Tuesday, January 10, 2012
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Season After Season...
We've only just finished singing "'Tis the season to be jolly" when we're smacked in the face with a not-so-jolly season. One hardly has time to undeck the halls before the kitchen table becomes cluttered with receipts.
Yes, folks, tax season is already here. While this year's deadline doesn't arrive until April 17th, you might want to at least start running some numbers to prepare for payment of your tax bill. And with so many tax credits disappearing for 2011, many of us will be writing a check this year.
Gone is the Making Work Pay credit. For the past two years, single taxpayers could enjoy a $400 per year tax credit with those married gaining an $800 credit. This was big as credits actually go towards the amount you owe rather than reduce your income. If your refund for 2010 fell below this level, you may have to pull out your checkbook.
Self-employed individuals get hit with a double whammy. In 2010, their health insurance deduction could be used to offset the amount subject to self-employment tax. Not so for 2011. But you can still claim the deduction on Form 1040.
Employers also lose the partial credit for payroll taxes paid.
The temporary payroll tax cut has been extended to Feb. 29, causing havoc for payroll systems everywhere. Employees will continue to pay 2 percent less in Social Security taxes until that date unless the cut is extended. The base for 2012 will be $110,100, up from $106,800 in 2011. Once your wages exceed the base, Medicare only is withheld and not Social Security.
The first-time home buyer's credit is still available. But only for members of the military or Foreign Service.
Be careful in computing your business mileage. The rate changed mid-year 2011. January to June 30, 2011 is 51 cents per mile. July 1 to December 31 is 55.5 cents. Moving and medical mileage is 23 cents per mile, mileage for charitable purposes is 14 cents.
One of the biggest changes you'll see in 2011 will be your brokerage statement. Fortunately, the computing is left to the brokerage firm. But it's up to you to confirm its accuracy. The new Form 8949 for reporting capital gains and losses must include the cost basis of investments that are sold along with the proceeds of the sale.
Are you paying premiums for mortgage insurance? This deduction is gone.
Federal income tax law isn't all that's changed for this year. Beginning in 2012, your 401(k) is getting a facelift, too.
The contribution limit for 401(k)s, 403(b)s and the federal government's Thrift Savings Plan will increase to $17,000 in 2012. Catch-up contributions for those aged 50 and older remain at $5,500.
Expect additional information about costs and fees that are deducted from your account. You've always paid them, but now you'll actually be able to see where that money is going.
Plan administrators are also now permitted to offer investment advice provided recommendations are unbiased. The advisor cannot receive compensation based on a particular investment selected.
IRA income limits have increased. Individuals and heads of households with retirement plans at work will qualify for a tax deduction as long as their adjusted gross income (AGI) does not exceed $68,000. That's a $10,000 increase from 2011. The limit for married contributors is raised to $112,000. Those without a retirement plan at work qualify for the deduction with an AGI below $183,000.
How many of you already miss the simplicity of Herman Cain's 9-9-9 tax plan? I certainly do.
The winter doldrums drive folks to pursue indoor activities. This makes January the perfect time to introduce some of the latest gadgets and gizmos.
The annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas may be bringing more drama this year than cool electronics. Microsoft earlier announced this will be the last year the software giant participates in the show.
Neither Apple nor Amazon participates in CES. Google doesn't have a booth of their own, but their products are touted on phones, tablets and TVs displayed by others.
This leaves many wondering if the show will maintain its impact on the industry. A large number of products introduced never make it to market.
Those that did make it transformed home entertainment. The compact disc player, high-definition TV and Blu-ray player were all unveiled at previous CES shows.
Last year's highlights were 3-D TV and Motorola's Xoom tablet. The jury is still out on both products.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of CES is allowing the imagination to freely roam. Whether or not a product becomes an instant success may be secondary to its potential. Something that seems pretty cool today may not spark widespread interest until someone else envisions a new way to tweak it that propels it next year.
