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11 ways to reduce next year’s tax bill

If you claimed the right number of dependents and standard deductions on your 2017 federal income tax return and you still ended up owing the IRS, you’re probably looking to avoid a repeat performance next year. Luckily, there are several ways to increase your chance for a refund (or at least reduce the amount you’ll owe) and you don’t have to be a tax whiz or accountant to take advantage.

Here are 11 ways you can pay less in federal taxes for your income return next year.

1. Contribute to a 401K or IRA

Contributing to a retirement fund is an important way to ensure financial independence in your golden years, but it can also convey short-term tax benefits. In most cases, the contributions you make to your 401K and IRA plans are tax-deductible and are not included in your taxable income at the end of the year. (Note: If you didn’t contribute to an IRA in 2017, you still have time. You have until April 17 to contribute up to the maximum amount and shave off a good chunk of your tax bill. Filed your taxes already? That’s OK. You can file an amended return to reflect the contribution.)

2. Buy a Home

There’s a distinct tax benefit to home ownership. The interest you pay on your mortgage is tax-deductible, and the interest is front-loaded. For the first several years, most of your mortgage payment goes toward interest, which will drastically reduce your adjusted gross income at tax time. Want an extra boost for your taxes next year? Consider paying January 2019’s mortgage payment in December to get a tax benefit before the end of the year.

3. Donate to Charity or Volunteer

You probably know charitable donations can be itemized and deducted from your income, so you’ll want to save receipts anytime you donate cash or items to charity. You can even deduct miles you travel for volunteering or other charity work.

“Miles you travel on behalf of a charity are deductible at 14 cents per mile for 2018,” said Gail Rosen, CPA.

4. Start a Home Business

Starting a home business can provide you with a new source of income and allow you to take deductions off any income the business generates.

These deductions include business costs you incur throughout the year, a portion of your mortgage and utilities if you use a home office and the cost of goods needed to keep your business running. You can even deduct startup costs.

“Any expenses that are incurred before the first sale are ‘start-up costs,’” Rosen said. “These costs cannot be deducted until the first sale. Then they are deducted over 15 years and you can deduct the first $5,000 in the first year.”

5. Search for a New Job

If you hunt for a new job in your field this year, you can write off some qualifying expenses as you search. There are exceptions, but potential write-offs include things like clothes or travel.

“If you looked for a new job in 2018, you should be aware of the income tax deduction that may be available with respect to job-search costs,” Rosen said. “Qualifying expenses are deductible even if they do not result in a new job being offered or accepted.”

6. Open a Flexible Spending Plan

Many employers offer flexible spending plans that let you contribute toward yearly medical expenses pre-tax. These contributions typically don’t count toward your taxable income.

7. Deduct Medical or Dental Expenses

Many medical and dental expenses are tax-deductible. According to Rosen, the cost of getting to and from medical treatment is deductible at 17 cents per mile, plus the cost of tolls and parking, and dependent expenses are also deductible.

“If you cover the medical cost of dependents, these can be deducted. Additionally, if you are covering the costs of an individual who would qualify as your dependent except that they have too much gross income — for example, an elderly parent — you may be able to deduct these costs as well,” said Rosen.

8. Education-Related Expenses

Current and former students have many eligible deductions and credits related to their education expenses. Paid student loan interest and tuition and fees can be claimed as deductions. Eligible current students can also access the American Opportunity Credit, which can cover up to $2,500 annually for four years, and the Lifetime Learning Credit, which can cover up to $2,000 per tax return.

9. Install Solar Energy

Homeowners who install solar energy systems in their home can get back tax credits at up to 30% of the cost of installation. This credit will begin to decrease after 2019 so you may want to act soon if you’re planning on installing solar panels.

As an added bonus, solar energy can significantly reduce your energy bills.

10. Hunt Down Every Available Tax Credit

We’ve named several tax credits above, but there are more, including credits for adopting children, the cost of child care and low-income households. Tax credits are more valuable than deductions, as they reduce your taxable income on a dollar-for-dollar basis, so make sure you’re taking advantage of every option.

11. Get a Pro to Do Your Taxes

No matter how much research you do, a professional may be able to identify tax deductions and credits that hadn’t occurred to you. Paying a reputable professional you trust can help you stay organized and minimize your tax liability. Here’s a handy guide to finding the right tax professional for your needs.

