‘A Tough Situation Can Get Worse’ Says Shakopee Accountant

Firstly, I’m here to offer you a friendly reminder: Sunday is Mother’s Day. Do with this reminder what you will :).

And speaking of moms, if you’ve ever spoken with friends who have had to place their parents into a care facility, you know how difficult the process can be.

I was once asked to weigh in on how to make this decision, so I’ve done so, here. I did some digging, and I believe I’ve put together something helpful — and clear.

(And I know that this isn’t a “normal” topic for a Shakopee, MN Tax Preparation Business to go into — but I’m not interested in “just” sticking to the script.)

Because for far too many people, the “story” of their lives doesn’t end as well as they might have hoped. Care facilities (when they’re necessary) can be a blessing … and, well, they can be a nightmare. So, to help you make sure that your family (and your friends’ families) make the best decision possible, I’ve put together a two-part series on nursing home placement — and how to do it right.

Feel free to forward this along to anyone who may be affected by these issues. We’re always here to help!
Not Your Normal Shakopee, MN Tax Professional: Menden’s Long-Term Care Guide (Part 1)
It’s a fact: most nursing home admissions happen under extremely stressful circumstances.

It’s an overwhelming task to find the best nursing home placement for a loved one, perhaps because, well … where do you even begin?

But, although this is a job that no one wants, it can be done with forethought and confidence that the best decision was made for everyone involved. It’s easier (and better for your loved one), if that first placement is well thought out. Yes–a nursing home resident can be moved from one facility to another, but this type of disruption is rarely in everyone’s best interest, as it can be disturbing on a variety of levels.

So it’s best to do it right–from the beginning.

Here’s a great place to start your search:

The Federal Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has a part of its Web site called “Nursing Home Compare”. Surprisingly (for a government service), it’s actually quite handy:

http://www.medicare.gov/NHCompare

This area of their site identifies facilities that have a history of poor performance–and ones which do well. In fact, the Nursing Home Compare site labels nursing homes it calls “Special Focus Facilities” — those that have repeatedly violated state and federal health and safety rules and that rank in the worst 5 to 10 percent of all inspected facilities in a given state.

You’ll want to cross those off your list from the very beginning.

Using this website, you can see detailed inspection information about each nursing facility that interests you, comparing various government-rated “quality measures” such as:

• Percent of High-Risk Residents Who Have Pressure Sores
• Percent of Residents Who Spend Most of Their Time in Bed or in a Chair
• Percent of Residents Who Have Moderate to Severe Pain
• Percent of Residents Who Were Physically Restrained
• Et cetera.

The site also rates the care and services that each facility provides to its residents, and allows you to view how each facility stacks up in staffing hours for each type of health care worker against the state and national averages.

And there’s other comparison tools available. For example, U.S. News and World Report has recently started providing rankings of America’s nursing homes.

http://health.usnews.com/senior-housing

These rankings rely on the data from the above government site–but they DO provide some advanced search engine capability. Nursing homes are presented in tiers within each star category, based on their total stars in all three of the major areas. The topmost tier, for example, consists only of five-star homes that got 15 stars. The next tier down is five-star homes with 14 total stars, and so on.

Within each tier, nursing homes are listed alphabetically. If you’re looking for a nursing home by location, and turn up too many, search terms can be combined in order to narrow the results.  For example, perhaps you want to search just for nursing homes that have a religious affiliation, or that accept Medicaid residents. Or you can launch a multi-pronged search, perhaps searching for non-profit four-star nursing homes that accept Medicaid and are located within 25 miles of a particular city.

However–here’s my big caveat when it comes to just looking at ratings
: Nothing can substitute for visiting a nursing home in person. After all, every nursing home will have some deficiencies; working with extremely disabled and impaired persons is very difficult.

So, to find the best possible nursing home for your family’s situation, the first step is to determine what is most important for your family in looking for a facility. And I hope that you would agree that the potential resident’s needs and desires must be included in this evaluation. Consider variables such as location of the facility, whether a special care unit (such as for dementia) is available, and what types of payment sources are accepted.

The second step is to identify the facilities in your area which meet the criteria you have established.

In my next Note, I’ll give you some pointers on how to conduct an on-site tour properly–what to look for, questions to ask, etc.

Shakopee Accountant Explains How To “Reclaim Control Over Your Taxes – Even Old Returns”

Part of me can’t believe that I’m taking the time to write this post, here, Monday morning the 16th (the day before the filing deadline). But I also know if I don’t do it now, this tax season having been so full … well, I’ll admit that we can anticipate a bit of a break being needed come Wednesday :).

And, of course, the other part of me (the wiser part) says: “Roger, helping people with their taxes is only the means to a greater end: enabling your clients to live richer lives, without having to fret about the details.”