It's all about the show. Microsoft hired a gospel choir to sing tweets of focus points in CEO Steve Ballmer's final keynote address. They flashed back to the 1995 CES when Bill Gates foretold that the next revolution in consumer computing would be social networking.
Attendees left looking for more from Microsoft in 2012. There was a Windows 8 demonstration with a late February release date for the next beta version. All Windows 7 PCs will be upgradable when version 8 is released.
Why yet another version of Windows? This one offers too many new features to fit into this space. Interested techies can check it out here.
LG has proven itself the leader in the smart appliance field. How about a refrigerator that helps you diet? The cornerstone of LG's Smart ThinQ appliance line does just that with a health manager feature that tracks your diet, sends recipes to your smart oven and keeps you posted when you run out of certain groceries. The health manager can be customized by family member and controlled by voice recognition.
Wine not chilled? Give it eight minutes in the fridge's Blast Chiller. Then kick your feet up and relax while a robot vacuum cleaner cleans the house controlled through your smartphone.
LG and Samsung both are revolutionizing TV. Imagine a 55-inch TV that's only a mere 4 millimeters thick. That's one-sixth of an inch. The sets use organic light-emitting diodes, or OLEDs, rather than plasma or liquid crystals, producing amazing picture quality. The technology has been around for a few years on a smaller scale but proved troublesome with larger screens. It's now ready for prime time - and so is the price. Expect to pay more than $5,000 to bring one of these home.
Polaroid proudly presents the first camera running Android. The SC1630 looks like a phone but sports a 16-megapixel sensor, 3x zoom lens and uses Wi-Fi for uploading to Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr. In other words, it does exactly what your phone does except place calls.
And phones may just be making the biggest buzz at this year's CES. Every manufacturer and carrier displayed the latest and greatest phone, tablet and mobile device coming soon to an online vendor or retail outlet near you.
No flying jetpacks yet, but how about motorized skates that go 10 mph? They attach to any pair of sneakers and controlled by a wireless remote strapped to the user's hand. Action Inc.'s SpnKiX comes with removable training wheels. They're recommended for ages 16 and up with a weight limit of 180 lbs. But they can't take you too far. The lithium battery only lasts two or three miles, and takes up to three hours to fully recharge.
Expect the skates to start shipping in March. Online pre-order price is $375. Regular price will be $649.
The New Year continues to bring encouraging news from the U.S. financial markets. The Dow Jones Industrial average's recent rally boosted it to the highest level since July. Bank of America shares gained nearly 6 percent today, hopefully marking the beginning of a rally back from a 50 percent reduction in share prices last year. Other financial stocks followed.
There are other glimmers of light. The U.S. unemployment rate finally began a gradual decline. The second largest economy in the world, China has experienced solid growth rates once again. Even France, Europe's second largest economy, had some good news with industrial production increasing by more than 1 percent.
The mood just seems better, as the last two quarters of 2011 were plagued by persistent sentiment about a possible "double dip" recession. This was exasperated by the near collapse of the European continent under a mountain of debt. Although not out of the woods, a total collapse of the EU now seems to have been averted, at least for the time being. And most analysts predict a gradual improvement in the world economy over the next two years. Absent another external shock, this seems plausible. That is the good news.
Now for the bad news: More than 8.5 percent of the U.S. Labor force remains jobless. Some analysts point to data that suggests that the rate has only been reduced because many job seekers have lost confidence and stopped looking for work. Setting the insane debt levels of the EU aside, the U.S. is borrowing more than one third of every dollar spent - an absolutely unsustainable level. The housing market has improved little, and consumer confidence remains bleak.
So the current economic condition is terrible, perhaps just slightly less terrible than in 2010 and 2011. All this is during a period of recovery, as the "Great Recession" officially ended in the summer of 2009 - more than two and a half years ago. Feel better?
Next week will explore some immediate steps, some surprisingly simple, that would improve the situation immediately and immensely - if only the politicians had the will to implement.
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