9 Things I Love and Have Learned After 9 Years Of Blogging

I still remember the month I started my blog. I don’t really remember the exact first day, but I remember the first month and how excited I was. In August of 2011, I started Making Sense of Cents. That was exactly 9 years ago! Back then, I had no idea what I was doing, and […]

The post 9 Things I Love and Have Learned After 9 Years Of Blogging appeared first on Making Sense Of Cents.

Best Advice on Buying or Selling a Home During the Coronavirus Crisis

The coronavirus pandemic has made the logistics of buying and selling a home and moving more complicated, especially in hard-hit cities and communities. According to the National Association of Realtors, the number of homes for sale across the US continues to decline. Additionally, fewer potential buyers can or want to tour properties and risk contracting COVID-19.

The economic downturn—due to coronavirus stay-at-home mandates and social distancing—has resulted in pros and cons for both home buyers and sellers. I’ll cover advice to help both parties make wise real estate decisions during this uncertain time.

4 tips for home buyers during the coronavirus crisis

Since the coronavirus crisis began, more than 26 million Americans have filed for federal and state unemployment benefits. If you’ve lost part or all of your job or business income, and you’re unsure when your finances will return to normal, buying a home may not be the best idea.

But if your income is stable, you have cash in the bank, and you’re confident that you can stay in a home for at least five years, buying a home now might be a smart move. Here are four tips if you’re in the market to upsize, downsize, or become a first-time homeowner.

1. Evaluate your current and future budget

Buying a home is a significant financial commitment, so understanding how much you can afford is essential. If you’re at all worried about getting laid off or the future of your business, buying a home that’s under your budget is wise.

In addition to your mortgage payment, homeowners must cover many other expenses, including property taxes, home insurance, applicable association fees, and ongoing maintenance. Take a hard look at your income, expenses, and savings to make sure you have enough cash for closing and to keep a healthy emergency fund.

Take a hard look at your income, expenses, and savings to make sure you have enough cash for closing and to keep a healthy emergency fund.

Here are some ways to crunch your budget numbers:

  • Down payment: Depending on a home’s purchase price, your credit, and your lender, the required mortgage down payment could range from 3% to 10% of the purchase price.
  • Closing cash: At the closing table, you’ll need to pay the down payment plus additional expenses, which vary depending on location. They typically include fees for a home inspector, surveyor, property appraiser, credit check, loan underwriting, and homeowners insurance. The total could add up to around 2% to 5% of a home’s purchase price.
  • Monthly housing payment: Unless you have a high amount of debt, consider spending a maximum of 20% to 25% of your after-tax income for a home. It includes the mortgage principal, interest, taxes, and insurance—known as PITI.
  • Emergency savings: Keep a minimum of six months’ worth of living expenses on hand. This safety net will keep you safe from unexpected expenses or the loss of job or business income.
  • Maintenance reserve: Have cash ready for ongoing repairs, such as fixing a roof leak, replacing a heating or cooling system, or needing a new refrigerator. A good rule of thumb is to save 1% to 3% of your home’s value for annual maintenance.

2. Get preapproved for a mortgage

Before spending too much time or mental energy searching for a home, make sure you qualify for a desirable mortgage. The amount you can borrow, the interest rate, and your downpayment depend on a variety of factors, including your credit and income stability.  

Due to the economic crisis, lenders are expecting delinquencies from existing customers who are facing hardships. To offset those risks, they’re tightening lending standards for new borrowers making it more challenging to qualify. You may need better credit and more down payment money than was typical before the pandemic.

Due to the economic crisis, lenders are tightening lending standards for new borrowers making it more challenging to qualify.

A mortgage preapproval is a document that outlines how much a lender will allow you to borrow, at what rate, and for how long. It’s a critical tool to know the price range of homes you should be shopping for. Additionally, a preapproval can carry a lot of weight with a potential seller who may be evaluating multiple offers and needs to close quickly.

Remember that you still need emergency money in the bank after buying a home. The fact is, you need even higher amounts of cash on hand for a maintenance reserve. Also, consider other expenses such as moving and furnishing a new place, which can really add up.