My relationship with you (and all of our clients in and outside of the Shakopee, MN area) is worth the time investment (and more).

And speaking of investments, I know that a fair number of our clients were graciously invited to send their final “investment” to the IRS (and their state) this week.

And some of our clients also received (or will be receiving) a payment from the Treasury, as a sort of “thanks for letting us have your money for a year!” gesture. No interest paid out, of course.

Both of these circumstances are problematic in their own way.

In the following weeks, I’ll be sharing with you how you can fix that — but one of the first (and often overlooked) methods is … well, allow me to elaborate.

Shakopee, MN’s Most Trusted Tax Professional Explains The First Step To Reclaiming Control Over Your Taxes
Our clients who filed with us this year already feel the peace-of-mind that you were able to claim every possible deduction which is legally allowed in the tax code for 2011. After all, we put each return through an extensive review process to ensure you keep as much of your hard-earned income as the IRS allows.

But what about your friends, both here in Shakopee, MN and beyond? And what about your previous years?

Well, since the filing deadline is already upon us, they (and you) might think that the proverbial “fat lady” has sung on 2011 returns (and 2010 and 2009). Not so.

Because according to the most recent report on the matter, issued by the General Accounting Office, taxpayers overpay the IRS almost $1 billion every year due to incorrect itemization and preparation.

What’s worse is that those who prepared their own taxes (with a software, or on their own) are the most vulnerable, according to the report. But did you also know that taxpayers who used one of the “big chain” preparers are almost as bad off?

An excerpt from an additional report from the GAO: In a Limited Study, Chain Preparers Made Serious Errors

In GAO (United States Government Accountability Office) visits to chain preparers, paid preparers often prepared returns that were incorrect, with tax consequences that were sometimes significant. Some of the most serious problems involved these preparers…

1.  Not reporting business income in 10 of 19 cases;
2.  Failing to take the most advantageous post-secondary education tax benefit in 3 out of the 9 applicable cases; and
3. Failing to itemize deductions at all or failing to claim all available deductions in 7 out of the 9 applicable cases.

More clippings from the report:
* The 19 paid preparers we visited arrived at the correct refund amount only twice. On 5 returns, all for the plumber, they understated our refund amount by a total of $3,465.
* All 19 of our visits to tax return preparers affiliated with chains showed problems. Nearly all of the returns prepared for us were incorrect to some degree, and several of the preparers gave us very bad tax advice, particularly when it came to reporting non-W-2 business income. Only 2 of 19 tax returns showed the correct refund amount, and in both of those visits the paid preparer made mistakes that did not affect the final refund amount.

So what can your friends do about this? And what could YOU do about it, if you didn’t have us handle your taxes in prior years?
Simple: file an “Amended” Return.

Many tax businesses don’t provide this service, but even though we’ve completed our clients’ returns, we WILL review any of your friends’ returns–at no charge.

See the below special message, for more details…

+++++++++++++++++
“No Charge” Return Review
Special Gift Certificate
As a complimentary service this year, we will provide a Return Review To Any Non-Client.
We will also review prior year returns from clients who did NOT have us handle their taxes during the year under question..
No charge will be made, unless we have to file an amended return.
Email our office or call 952-445-8753 to set up this complimentary service!
Deadline May 4th
+++++++++++++++++

Sending you our affection, through a haze of tax forms…

“Our Clients Are Afflicted With Madness” Says Shakopee Accountant

Our clients here in Shakopee, MN are afflicted with “March Madness”, along with the rest of the country, it seems.

Unfortunately, this little national hoops holiday isn’t one which my Shakopee, MN tax preparation staff and I get much chance to participate in. We’re too busy doing your taxes!

Yep, this is close to our busiest time of the year, and we’re working like mad to handle the increased volume this year. Because with all of the economic uncertainty out there, it’s clear that people both inside and outside of the Shakopee, MN area want real answers from someone who knows them — and cares..

But let me say this: though my business does well this time of year, I’d rather things were better and our tax code was simpler! I’d rather the economy was thriving and everyone felt confident enough to handle their own situation.

The sheer complexity of the tax code keeps me in business — to take the hassle from you and other Shakopee, MN taxpayers, and apply our expertise to your situation. But wouldn’t it be more efficient if paying taxes didn’t actually require so much expertise?

I know … a bit of a controversial statement from an accountant. But I get tired of seeing new clients bring last year’s tax returns to us–and realize that if we’d helped them sooner, they would have saved a bunch of money (fortunately, we *can* file amended returns!). If things were simpler, people would keep more of their money — and THAT’S one of my passions.

Now, I have a thought or two about your refund (if you’re receiving one), and other such close-to-the-wallet thoughts. I’d love to hear your opinion…

A Shakopee, MN Tax Professional Suggests Giving Your Refund Away?
We have many clients who are receiving refunds this month, and that number of course will only be rising. So, here’s a thought for you: What would it look like for you to give your refund away?

