply to your own situation. Ask questions. Disagree. Share your advice. In this way, we can all gain wisdom for the future.

       Because I spent four years in college studying personal finance, most of the basic questions don’t occur to me any more. It’s called familiarity blindness. I’m just so used to this stuff that I no longer realize what other people might not know. That’s not to say they’re stupid. They just haven’t spent as much time studying these things.

       Part of my purpose for writing on Provident Planning is to educate people. I want to teach people enough to make good financial decisions on their own. So it’s with that mindset that I’m approaching several topics from here on out by focusing on the basics. I’m planning on looking at the basics of investing, insurance, taxes, retirement planning, and estate planning. These will start off very basic (like today’s post), and I’ll look at more complex issues as time goes on. So let’s get on to today’s post.

What Is an Investment?

       If you’re new to the idea of investing, a great place to start is to define what an investment is. An investment is simply anything you put money in with the expectation (or hope) that it will generate income and/or increase in value. An investment return is the reward you get from investing – basically current income or increased value.

       For example, money in a savings account provides income in the form of interest payments. A share of stock is expected to increase in value over time while possibly providing income in the form of dividends. A rental home could be considered an investment because you expect to generate rental income while the property value increases over time. You can even consider education to be an investment because you expect it will help you earn more income or increase your value to employers. While that’s true, this series is going to look more at things like stocks, bonds, options, mutual funds, real estate, and other such traditional investments.

       So that’s a basic definition of an investment – something that is purchased with the hope that it will provide income or go up in value. But be sure you don’t get “investing” and “speculating” confused. Investing involves the creation of wealth through legitimate means. Speculating is often a zero-sum game, where someone else has to lose so you can win. No wealth is created in speculating – it simply changes hands.