3. Use technology to research and tour homes virtually

Many digital tools allow you to research potential homes and stay safe. Here are some ways you can find a new home from the safety and comfort of your existing one:

  • Video calls: Have a Zoom or Facetime call with potential real estate professionals or sellers. They can give you a virtual tour of the home and neighborhood and chat about other points of interest like schools, shopping, and public transportation.
  • Google Maps: Google’s street view allows you to see the features of a neighborhood and even walk it virtually. You can time your commute to work based on the time of day.
  • Neighborhood review sites: Check out the walkability, crime statistics, and school rankings using sites such as Walk Score, SpotCrime, Family Watchdog, AreaVibes, and GreatSchools.org.

Using a variety of resources, you should be able to narrow down your potential home choices significantly. If you can drive by properties, that will also help you know which ones you want to tour.

Once you have a mortgage preapproval and feel sure that you’re interested in buying a specific home or homes, inquire about getting physical access. If it’s vacant, an owner or real estate agent may be able to open it up and let you roam around with plenty of social distancing.

Home tour safety guidelines during social distancing may vary from state to state. Check with your real estate agent to get a better understanding of any requirements or limitations.

However, if the seller still lives in the property, they’ll likely want to make arrangements to be away or to stay outside while buyers tour their home. Be respectful of everyone’s desire to avoid the coronavirus by wearing masks, gloves, shoe coverings, and using hand sanitizer before going into a listing. Find out if anyone in the home has been sick or spent time with someone diagnosed with COVID-19. Likewise, disclose if you’ve been ill or exposed to the coronavirus.

4. Save money with a historically low mortgage rate

The rate for a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage is at a historic low and keeps going lower. According to mortgage rates on Bankrate.com, they fell to 3.55% from last week’s rate of 3.58%. If you want a 15-year fixed-rate loan, it could be as low as 3%. In many parts of the country, owning a home costs less per month than renting a similar property.

However, don’t wait too long to get a mortgage commitment if you’re a serious home buyer. Lenders are under enormous pressure due to a wave of potential defaults, forbearance requests, refinancing applications, and federal stimulus programs they may be processing and funding. As I mentioned, it’s only going to get more challenging to get a mortgage application through underwriting and approved.

Lower rates and monthly mortgage payments may allow you to afford a higher-priced home if your finances are in good shape.

But if you can lock in a low mortgage rate and get a property under contract, it can undoubtedly allow you to save money over the long run. Lower rates and monthly mortgage payments may allow you to afford a higher-priced home if your finances are in good shape.

In addition to low-rate mortgages, there may be bargains on the market, depending on where you want to live. If a seller is uncertain about their financial future, they may be willing to unload their property for a low price. Although many banks are offering forbearance programs, some homeowners may be feeling pressure to sell, giving buyers an advantage right now.

4 tips for home sellers during the coronavirus crisis

Selling a home anytime can be a hassle. But selling a property during a pandemic is probably something you’ve never thought about.

However, real estate closings are happening, so don’t think you can’t find a qualified buyer. Getting a deal may depend on creative marketing and finding a real estate agent who can help you find solutions to new challenges. Here are four tips to make your home attractive and safe for potential buyers.

1. Use technology to market your home

Creating virtual tours is critical to pique a buyer’s interest and reduce the number of strangers in your home. It’s never been easier to use a camera or smartphone to create videos of your home’s interior, exterior, amenities, and neighborhood. However, make sure the lighting is good and presents your home favorably.

You can upload videos to a variety of sites that buyers can access, such as a YouTube channel, Zillow, or Dropbox. If you have a real estate agent, they can include your video files in the multiple listing service (MLS) database and their company website. They may offer professional photographers and videographers as part of their listing services.

 

2. Vacate your home if possible

If you can move out of your home while it’s for sale, you may get more interest from buyers. Touring a vacant property may seem less risky to buyers and real estate agents. Plus, you won’t have to worry about people coming into your space that could be carrying the coronavirus.

If your mortgage lender offers forbearance, consider suspending your payments and using the money for a short-term rental.

If your mortgage lender offers forbearance, consider suspending your payments and using the money for a short-term rental. Getting distance between you and home buyers might be critical if you, or someone in your household, are elderly or have health conditions that make you vulnerable to COVID-19.