Yes, this is a radical idea to think about, but consider: what does this refund represent to you?

If you’re like many families, it’s a bit like “found money” — i.e., an unexpected windfall. And, in those scenarios, it’s tempting to hoard, or to splurge.

However, as with other windfall scenarios which I’ve written about in the past, one of the smartest things you can do is to give a portion (at least) of it away.

Why do I suggest this?

Well, I believe it’s actually “enlightened” self-interest in the long run. And not just in our sense of feeling good.

I see the balance sheets of folks from every walk of life, and over the years I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon: individuals and families who make giving a priority, even when they aren’t “wealthy”, seem to do better in the long run. And I mean financially–not just in their state of mind.

(Though, there are significant “state of mind” reasons for giving. Have you seen, as I have, that those who freely give seem to be more pleasant company?)

Before you write this off as being “ask the universe” mushiness, understand that A) I don’t subscribe to that baloney and B) I am merely reporting an observed phenomenon. Do with it what you will.

You see, I make it a point to seek to observe how money works. And, for some reason — money gets attracted to those who aren’t only in hot, desperate pursuit of it. It’s almost like in romance — potential lovers are usually turned off by the overly-aggressive seeker.

Consider this. I know it might feel painful. But trust me when I tell you that it can actually provide you with a deeper feeling of joy than if you choose to cling tightly to everything which comes your way.

I hope I didn’t ruffle too many feathers … but if so, understand that most of all, we are here to walk with you no matter WHAT your balance sheets look like!

Could There Be a Mistake? We Can Fix It.

"If you don’t like the road you’re walking, start paving another one."
– Dolly Parton

As I write this on Monday morning, we’re all pretty distracted by the news of the capture and death of Osama bin Laden. It’s a bipartisan moment of gratification — even if it does mean celebrating the death of another human being. In this case, the world may actually be a better place right now.

All that aside, I wanted you to know that we’re starting to pick the pace up around here, after the intensity of the end of our busy season. This is the time of year when we reach out to non-clients and business owners, who are looking for real assistance in managing their tax burdens and finances.

It is, after all, what we do best.

Yes, shutting those doors at the end of the day two weeks ago (the 18th) was sweet. My staff and I could look back on months of hard work, and take real satisfaction in hard work and a bunch of new client relationships which we’re excited to see last for years.

"But…what now?"

That’s a good question–and it takes me back to our offseason preparation. Sure, we’ve taken some well-deserved rest around here … but we NEVER "shut the door" on our relationship with YOU!

That’s why we’ll continue to be here for you for all of your tax and financial needs. If you’re new to us this year…you’ll soon find out that we make a big deal around here of keeping in touch, and offering you hope and wisdom about the current state of the economy–and YOUR wallet!

So this week’s Strategy Note, in fact, deals with a topic which most taxpayers have no idea about.

Roger Menden’s
"Real World" Personal Strategy

Yes, You Can Still Find Deductions

As a client of mine, you’ve already got the peace-of-mind that you were able to claim every possible deduction legally allowed in the tax code for 2010. We put each return through an extensive review process to ensure to ensure you keep as much of your hard-earned income as the IRS allows.

But what about your friends?

Well, since it’s now AFTER April 18th, they might think that the proverbial "fat lady" has sung on their 2010 returns. Not so.

Did you know that according to a report issued by the General Accounting Office, taxpayers overpay the IRS almost $950 million every year, which equates to an average overpayment of $400 per taxpayer. That’s a somewhat dated report…and the current numbers are certain to be higher.

What’s worse is that folks who prepared their own taxes (with a software, or on their own) are the most vulnerable. But did you also know that taxpayers who used one of the "big chain" preparers are almost as bad off?

An excerpt from a more RECENT report from the GAO: In a Limited Study, Chain Preparers Made Serious Errors

In GAO (United States Government Accountability Office) visits to chain preparers, paid preparers often prepared returns that were incorrect, with tax consequences that were sometimes significant. Some of the most serious problems involved these preparers…

   1.  Not reporting business income in 10 of 19 cases;
   2.  Failing to take the most advantageous postsecondary education tax benefit in 3 out of the 9 applicable cases; and
   3. Failing to itemize deductions at all or failing to claim all available deductions in 7 out of the 9 applicable cases.

More clippings from the report:
    * The 19 paid preparers we visited arrived at the correct refund amount only twice. On 5 returns, all for the plumber, they understated our refund amount by a total of $3,465.
    * All 19 of our visits to tax return preparers affiliated with chains showed problems. Nearly all of the returns prepared for us were incorrect to some degree, and several of the preparers gave us very bad tax advice, particularly when it came to reporting non-W-2 business income. Only 2 of 19 tax returns showed the correct refund amount, and in both of those visits the paid preparer made mistakes that did not affect the final refund amount.

