Should I Enroll in My Company’s 401(k) Plan?

Duh

YES.

(Note to readers: I considered writing an entire article on the nuances of why young professionals do and don’t take advantage of company 401(k) retirement plans and why you should contribute to one. I read a lot of whiny articles and blog posts about confusing paperwork and not having “extra” money to put toward retirement.  Lame excuses aside, if you are not contributing to your company’s 401(k) plan (at least up to the point where they will match your contribution) you’re an idiot.

Here’s why.

  • You probably do not want to work your whole life (at least not in a 9-5 kind of way).
  • Any money you put in a 401(k) today is going to have plenty of time to grow, meaning you will have WAY MORE MONEY in the future.
  • Many companies will match a percentage of your contribution  (They are giving you FREE MONEY)
  • You can usually  make your contributions automatic by taking them directly out of your paycheck (I promise you won’t even notice the money is gone until you’re sitting on top of big retirement bucks and thanking your younger self for not being a moron).

Contributing to a 401(k) won’t make you a guaranteed millionaire, but if for the cost of a couple bottles of alcohol a month, you can ensure you’re jet setting around the world while your peers sit in a smelly retirement home, why not do it?)

P.S. Want to learn more about your company’s 401(k) plan? Curious what their matching policy is? ASK.

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Filed under 1, Career, Financial Mistakes, Investing, Saving, Stop Being A Financial Idiot

Want That Credit Card Fee Erased? Ask For It!

Paying credit card fees is a lot like......

Paying credit card fees is a lot like......

I read a lot of finance blogs and books. While there is plenty of advice out there I don’t believe, the most common piece of advice I just can’t swallow is the idea that if you get any sort of late fee/overdraft fee, etc.. on your credit card, you can have it erased  by simply calling them and asking nicely for it to be removed. I bet I could also ask nicely for Brad Pitt to marry me, or the queen of England to give me 1 million bucks, or…. well, you get the picture.

My Rookie Mistake

Fast forward to this spring, when I overdrafted my credit card $21 and was hit with a $39 fee.

  • WARNING: You should NEVER, EVER, EVER come anywhere near doing this! This not only lowers your credit score – which is based partly on how much of your available credit you use  – but is a REALLY, REALLY stupid idea. I could give you a list of lame excuses as to why I did this but they are just that, LAME. Learn from my mistakes! OK, moving on…

Making the Call

It just so happens that at the time I was in the midst of Ramit Sethi’s new book,    I Will Teach You To Be Rich, which includes not only advice on what fees you should ask to be waived, but also simulated phone conversations demonstrating what you should say.

Some advice when making the call:

  • Be firm. (“I would like this fee removed” is more powerful than “Can you remove this fee?”)
  • Be nice. You can be firm without being a jerk. Just be persistent.
  • Remind them what a good customer you are (Ramit suggests the phrase, “I’ve been a customer here for 3 years and I’d hate to let one fee drive me away from your service”)
  • If all else fails, ask if there’s a manager or someone else you can talk to
  • Lastly, keep a record of the date you called, who you spoke with, and what was said/decided upon. Ask for the representative’s identification number and write it down.

With all of the above in mind, I sat down and called Capital One…. and shockingly it went largely  like all these financial advice folks had been saying it would.

  • I was firm but nice, agreed with them as they chastised me for making a mistake but stuck with my guns that I would like the fee removed nonetheless.
  • I asked for a manager when the request was at first denied.
  • The manager said he would “Look into it and call me back.”
  • And… I got a check from Capital One refunding my $39 in the mail several weeks later! Not a bad use of 3 minutes of my time.

Taking it to the Next Step

Feeling cocky from my $39 success, I did some research into other things you can get  simply by calling and asking for them.

Other things to request from credit card companies:

  • Annual fees waived
  • Late fees erased
  • Lower APR (i.e. interest rate)
  • Credit increase
  • FYI: Just because you can flex your persuasive muscle to get these perks doesn’t mean you should use them. Even a very low APR doesn’t justify carrying a credit card balance, and erasing late fees doesn’t meaning that making late payments has no consequences.

Moral of the Story

Credit card companies stand to make big money off of you and will bend over backwards to keep you as a customer. Use this to your advantage.

P.S. Caveat to the Moral of the Story: Banks do not operate the same way.

