It’s almost impossible to get through the holiday season without hearing — many, many times — that all Alvin the Chipmunk wants for Christmas is a hula hoop. Well, all that the Republicans in Congress wanted was a tax overhaul bill — and that’s just what they gave America.
It may or may not fit you perfectly, but Washington isn’t accepting returns, so in this episode of Motley Fool Answers, Alison Southwick and Robert Brokamp are providing you some tips on how to use it. But first, an unusual set of tips from our listeners, covering a wide range of holiday hacks, a clever app, and things to do with wood.
A full transcript follows the video.
This video was recorded on Dec. 26, 2017.
Alison Southwick: This is Motley Fool Answers. I’m Alison Southwick and I’m joined by Robert Brokamp, personal-finance expert here at The Motley Fool.
Robert Brokamp: Hi, Alison!
Southwick: Today is Dec. 26.
Brokamp: It is. Happy birthday, Alison!
Southwick: Yay! Thank you! Thanks. That’s really all we need to talk about it. Thank you for wishing me a happy birthday. Tax reform! It happened, and we’re here to talk about it, or at least Bro is. He’s going to break down what you need to know and what you should do to maximize the benefits to you. We’ll also give you the reins for “Answers Answers,” so I guess we should maybe rename it this week? Hmm. Well, all that and more on this week’s episode of Motley Fool Answers.
Southwick: It’s time for “Answers Fans Answer.”
Brokamp: There you go.
Southwick: Wow! You’re so much better at naming things than I am. We’re taking the week off from “Answers Answers” and letting you guys handle it, because we’ve received a lot of mail in the last week. First off, Michael heard me complain about key-fob overload from all the retailers and their clubs and programs and whatever, and he suggested the app Key Ring. It’s by Mobestream Media, and you can find it in iOS in the App Store, and I presume it’s out there for Android users, too. It helps you keep all your little key-fob codes in one place.
Bill wrote in to suggest ReviewMeta.com. They apply statistical algorithms to the reviews, such as those on Amazon, and then they give you much greater precision. You plug in an Amazon link, and then it spits out whether or not you need to be worried about there being fake reviews and that kind of thing. I tried it. It worked.
Also, we’ve heard more from you guys about different traditions. The first one I was going to talk about is from Zara. Zara writes, “It’s good to be an immigrant, because I can pick and adopt the parts of a tradition I like and just ignore the parts I don’t. For Thanksgiving, after a few years I learned turkey is not really my thing.” Surprise. Turkey is not anyone’s thing, although actually I like a good brined turkey.
“So, for the last few years, I make an elaborate Thanksgiving dinner, but different. It’s fun to think about everything I would like to make and design a menu. This year I made duck confit. I also made this tradition of going on a hike on the first of January no matter how the weather is, and I always go for a long hike. It’s refreshing to start the new year in nature.” I guess everyone’s doing that now.
Brokamp: Yes, the hike thing. Yes. And I should say at our house we had steak instead of turkey this year, because similarly we’re not big turkey fans.
Southwick: No. Pete writes, “The last year that my mom was alive, she sent me several gifts. Among them was one that I never got around to opening for some reason, and after she died I decided to send it to my brother as a gift from Mom with the instructions that he not open it, but rather send it back to me the next year as a gift for Mom. We’ve been sending it back and forth for five years now. We’ll open it the next time we celebrate Christmas together. He’s on the West Coast. I’m on the East Coast. A weird new tradition, I know, but a tradition nonetheless.”
Southwick: Tim writes, “I just listened to your storytime special, and I wait until Nov. 1 before I begin Christmas music and movies, and then from Nov. 1 through the end of the year I listen, watch, and read nothing but Christmas, Motley Fool podcasts being the only exception.” Thank you, Tim! “It drives my family crazy. I should clarify I often sneak in Christmas music all year, but only when my family members aren’t around. Thank you for all your great shows and Merry Christmas.” This sounds like Tim is a man after your own heart.
