Saturday, January 31, 2009

Quantifying the Tax Benefit of Kids

I did my taxes yesterday. Let me tell you something...I think that the tax code is way too complicated. I'm a proponent of the Fair Tax, but I'm fully aware that it will never be implemented in my lifetime; we're too stuck in our ways to change any time soon.

How I learned about taxes last night was by experimenting with answers in TurboTax and seeing how it changed my tax liability. Prior to last night, I had tried reading the IRS documents, but that proved to be pretty painful and ineffective. Here's what I learned:

Taxable Income = Income - Deductions

Taxes Owed = (Tax Rate * Taxable Income) - Tax Credits

Standard Deduction: $10,900 (married filing jointly...though mortgage interest and tithing would put a lot of people over this amount)
Personal Exemptions: $14,000 ($3,500 per person * 4 people in household)

Tax Credits:
Child Tax Credit: $2,000 ($1,000 per child * 2 children)

Doing some quick math, we can quantify the cash benefit of each child:

Cash Benefit per Child = Marginal Tax Rate * $3,500 + $1,000

Assuming a marginal tax rate of 15%, the cash benefit per kid is $1,525 (0.15*$3,500 + $1,000). So, the gov't gave me $3,050 for having 2 kids. Thanks Uncle Sam.

Another way of viewing this $1,525 cash gift purely as deduction from taxable income (rather than the $3,500 deduction + $1,000 credit). $1,525/0.15 = $10,167. For each child you have, you're essentially reducing your taxable income by about $10k (based on today's allowances and tax rates).

Is my math right?

Basically, we got a pretty sizable rebate that I wasn't expecting at all because I didn't understand the US tax system very well. Now I have a lot better understanding of the numbers. Come Monday I'm going to change my W-4 allowances so that I don't end up getting a refund next year (because I'd rather have the money up front and be making interest on it rather than giving the gov't an interest free loan).

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Perfect Credit Card for Costco Enthusiasts

So I've blogged about my love of Costco before (here), so I won't repeat why I think that Costco is the greatest store on Earth.

I've also recently blogged about the benefits of using rewards cards to pay for everything imaginable. In particular, I mentioned that a particular 2% cash back rewards credit card in this post looked really good.

Well, Costco fans, I have news for you. There is a new 2% cash back card American Express card offered through Fidelity (here) which can be used at Costco. I got mine in the mail about 3 weeks ago and am loving getting 4% cash back from Costco (2% from the card + 2% from my Executive membership(though in reality, it's more like 3% due to the extra $50 for the Executive membership).

I spend about $6,000/year at Costco, so doing some quick math, this card will get me $120/year in cash. Since our family is growing, I anticipate my Costco expenditures growing with time, meaning that this $120/year will also grow.

This card is much better than the 1% cash back card that they advertise within the store (here).

I realize that the Fidelity Retirement Rewards card is advertised as a retirement card which deposits your cash rebate into an IRA, but the fine print says that you can deposit your rewards into a normal brokerage account. Translation: you can turn your rewards into cash by pulling the rewards out of the brokerage account. More comments on the card here.

Obviously, this card will also be pretty good outside of Costco as well, provided the merchant accepts Amex. I've only run into a few vendors in the past month who haven't.

I'd like to reiterate my appreciation of consumers who pay interest on credit cards, helping to fund my 2% rebate and 30-day interest free loan on every purchase that I make (and I'd also like to thank the merchants, who help foot some of the bill too).


Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Wonderful World of VOIP

So, in previous posts I shared my thoughts on Viatalk. I started using them 2.5 years ago and have been very pleased with them. For those of you who are unfamiliar with them (which should include everyone), they're like Vonage, but about a fourth the price.

Since my 2.5 year agreement with Viatalk is about to end, I did some more research to decide whether to renew or whether to go with a different service.

After hours of researching, I fell in love with a new product called Ooma. Ooma is like Vonage and Viatalk (i.e. VOIP service where you don't need a computer), but once you buy the initial $200 unit, there are no more fees ever (provided that the company stays in business). Reviews have been outstanding for this product (here). The official website is here.

Because I am a bit skeptical of the long-term feasibility of this company, I was planning on buying the product from Costco. If Ooma croaks some day, I'd return the product to Costco since it's guaranteed for life (because I don't think that a telephone unit like this falls under their 90-day return policy on electronics described here).

I would have bought the unit already, but I found out that they are releasing an improved unit within the next 6 months called the Ooma Telo (details here). Looks pretty sweet to me, but it doesn't come out until after my current Viatalk subscription ends.

The interim solution: MagicJack. I'd read a lot of mixed reviews about this product, but I decided to buy it anyway from BestBuy (so I could return it if it didn't work). The unit cost me $40, which included the hardware and the first year of service. Apparently, the renewal rate is $20/year for each additional year. I looked really hard into Skype, which offers both Skype-in and Skype-out services, but the math just didn't add up against MagicJack.

Fortunately, MagicJack worked great straight out of the box. Here it is in action:

As shown, it is a tiny little thing that plugs straight in to your usb port. You are assigned a new phone number, though I believe there may be an import option if you want. Your analog phone plugs in to the box, and whala, you have a dial tone. It's magical. Did I mention that it costs $40 for the first year and $20 for each additional year?

With that said, here are a few (small) complaints that I have with the unit.
  • CallerID does not show names; only numbers. My outgoing CallerID only shows my number as well.
  • I have to leave my computer on (which costs me several dollars a month in electricity; I should probably estimate that some day).
  • It takes an extra 0.5 seconds to connect during phone calls. Kind of annoying having to say "hello" twice sometimes.
  • Annoying pop-ups on the computer every time a call is made/received. The solution: there is an option to minimize the dialogue when the phone is not in use. When the phone is in use, I drag the dialogue nearly off the screen so that it is barely visible. Not the most elegant solution, but it worked great for me.
With that said, I'm a happy customer. I thought I'd shed a little positive light on this product which has gotten many bad reviews on the internet.

In conclusion, if you have high speed internet and you're still paying for a land line, your getting duped. (The corollary to that is that if you are paying for high speed internet and also paying for cell phones which you exclusively use at home and work (i.e. not mobile-ly), you're also getting duped and should use prepaid cell phones through T-mobile). Get VOIP. If you don't mind leaving a computer on 24/7, or the four bulleted items above, give MagicJack a try from BestBuy. If not, get Ooma. If you have the patience to wait 6 moths, get the Ooma Telo.

- Consumer Advocate Baughman (i.e. cheapskate)

P.S. I know I've already mentioned this, but if you are making less than 3% in a savings account, your also getting duped. With the economy in the crapper, many people are seeking refuge in FDIC insured savings accounts. DollarSavingsDirect, which is FDIC insured, is currently paying 4%.