Banks don’t make nearly enough money off the average Joe to justify erasing fees. If you get an overdraft fee at a bank  and ask to have it removed they may actually laugh in your face (unless it was a computer error in which case they’ll do it). Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

What are your experiences with this? Have you ever called to have a fee removed? How’d it go? Leave a comment or email me at beermoney.mail@gmail.com and let me know.

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Filed under Credit, Stop Being A Financial Idiot, The Psychology of Money

How (and why) to Find a Great Financial Advisor

I know what you’re thinking, “I’m 25. I don’t need a financial advisor. I need a hot new boy/girlfriend and maybe a new car.”  While all of the above sound great, I’m going to argue in favor of the financial advisor. Here’s a quick rundown on why you might want one, what a financial advisor can do for you, and how to choose a good one.

financialadvisormonkey

Why Should I Have a Financial Advisor?

  • Because millionaires have one.  For his bestselling book, The Millionaire Next Door, Thomas J. Stanley researched the habits of America’s millionaires to draw out things they did and did not have in common with the rest of us. One of the main differences he found? Most millionaires pay top dollar for good financial advice. (Other differences he found? Millionaires are not caught up in conspicuous consumption, usually don’t drive new cars, and donate a larger percent of their income to charity than the average Joe, but that’s for another post…).
  • Because you don’t have the time (or desire) to learn everything there is to know about personal finance. As much fun as checking out BeyondBeerMoney can be, I’m guessing most of you would prefer spending time at the local town dump to reading the latest tax laws. A personal finance advisor spends all of his or her time learning money strategies. Could you learn the latest in money strategies given enough hours of research? Yes, but by letting someone else do the work you’ll have more time to pursue your passions.
  • Because, if nothing else, having a financial advisor will force you to spend a minimum amount of time thinking about your finances. When you go into your 1st meeting with a personal finance advisor he or she will know how much money you have in the bank, what sorts of investments you have, and what your financial goals are. Even if you’ve never thought about any of the above in your life, my guess is that you’d rather sit down and think them through beforehand than go to a meeting (that you’re paying for!) unprepared and feeling like an idiot. “Uh….bank account. Yeah, I got one of those.” No.

What Will My Financial Advisor Do for Me?

  • Help you see the big picture. Financial advisors are especially useful for recent college graduates who often have no idea what a “good” financial plan looks like. A good financial advisor will spend time looking over your current financial status (including assets, debts, insurance, taxes, and investments) and will help you see what you can do to manage risk and strengthen your current finances.
  • Help you set financial goals. You’ll work with your financial advisor to figure out what your financial goals are (being a millionaire, buying a house, putting kids through college) and how you can work to achieve them.
  • Keep you up to date on the latest finance knowledge. While you’re off saving the world, a good financial advisor will be researching and keeping you up to date on changes in tax laws, new investment strategies, and other ways for you to save and earn more money.

How to Find & Choose an Advisor

  • The best way to find a financial advisor is through a personal referral. While I respect that you can find pretty much anything online, a financial advisor is not one of those things. There are a lot of professional-looking websites advertising financial advisors that are total scams. Ask parents, coworkers and friends (and accountant and attorney if you have them) for their recommendations. The financial guru David Bach recommends you start by asking the wealthiest people you know where they get their financial advice and getting at least 3 different recommendations (i.e. don’t hire the 1st person that’s recommended to you. Ask around). Finding a financial advisor through a referral will also ensure that you get great service. Professionals don’t want to disappoint clients from a strong referral network and risk missing out on future referrals.
  • Treat the 1st meeting like an interview, and you’re the interviewer. Click here for the top 10 questions to ask your advisor.
  • Do your homework. Check out the National Association of Securities Dealers website to find information on your potential advisor’s track record and any disciplinary action taken against him or her.

What Not To Do With A Financial Advisor

  • Accept his or her word as always right. Always do some of your own research and ask questions (better to feel stupid than be broke). If your advisor suggests a new investment, sleep on it and ask friends or colleagues for advice. While a financial advisor can push you in the right direction, the final outcome is in your hands. No one cares more about your money than you do.
  • Stay with someone that isn’t giving you the service or returns that you want. There are plenty of financial advisors out there. If you don’t like what you got, find a new one!

Final Thoughts
Not everyone wants or needs a financial advisor. Similarly, not everyone with an advisor has great finances. That said, for a recent college graduate with little idea how they’re doing financially and what they can do to reach their goals (or, more importantly, what their financial goals might be), doing your research and finding a good financial advisor early can save you lots of money and headaches later on.