Brokamp: I was just going to say. I’ve been known to listen to Christmas music year-round, but I spare my family until probably closer to the end of November.
Southwick: I spare my family until Thanksgiving, but the day after Thanksgiving it’s on. It’s all Christmas music, all the time. So here’s one that I’m going to steal, and it comes from Quinn. Quinn writes, “Every year we take a slice of the Christmas tree stump and burn in something major that happened that year. My dad has some dating back to 1988, but I just started my own last year.” So if you imagine it ends up being like this little disk…
Brokamp: Like a hockey puck…
Southwick: … of a tree. Of a hockey puck. Not even that thick, probably. And then I assume Quinn has some sort of wood-burning kit. And then they carve in these little things that happened from the year. For example, in 2006 they went to Devils Tower. Here, you can see the picture. It’s a picture of Devils Tower…
Brokamp: That looks great.
Southwick: … with a bunch of little pumpkins underneath, and the pumpkins are because they symbolize getting engaged on Halloween.
Brokamp: Oh, very nice.
Southwick: In 2017, they bought a house, so there’s a carved-in little picture of what I assume is their house. I happen to have a wood-burning kit…
Brokamp: Of course you do.
Southwick: … and a Christmas tree, and I’m very crafty and artistic, so I’m totally stealing this.
Brokamp: I like it.
Southwick: Bro, if you had adopted this, what would you carve into your 2017 ornament?
Brokamp: Oh, man!
Southwick: What was a big thing that happened this last year?
Brokamp: A big thing that happened this year. I don’t know. You know, I would say probably one of the highlights was that my dad took all his kids, myself included, and all the grandkids on a cruise for his 80th birthday. That was quite a lovely affair. So I would say something along those lines.
Southwick: How about you, Rick?
Rick Engdahl: I don’t know. Probably something from Ireland. From our trip to Ireland and Iceland. That was our vacation this year.
Southwick: Oh, yeah. Of course. Of course. Oh, that’s perfect.
Engdahl: That would be fun to draw with the wood burner, too. You know, we actually got a wood burner for our son last year for Christmas, so we do have one around the house.
Southwick: And how many times has he used it?
Engdahl: Several times early in the year. In fact, for my daughter’s birthday party — it was a Harry Potter birthday party — big brother had this idea that he wanted to make the wands…
Engdahl: … for all the kids.
Southwick: Oh, that’s so sweet.
Engdahl: There was like 15 magic wands made with the wood-burner kit. He got a knife for whittling as well. So whittle the stick down, and then use the wood burner to design little patterns on the wands. And it was beautiful. He did a really great job on the first one. And the night before the birthday party, guess who was up whittling wands and burning them with the wood burner?
Southwick: Did you get them done? All 15?
Engdahl: All. I got them all done. They were beautiful.
Southwick: I’ll bet they were. Aw! Well, there you go. This is another tradition you could do, and you can burn in something from Ireland.
Engdahl: When we go to get our Christmas tree, my daughter always asks for extra slices, because they slice off the end of the tree when you buy it, so she says, “Oh, can I have…?” And she actually makes little gifts out of them that are eight-year-old versions.
Brokamp: That is super clever.
Southwick: That is super sweet. I wish I had known about this when the guy was slicing the end of our tree off, but we have saws. We can do it, too.
Brokamp: What about you? What are you putting on yours?
Southwick: Our big travel this year was Malta, but we also went to Disney World. I don’t know. Can you do a Maltese cross with Mickey ears on it? Maybe something like that.
Brokamp: Sure. I think you could. I believe in you.
Southwick: I think I can pull it off, too.
The U.S. is passing the most significant reform of our tax code since 1986.
Brokamp: Can I just dispute that?
Southwick: Oh! Really?
Brokamp: Yeah, I would put it more along the lines of the 2001-2003 Bush tax cuts that were also pretty significant.
