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  • Ways to Make & Save Money #7: Tax-Deductible Donations

    You can read the rest of the Ways to Make & Save Money series here.

    It can be a time-consuming process, but itemizing your tax deductions can save hundreds, and maybe even thousands, of dollars on your tax bill. One thing that can be itemized on your taxes is tax-deductible donations – and that’s especially easy when it comes to donating things like clothes, toys and other items that we simply don’t use anymore.

    As I started thinking about ways to achieve my financial goal this year, I immediately thought of clearing out clutter and cleaning my house. That made me realize that I feel richer when my house is clean and organized. So one huge benefit of my goal is going to be a house that makes me feel wealthy – that’s a worthwhile benefit even if I don’t reach my end goal!

    The two most important things when it comes to saving money with your non-cash charitable donations is to have a place to stash your donations, and to itemize them before you donate them. I’ve designated one corner for donations, so anything that’s getting donated gets placed there. When I have the time and am ready to make a run to Goodwill or Salvation Army, I itemize the various items for my tax records. I’ve previously discussed how I keep track of non-cash charitable donations:

    Works for Me: How I keep track of charitable donations

    and

    Calculating my non-cash charitable contributions

    I’ve tried DeductionTraq and Turbo Tax’s free service It’s Deductible Online, which were recommended by readers as an easier way of tracking donations. I didn’t love either, but I’m going to give It’s Deductible another try this year – maybe I’ve evolved enough that I’ll be more comfortable with it.

    I expect to save a couple of hundred dollars in taxes thanks to our non-cash donations to charity, and I hope our donations find their way to people who really need them!

    Works for Me: How I keep track of charitable donations

    I’ve been known to drop a car load of bags and boxes at Goodwill or Salvation Army without having itemized a single item for tax purposes – getting everything out of the house simply becomes more important that the deduction at some point. But I’ve started something new in the last couple of weeks, as I prepare to make a large donation to the boys’ preschool for their annual garage sale.

    As I find things we will donate, I put them in a corner of my bedroom. Then, when I have a moment, I take out a few items, snap a quick photo, and write down a general description of the item on a piece of paper. When we download the photos to our computer, I’ll put them in the taxes folder, along with a typed list of the items we donated.

    In the past, I’ve written fairly detailed descriptions of each item we donated. For example, I wrote: Boy’s t-shirt w/ dinosaur theme, blue, like new, size 24 months. This time, my list simply says, 20 boys’ t-shirts. It’s much more manageable, and I’m okay with it because I have the photo if I need more details.

    Once I’ve jotted down the items in the photo, I put them into a bag. When the bag is full, I set it aside with all of the other bags and boxes that we’re donating. I’ve set Monday as my big donation day, when I’ll bring a car load of stuff to the school.

    Do you have a shortcut or easy method of tracking your non-cash charitable donations?

    Find more Works for Me Wednesday tips at We are THAT Family.

    Previously: Calculating my non-cash charitable contributions

    My week in review

    I don’t know if I’ll make this a regular feature, but there are some random things that I thought were worth sharing but not really worthy of their own post.

    The highlight of the week was definitely initiating the payoff for my student loan. Once that goes through, we’ll be debt-free except for our mortgage!

    I don’t know what my problem is, but I’ve screwed up what’s supposed to be an incredibly easy bread recipe twice now. It’s the focaccia recipe I mentioned a couple of weeks ago. Camille from Growing Up Gabel made it and said it was great so I was really looking forward to it, but I obviously lack her breadmaking skills. The problem is probably that I’m not using all white flour – it’s just so hard for me to not substitute half white whole wheat flour, but of course it’s much denser. I’m guessing that if I want to do this, I need to add some gluten, even though the dough seems to rise beautifully in the bowl and pan. I’m going to try it soon with just white flour and that will at least help me determine if it’s me or just the ingredients.

    Just because I’ve done something well in the past doesn’t mean I can do it well again – at least, not on the first try. I made calamari for dinner this week for the first time in at least six months. It had been so long that I kind of forgot how to deep fry the things. It took a few batches before I was able to keep the oil at a consistent temperature, and I even overcrowded the pot once. But the pieces that came out well were amazingly delicious, as always. I don’t really have a recipe, but here’s my technique: Marinate the squid in buttermilk for a few hours. When ready to cook, heat the oil and dredge the squid in cornmeal. Fry until golden brown. Drain on paper towels and sprinkle lightly with salt.

    Our federal tax refund seemed to come especially fast this year. I think it was within two weeks of our accountant e-filing our returns. We had to pay the state, so I don’t know how quickly state refunds are being issued, though apparently they are being issued now (for a while during the budget crisis, refunds had been withheld). This year was the closest we have ever come to getting our federal and state taxes exactly right (i.e., not owing any money nor getting a refund). Of course, I try to get as close as I can every year so I think it was just luck.