So what can your friends do about this?
Simple: file an "Amended" Return.

Many tax businesses don’t provide this service, but even though we’ve completed our clients’ returns, we WILL review any of your friends’ returns–at no charge.

To You and Your Family’s Peace of Mind!

Refunds & UN-Automating Your Life

Success is not measured by what you accomplish but by the opposition you have encountered, and the courage with which you have maintained the struggle against overwhelming odds.
– Orison Swett Marden

Last week, I posted my Note about automating your investment savings. After posting it, I did some more thinking about the whole notion of automating our lives, and I realized that there are some times when "automation", as such, can actually HINDER our financial growth.

Call it the hidden costs of convenience.
And, in my opinion, it’s quite real.

But before I get to that, a few tax-related items:

1) Your Refund Status: Make sure you have a copy of your tax return on hand or know your "filing status", SSN and the exact dollar amount of the anticipated refund.
* Online: Go to IRS.gov and click on "Where’s My Refund". (http://www.irs.gov/individuals/article/0,,id=96596,00.html?portlet=4)
* Automated Phone: Call 1-800-829-4477 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for automated refund information.
* In-Person Phone: Call 1-800-829-1954 during the hours shown in your IRS form instructions.

2) "Do I need to keep a copy of my return?"
Yes, for a *minimum* of three years. There’s all kinds of contexts where it’s useful. We do keep one on file, on your behalf, but it’s just smart and safe for you to keep one in a secure place at home. (I’ll soon have a Note about Amended Returns, and you will need a copy for that process, as well.)

As for the supporting documents from your return, anything that relates to a home purchase or sale, stock transactions, retirement, business or rental property, should be kept much longer than the three years.

Now … I have a humble suggestion for you this week, and as always, I’d love your thoughts!

Roger Menden’s
"Real World" Personal Strategy

The Benefits of De-Automating Your Personal Finances

Small business owners know what it is to write checks for quarterly taxes, and, I believe, they have deeper sense for what they are paying, as a result.

In fact, I think our country would be a different place if everyone had to write a personal check and send in their taxes like this. When people really see what they pay (or don’t pay) I think they would feel differently about their tax burden!

This is a common refrain among certain political observers — but it has me thinking about what it might mean for YOUR family…

In fact, this is part of the genius of financial guru Dave Ramsey’s "envelope system" for family budgeting (whereby you place cash into specified envelopes, and pay only as much cash as remains in the envelope for different budget categories). "Automating away" our obligations can lull us into financial slumber.

Which is why I now propose that you REMOVE automation from certain checks that you write each month. (Again, this is aside from automated savings, as discussed last week.)

[But a word of caution: The only danger to this approach is that you run the risk of focusing too much on scrimping pennies. I certainly advocate wise budgeting, but it’s important to remember that thinking over much about saving money can constrict your mind away from important "risks", which can often be worth taking — like starting that business, making a new investment, etc. Don’t let this technique keep you from expanding your financial mindset!]

So, a few suggestions for what you might DE-automate:
1) Just once, receive your paycheck in cash (instead of ACH’d), or cash the full amount when you receive it. Because, have you ever HELD one paycheck’s worth of money before?  It’s really hard to fully comprehend how much you’re bringing in until you physically feel those stacks of $20s in your hand.  I can guarantee you it’s a lot harder to spend it when you’re seeing it in person rather than online.  And it hurts frittering it away more, too.

2) Paying your mortgage manually. Feel the burn of this large check, every time you write it. It will trickle into how you think about the other bills which you pay such that even if this is the only bill you take off of "auto-pay", you’ll be wiser with your remaining funds each month.

3) Only purchase vehicles for cash.
If you had to pay outright, wouldn’t you end up with a cheaper car?  Probably. Just because many are used to setting up loans and payments for vehicles, does NOT mean it’s wise — in fact, this is one of the primary markers for the "quiet millionaires" (those who are getting ahead financially, even on relatively smaller salaries). Yes, your pride might suffer when you’re not rolling around in a 2011 Lexus … but considering the real cost of that pride-booster does wonders for ameliorating your egotistic tendencies.

In short, paying in cash (or with a manual check) helps you to consider the following questions:

* Is this ____ still WORTH it?
* Is there a way I can cut it down a bit?
* What’s the best way to pay for it right now? (c/c, check, cash?)

Again, some of this could literally take seconds, but the point of it all is that you STOP to do it. With automation, you don’t get the "ping" every month because it’s already doing the thinking for you.  You’ll learn a LOT more about the financial "you" this way than you would otherwise, I’m certain. It’s really about paying closer attention.