Southwick: OK. Well, I only researched 1986. Do you know what was the No. 1 song in December of 1986?
Brokamp: Um, “Der Kommissar.”
Engdahl: “Take On Me.”
Southwick: It was The Bangles, “Walk Like an Egyptian.”
Brokamp: Oh, good!
Southwick: Yup, those were the days, huh?
Brokamp: Those were the days. It’s a good song.
Southwick: I digress. But fast-forward 31 years — yes, 31 years — and now all we listen to is Ed Sheeran, apparently? Get off my lawn, Ed Sheeran. Anyway, what was I saying? Someone hand me my cheater so I can read my notes here. Oh, yes, tax reform. It’s been more than 30 years — oh, Bro’s going to argue that — since a big overhaul of our tax system and Bro’s going to help us break it all down. But first, you have a word of explanation for our listeners? A disclaimer, if you will?
Brokamp: Yes, well, a couple of disclaimers. First of all, as we are recording this, it’s still not officially law yet. It hasn’t been signed, so things can change. Who knows what will happen? The bill itself is very long. We’re boiling it down to the things that we think are most applicable to our listeners, but you definitely want to do some more research. Maybe consult a tax pro before you make any major changes.
Also, some of the most significant changes affect businesses, but we’re not going to talk about that. We’re going to talk about the stuff that affects most individual taxpayers, but if you own a business you definitely should consult a tax pro, because there’s a lot of stuff in there and you want to understand how it will affect your business.
Southwick: All right. We are calling this “The 12 Days of Taxmas,” because, of course, it’s the holidays and we were able to scrounge up 12 things that people need to know.
Brokamp: Yes, absolutely.
Southwick: Credit to Mrs. Brokamp for coming up with that name.
Brokamp: It was her idea.
Southwick: It’s pretty great. All right. So, on the first day of Taxmas, you need to know that any changes begin in 2018.
Brokamp: Right. So virtually all these things are happening in the future. Very few things — in fact, only one thing that I know of — is retroactive. The only thing that is retroactive is the medical deduction. You can deduct — current law; this is before the new law takes place — medical expenses that exceed 10% of your adjusted gross income.
This law, the new law, actually lowers it to 7.5%, and as far as I know the only thing that’s retroactive — I was trying to think who in Congress is getting a lot of medical expenses this year that they want to write off. But anyway, everything else happens for 2018. So as you prepare your 2017 taxes, don’t worry about this new law. It doesn’t affect you.
And by the way, your 2017 taxes are due April 17 of this year, not April 15. We get two extra days because April 15 happens on a Sunday and Monday is a holiday in the District of Columbia. So two extra days to get your taxes done.
Southwick: Not bad. On the second day of Taxmas, Bro wants you to know that your tax bill will probably be lower next year.
Brokamp: Yes. Most analyses find that for the vast majority of Americans, their taxes actually will go down. Depending on which analysis you read, it’s about 10% or so of people whose taxes will go up, but for most people they’ll go down.
Why will they go down? Well, it starts with new tax brackets. The tax brackets, first of all, are lower, and it takes more income to get into a higher tax bracket. I’m not going to go through all the tax brackets. I’ll just give one example that probably applies to a lot of our listeners.
Let’s say in 2017 you’re married, and your taxable income is greater than $77,000 but less than $156,000. You’re in the 25% tax bracket. Next year, in 2018, that will be 22%, so it’s lower for that, plus you stay in that tax bracket up until you earn $165,000. And again, I say “earn,” but this is really your taxable income. So it’s your gross income minus all your deductions and all that stuff.
So the tax rates are lower, plus as you earn more, it takes more to get into the next tax bracket. The biggest difference is the highest tax bracket. To be in the highest tax bracket in 2017 and married, you needed about $480,000. Starting in 2018, to move to the highest tax bracket you have to get over $600,000.
Also, one thing that’s mostly eliminated in the new tax law is the marriage penalty. That basically means that as a married couple, combining your incomes you probably paid more in taxes than you did if you were separate individuals, but that’s disappearing for most people with this new tax law.