3. Be clear about how you’ll interact with buyers

If you can’t move out of your home, be clear about how you will protect yourself, agents, and potential buyers who want a tour. As the seller, you dictate the protocol, such as everyone must wear masks and sanitize their hands before entering.

Include information about measures you're willing to take, such as disinfecting high-touch surfaces and leaving doors and cabinets opens, so visitors don't need to touch anything. If you have hand sanitizer or personal protective gear to offer, that's a goodwill gesture that should make everyone feel more at ease.

Once you have a purchase agreement signed, you or your real estate agent will need to coordinate with other professionals, such as inspectors, appraisers, contractors, and surveyors. Depending on the buyer's lender, you should be able to complete a remote closing by mailing the original documents.

4. Be prepared for longer than normal marketing times

Since there are fewer buyers and many overwhelmed lenders, the average marketing time for homes across the country may be longer than usual. Being as creative and flexible as possible will increase the likelihood of signing a deal.

No one is sure what market value is right now, so buyers may be aggressive to find out how low you'll go.

If a buyer throws out a lowball offer, don't let it offend you. Carefully consider what your bottom line is and make an appropriate counteroffer. No one is sure what market value is right now, so buyers may be aggressive to find out how low you'll go.

While the fear of the coronavirus and a looming recession may make it more challenging to sell your home, remember that the lending environment is favorable. For buyers who aren't worried about losing a job or business income, getting a historically low home loan is a huge incentive to invest in a home sooner rather than later.

Unplanned Road Trip Planning As A Freelancer With Dogs Part 2

Hello! Today, I am publishing Part 2 to my post from yesterday Unplanned Road Trip Planning. As a recap, we left our house on Wednesday and we are not sure when we will be going back. This will probably be a 10 to 14 day road trip. This is nothing crazy, but it is more than what […]

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5 Options for Your Retirement Account When Leaving a Job

One of the most common retirement questions I receive is what to do with a retirement account when leaving a job. Knowing your options for managing a retirement plan with an old employer is essential because most people change jobs many times throughout their careers. And millions of Americans remain out of work during the pandemic.

When you have a workplace retirement plan such as a 401(k) or 403(b), you can take your vested balance with you when you leave.

Fortunately, when you have a workplace retirement plan such as a 401(k) or 403(b), you can take your vested balance with you when you leave. It doesn't matter if you quit, get fired, or get laid off, the same rules apply. 

This post will cover five options for managing your retirement account when your employment ends. You'll learn the rules for handling a retirement plan at an old job and the best move to create a secure financial future.

Why should you use a retirement account?

Investing money using one or more retirement accounts is wise because they come with terrific tax advantages. They defer or eliminate the tax on your contributions and investment earnings, which may allow you to accumulate a bigger balance than with a taxable brokerage account.

Investing money using one or more retirement accounts is wise. If you have a retirement plan at work but aren't participating in it, now's the time to enroll!

So, if you have a retirement plan at work but aren't participating in it, now's the time to enroll! Contribute as much as you can, even if it's just a small amount. Make a goal to increase your contribution rate each year until you're putting away at least 10% to 15% of your pre-tax income.

FREE RESOURCE: Retirement Account Comparison Chart (PDF)—a handy one-page download to see the retirement account rules at a glance.

What is a retirement account rollover?

Don't make the mistake of thinking that once you leave a job with a 401(k) or a 403(b) you can't continue getting tax breaks. Doing a rollover allows you to withdraw funds from a retirement plan with an old employer and transfer them to another eligible retirement account.

When you roll over a workplace retirement account, you don't lose your contributions or investment earnings. And if you're vested, you don't lose any money that your employer may have put into your account as matching funds.

The main rule you must follow when doing a retirement rollover is that you must complete it within 60 days once you begin the process.

The main rule you must follow when doing a retirement rollover is that you must complete it within 60 days once you begin the process. If you miss this deadline and are younger than age 59½, the transaction becomes an early withdrawal. That means it is subject to income tax, plus an additional 10% early withdrawal penalty.