6 tax mistakes procrastinators make and how to avoid them

We get it. Doing your taxes is no fun, especially if you know you’re going to owe money. But as with any project on which you procrastinate, leaving everything to the last minute can lead to errors, both large and small, and some of those errors could cost you serious money.

If you’ve gone and done it, though, and are still looking at that pile of tax forms over there in the corner, we’ve compiled a list of six quick-and-dirty tips that could keep you from making some obvious, and not-so-obvious, mistakes when you finally sit down and tackle the task. They could also help you maximize your tax refund.

1. You Forgot to Sign It

You might wonder how anyone could forget to sign their tax form, but this simple process is one of the most common tax mistakes, according to the IRS. Just like forgetting to sign a check or a contract, it means your return isn’t valid. Usually, there isn’t a penalty or interest associated with this error (since you’ve already included a check or electronic payment if you owed), so the IRS will just send a notice asking for a valid signature, but it will delay the processing of your return. If you’re getting a refund, that too will be delayed.

So check, double-check — heck, triple-check — that you signed or completed the e-signature process before filing your return. Also, check out these last-minute filing tips from the IRS.

2. You Miscarried the 9

Math errors are also a very common mistake made by folks in a hurry. Fortunately for most people, the IRS corrects any miscalculations, so there’s no need for filing an amended return. But these mistakes can mean the difference between you thinking you’re getting a refund and the reality that you actually owe taxes, so be sure to check your calculations carefully.

One way to help you avoid math errors is to file electronically so the calculations are done for you. Bye-bye, No. 2 pencil! So long, calculator!

3. You Didn’t Account for All Your Income

Did you have a side hustle early last year? A freelance design gig for a friend’s business? If so, you’re going to need to account for it, regardless of whether you received a W-2 or 1099 from whomever paid you. That’s because, while there’s an IRS threshold for filing these documents by employers, there’s no similar threshold for claiming the income. Income is income is income. If you made money and don’t report it — and the IRS catches it — it’s going to cost you penalties and interest at best, and open you to a possible audit at worst.

4. You Forgot Deductions or Tax Credit

It’s easy to forget these things when you’re in a hurry, but they can end up saving you some serious money and are well worth the extra time to figure out if you qualify. So if you’re just claiming the standard deductions because you’re under the gun, you might want to take a deep breath and check out TurboTax’s list of 10 commonly overlooked tax deductions that can keep you from overpaying the tax man.

5. You Filed for an Extension but Didn’t Understand the Rules

Filing for an extension is a great idea if you’re down to the wire and don’t really understand your tax situation. But remember that an extension gives you an extra six months to file your paperwork, but not an extra six months to pay any taxes due. So, if you’re confused, tax pros recommend doing a quick calculation of your taxes, filing for your extension and making any required payment of taxes you think you owe. This will help you avoid penalties and interest once you get your final calculations together.

6. You Didn’t Bother to Request an Extension

You gave up. You shoved, slammed and jammed your return through and now it’s full of mistakes that are going to cost you money by way of penalties or because you’ve left money on the table. It’s a much better idea to file the extension, then get the help you need from a tax professional to ensure you’re not overpaying your taxes.

Whatever you do, make sure you file your taxes. Unpaid taxes can have serious consequences on your personal finances, including your credit scores if they go unpaid long enough.

Delta, Sears, Kmart data breach: Customer payment info possibly compromised in cyberattack

Update Apr 5, 2018 3:45 PM EDT: In addition to Delta Airlines, Sears Holdings announced that customer data from Sears and Kmart stores, including names, addresses and credit card numbers, may have been exposed during a security breach last fall.

>> Read more trending news 

Sears Holdings uses the same online chat service as Delta, [24]7.ai, and said in a statement posted on its website that it believes fewer than 100,000 customers were affected by the breach.

“As soon as [24]7.ai informed us in mid-March 2018, we immediately notified the credit card companies to prevent potential fraud, and launched a thorough investigation with federal law enforcement authorities, our banking partners, and IT security firms,” company officials said.

Sears Holdings said the credit card information of customers making purchases online between Sept. 27, 2017 and Oct. 12, 2017, may have been compromised, but that anyone using a Sears credit card was not affected.

The company said there’s no evidence its stores were compromised or that Sears’ internal data bases were compromised.