So who are the type of people who are likely to pay taxes? Generally speaking, it’s probably people who live in high-tax states, because they’re limiting the deduction for state, local, and property taxes to a combined $10,000. The people who are most likely to pay more taxes are those who are not going to be able to deduct as much of those taxes.
But some analyses have found other situations where people will be paying more. One analysis I read about today said about 7% of middle-income taxpayers will actually be paying higher taxes, too.
The solution for anyone who wants to know where they are is just google something along the lines of “new tax law calculator.” Lots of folks are coming out with calculators where you put in your information and it gives you a good idea of what your taxes will be under the new tax law.
Southwick: So while chances are your tax bill will be lower next year, it’s not going to stay lower forever.
Brokamp: No. The lower tax rates for businesses are actually permanent, but the reduction in tax rates for individuals will, as they say, “sunset” after 2025. In other words, they just go back to what they were in 2017. They did this because, as most of us know, they had to keep the cost of the bill under $1.5 trillion over 10 years, and one of the tricks they did was to say some of these things sunset or go away eight years from now, with the belief that before that happens, a future Congress will make these tax cuts permanent. Who knows? Historically it’s sort of a mixed record on whether such things happen, but generally speaking, you should know that the individual changes do go away after 2025.
And one other thing they changed was how they adjust tax brackets. According to prior law, tax brackets are adjusted for the Consumer Price Index or inflation, so they go up a little bit every year. The tax brackets are now going to be changed to a different measure of inflation called the changed CPI. They’re not going to rise as much, so as your income increases, more and more people are going to creep into the higher tax bracket than under the former formula.
Southwick: On the fourth day of Taxmas, Bro wants you to know that fewer taxpayers will itemize.
Brokamp: Right. A lot of the deductions that people take are going to go away — many of the miscellaneous itemized deductions like casualty losses, and tax-prep fees, and advisor fees. They’re going to eliminate personal exemptions. However, they’re also going to nearly double the standard deduction that anyone gets just for being a taxpaying American. They’re going to double it to $12,000 for individuals and $24,000 for married couples.
Because of the higher standard deduction, fewer people will itemize. Currently about 30% of people itemize. Once this bill is enacted, the estimates are that only about 10% of people will itemize. What that means is for many people who now get value from some itemized deductions — one of the biggest being mortgage and another one being charitable contributions — chances are, depending on your situation, you may no longer get a tax benefit from that, because it doesn’t benefit you to itemize.
Southwick: On the fifth day of Taxmas, Bro wants you to know that the Affordable Care Act individual mandates will be repealed in 2019.
Brokamp: Right. This is part of the bill in that, according to current law, you have to buy insurance, and if you don’t, you pay a penalty. That’s being repealed. One thing I want to make clear to everyone, though, is that it’s not repealed for 2018. For 2018, the individual mandate is still in force. It’s 2019 when that goes away.
Southwick: And on the sixth day of Taxmas, Bro wants you to know that 529 accounts will be expanded.
Brokamp: According to current law, 529 accounts are tax-free savings vehicles for college. You put the money in, and it grows tax-free as long as you take the money out for qualified higher-education expenses. According to the new law, you can actually use up to $10,000 a year per individual for any qualified primary or secondary cost, for kids going to a private elementary school, or there’s some other expense that’s required for them to go to a certain high school. You can use your 529 account for those expenses.
Southwick: What about day care?
Brokamp: Not day care.
Southwick: Womp, womp.
Brokamp: Sorry about that. And I will add one thing that changed relatively recently. In the final bill, you were also allowed to use the 529s for homeschooling expenses, but then that put them over the $1.5 trillion limit, so they had to take that out. That demonstrates that with the changes in this bill, every day it feels like something changes, so before you make any tax moves, make sure you’re looking at a recent article about it and not something from even, like, two weeks ago.