Enjoying the slowdown around our offices, but still thinking of YOU!

Thoughts During Our Final Week

The ability to concentrate and to use your time well is everything if you want to succeed in business–or almost anywhere else for that matter.
– Lee Iacocca

I’m writing this on Monday morning, the 11th, and our offices are buzzing!

Next Monday will be no different — it’s the federal deadline, after all, and we always get panicked phone calls from people on that day. There is still time for us to do an excellent job for you or for your friends, as of this writing, but the window is closing rapidly.

So, I have a solution for you in this week’s Post … but before I get to that, a couple quick points:
1) The averted government shutdown means that refunds will NOT be delayed — more than normal, that is. If you’re curious about the status of yours, go here:
http://www.irs.gov/individuals/article/0,,id=96596,00.html

2) Tomorrow (Tuesday) is "Tax Freedom Day", which is calculated each year by the non-partisan Tax Foundation (if the government *had* shut down, it would be even later!). Here’s that information, if you’re interested: http://www.taxfoundation.org/taxfreedomday/. One of the fun little facts:

Americans will pay more in taxes in 2011 than they will spend on groceries, clothing and shelter combined.

Which, of course, is why I and my staff are here: keeping your tax bill as low as legally and ethically possible.

And, of course, we can always do this …

Roger Menden’s
"Real World" Personal Strategy

Extensions, Explained

Let’s clear some things up with some facts about getting an "extension".

As you know, this upcoming Monday, April 18, is the filing deadline for a federal tax return.  If you need more time to get your paperwork complete, you need to file (or have us file on your behalf) this form…
http://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/f4868.pdf

…with the IRS by the end of the day on the 18th.  This gives you an automatic six-month (until October 17, 2011) extension of time to file. 

Here’s the deal: An "Extension of Time to File" is not an "Extension of Time to Pay", unfortunately. The Extension simply gives you an automatic six months of additional time to get your paperwork together and file that return.  But, if you owe more than what you paid with your estimate, you’ll be accumulating penalties and interest on the difference–so PLEASE don’t take the entire six months to do this!

So, when filing your "Extension of Time to File", you’ll need to estimate what you think you owe to the IRS.  This should not be pulling numbers out of thin air (or other various body parts)!  You’ll still need to go through your receipts and tax documents and get them "somewhat" organized. 

From here, you can estimate both your income and your expenses, and then approximate what you owe Uncle Sam.  Keep in mind that this is an ESTIMATE.  And, you’ll have to pay what you estimate you owe at the time we file for the extension.
 
You can do this all electronically through our office, you can mail in the form WITH estimated payment (must be postmarked by the 18th), or you can call a specialized provider and pay by credit card. We can provide you with the appropriate number to call.

To You and Your Family’s Peace of Mind!

Posting This Again

“I’d rather regret the things I’ve done than regret the things I haven’t done.”

– Lucille Ball

Well, last week I departed from my normal area of expertise, and wrote a real-world guide on preparing your family and home for a true disaster. Got lots of feedback — thank you!

But, I thought I should re-enter the fray of my primary task: ensuring you and your family don’t face an IRS disaster! And, since we’re nearing the home stretch in tax season, with the deadline for individuals (April 18th) just under a month out, we’ve been “packing them in” around here!

But this is something we still get asked about every day!

However, before I get there, I did want to say that one of the main reasons we love tax season around here is that we get to sit down with such incredible people. I’ve truly been reminded of how grateful I am for our clients–and for your trust in us during these “unusual” times.

We’re getting notes around here more and more often as people pass around my Strategy Notes to their friends. People seem to hunger for real world hope. I’m glad to be able to say that there *is* reason for anticipating a recovery in our future, but that whatever comes, my staff and I will be here to walk you through the storms.

So, onward with the answer to our most commonly-asked question around now!

Roger Menden’s

“Real World” Personal Strategy

Your Tax-Time Checklist!

In early January, I wrote a “checklist”, and it was one of our most popular messages. I guess it was handy!

Putting together this list may run slightly counter to my business goals–after all, we do get paid to do this on behalf of clients! That said, our mission is to ensure that EVERYONE in the area saves the most possible when the IRS comes calling! Some of these may seem small, but trust me when I say that they add up.