If you're a regular Money Girl podcast listener or reader, you know that I don't recommend taking early withdrawals from retirement accounts. Paying income tax and a penalty is expensive and reduces your nest egg.

If you complete a traditional rollover within the allowable 60-day window, you maintain all the funds' tax-deferred status until you make withdrawals in the future. And with a Roth rollover, you retain the tax-free status of your funds.

What are your retirement account options when leaving a job?

Once you're no longer employed by a company that sponsors your retirement plan, there are four options for managing the account. 

1. Cash out your account

Cashing out a retirement plan when you leave a job is the easiest option, but it's also the worst option. As I mentioned, taking an early withdrawal means you must pay income tax and a 10% penalty. 

Cashing out a retirement plan when you leave a job is the easiest option, but it's also the worst option.

Let's say you have a $100,000 account balance that you cash out. If your average rate for federal and state income taxes is 30%, and you have an additional 10% penalty, you lose 40%. Cracking open your $100,000 nest egg could mean only having $60,000 left, depending on how much you earn.

Note that if your retirement plan has a low balance, such as $1,000 or less, the custodian may automatically cash you out. If so, they're required to withhold 20% for taxes (although you may owe more), file Form 1099-R to document the distribution, and pay you the balance. 

2. Maintain your existing account

Most retirement plans allow you to keep money in the account after you're no longer employed if you maintain a minimum balance, such as more than $5,000. If you don't have the minimum, but you have more than the cash-out threshold, the custodian typically has the authority to deposit your money into an IRA in your name.

The downside to leaving money in an old retirement account is that you can't make additional contributions because you're not an employee. However, your funds can continue to grow there. You can manage them any way you like by selling or buying investments from a set menu of options.

The downside to leaving money in an old retirement account is that you can't make additional contributions.

Leaving money in an old retirement plan is certainly better than cashing out and paying taxes and a penalty, but it doesn't give you as much flexibility as you you would get with the next two options I'm going to talk about.

I only recommend leaving money in an old employer's retirement plan if you're happy with the investment choices and the fund and account fees are low. Just make sure that the plan doesn't charge you higher fees once you're no longer an active employee.

Another reason you might want to leave retirement money in an old employer's plan is if you're unemployed or have a job that doesn't offer a retirement account. I'll cover some special legal protections you'll get in just a moment.

3. Rollover to an Individual Retirement Arrangement (IRA)

Another option for your old workplace retirement plan is to roll it into an existing or new traditional IRA. If you have a Roth 401(k) or 403(b), you can roll it over into a Roth IRA. The deadline to complete an IRA rollover is 60 days.

Your earnings in a traditional IRA would continue to grow tax-deferred, just like in your old workplace plan. And earnings grow tax-free in a Roth IRA, like a Roth account at work. 

Here are a couple of advantages to moving a workplace plan to an IRA:

  • Getting more control. You choose the financial institution and the investments for your IRA.  
  • Having more flexibility. With an IRA, there are more ways to tap your funds before age 59½ and avoid an early withdrawal penalty than with a workplace account. That rule applies to several exceptions, including using withdrawals for medical bills, college expenses, and buying or building your first home.

Here are some downsides to rolling over a workplace plan to an IRA:

  • Having fewer legal protections. Depending on your home state, assets in an IRA may not be protected from creditors.  
  • Being ineligible for a Roth IRA. When you're a high earner, you may not be allowed to contribute to a Roth IRA. However, you can still manage the account and have tax-free investment earnings.

If you want more control over your investment choices, think you'll need to make withdrawals before retirement, are self-employed, or don't have a job with a retirement plan to roll your account into, having an IRA is a great option.

4. Rollover to a new workplace plan

If you land a new job with a retirement plan, it may allow a rollover from your old plan once you're eligible to participate. While the IRS allows rollovers into most retirement accounts, employer plans aren't required to accept incoming rollovers. So be sure to check with your new plan administrator about what's possible. 

Once you initiate a transfer from one workplace plan to another, you must complete it within 60 days to avoid taxes and a penalty.