Southwick: Oh, yes, you have to read something updated four hours ago. That’s probably your best bet. And it is crazy. We talk about how complex the tax law is. When I was doing my research, one of the tax benefits being revoked is if you commute on a bicycle, previously you were able to deduct $20 of your income every month. But that one’s going away. Like, how crazy is that? Does someone on Trump’s team hate bicyclists? Someone had to dig deep to say, “You know what? This is going away. My wife left me for a courier. Good-bye, bicyclist tax break.”
Brokamp: One of the goals originally was to make the tax code simpler. The House version of this that was passed whenever, at this point about a month ago, only had four tax brackets. They’re really trying to make it simple. Now that they’ve had to combine it with the Senate bill and work out a few details, it’s not as simple as some people would have wanted, but I’m sure that’s an example of someone saying, “Let’s just make it simpler and get rid of that.”
Southwick: Right. Let’s just get rid of that. There’s five people that claim this every year. Let’s just get rid of it.
On the seventh day of Taxmas, Bro wants us to know that the tax treatment of alimony has been reversed. What is going on here?
Brokamp: The old way, at least the current as of 2017, when you pay alimony, you get to take it as a deduction, but the people who receive alimony must report it as taxable income. The new way is that you don’t get a deduction for paying alimony, and if you receive it you don’t have to pay taxes on it. But all this only applies to divorces that take place after Dec. 31 of 2018.
Southwick: Oh! That hurts. Not me, of course, but oh, man.
On the eighth day of Taxmas, Bro wants us to know that Congress said no to the — how should I pronounce this? Fee-fo? Fee-fah? Fie-foh?
Brokamp: Fie-foh. I think it’s Fie-foh.
Southwick: Noted as Fie-foh.
Brokamp: Right. So FIFO stands for “first in, first out.” If you are selling stock — really, most types of investments, but let’s say stock — outside of a retirement account — it’s not in your IRA, not in your 401(k), just a taxable brokerage account — and you have, let’s say, 200 shares of something that you bought over multiple periods, but you just want to sell 50 shares. You can identify which shares you want to sell. That way you can choose shares with a higher cost basis to lower your tax bill, or maybe you want to bite the tax bill today, so you sell at a lower cost basis.
In the Senate version of their bill, they got rid of this and they said you have to sell on a first-in, first-out basis. A lot of people disagree with that. The Motley Fool actually made a statement about how we don’t think that’s good for investors. Congress listened — I don’t think specifically to us — but they listened to the people who complained about it, so that is not going to happen. It’s something that we’ve written about previously that could be in the final tax bill, but it turns out they took that out. You don’t have to worry about that and you can still identify the shares that you sell of your investments.
Southwick: On the ninth day of Taxmas, Bro wants us to gather our deductions while we may.
Brokamp: That’s right. We’re moving into the portion of what you can do to make the most of this tax bill. When you think of next year’s tax rates being lower and many deductions going away, the strategy for the remainder of 2017 is, if possible, move any deductions that you would normally have in 2018 to 2017.
I’m going to give you an example. Let’s say you give a certain amount of money to a charity every year. It might be better for you to double up in 2017 and move your 2018 contribution to 2017. Take that deduction this year.
A lot of people are trying to do other things. For example, the people who will not be able to deduct as much property taxes, or state income or sales taxes, are trying to find ways to pay those for this year so that it counts this year and you can deduct it. It’s a little tricky, so definitely do your research beforehand. I don’t want you to prepay some taxes this year thinking you can deduct it, but it does seem possible in some circumstances, so if you want to do that make sure you do some research or maybe consult your accountant.
Southwick: On the 10th day of Taxmas, Bro wants us to defer income.
Brokamp: If at all possible, if you are among the majority of people who are going to be paying lower taxes next year, defer any income you receive this year to next year. Now, not all of us can do that, of course, but there are some ways to do it.