So…even if for some strange reason you won’t be using our cost-effective services this year, and because we’re getting so close to April 18th, here it is again for you: what you’ll need to prepare your taxes…

Personal Data

Social Security Numbers (including spouse and children)

Child care provider tax I.D. or Social Security Number

Employment & Income Data

W-2 forms for this year

Tax refunds and unemployment compensation: Form 1099-G

Miscellaneous income including rent: Form 1099-MISC

Partnership and trust income

Pensions and annuities

Alimony received

Jury duty pay

Gambling and lottery winnings

Prizes and awards

Scholarships and fellowships

State and local income tax refunds

Unemployment compensation

Homeowner/Renter Data

Residential address(es) for this year

Mortgage interest: Form 1098

Sale of your home or other real estate: Form 1099-S

Second mortgage interest paid

Real estate taxes paid

Rent paid during tax year

Moving expenses

Financial Assets

Interest income statements: Form 1099-INT & 1099-OID

Dividend income statements: Form 1099-DIV

Proceeds from broker transactions: Form 1099-B

Retirement plan distribution: Form 1099-R

Capital gains or losses

Financial Liabilities

Auto loans and leases  (account numbers and car value) if vehicle used for business

Student loan interest paid

Early withdrawal penalties on CDs and other fixed time deposits

Automobiles

Personal property tax information

Department of Motor Vehicles fees

Expenses

Gifts to charity (receipts for any single donations of $250 or more)

Unreimbursed expenses related to volunteer work

Unreimbursed expenses related to your job (travel expenses, entertainment, uniforms, union dues, subscriptions)

Investment expenses

Job-hunting expenses

Education expenses (tuition and fees)

Child care expenses

Medical Savings Accounts

Adoption expenses

Alimony paid

Tax return preparation expenses and fees

Self-Employment Data

Estimated tax vouchers for the current year

Self-employment tax

Self-employment SEP plans

Self-employed health insurance

K-1s on all partnerships

Receipts or documentation for business-related expenses

Farm income

Deduction Documents

State and local income taxes

IRA, Keogh and other retirement plan contributions

Medical expenses

Casualty or theft losses

Other miscellaneous deductions

While some of these statements, and their ensuing deductions may seem like “pocket change”…just a few minutes of effort can pay a nice hourly rate! And, better in YOUR pockets than in Uncle Sam’s, right?

So, I hope this helps!

The Japan Disaster And You

He who loses wealth loses much; he who loses a friend loses more; but he that loses his courage loses all.
– Miguel De Cervantes

It’s deja vu all over again, with another massive earthquake coming during tax time this year. Last year, it was Haiti … this year, of course, it’s Japan.

The fallout (if you’ll forgive that term, not intended as an insensitive pun) has been radically different for each event — but, as was the case with the Haitian earthquake, the real problems and ramifications for everyone are yet to be seen … but what *is* clear is that many lives have been lost, and many more have been radically altered.

So, how have you been processing this one?

Last year, I was struck by how different my daily existence was, from the devastation wrought in Haiti. The same is true here … but I must confess to feeling (at least at first) some "disaster fatigue" setting in.

It seems that the world has spawned disaster after disaster over the last year.

But that doesn’t mean we turn away. No, this is the time where we actually need to "press in" a little, and care.

(So, as an aside, I’d also be interested to find out if you have located an effective place to send donations–the big organizations spend so much money on "overhead", that (as I mentioned about this time last year, for Haiti) I find it difficult to believe I’d get the most "bang for my buck" in donating to them (as we unfortunately saw with Hurricane Katrina). Any thoughts?)

So, rather than my normal tax or financial fare this week, I have something different. I’ve stopped apologizing for being such an obsessive planner … it sort of pays to be that way, in my profession, after all! This week, I wanted to remind you of what we almost never think about during "good" times: How to prepare your family for "grid-failure" emergencies.

This isn’t an area of extensive expertise for me, but it’s so important, I did some research, and have a good framework for you to consider… (after the jump)

Roger Menden’s
"Real World" Personal Strategy

How To Prepare Now For a "Japan-Type" Disaster

With the images of devastation we’ve been seeing, in addition to being moved for those who are currently experiencing all this, I’ve been reminded how important having a plan really is.

This is true for finances (a tax plan, an estate plan, etc. — let us know if you need to set one of those up! 952-445-8753), and it’s equally true for a big disaster.

We can be so complacent about the security of our daily existence, that an event like this seems unrealistic. But, we’re getting continued reminders, every year, at how fragile our modern world truly can be.

But that doesn’t mean you have to panic.

No, with a few basic points of preparation, you and your family could be vastly more prepared than your neighbors, even giving you the opportunity to be ones who can support and assist your neighbors, rather than have to *ask* for support.

There are three primary areas where you need to be prepared:
1)    Energy/Power/Heat
2)    Water & Food
3)    Family

1) Energy: However unlikely a massive grid failure might seem now, it’s important that you at least think through what you and your family would do about heating your home during the winter (wood stove? indoor propane heater? burning your furniture?), and/or cooling your home during the summer (which may not be quite as critical).

Additionally, consider what parts of your existence are dependent on power, and what it would be like to live without it. Write down your plan.

