Category Archives: Opinion
As the holidays approach and the temperatures continue to drop, it may be difficult to maintain a regular exercise routine and healthy eating habits. Recent studies show that the average weight gain over the holidays is anywhere from one pound to more than five pounds. Studies also show that most people do not lose that weight once the holiday season comes to a close.
This means keeping an active exercise routine, healthy eating, and eating in moderation during the holidays is essential in maintaining both your overall health and your waistline. Although it can be increasingly difficult to find time to get to the gym in the midst of holiday shopping, cooking, decorating, and entertainment, a Harvard Medical School study shows these common holiday activities are also great ways to burn excess calories:
Shoveling snow: Shoveling can burn approximately 446 calories for every hour of work. Even using a snow blower can still burn 337 calories each hour.
Cutting down a Christmas tree: Going out to the Christmas tree farm and cutting down your own tree can burn nearly 600 calories per hour.
Decorating a Christmas tree: Not only is decorating your Christmas tree a fun way to spend time with your family, you can burn approximately 170 calories in just one hour of decorating.
Hanging Christmas lights outdoors: Inspire your neighbors with your holiday spirit – outdoor work on your home can burn 372 calories an hour.
Sledding: Taking your family sledding is a fun way to enjoy the winter weather. This family favorite activity can burn 520 calories an hour.
Ice-Skating: Another traditional winter activity, ice-skating is an entertaining and easy way to burn 520 calories an hour.
Holiday shopping: For every hour of grocery shopping with a cart, you can burn 260 calories, and just standing in line at the mall for 30 minutes burns 47 calories.
Gift Wrapping: Once you’ve finished your holiday shopping, putting the finishing touches on those gifts before placing them under the tree can burn nearly 100 calories for each hour spent wrapping.
Cleaning: Cleaning up after all of the holiday parties and activities might be the most dreaded of all of these activities, but knowing you are burning more than 300 calories for every hour of cleaning might make this chore a little bit more rewarding.
Although these activities are great calorie-burners, it’s still important to exercise regularly and maintain healthy eating habits. If you want additional tools to manage your health, visit Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield’s website: Wellmark.com.
By Jason Alderman
Smart Tax Moves To Consider Before New Year’s Eve
The flurry of activity during the last weeks of December can make it difficult to pay attention to finances. If you want to save on your tax bill come April, now’s the time to make some critical moves.
If you have a tax advisor or financial planner, it’s wise to run these ideas by them first. Here are some suggestions to investigate by year-end with follow-up in the new year:
Accelerate your deductions and defer your income. It makes the list every year because it works. To keep your 2014 tax bill low, try to defer bonuses, consulting income or self-employment income until 2015 while taking as many deductions as you legally can in 2014. Deductions may include paying your January federal and state income taxes before Dec. 31, real estate taxes and interest payments.
Bunch non-urgent medical expenses this year or move them to 2015. If you have non-emergency medical procedures coming up, it’s a good idea to pack them into the same year so people under age 65 can exceed the 10 percent adjusted gross income (AGI) minimum for medical expenses. For those over age 65, the AGI minimum is 7.5 percent.
Make last-minute withholding adjustments. If you’ve started making more money later in the year, make sure your withholding or estimated tax payments are adjusted before Dec. 31 so you don’t face underpayment penalties later.
Evaluate your traditional and Roth IRA holdings. Many people who expect their tax rate to go up in retirement convert traditional IRAs to Roth accounts in advance. Those who don’t do so keep their traditional accounts as-is. No matter how close you’re getting to retirement, it’s a good idea to take inventory of your IRA investments to make sure they’re accessible and to contact your tax advisor if you have questions about strategy.
Contribute as much to retirement accounts as possible. Putting money away for retirement is always a good idea – for your tax bill and for your future. For tax year 2014, individual 401(k) (www.practicalmoneyskills.com/401k) contribution limits are $17,500 and $5,500 for an IRA (not including catch-up contributions for taxpayers 50 or over). In 2015, those contribution limits will go up to $18,000 and $6,000 respectively.
Consider HSAs and FSAs. High-deductible insurance plans may offer a health savings account (HSA) option that allows you to deposit pretax dollars to pay for medical expenses high-deductible plans don’t cover. Flexible Spending Accounts (practicalmoneyskills.com/fsa) also allow pre-tax dollars to pay for dental care, vision checkups and glasses and over-the-counter drugs.