Let’s say, for example, you’re going to get a bonus. Ask your employer if it can be moved to next year. If you are a business owner, do your billing next year rather than this year. If you are a landlord, make sure that you receive the January rent next year and not this year.
Another possibility is if you’re not maxing out your pre-tax 401(k), do everything you can to max it out this year to get that deduction, even if that means you have to save a little less next year, but max it out this year to get the most of that pre-tax contribution.
Southwick: On the 11th day of Taxmas, Bro wants us to pay down debt.
Brokamp: This is something I’ve talked about before. It’s a great strategy to be as debt-free as possible before you retire, especially for money you don’t want to put in the stock market. It doesn’t make sense, necessarily, to be paying 4% on your mortgage, 6% on your student loans, 15% on your credit cards if you have cash sitting in the bank earning you just 1%.
A lot of people, though, especially when it comes to the mortgage, say, “I don’t want to pay off my mortgage because I like the tax benefits.” But as we’ve discussed previously, a lot fewer people are going to get any tax benefits from their mortgage because they no longer will be itemizing. Also, the ability to deduct interest on a home equity loan — used for paying for college, or paying off credit cards — you will no longer be able to deduct that interest.
The after-tax cost on a mortgage or home equity loan is actually going to go up, so if you’ve been keeping your mortgage and those loans because you like the tax benefits, you might want to rethink your strategy.
Southwick: And on the 12th day of Taxmas, Bro wants you to — big breath — invest your tax cut to offset potential benefit reductions in Social Security or Medicare.
Brokamp: Right. So, obviously, one of the biggest debates about this whole new tax bill is what the long-term cost is. Most analyses point out that it will increase the deficit. Even if you incorporate things like the growth in the economy that comes from cutting taxes, it’s still going to end up costing a lot of money. We’re still going to end up having to borrow money to pay for these tax cuts.
There are some analyses that say no, the tax cuts will pay for themselves, but to my knowledge, I have not seen any analysis that says that these tax cuts will pay for themselves and offset the problems that are in Social Security and Medicare. These are basically programs that many retirees rely on, and they’re not fully funded. They’re not going to be able to pay for all future benefits for all recipients.
What’s going to happen? Well, in the future at some point we’re going to have raise taxes again to pay for those, or you’re going to have to cut benefits, and you’ve already seen a little bit of discussion about that being something that will be considered in 2018.
I think the smart thing for anyone to do is with this money that you’re getting from these tax savings, invest them. Max out your 401(k), max out your IRA, max out your college savings accounts. Invest that money, because you might need it down the road to offset any cuts in Medicare and Social Security.
The good news for 401(k), 403(b), 457 savers in 2018 is that the contribution limit is actually going up $500, so take advantage of lower taxes, take advantage of the higher contribution limit, and save more for retirement.
Southwick: You’re saying don’t go on a spending spree.
Brokamp: Don’t go on a spending spree.
Southwick: Oh! No fun.
Engdahl: You would say that.
Southwick: You would. Well, Bro, thank you for walking us through what is obviously, like you said, not even law yet, at this point of taping, but it is very close, so should anything change, we can come back and do another riveting episode about tax law.
Brokamp: We’ll have the 12 days of Tax — nah, forget it.
Southwick: That’s the show! Happy holidays, everyone! I want to thank Joseph for the kind words and early birthday wishes.
Southwick: Did you see the email he sent?
Brokamp: Yes, I did. It was very nice.
Southwick: It was very nice. Because yes, again, today is my birthday. More generally, I want to give one final thanks to everyone this year who sent in postcards, questions, answers, and even a few gifts. We got chocolate. We got some fun gifts this year from our listeners.
Brokamp: We did.
Southwick: You’re all really delightful people. We really appreciate the time you spend with us every week, and we look forward to sharing 2018 with you, as well. The show is edited Auld-Lang-Syne-edly — I think that’s what I did last year — by Rick Engdahl. For Robert Brokamp, I’m Alison Southwick. Stay Foolish, everybody!