Sears Holdings is establishing a hotline for customers to find out more about the breach by Friday.

(Previous story)

Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines is the latest victim of a cyber incident.

>> Watch the news report here

Delta announced Wednesday that a "small subset" of customers may have had their payment information compromised online.

"(I’m) a little uneasy. I think they'll take care of it, so it will be OK, but the first gut reaction is a little nerve-racking," traveler Nicole Ladin told WSB-TV's Carl Willis at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, Delta's main hub. 

>> Visit WSBTV.com for the latest on this developing story

According to Delta, [24]7.ai, an online chat service they use, was hacked from Sept. 26 to Oct. 12 of last year, and payment information may have been compromised.

Delta said the airline was notified about the breach last Wednesday.

"It's just ... I think they have to make it 100 percent, to make it work 100 percent," traveler Marquise Bishop said.

Delta said the company will launch a special webpage at Delta.com/response at noon Thursday to address customer questions and concerns.

>> Read more trending news 

The airline also will start directly contacting customers who may have been impacted and ensure that customers are not responsible for any fraudulent payment card activity that may have happened.

Ladin told Willis that her mind will still be on her wallet as she flies home.

"Especially when you're a frequent flier. It gets a little nervous that that information has been leaked," Ladin said.

Here's is Delta's full statement about the cyber incident: 

"Last week, on March 28, Delta was notified by [24]7.ai, a company that provides online chat services for Delta and many other companies, that [24]7.ai had been involved in a cyber incident. It is our understanding that the incident occurred at [24]7.ai from Sept. 26 to Oct. 12, 2017, and that during this time certain customer payment information for [24]7.ai clients, including Delta, may have been accessed – but no other customer personal information, such as passport, government ID, security or SkyMiles information was impacted.

"Upon being notified of [24]7.ai's incident, Delta immediately began working with [24]7.ai to understand any potential impact the incident had on Delta customers, delta.com, or any Delta computer system. We also engaged federal law enforcement and forensic teams, and have confirmed that the incident was resolved by [24]7.ai last October. At this point, even though only a small subset of our customers would have been exposed, we cannot say definitively whether any of our customers' information was actually accessed or subsequently compromised.

"We appreciate and understand that this information is concerning to our customers. The security and confidentiality of our customers' information is of critical importance to us and a responsibility we take extremely seriously. Delta will launch delta.com/response, a dedicated website, noon ET April 5, which we will update regularly to address customer questions and concerns. We will also directly contact customers who may have been impacted by the [24]7.ai cyber incident. In the event any of our customers' payment cards were used fraudulently as a result of the [24]7.ai cyber incident, we will ensure our customers are not responsible for that activity."

>> Click here for more information from [24]7.ai

Toys R Us website goes black: No more online shopping for customers

Toys R Us and Babies R Us are no longer selling any products online.

On Monday, the toy retailer’s websites went black and customers were encouraged to visit stores for last-minute sales. The chain is offering up to 30 percent off storewide, and all sales are final. Liquidation sales started in late March.

>> Read more trending news 

“We have shut down the website for any purchases but our brick and mortar stores are open and holding going out of business sales,” a pop up message on the website read. “We encourage you to stop by your local store and take full advantage of the deep discounts and deals available,” the company said on its website.

Related: Toys R Us closing sales: What you need to know

The message also directed consumers to toysrusclosingsale.com and an FAQ page on the liquidations for more information. 

Toys R Us, Inc. voluntarily filed for relief under Chapter 11 in September 2017. Toys R Us was $5 billion in debt as of April 29.

Hackers steal information from Saks, Lord & Taylor cards

Hackers stole data from more than 5 million credit and debit cards used by Saks Fifth Avenue, Saks Off 5th and Lord & Taylor customers, CNN reported.

>> Read more trending news

Hudson's Bay Company, the owner of the retail stores, confirmed the data breach Sunday and said it has “identified the issue” and will take steps to contain it.

"Once the Company has more clarity around the facts, it will notify customers quickly and will offer those impacted free identity protection services, including credit and web monitoring," Hudson's Bay said in a news release.

Hackers gained information from cards that were used for in-store purchases, and there was no evidence that online transactions were impacted, CNN reported.