Gather state and local sales tax receipts. If you itemize your deductions, consider whether to deduct state and local sales taxes instead of state and local income taxes.
Consider a gift. Individuals can give up to $14,000 a year per beneficiary to as many people as they’d like during 2014 free of gift or estate tax. That amount goes up to $28,000 per beneficiary per year for spouses (both individual and spousal numbers will stay the same in 2015).
Make a last-minute charitable deduction. If you itemize, you can deduct for charitable contributions – but do some homework first. GuideStar.org lists every IRS-registered nonprofit organization, so you can do full research on the organization’s work and legitimacy as well as its tax status.
Take that home office deduction. If you use part of your home for business or if your office is an unattached structure, you may qualify for a home office deduction up to $1,500 a year.
Watch the news and keep your tax preparer’s number handy. Congress may spend its final days arguing over a variety of expired tax breaks still pending. It’s important to keep an eye on tax news between now and New Year’s Day.
Bottom line: Use the end of the year to gather records and advice and make smart choices taxwise and otherwise.
Healthy Conversations: Shopping for Health Insurance
Choosing health-care coverage is one of the most important decisions people make. Therefore, it’s essential that consumers fully understand their options during open enrollment so they can choose a plan that will help them enhance their health and possibly save money.
The annual open enrollment period for individuals to enroll in health insurance plans will begin on November 15th, and is currently underway for many employers and small businesses. This is the time when consumers can make choices – and changes – to their health insurance coverage.
There are four important questions to consider as you choose your plan:
1. Do you qualify to keep the plan you have?
If you like what you have, in most cases, you can keep it. All eligible individual under-65 members and small business groups (plans with 2-50 employees) in Iowa and South Dakota have the option to extend qualified non-grandfathered health insurance coverage into 2016. More than 90 percent of those who had the option to keep and extend their plans during the last enrollment period chose to do so due to the quality coverage these plans still provide.
2. Would another plan better meet your needs?
Depending on your needs, a newer ACA plan that has additional benefits added, may provide better options for you and your family. There are also new and innovative plans, like Wellmark’s new Blue Rewards plan, that provide rewards for the healthy choices of their members, that may be worth looking into. Your agent can help you to understand which plans best align with your needs.
3. Is your doctor is in the network?
This will usually save you money on out-of-pocket costs. Even if you don’t plan to make any changes to your health insurance this year, it’s always good to ensure that any doctor you see, or plan to visit in the coming year, is in your plan’s care provider network.
4. How do you prefer to purchase your insurance?
Plans of every kind are available from three main channels: Your agent or broker; direct from an insurance carrier, like Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield, or from the public exchange (if you qualify for a subsidy.) Many times, off-exchange plans provide broader choices for consumers, especially those who will not benefit from subsidies or tax credits.
Finally, you don’t need to navigate this decision alone. Your health insurance agent or broker can answer your questions and help you understand which plans will best meet the needs of you and your family. If you don’t have an agent, you can find one by using online tools like www.Wellmark.com/AgentFinder.
By Jason Alderman
What You Need to Know Before Reading New Social Security Statements
No matter how far away you are from retirement, it’s important to understand your Social Security benefits – and there’s a particularly good reason to do it now.
The Social Security Administration (SSA) is bringing back annual paper benefits statements for the first time in three years. It stopped in 2011 to save money on printing and postage, but Congress and consumer advocates complained that workers needed better access to their data. In September, the agency reversed its decision and announced it’s resuming the practice of mailing paper statements to workers in two categories:
Those who are not receiving benefits and are within three months of turning 25, 30, 35, 40, 45, 50, 55, and 60. (After age 60, workers will receive a statement every year.)
Those who still haven’t registered for a My Social Security (www.ssa.gov/myaccount/) online account.
Why is this important? First, if you’ve paid into the Social Security and Medicare system, you should understand the benefits you’ve earned. Second, as the SSA has been closing field offices and reducing services to the public, despite the fact that Baby Boomers are starting to flood the system. It’s a good time to confirm and correct benefits due to the longer wait times on the agency’s toll free telephone line and field offices.