2) Food & Water: For water and food, it’s a very good idea to have food and water for at least 3 days on hand, and in permanent storage. Typically, you need about a gallon of water, per person, per day … and non-perishable food is now so readily-available, that you have your pick for how to stock up. You can save water in a leech-proof plastic jug and just switch it out every 5 years.

3) Family Plan:
* Identify meeting places where you and your family would come together, in the event of some sort of catastrophic grid failure or event, in which you aren’t able to stay at home.
* Put together a "Go Bag" for your family, which carries critical supplies and information for whatever circumstance you may run across. Here is what your bag should include
•    A disaster plan including location of emergency centers, rallying points, possible evacuation routes, etc.
•    Positive Identification, such as drivers license, state I.D. card, or social security card
•    Enough medicine to last an extended evacuation period
•    Cash and change, as electronic banking transactions may not be available during the initial period following an emergency or evacuation
•    A first aid kit
•    Fire starting tool (e.g., matches, ferrocerium rod, lighter, etc.)
•    Professional emergency literature explaining what to do in various types of disaster, studied and understood before the actual disaster but kept for reference
•    Maps and travel information
•    Standard camping equipment, including sanitation supplies
•    Weather-appropriate clothing (e.g., poncho, headwear, gloves, etc.)
•    Bedding items such as sleeping bags and blankets
•    Medical records
•    Pet, child, and elderly care needs
•    Battery- or crank-operated Radio
•    Lighting (battery- or crank-operated flashlight, glow sticks)
•    Firearms and appropriate ammunition
•    Fixed-blade and folding knife
•    Duct Tape and rope/para-cord
•    Plastic tarps for shelter and water collection
•    Slingshot, pellet gun, blowgun or other small game hunting equipment
•    Wire for binding and animal traps

This all might seem a bit excessive now … but so does every disaster plan — until disaster actually strikes.

So, perhaps make it a fun family activity to work through setting up these plans, and you’ll sleep much better knowing you’re prepared!

To you and your family’s safety!

A Friendly Tip (Not About Taxes)

“It is well to give when asked, but it is better to give unasked.”

– Kahlil Gibran

Last Monday, there was a certain holiday to attend to,

and it’s pretty easy to let things sort of slide on by after

that point. But here’s my advice for you:

Don’t stop there.

Yes, yes — the old canard: EVERY day is Valentine’s Day!

And I’m very aware that you may have had a budget

for your expressions of love, so I’m taking a different approach.

These are some non-budget-busting ways to go “above and beyond” —

when it matters. Sure, wives may scoff at this list, and be gratified

when their husbands successfully surpass it. And husbands, well,

I know some are skilled at romance; and others …

well, here’s some help!

You see, how nice would it be to have “come through” last week

(or, well, not, as the case may be), but then follow up with

something more?

And again, I know that many families on my list have a certain

amount of means at their disposal, and others don’t. Which

makes this list even more helpful. Because *whatever* your budget,

the simple gesture of coming back around AFTER Valentine’s Day

is how real magic happens.

So, yes — today’s Note is not about taxes, per se … but as part of my

continuing quest to serve you “above and beyond”, I thought I’d offer

you a friendly reminder.

[But, on that note: Have you contacted us yet to get your taxes

in order? Because our schedule is rapidly filling up. Oh, and we

do generously reward for referrals, so send your friends our way! Just

have them let us know you sent them, and we’ll give them a special

deal — just from you.]

Roger Menden’s

“Real World” Personal Strategy

Making Your Love Gestures Stick

It’s no secret that our economy is in tough shape. And whatever your particular financial situation, wouldn’t it be great to create romance “magic” without spending an arm and two legs? So, perhaps you’ve done the old “flowers, candy and chocolate” routine already last week. Well,  here are a few modest and occasionally tongue-in-cheek suggestions for a sizzling follow-through … that won’t torch your wallet!

Be Green – Save Money and the Environment at the Same Time!

With the economy taking its toll on virtually every industry, even the high-rollers are looking for ways to spend their cash more effectively. One Hollywood studio saved $40,000 on cards and postage by doing e-Cards and videos for all of their clients and friends.

Seem cheap?  Spin it this way – you’re being green by not using snail mail – that’s so 20th century anyway. You’re keeping with the times, utilizing powerful technology and reducing your “footprint” at the same time! What environmentally-conscious woman could resist?!

Make a Video.

You can use the video setting on your digital camera, and create a heartfelt message of love for your sweetie. Then, you can post it to YouTube, or another online video-sharing site and send it on! Um, just be sure to adjust that YouTube setting to “private” unless you want to share with the world your dying love for your honey (hopefully with clothes on!).

Learn a Romantic Song and Sing it to Your Sweetheart.

Well, I’m no singer, so I can’t say I’ve tried this … but I hear it works well. Even better, if you can’t sing, your more-than-a-valentine will give you kudos for the effort! You could step it up by writing an original song and then sing it. Or, for the slightly-less courageous, you could pull a page out of John Cusack’s book in Say Anything and hold a boombox (or iPod) above your head and blare Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes”. That seemed to work.