    Thanks to all of your suggestions, I think I put together a pretty good non-food Easter basket. Of course, I’ll know for sure after their reaction tomorrow. But thank you again for your help!

    How to make the most of the latest tax cut

    Have you benefited from the tax cut in President Obama’s stimulus package? My most recent paycheck reflected it. Marc’s did too, and together we’re looking at a little over $100 more in take home pay each month.

    I think reducing payroll deductions is a much better way for the government to implement a tax cut – far more efficient than sending out a letter and/or check to each taxpayer, as with last year’s stimulus payment.

    On the other hand, though, there was something far more satisfying about getting that $1200 check in one fell swoop. Last year, that stimulus payment helped us buy a new car. This year, the same payment would have helped us pay off my student loan that much faster.

    Unless you’re tracking every dime – and admittedly, more people than ever are – it’s easy to lose track of an extra $50 or $100 per month in income, especially spread out over multiple paychecks. So how do you make sure you don’t just spend it away on frivolous things? Here are some ways to make the most of the latest tax cut:

    Increase your retirement contribution. – If you contribute to a Roth IRA or 401(k), it’s easy enough to increase your retirement contribution by the same amount of your tax cut. I’m sure there’s some calculator out there that can tell me how much I need add to my 401(k) contribution in order to zero out the increase in take home pay, but I just roughly estimate that I lose 40% of my gross pay to taxes. $100 in take home pay would equal $167 in gross pay, so that’s the amount I would increase my contribution by.

    Have the money automatically deducted into savings. – You should already have an automated savings plan set up, implementing the “pay yourself first” philosophy. So to make sure you save your tax cut, just increase the amount that’s transferred automatically by the amount of your tax cut.

    Set up an automatic investment. Similar to the last suggestion, this one sends the money to an investment account instead of a savings account. Many mutual funds have very low minimum automatic investment amounts, and you often don’t have to meet the minimum opening deposit when setting up automatic monthly transfers.

    Donate the money to charity each month. It’s almost like getting a double tax cut, because if you itemize, you’ll be able to deduct the donation on your 2009 return.

    So what will I be doing? Alas, our accountant says we need to increase our withholding for 2009, so for us, it will be as if the tax cut never happened.

    The Return of the Marriage Penalty?

    Over at Wisebread, Xin Lu brought up the topic of the dreaded marriage penalty. Okay, so maybe it’s not dreaded in every household, but it is in mine. Marc and I both make pretty good money, which makes us the type of couple that the marriage penalty tends to hurt the most.

    I’d heard about the marriage penalty for years, of course, and learned how it works when I took a course on income tax in law school. As you already know, there are different categories of tax filers, the most common being single and married filing jointly.

    Logically, you’d think that two people who get married and have a combined income of $50,000 would pay the same amount of taxes as one person who earns $50,000. But the marriage penalty doesn’t work that way. We got hit hard by the marriage penalty when we were first married and ended up owing $2,000 in taxes because of it – keep in mind that if we had remained single, we would have received refunds! This was because the standard deduction for married couples, which we were taking at the time, was not double the standard deduction for singles. Our joint income also probably pushed us into a higher tax bracket than we would have been in if we were single, but I can’t remember for sure.

    President Bush’s tax cuts saved us thousands of dollars by closing the gap between the tax brackets for single people versus married couples. In other words, a single person making $50,000 and a married couple with joint income of $50,000 would be in the same tax bracket, whereas in the past, the married couple might have been in a higher tax bracket.

    The Wisebread article has me more than a little concerned, since Xin Lu reports that President Obama likely favors the return of the marriage penalty. It’s not exactly a shocker, since he seems really big on the re-distribution of wealth. His plan may be limited to the very wealthy (which does not include us), but these proposals are always subject to change and I am wary. I just hope enough senators and representatives are opposed to taxing married people differently from single people and able extend at least this portion of President Bush’s tax cuts – otherwise my plans for our financial future may take a big hit.

    The debate about progressive taxes is one thing – should people who make more money have to pay more in taxes? I’m not sure.

    But I am sure that married people shouldn’t have to pay more taxes just because they’re married. It’s an antiquated tax from back when America was more homogenous, with almost all families consisting of a spouse who took care of the home all day and a spouse who worked outside and brought in the family’s income.

    These days, of course, most families seem to have two spouses who work, and why should families where the husband and wife make the same amount of money have to pay more taxes than families where the husband and wife make disparate amounts? Or why should a couple who isn’t married but lives together pay less taxes than a couple who gets married?

    What do you think of the marriage penalty?

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