Here are some advantages of doing a workplace-to-workplace rollover:

  • More convenience. Having all your retirement savings in one place may make it easier to manage and track.  
  • Taking early withdrawals. Retirees can begin taking penalty-free withdrawals from workplace plans as early as age 55.  
  • Avoiding Roth income limits. Unlike a Roth IRA, there are no income restrictions for participating in a Roth workplace retirement account.  
  • Getting more legal protections. Workplace retirement plans are covered by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), a federal regulation. It doesn't allow creditors (except the federal government) to touch your account balance.

Some downsides to transferring money from one workplace plan to another include:

  • Having less flexibility. You can't take money out of a 401(k) or a 403(b) until you leave the company or qualify for an allowable hardship. It doesn't come with as many withdrawal exceptions compared to an IRA. 
  • Getting less control. You may have fewer investment choices or higher fees than an IRA, depending on the brokerage firm. 

5. Rollover to an account for the self-employed

If you left a job to become self-employed, having an IRA is a great option. However, there are other types of retirement accounts that you might consider, such as a solo 401(k) or a SEP-IRA, based on whether you have employees and on your business income. 

Read 4 Ways to Start a Retirement Account as a Self-Employed Freelancer or 5 Retirement Options When You're Self-Employed for more information. 

When is a Roth rollover allowed?

For a rollover to be tax-free, you must use a like account. For example, if you have a traditional 403(b), you must rollover to another traditional retirement account at work or to a traditional IRA.

If you move traditional, pre-tax funds into a post-tax, Roth account, you must pay income tax on any amount that wasn't previously taxed. That could leave you with a massive tax liability. If you want a Roth, a better move would be to open a Roth account at your new job or to start a Roth IRA (if your income doesn't make you ineligible to contribute). 

Where should you move an old retirement account?

The best place for your old retirement account depends on the flexibility and legal protections you want. Other considerations include the quality of your old plan, your income, and whether you have a new job with a retirement plan that accepts rollovers.

The best place for your old retirement account depends on the flexibility and legal protections you want.

The goal is to position your retirement money where you can keep it safe and allow it to grow using low-cost, diversified investment options. If you have questions about doing a rollover, get advice from your retirement plan custodian. They can walk you through the process to make sure you choose the best investments and don't break the rollover rules.

What Is the Self-Employment Tax?

Working for yourself, either as a part-time side hustle or a full-time endeavor, can be very exciting and financially rewarding. But one downside to self-employment is that you're responsible for following special tax rules. Missing tax deadlines or paying the wrong amount can lead to expensive penalties.

Let's talk about what the self-employment or SE tax is and how it compares to payroll taxes for employees. You’ll learn who must pay the SE tax, how to pay it, and tips to stay compliant when you work for yourself.

What is the self-employment (SE) tax?

In addition to federal and applicable state income taxes, everyone must pay Social Security and Medicare taxes. These two social programs provide you with retirement benefits, disability benefits, survivor benefits, and Medicare health insurance benefits.

Many people don’t realize that when you’re a W-2 employee, your employer must pick up the tab for a portion of your taxes. Thanks to the Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA), employers are generally required to withhold Social Security and Medicare taxes from your paycheck and match the tax amounts you owe.

In other words, your employer pays half of your Social Security and Medicare taxes, and you pay the remaining half. Employees pay 100% of federal and state income taxes, which also get withheld from your wages and sent to the government.

When you have your own business, you’re typically responsible for paying the full amount of income taxes, including 100% of your Social Security and Medicare taxes.

But when you have your own business, you’re typically responsible for paying the full amount of income taxes, including 100% of your Social Security and Medicare taxes.

Who must pay the self-employment tax?

All business owners with "pass-through" income must pay the SE tax. That typically includes every business entity except C corporations (or LLCs that elect to get taxed as a corporation).

When you have a C corp or get taxed as a corporation, you work as an employee of your business. You're required to withhold all employment taxes (federal, state, Social Security, and Medicare) from your salary or wages. Other business entities allow income to pass directly to the owner(s), so it gets included in their personal tax returns.

You must pay the SE tax no matter if you call yourself a solopreneur, independent contractor, or freelancer—even if you're already receiving Social Security or Medicare benefits.

You must pay the SE tax no matter if you call yourself a solopreneur, independent contractor, or freelancer—even if you're already receiving Social Security or Medicare benefits.

