Financial Instability Aftershocks Affect Your Credit, Too

In the wake of the ridiculous goings on in the financial world you could see some aftershocks right there on your credit card statement.

Credit card companies are tightening their belts, and reining us in, too.  Doesn’t matter how long you’ve been with them, how good your credit is, how many payments you’ve made on time.  According to the Wall Street Journal they are starting to reduce credit limits across the board.

If you’re like me you’ve seen a credit limit of $3,000 balloon to a limit of $25,000.  I’ve never paid much attention, as my strategy of paying of my balance each month has meant that I don’t pay a whole lot of attention to my limits and interest rates.

Many people are seeing their credit limits slashed with little notice, and those like me who are not diligent about checking those parts of their statement may find themselves dangerously close to their credit limit, and dangerously close to those over-the-limit fees.   When’s the last time you looked at your credit limits?  That would be a very, very nasty surprise, wouldn’t it?

Not only that, because your buying power is reduced your debt to income ratio goes up.   According to CNNThe debt-to-limit ratio is calculated by dividing what consumers spend each month by their credit limit, and it’s a key component of credit scores. If your limit drops to $1,000 from $2,000 and you continue spending $500 a month, your debt-to-limit ratio immediately jumps from a favorable 25% to an unfavorable 50%.” That means it’s harder to buy that car or that house, making your life less comfortable and making it harder for our economy as a whole to recover.

This just keeps getting better and better, doesn’t it?

What can you do?  The Wall Street Journal article had some great suggestions:

1.  Reduce your outstanding debt. Bigger balances make consumers prime targets for credit-card companies looking to reduce credit lines, since the banks worry that you may not be able to pay your tab.

2. Watch the mail. When credit-card issuers lower credit limits, they must notify you. Typically, that will be done by mail (unless you’ve agreed to online-only notification). You should also review your monthly statement for changes, including a lower credit limit, interest-rate spikes and new penalties.

3 Check your report. Credit-card issuers review consumers’ credit reports for red flags, like late payments to other credit cards, a sudden buildup of debt or high credit-utilization rates. Check your credit report for free online at AnnualCreditReport.com. If it includes any errors, report them to the three major credit bureaus, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion.

4 Get online alerts. Ask your credit-card issuers if they offer online alerts that notify cardholders when they’re nearing their limit.

5 Shop around. If your credit limit gets slashed, don’t cancel your credit card. That will decrease your credit score. Instead, shop around for more attractive credit-card offers.

I’m going to add a few of my own:

6.  Check your account online at least twice a week. This  way you can have the latest updates, keep track of your balances and limits and catch errors early.

7.  Curb spending. Stay home, don’t shop.  Just buy what you absolutely need to so you have less to pay back.

8.  Pray. Whether you believe in a Higher Being, the power of positive thinking or your faith is in humanity, put your positive energy out there and pray.

The Accountant’s Daughter’s 2007 Year End Tax Tips

The end of the year is one of the most important times in our financial year. Besides putting our money and time budgets to the test with all of the holiday gifts and parties and travel, tax planning should also be a money and time priority.

Being the daughter of an accountant, there’s a few things I’ve learned over the years. The first is to always hire a tax professional to get correct advice, and to minimize your tax liability. Now that my husband and I have a small business we’ve discovered the minefield that is deductible small business expenses , and we’ve gotten invaluable advice on how to use those deductions correctly (for example, we decided not to deduct our home office), minimizing the risk of an audit. Even if you do them yourself, I’d at least get the return reviewed before submitting it to the IRS. Often communities will offer free or low-cost tax preparation assistance, so check in your area.

Still, even as laymen, there are things we should know about, even if only to ask our accountant. Here are a few things I’ve been doing or considering as the calendar and tax year comes to a close. I hope they are of help to you.

The bottom line when it comes to taxes is that you want to delay paying taxes on your income as long as possible, and pay expenses as soon as possible. By deferring income you in effect get the use of that money for an additional year before having to pay income tax – a year when you could make that money work for you. And by paying expenses NOW you get to deduct that which is deductible now, reducing your tax liability.

Delaying Income

1. Defer your compensation – If possible, defer your last paycheck or any bonuses due you until after the first of the year. When it comes to income, it’s always better to put off until tomorrow what is due you today. Try to get your job-related expenses reimbursed before the end of the year instead of your regular paycheck, if possible. That way you can still get some cash, and it’s not taxed as income.

2. Make additional allocations to your 401k or IRA – Deductions to some retirement accounts are made with pre-tax dollars, reducing your taxable income. You can contribute up to $15,500 per individual to a 401k (plus an extra $5000 if you’re over 50) or up to $400o per individual to an IRA ($4500 if you’re 50 or over), so max these out of you can. Even if you can’t max it out, even an extra $100 helps you now and in the future. A nice bonus – IRA contributions for 2007 don’t need to be made until April 15, 2008. There are also ROTH IRAs to consider. Though not tax deductible they may be better for you in the long run. There are also SEPs and Keoughs which have various rules, so check with your accountant to see what would be best for you.

3. If you have a small business, wait until January to bill your clients – a few weeks delay on you having that money is the same as deferring salary for others.

Expenses to Pay Now

1. Pay your property taxes early – If you do not escrow for your taxes and are responsible for paying them yourself (along with homeowners insurance something I highly recommend – why should you pay them a year in advance through your mortgage payments?), you may get a discount by paying them early. I save about $200 by paying them in November instead of waiting until March. That’s a pretty good savings.

2. Make your January mortgage payment a few days early – This way you can take advantage of the additional mortgage interest in this tax year instead of next. Note: It must reach them by December 31st to qualify.

3. Consider selling losing stocks – You can use the loss to offset some of the capital gains from your better-performing investments. Note: There are some tax changes coming next year which may make this not the right choice for you – check with your accountant.

4. Make charitable contributions – Generosity is tax-deductible. Make your contributions now, but please keep in mind that they’ve really tightened the requirements for appraising the value of non-cash donations. Money is easy, but you’ll need an appraisal by an expert for any contribution over $5000 (so if you’d planned on donating to charity the car that died 5 years ago that’s been sitting up on blocks in your back yard, you’re probably going to be out of luck).

5. Now is a better time for pricey medical procedures – Well, really never is a good time for this, but if you have any procedures you need done in the near future try getting them done before the end of the year if the costs will exceed 7.5% of your adjusted gross income. Another tax deduction awaits. Then again, who wants to do this around the holidays?

6. If you have a small business pay any deductible subscriptions, dues, invoices now – Again, better to take the deduction this year and reduce the tax due in April.

7. Make that big purchase – in my state we get to deduct sales tax, but that deduction may end this year. So if you live in one of the states without a state income tax (Alaska, Florida, Nevada, South Dakota, Texas, Washington or Wyoming) now is a great time to buy a car, a $6000 Apple computer, or a huge screen plasma HDTV television (hello, Super Bowl!).

8. For any deductible purchases you make this month, use your credit card – this way you get the item/benefit this year, get the tax benefit this year, but don’t actually have to pay for it until next year. When you can use that income you deferred. Hey, every penny counts, people!

Which brings us to an excellent point. Every year brings changes to tax laws. This may be the last year for several deductions (like the $250 supply deduction for teachers and the college tuition deduction). Please take advantage of them now. Also, the new tax year will bring new rules, so in some cases you’re better off trying to have some things fall under the 2008 tax year. Again, your tax advisor can help you wade through the muck.

As always, please remember that I am not an expert on finance, or an accountant. This is nowhere near a complete list. I’m just an accountant’s daughter. So, please, please, please contact your accountant for expert advice.

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