Year-End Financial Checklist

Have you already started thinking about the financial goals you want to set for the New Year?

Well, hold on. First, try taking care of some financial business before 2013 rolls out.

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“Many people, rushing to make holiday plans, would like to take a vacation from thinking about money. Not so fast,” reports Deborah L. Jacobs for Forbes. “In the process you could whiz by some crucial financial deadlines on Dec. 31. Miss them and you might get hit with substantial penalties or lose the opportunity to take advantage of some smart money-saving moves.”

Here a few of the 12 smart money moves you should make before the end of 2013, according to Jacobs:

-- Catch up on contributions to your employer’s 401(k) plan. Okay, you probably want to use what money you have to buy holiday gifts. But try to trim some from your holiday budget to put into your retirement fund. This gift to yourself will last a lot longer. For 2013, you can contribute up to $17,500 to a 401(k) plan, or $23,000 if you’re 50 or older, Jacobs points out. If you’re self-employed you can set up a one-person 401(k). “So long as you create it by Dec. 31 you can make contributions for 2013 until the due date of your 1040 with extensions – as late as Oct. 15, 2014,” she says.

-- Give and you will receive. Of course, there is the opportunity for a tax deduction if you give to a charity. Keep in mind that charitable contributions must be made to qualified organizations and are deductible only if you itemize deductions. Payments to individuals are never deductible. Here’s an option if you’re 70½ or older and need to take a 2013 required minimum distribution from your IRA. Jacobs says consider transferring what you are required to withdraw or part of it directly to a charity. “You won’t get a charitable deduction, but you also won’t have to recognize this ‘charitable rollover’ as income, which has other benefits,” she writes.

-- Give a gift of a college education. Consider setting up a 529 plan for your child or a child in your family. It’s a gift they may not appreciate now but will when it comes time to pay for college. Funds put in a 529 plan can be used to cover college tuition and other qualified expenses. With this type of tax-advantaged plan, you don’t have to pay federal or income taxes on returns unless the cash is withdrawn for reasons unrelated to college. In addition, some states offer an income tax deduction.

Color of Money Live chat

Missed today’s online discussion with Eldar Shafir, co-author of “Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much?”

Read the archive.

And don’t forget to check out the review of the book which was my November Color of Money Book Club selection.

The 21-Day Financial Fast

If you want to get your finances in order, I hope you pick up the January 2014 issue of Essence Magazine, which just came out (Jennifer Hudson’s on the cover). Flip to page 59.

The magazine has profiled three women who have taken my 21-day financial fast challenge. For three weeks they curtailed any unnecessary shopping and put away their credit cards.

The women were given a copy of “The 21-Day Financial Fast: Your Path to Financial Peace and Freedom,” an expanded and updated version of my latest book. The stories of their financial transformation are truly inspirational.

On Mon. Dec. 9 at 8 p.m. ET. I’ll be joining @essencemag answering questions about the fast on Twitter. Visit www.essence.com/DEBTCHAT for details. You can join the conversation at @essencemag and @SingletaryM. Use the hashtag #financialfast.

Color of Money Question of the Week

What financial bad habits do you want to get rid of in the New Year? Send your response to colorofmoney@washpost.com. Be sure to include to your full name, city and state and put “21 Day Financial Fast” in the subject line.

Giving Alternatives

You’re stuck.

You’ve been holiday shopping and still can’t figure out what to get a lot of people in your life.

Here are some stories that might help you find more meaningful gifts for the people on your list.

-- Give something that can help change others’ lives. Oxfam America Unwrapped is offering a selection of gifts costing $12 to $5,000 for necessities from chickens to goats to mosquito nets to vegetable gardens that you can donate to needy communities around the world. For some gift ideas go to oxfamgifts.com. Other groups provide similar alterative to give a life-changing gift. Check out www.heifer.org/gift-catalog.

-- In “Not-So-Traditional Ideas for Holiday Gifts,” U.S. News reporter Susan Johnston discusses nontraditional holiday presents. One grandmother adopted a polar bear at the Saint Louis Zoo for a granddaughter who loves polar bears. Try focusing on experiences rather than on material goods when gift-giving. Instead of exchanging gifts among the adults, one family uses money they would have spent on gifts to visit in-laws living out of state.

-- In “Top 10 Alternative Gift Ideas” Better Homes and Gardens provide great ideas to spread some cheer. Here are a few: Pay for the car behind you at the tollbooth. Chronicle your family history by assembling photographs, letters and important documents. Give children a gift of music or sports lessons instead of another toy.

Walmart Wages

A Walmart store in Ohio recently made headlines after a photo of a note posted in the employee-only area asked employees to donate food to needy co-workers hit the Internet.

Walmart said employees were just trying to help each other during the holiday season. But the plea fueled the debate about the big box retailer’s low wages and the ongoing minimum wage discussion. Fast-food workers around the country planned to march today to push for higher wages,” the Associated Press reports.

For the last week’s Color of Money Question, I asked: “What do you think about raising the national minimum wage?”

“The minimum wage needs to be raised,” wrote Samantha Brewer of Columbia, Mo. “That the question even needs to be asked shows what an insular, uncaring society we have become.”

Brian Fitzpatrick of Toms River, N.J., wrote: “More money in the pockets of consumers means more money to spend on items people need and want. I understand that raising the minimum wage entails raising costs, but spreading out the costs incrementally over a range of products or services does not really hurt a company’s bottom line. The old malarkey about people not buying stuff because the price went up is just that, malarkey.”

Pat Dunne of Naperville, Ill., is against raising minimum wages: “Minimum wages are not meant to be a living wage. If you think back 20 years ago, we all thought of a McDonalds or Walmart job as a temporary step in our lives. We went and got an education and increased our pay. No one should be entitled to a living wage just for being alive and working. Unskilled jobs are going to be paid less.”

“The minimum wage was never meant to be a living wage,” Michael Thigpen of Baton Rouge also wrote. “Raise the minimum wage, and prices of goods/services rise, putting those trying to live on a minimum wage right back in the same position they started from financially.”

Tia Lewis contributed to this report.

Readers may write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C., 20071, or michelle.singletary@washpost.com. Personal responses may not be possible, and comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer’s name, unless otherwise requested. To read previous Color of Money columns, go to www.postbusiness.com.

 
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