How much is the self-employment tax?

For 2020, the SE tax rate is 15.3% of earnings from your business. That's a combined Social Security tax rate of 12.4 % and a Medicare tax rate of 2.9%.

For Social Security tax, you pay it on up to a maximum wage base of $137,700. You don't have to pay Social Security tax on any additional income above this threshold. However, this threshold has been increasing and is likely to continue creeping up in future years.

However, for Medicare, there is no wage base. All your income is subject to the 2.9% Medicare tax.

So, if you're self-employed with net income less than $137,700, you'd pay SE tax of 15.3% (12.4% Social Security plus 2.9% Medicare tax), plus ordinary income tax.

Remember that your future Social Security benefits get reduced if you don't claim all of your self-employment income.

What is the additional Medicare tax?

If you have a high income, you must pay an extra tax of 0.9%, known as the additional Medicare tax. This surtax went into effect in 2013 with the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). It applies to wages and self-employment income over these amounts by tax filing status for 2020:

  • Single: $200,000 
  • Married filing jointly: $250,000 
  • Married filing separately: $125,000 
  • Head of household: $200,000 
  • Qualifying widow(er): $200,000

What are estimated taxes?

As I mentioned, when you’re an employee, your employer withholds money for various taxes from your paychecks and sends it to the government on your behalf. This pay-as-you-go system was created to make sure you pay all taxes owed by the end of the year.

You must make quarterly estimated tax payments if you expect to owe at least $1,000 in taxes, including the SE tax.

When you’re self-employed, you also have to keep up with taxes throughout the year. You must make quarterly estimated tax payments if you expect to owe at least $1,000 in taxes, including the SE tax.

Each payment should be one-fourth of the total you expect to owe. Estimated payments are generally due on:

  • April 15 (for the first quarter) 
  • June 15 (for the second quarter) 
  • September 15 (for the third quarter) 
  • January 15 (for the fourth quarter) of the following year

But when the due date falls on a weekend or holiday, it shifts to the next business day. Your state may also require estimated tax payments and may have different deadlines.

How to calculate estimated taxes

Figuring estimated payments can be extremely confusing when you’re self-employed because many entrepreneurs don’t have the faintest idea how much they’ll make from one week to the next, much less how much tax they can expect to pay. Nonetheless, you must make your best guesstimate.

If you earn more than you estimated, you can pay more on any remaining quarterly tax payments. If you earn less, you can reduce them or apply any overpayments to next year’s estimated payments.

If you (or your spouse, if you file taxes jointly) have a W-2 job in addition to self-employment income, you can increase your tax withholding from earnings at your job instead of making estimated payments. To do this, you or your spouse must file an updated Form W-4 with your employer.

The IRS has a Tax Withholding Estimator to help you calculate the right amount to withhold from your pay for your individual or joint taxes.

How to pay estimated taxes

To figure and pay your estimated taxes, use Form 1040-ES, Estimated Tax for Individuals, or Form 1120-W, Estimated Tax for Corporations. These forms contain blank vouchers you can use to mail in your payments, or you can submit funds electronically.

When you have a complicated situation, including having business income, one of your new best friends should be a tax accountant.

For much more information about running a small business successfully, check out my newest book, Money-Smart Solopreneur: A Personal Finance System for Freelancers, Entrepreneurs, and Side-Hustlers. Part four, Understanding Business Taxes, covers everything you need to know to comply and stay out of trouble.

From personal experience, I can tell you that when you have a complicated situation, including having business income, one of your new best friends should be a tax accountant. Find one who listens well and seems to understand the kind of work you're doing.

A good accountant will help you calculate your estimated quarterly taxes, claim tax deductions, and save you money by helping you take advantage of every tax benefit that's allowed when you're self-employed. In Money-Smart Solopreneur, I recommend various software, online services, and apps to help you track expenses, deductions, and tax deadlines that will keep your business running smoothly.

What Is A Blog, How Do Blogs Make Money, & More

What is a blog and how does it work? Can you really make money blogging? How much do bloggers make? Over the years, I have received many questions about blogging. People want to know what is a blog, how they work, is it really a way for people to make money, and so on.  I […]

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