Not a singer? More of a writer? Or artist? For the artistically and/or musically inclined:

– You could pen a poem on nice paper

– or even paint it

– You can paint a picture of your honey. Just be sure it looks good.

The “Mix Tape” (or Playlist)

This is an old standby of high school kids everywhere. Except these days, the “tape” part is a bit less convenient. Instead, make a CD or mp3 playlist of Sweet Love Songs and make a cover list/ liner notes on the memories of you and your honey from the songs. And you can make a Personalized Photo Album using a service like Apple’s iBook service and iPhoto.

Romantic Picnic

Surprise your love with a ‘picnic’ in the park, at the beach, or any other outdoor nature spot. If the weather isn’t ideal for outdoors, you could bring the outdoors inside -find a fake palm tree, flowers, sand, beach umbrella, radio, towels. Nothing says “I love you” like fake palm trees!

Write a Message To Be “Stumbled Upon”

Well, perhaps not *literally* stumbled upon, but try a nice outdoor surprise. If you do have snow outside, you could stomp out the message and fill in the letters with spray paint or flower pedals or rocks.  If there’s no snow, you can use sidewalk chalk to write a message to your sweetie.

You see, anybody can go out and “buy something” – but it takes effort and thoughtfulness to make it personal … and it doesn’t require a lot of money!

Just remember … follow-through is everything!

Clearing The Fog Of Common Mistakes

Derive happiness in oneself from a good day’s work, from illuminating the fog that surrounds us.

– Henri Matisse

This is the time of year, during which we get to do exactly what Monsieur Matisse, up there, advises.

We clear the fog of the (unnecessarily, in my opinion) burdensome pile of forms and regulations which form our tax process. Yes, some people get paid to create tasty food, others to patrol our streets … and we, well we put out financial and regulatory fires.

And it can be a lot of fun — really! There are stories every year, which circulate around our office, about the grateful client who was utterly hopeless about their financial and tax situation … until they met with us, we crunched their forms and numbers, and not only gave them the nice news of a lower tax bill (or higher refund) than they expected — but that we were able to speak into the overall situation of their finances.

But for some strange reason, many taxpayers STILL choose to “go it alone” when it comes to preparing their returns.

Well, far be it from me to have such hardy souls be left in the dark. While what I’m writing this week may seem “professionally risky”, we are sincere about wanting everyone in the area to pay the least amount in taxes possible.

So, even though it might encourage some people towards the risks of software-powered self-preparation, instead of our cost-effective, quick-but-meticulous services … here is a list of the most common errors I see when I review self-prepared returns.

(Warning: There’s no “app” for experience.)

Roger Menden’s

“Real World” Personal Strategy

Most Common Self-Preparation Tax Errors

As all of your information is coming into your mailbox this month to prepare for your taxes (Doctor’s bills, old W-2’s, interest statements for student loans, etc.), it can be tempting (to some folks, at least) to forego the  perceived “expense” of using a professional to help you save on your taxes for the year.

So, if you decide to go down that lonely road, please do at least watch out for these common errors which we routinely correct for those who have us review their previous-year returns:

* Filing the wrong status (dependent or independent, 0 instead of 1, etc.)

* Missing forms

* Forgetting to sign it (this is incredibly common! Make SURE you sign!)

* Not adhering to new laws (a biggie)

* Math errors or mixing up numbers

* Standardized deduction (one lump sum) when itemizing may return more

* Forgetting earned interest

* Not claiming your charitable donations (more common than you’d think!)

* Incorrect social security numbers

* Missing the deadlines

* Not checking last year’s taxes to see if anything carries over (again, very common — and a good reason to have a pro check it out)

* Not taking deductions where they’re pertinent (IRA’s, too much Social Security being taken out)

* Failing to include dependents who don’t live with you

* Claiming someone as a dependent who claimed themselves as independent

* Not filing domestic or self-employment taxes

* Not claiming credits where they’re due (Child Tax Credit, Earned Income Credit)

So what can you do to correct all of these errors?

1) Double check. And triple check. Then check again. The idea here is that when another pair of eyes look at it, they can see stuff you don’t. Your mind will tell you that things that you write or calculate are correct, even if they aren’t.

2) Go to a professional. Self-serving? Why, yes. But as I mentioned in my introduction, we get paid to know what we do, and following the tax code permutations is our J-O-B. We’ve seen so many tax returns, even already this year, that what would take you 12 hours — can be accomplished by me and my practiced team in one.

I’m not suggesting we never make mistakes … but can you really afford to skimp when thousands are on the line?

To your family’s financial and emotional peace!

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