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Filed under Financial Mistakes, Financial Resources, Investing

How to Supercharge Your Savings

superchargeyoursaving

Much of the personal finance advice out there can be summed up in 3 words: Save more money. While the road to riches  isn’t really that simple, saving money is a good place to start. That said, saving money involves a lot more decisions than you would think. Just for you, I’m going to tackle the 3 biggest saving questions:

  • How much should I save?
  • What should I save for?
  • Where should I put my savings?

1. How much should I save?

  • The general rule of thumb is that you should save at least 10% of your income (think of it as tithing to yourself).  (FYI: If you ask 10 different financial gurus what percent of your income should go into savings, you’ll get 10 different answers. When you really get down to it, the percent of your income that you should save obviously depends on you – your income, your debt, your expenses, etc…)
  • Saving 10% of your income may be hard: For people that are severely in debt or have a serious love of shopping, this number may feel huge, but I’d recommend saving something even if you can’t commit to 10% of your income.  Even David Bach, the author of Automatic Millionaire and super promoter of saving (his plan, which he calls “paying yourself 1st,” encourages you to put money into savings before paying bills or even paying off debt) acknowledges that saving even 1% of your income is better than saving none at all.
  • For saving inspiration: check out the book A Million Bucks by 30. The author, Alan Corey, lived in the Spanish Harlem and ate Ramen noodles every day for several years in order to save more than 50% of his meager income. Lots of Ramen and several lucky real estate deals later, he was able to add himself to the list of American millionaires before his 30th birthday. While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this strategy (can you say “high blood pressure”?), if he can do that, you can put away 10% of your income to pay for your future.

2. What should I save for?

  • Retirement:  Saving for retirement is easily the most common savings goal. Most companies offer retirement savings in the form of an IRA, or individual retirement account. Saving for retirement can be especially beneficial if your company has a program that matches contributions you make to your IRA. Most companies do this up to a certain limit (often around $1000). If you are not putting in enough money to take full advantage of your employer’s IRA matching plan, you might as well be throwing your money out the window. (Email me and let me know which window).
  • and Beyond: After retirement (a no-brainer), savings goals can get a little confusing.  For some people, dividing your savings into various pieces can be motivating (i.e. having a different bank account in which to put savings toward your new motorcycle versus savings for unexpected emergencies). Nonetheless, I think finance gurus spend their spare time brainstorming outrageous new “must have” savings funds for the average American (having a vacation fund is one thing but having a separate savings account for unexpected pet expenses? For each pet?  Come on.) For me, it all just seems more of a hassle than it is worthwhile.  (For a good example of mini – savings funds gone wild, check out iwillteachyoutoberich.com. While I normally love Ravit’s blog, he’s gotten carried away here.) My advice: Open a savings account and write a list of clear definitions about what it can be used for (Unexpected car maintenance? Yes. Unexpected bar tab? No.).

3. Where should I put my savings?
To keep it super simple, here are 3 basic options.

  • Open a savings account in a traditional bank: Offers easy access to your money and a (gasp) real person to talk to if you have any problems. Check out http://www.bankrate.com to compare the interest rates of banks in your area.
  • Open a high yield online savings account: Upside is that interest rates are usually slightly higher than traditional banks. Downside is that you’re likely to spend a lot of time listening to awful elevator music if you ever need help (customer service hotlines suck) and your money isn’t an instantly accessible as it is in a traditional bank. I use E*Trade because they have a $1 minimum and a simple user interface.  No matter what, always ensure that the online institution is FDIC insured (i.e. legitimate).
  • Buy a CD (Certificate of Deposit): I would explain CDs, but I think JD Roth, the author of Get Rich Slowly, has already written the best description of CDs known to man, so I’m just going to send you check it out.

Ok. That’s it. Go save like a champ.

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Filed under Financial Resources, Saving

How (Not) to Spend Your Way to Happiness

spend2happiness

As the recession continues and more and more people look for ways to cut back, being aware of (and cutting out) excess lifestyle inflation can be the easiest way to cut back expenses (sometimes dramatically) while getting more pleasure out of your purchases.

What is Lifestyle Inflation?