The breach likely impacted more than 130 Saks and Lord & Taylor locations across the country, but the "majority of stolen credit cards were obtained from New York and New Jersey locations," Hudson’s Bay said in its release.

Trump slams Amazon over taxes, use of postal service

President Donald Trump slammed e-commerce giant Amazon on Thursday, claiming that the company pays few-to-no taxes and that its use of the U.S. Postal Service is “causing tremendous loss to the U.S.”

>> Read more trending news

“I have stated my concerns with Amazon long before the Election,” the president wrote Thursday on Twitter. “Unlike others, they pay little or no taxes to state & local governments, use our Postal System as their Delivery Boy (causing tremendous loss to the U.S.), and are putting many thousands of retailers out of business!”

Amazon shares dropped Wednesday after an unidentified source told Axios that Trump was looking for ways “to go after Amazon with antitrust or competition law.” Trump has also criticized Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, who also owns The Washington Post.

>> Related: Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is once again the world’s richest man

“He’s obsessed with Amazon,” an unidentified source told Axios. “Obsessed.”

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Wednesday that despite the president’s comments, no specific policies were being pushed in regards to Amazon.

“The president has said many times before he's always looking to create a level playing field for all businesses, and this is no different,” she said.

Thursday’s comments were not Trump’s first criticisms of Amazon.

The president claimed in December that the post office was losing “many billions of dollars a year” and “charging Amazon and others so little to deliver their packages, making Amazon richer and the Post Office dumber and poorer.” He wrote that the post office, “Should be charging MUCH MORE!”

Last summer, he questioned whether “Fake News Washington Post” was “being used as a lobbyist weapon against Congress to keep Politicians from looking into Amazon no-tax monopoly.”

The speculative comment earned a “Pants on Fire” rating from Politifact.com, the fact-checking group’s category for statements it deems to be most erroneous. The group noted that while Amazon is a large company, it’s not a monopoly.

“While Amazon takes advantage of tax breaks and loopholes, it pays federal corporate tax, and charges sales taxes in 46 U.S. jurisdictions,” according to Politifact. “It also supports federal legislation that would require other online retailers to pay state tax on internet sales.”

Uber car gets stuck after wrong turn down stairs; driver blames navigation app

Oops.

A San Francisco Uber driver's embarrassing wrong turn made headlines Monday after photos of the car stuck on a flight of stairs went viral on social media.

>> See a photo from the scene here

According to the San Francisco Examiner and Business Insider, the driver and two passengers were in the car Monday afternoon when it tumbled down the stairs outside a Safeway on Market Street, an Uber spokesperson said. No injuries were reported.

>> Read more trending news 

Business Insider reported that the driver, identified only as Fred, said he had been using Uber's navigation app, which told him to turn onto the staircase. 

Read more here or here.

Lance Armstrong's former Austin home on the market for $7.5 million

Want to live in Lance Armstrong’s old house?

>> See a video slideshow of the home here

The cyclist’s former home in west Austin, Texas, is on the market for $7.5 million. According to CultureMap, it was originally listed two years ago for $8.25 million.

>> On Austin360.com: See a photo gallery of the home

The six-bedroom, 7.5-bathroom home across the street from Pease Park was built in 1924 and has since been remodeled. The 8,158-square-foot home has a pool with a fountain, a pool house with a full bathroom and kitchenette and a covered outdoor living area.

>> Read more trending news 

Read more here.

Blue Bell reveals new ice cream flavor

Blue Bell’s newest limited edition flavor combines the best of several worlds into one, but the best news might be that you can order it and have it shipped anywhere in the U.S.

>> Read more trending news 

At first glance, Chocolate Peanut Butter Cookie Dough might seem to be targeting the cookie dough ice cream fans, but upon closer inspection, you’ll see that it’s the people who love peanut butter cookies and chocolate — aka people who also love Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups — who will be seeking out this flavor.

>> On Austin360.com: With no Blue Bell in sight, putting other ice creams to the test

The Brenham-based ice creamery often releases limited edition flavors, which sometimes sell out quickly. This flavor is available in 1/2 gallon and pint sizes, and it’s one of dozens of flavors you can order ($129 for four 1/2 gallons) to have shipped anywhere in the U.S. You can’t place the order online, but you can call 979-836-7977 to find out more.

>> On Austin360.com: How to make a blueberry muffin ice cream

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