Start by waiting for your next paper benefits statement or sign up at My Social Security website to review your current data. Here’s a quick overview of what your statement tells you:
Introduction and your estimated benefits. This section covers four categories. The first is your retirement benefits, which are based on your age when you start drawing them. The calculations are based on three critical ages as examples: 62 (the earliest age you can draw retirement benefits), 67 (the full retirement age for anyone born after 1960) and age 70 (the oldest anyone can start drawing benefits, generally at the highest level if you can wait). The second is disability, which refers to the amount of your monthly disability benefit if you qualify. Third, your family/survivors benefits if a loved one dies. And lastly, your Medicare eligibility and the particular facts to support that conclusion.
Your Earnings Record. This is a summary of your earnings that you need to verify for accuracy. Pull your annual tax returns as far back as you can to confirm this information, and if you work with a tax or financial planning professional, double-check their conclusions if you plan to challenge any errors with the SSA.
Some Facts About Social Security. Provides additional definitions and guidelines to better understand your statement and includes key contact information.
Most experts will tell you that when it comes to retirement, time is your biggest ally – it gives you the opportunity to invest, save and adjust your plan strategy. Use your statement to do the following:
Spot and correct errors. If you and your tax professional spot disparities in your benefit statement make careful notes, gather your evidence and consult the SSA’s contact page (www.ssa.gov/agency/contact/) to start the correction process remotely or in person.
Blend Social Security into a broader retirement plan. Most experts agree Social Security alone won’t provide a comfortable retirement. It’s never too late to plan.
Bottom Line: Even if you’re years away from retirement, make sure you understand your Social Security benefits, and that they’re accurate and fit into a broader financial plan for your retirement.
By Jason Alderman
Must-Know Facts About Insurance Open Enrollment
If you buy your own health insurance, add this important date to your yearend to-do list: November 15.
That’s the date open enrollment is available for individual healthcare plans offered through the Healthcare.gov site, your respective health insurance marketplace (https://www.healthcare.gov/medicaid-chip/eligibility/) or independent agents in your community.
If you’re working for a company that provides your health insurance, chances are your open enrollment period has already begun. The SHOP insurance marketplace, open to small businesses and nonprofits with 50 or fewer full-time employees, also begins taking online applications November 15.
If you buy your own personal or family coverage, don’t wait until November 15 to start planning your 2015 coverage decisions – do it now.
Here are six things you should know to get started:
1. Timing is tight. Last year’s health insurance enrollment process lasted six months. This year, it’s only three – November 15 to February 15. You may be able to enroll outside of those dates if you’re facing a major life change like a divorce, birth of a child or marriage; otherwise, that’s your window.
2. Sticker shock is a possibility. Obamacare didn’t guarantee cheap healthcare coverage; it guaranteed available healthcare coverage. Keep in mind that if you bought health coverage last year, your insurer will automatically re-enroll you on December 15 for new coverage effective January 1. However, that’s no guarantee that your monthly premium will stay the same. Some experts are predicting only modest increases (www.cnbc.com/id/102055144#.), but depending on where you live, your premiums might go up or down. And if your 2013 carrier grandfathered your 2014 coverage, those changes may go well beyond price.
3. Your doctors and hospitals might change. Hospitals and physician practices scrutinize the state of the health insurance market very closely. Their income depends on it. In 2013, some medical practices made news by dropping insurance plans altogether and accepting only cash or credit; others changed the insurance plans they would honor. Something to keep in mind: the best way to confirm that you’ll still have access to your favorite doctor and hospital choice is to pick up the phone. Your doctor’s website may list the particular insurance plans his or her practice may accept, but don’t expect the list to be current. Call your practitioner or their business office to confirm they’re sticking with your plan or any you’ve chosen to use instead. You don’t want to be surprised with enormous out-of-network costs later.
4. Planning future health needs is important. If in the next year you’re planning to expand your family, undergo elective surgery or other factors that could affect how you’ll use the healthcare system, query the plans about specialists, prescriptions and other specific services before you sign up. It could save you thousands in potential out-of-pocket costs.
5. Coverage isn’t immediate. Depending on when you enroll during the open enrollment period, your actual coverage may not start until two to six weeks later. Check effective dates of coverage for every plan you’re evaluating to make sure the timing addresses your particular needs.
6. You can get help. Personal referrals from friends and fellow professionals to particular plans and agents are always a good way to start your enrollment search. There may also be nonprofit assistance within your community or state to help you evaluate individual plans. On the national level, nonprofit Enroll America runs a nationwide site (www.enrollamerica.org/resources/in-person-assistance/) with specific tools and resources for help in your search.
Start now to build a good toolbox full of online and personal resources to help you with your 2015 health insurance search.