Tuesday, December 14, 2010
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Year End To-Do List
The end of the year signals several deadlines you need to keep in mind.
Medicare open enrollment comes to an end on December 31st. Next year brings significant changes to Medicare plans. Review options carefully to maintain the coverage you need.
If you're not yet in your golden years, perhaps your parents or other loved one can use some help. Plan details can be quite confusing and they may be so intimidated by the options that they let this deadline pass. Sit down with them over the holidays to review their current plan and determine which is best for them going forward.
Two of the most popular drug plans currently offered won't be available next year. They are the AARP MedicareRx Saver plan and PrescribaRx Bronze. If you don't choose a new plan during open enrollment, you'll automatically be moved into another offered by the same insurer.
Health plans are changing also. Contrary to what many think, the Medicare Advantage program will be around for another year before being affected by the new health care law.
But those with a private fee-for-service (PFFS) plan may find themselves searching for a new carrier. New laws requiring these plans to establish contracts with healthcare providers is causing about half of them nationwide to drop out of the program.
Major changes to Medicare include a 50 percent discount on brand-name drugs for those in the Part D "doughnut hole." Traditional Medicare and most Medicare Advantage plans will provide a free annual physical and many preventive services such as mammograms and prostate cancer screenings.
And annual out-of-pocket medical expenses (excluding premiums and prescription drug costs) in most Medicare Advantage health plans will be capped at a maximum $6,700 for 2011. Some plans have much lower limits.
Most Flexible Spending Accounts (FSA) have a December 31st deadline as well. If you don't spend the money by the end of the plan year, you lose whatever remains in the account.
Some plans have a two and a half month grace period, meaning you have until March 15th to spend 2010 account balances. But you can't prepay in 2010 for a service to be performed in 2011.
FSA funds may be used for transportation expenses for a medical visit, flu shots, eye exams, bandages, contact lens solution and over-the-counter items such as aspirin and cough syrup. Rules change in 2011. A doctor's prescription will be required for over-the-counter drugs to qualify for reimbursement.
Planning a charitable donation? Do so before the end of the year to claim the deduction when filing your 2010 taxes.
Several energy credits expire at the end of this year. If you're thinking about an energy efficient heating and air condition system, insulating or ventilating your home, installing a water heater, roof or door, do it now. To qualify for up to a 30 percent credit on your 2010 taxes, the work needs to be completed and paid for by December 31st.
Certain credits such as geothermal heat pumps, small wind turbines or solar energy systems are available until 2016.
We typically report tax law changes at this time of the year. Yet as I write, we still have no firm information to present. This one will come down to the wire.
The hustle and bustle of the holiday season finds us all with lengthy to-do lists. Prioritize properly to survive the season. Folks won't notice if you only hung half of your decorations. Miss one of these deadlines and you'll pay dearly.
When It's a Not-So-Merry Christmas
Festive lights blink a colorful display, joyful songs fill the air. Look around, you'll notice that not everybody is smiling this holiday season.
The season of joy can be especially challenging for people whose lives aren't as full as they once were. They may be separated from family or friends by distance or divorce. They may have lost a loved one, spending the first Christmas without their spouse. A service member may be deployed. They may have lost their job or home. Or both.
No matter the cause, the season that lifts spirits can also bring pain to those enduring one of life's more difficult moments.
Deployed military members sacrifice everything to defend our nation. Including the company of family and friends during the holidays. Let them know you appreciate their service. Don't know anybody personally to send a card or gift to? No problem! The folks that run thecampaignstore.com will send care packages to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Or keep them supplied with coffee through the Cup of Joe program. The folks at Green Bean's Coffee will match your donation, dollar for dollar, on orders placed Tuesday and Wednesday, December 14-15. The donation will go to the Children of Fallen Soldiers Relief Fund.
A soldier's family back home has special needs as well. The homebound spouse is playing both roles in their partner's absence. A helping hand would be an invaluable gift. It wouldn't cost you anything except a little time. Do they need help hanging the outdoor lights? Shoveling snow? Watching the children while they get out to do some shopping? Or perhaps you could do the shopping for them.
These are great tips for others in need as well as military families. Senior citizens, the homebound or those without family in the area would all appreciate someone with a friendly smile to help lighten their load. The gift of your presence is priceless.
An unemployed friend is feeling the strain of the holidays even more tightly during the Christmas season. They won't likely come asking for your help. Put yourself in their situation. What type of support would mean the most? Invite them over for a meal, or prepare something you can take over to them. Share baked goods. Give him an "extra ticket" to a ball game, or take her along with you to the spa.
Those who lost a loved one during the year carry an added burden during the holidays when the emphasis is on family. The empty chair leaves a void that cannot be filled.
The loneliness can be overbearing, your friendship can be the greatest gift of all. Lend an ear. Follow their lead in whether they want to talk about their loss or focus on topics that divert their thoughts.
Everyone experiences grief differently. Some want to celebrate as if nothing has changed, others want to be isolated from what was once their norm. Some will continue to decorate as their loved one always did as a remembrance, others cannot bear the memory.
The most important thing is to allow one to grieve in their own way. Don't try to persuade someone who is mourning to go to parties they don't want to attend, send cards, decorate or shop as they always did. The things that once brought them cheer may now bring just the opposite.
If you are the one who experienced a loss, realize that each person is unique in handling grief. There is no right or wrong way to get through this difficult time. Trust your best instincts, and don't bend to the pressure of friends who mean well but aren't walking in your shoes.
Plan ahead to do what is special and meaningful to you. Eliminate the rest. And don't feel guilty. The world won't stop spinning if you don't send cards this year. The neighbors might miss your home baked cookies, but they'll appreciate them even more once you're ready to get back into the kitchen.
No matter our circumstance, we all have something to be thankful for. If we share what we can with those in need; be it our time, support or resources, we can make the season more joyful for those we touch.
The Federal Reserve met Tuesday saying that it will continue the pace of its $600 billion Treasury bond-buying program because a slowly improving economy is still too weak to bring down high unemployment. Unemployment rose to 9.8 percent in November, a seven-month high. It has been more than 9 percent for 19 months. Some economists predict it will rise to 10 percent in 2011.
The Fed said they would consider the option of buying more bonds if the economy weakens, or less if it strengthens more than expected. The intent of buying the bonds is to lower long-term interest rates, lift stock prices and encourage higher spending.
The new tax act was intended to boost the economy with $75 billion of tax breaks aimed at businesses. $13 billion was budgeted for a two-year extension of the research and development credit, which defrays employees costs involved in research. The proposal also commits $22 billion for accelerated depreciation, which in 2011 would allow businesses to write off 100 percent of their capital expenditures immediately instead of over several years. So, a manufacturing business might get business tax breaks that would allow them to invest in new machinery, new employees and even a new roof. The question is whether these incentives help grow the economy. Will these incentives reduce the unemployment rate, helping the Fed reach their goals?
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