Sunday, July 19, 2009

First thing Monday morning!

Pennsylvania state employees' most recent paychecks were some 30% short, and legislators are waving the threat of goose eggs on the next round. Flat-broke California has already been paying in IOUs, but banks are starting to balk at their worthless paper. Many other states were slow to make good on refunds due taxpayers.

Now turn the tables. We all know people who've been there, and some have been so unfortunate as to experience it personally. The taxman demands payment, and pleas of hardship or budget problems—the same appeals California and Pennsylvania are making now—find no mercy.

“If you don't pay up, we'll garnish your wages.” Revenue agents may even threaten property seizure or jail time.

Government jobs are widely considered to be the among the safest. Civil servants tend to make less money, but the perception of increased security is part of the compensation. GEICO, the Government Employees Insurance Company, was founded with a business model limiting policies to government employees on the bet that they're less likely to be risk takers.

These tough times where even governments can't make payroll help us all appreciate the importance of having an emergency fund as cushion against these sort of blows. How well could you absorb the hits that folks in California and Pennsylvania have taken? Personal-finance advisor Dave Ramsey recommends setting aside 3 to 6 months of expenses at Baby Step 3. But where's the extra money to sock away supposed to come from?

Which brings me to my tip. How big were your income-tax refunds last year, state and federal? Big refunds are not money from heaven: you just paid too much in taxes. Using refunds as a savings program is a rotten plan because the government doesn't pay you interest on your generous loan to them. Now states are earning slow-pay credit ratings, so don't leave your state or the feds owing you money you may need.

First thing Monday morning go to your accounting or human resources department and ask for a new W-4 form to adjust your federal withholding and the appropriate form for your state withholding. The tables on these forms are conservative and will cause you to overpay. TurboTax, for example, has a withholding calculator that gets you close to zero, not much owed either way. Use your most recent paystub and last year's returns to fill in the blanks and get your new withholdings. Easy-peasy.

The point is more money in each paycheck. By increasing the allowances you claim on these forms, less money will be deducted every payday as prepayment on next year's tax bill. So instead of sending that money to the IRS and then waiting—and hoping—for them to send it back next April, keep your hard-earned money. Think of it as getting your refund early. Use it to bulk up your emergency fund, increase 401k or IRA contributions, invest in your professional development, or whatever purpose you see fit.

If you have questions or concerns, be sure to consult with your tax professional.

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