“Lifestyle inflation…is when you have more money and increase your spending to match that. It is why even with a raise, sometimes, you just don’t feel like you’re making any more progress or getting any closer to being ahead.”  Source: Paidtwice.com

  • I’d define lifestyle inflation as a change in the baseline of your financial life. Lifestyle inflation is the difference between a college kid whose idea of a “fancy” meal is one that doesn’t include pizza and a 30-year-old who considers a $55 restaurant tab with a friend an “average” dinner.
  • Lifestyle inflation occurs when you are spending more money but are not necessarily experiencing an equivalent increase in happiness.  It has implications way beyond supporting the now clichéd motto, “money can’t buy happiness.”

The US  & Life Style Inflation
Years of technological advances and relative prosperity have made our lives more comfortable and convenient than the lives of people in our parents’ or grandparents’ generations. That said, studies on happiness overwhelmingly report that we are equally as happy  (if not less so ) as those who preceded us.
It is puzzling because, as noted by David Myers in his book The Pursuit of Happiness, our new wealth represents not just flashier toys but safer cars, advances in life-saving medical technology, and an endless number of new ways to communicate with the people we love.  That said, US citizens as a whole are not any happier than they used to be.

Recent Grads  Have the MOST Problems with Lifestyle Inflation
Why?

  • Because when you graduate from college you usually find yourself suddenly getting this thing in the mail every month called a paycheck.  Looking at the zeroes in the check you can’t help but hear a little voice somewhere inside saying, “Goodbye eating at Burger King! Goodbye asking mom and dad for money! Hello plasma flatscreen TV and leather La-Z-Boy couches!!!”
  • Because well-intentioned parents make it worse. Wanting to reward their children for hard work throughout college and ease the transition into “real life,” they subsidize rent, buy furniture for new apartments, and send periodic checks in the mail to make sure little Johnny is “still able to have some fun.” While it’s nice of them, it creates a lifestyle that’s impossible for a recent grad in an entry-level job to sustain  (and, I’d argue, takes away the pride of earning and saving and proudly buying those things with your own money, but then again, even Beyond Beer Money can be old fashioned sometimes).

Why Lifestyle Inflation Sucks.
Actually, not all lifestyle inflation sucks. Some lifestyle inflation is good (you can only spend so much of your life subsisting on beer and pizza). The problem with too much lifestyle inflation is that “luxuries” become less luxurious and exciting over time.

  • Surveys of the rich individuals reveal that they view as “necessities” the things most people view as relative “luxuries” (such as home cleaning services or a 2nd or 3rd car). Rather than getting more pleasure out of these conveniences, they simply take them for granted – ending up no happier than those without them. “Luxuries” need to be larger and larger to feel luxurious.
  • I’d argue that many midlife crises are the result of unchecked lifestyle inflation (“I have a BMW and a large house and all the latest gadgets. Why am I not happy?”).

What You Can Do About It.

  • Be Aware.

Tracking your income and expenditures (as advocated in my earlier post) is 1 way to catch lifestyle inflation. My lifestyle inflation usually appears in my “eating out” category. If I spend $80/month for several months and then see I am suddenly spending $160-200/month on eating out and am not twice as happy, it’s time to scale back.

  • Who Are You Comparing Yourself To?

Lifestyle inflation often occurs not because you’re earning more money but because the people around you are spending more. Again, just be aware of it. Who are you trying to impress? (friends, co-workers, parents, boy/girlfriend) What do you get out of impressing them? (pride). Who is trying to impress you? (ironically enough, often the same people you’re trying to impress). If your friend group goes out for fancy dinners every Friday night, it’s likely that the real value is in spending time together, not in $20 appetizers. Suggest going out just for drinks instead, or throwing a dinner party at someone’s house (which is more intimate anyway).

  • Try Temporarily Downsizing

Most people have a very negative initial reaction to this (“I earn my money so I should get to enjoy it.”). These people aren’t getting it. The goal of temporarily downsizing isn’t to deprive yourself, it’s to bring the excitement back to the things you spend money on.

For me, not eating out for a week or two lets me get more pleasure out of taking friends out later on down the line. Similarly, I’ve never had cable in my home because it’s not high on my priority list. Staying in hotels is thus extra luxurious for me as I catch up on all the trash TV I love but am not willing to pay for on a monthly basis.

  • Calculate ”Bang for the Buck”

This is my favorite way of assessing purchases and stopping impulse buys. It’s easier than temporarily downsizing, but still a good way to remind myself that money cannot be spent twice.  Bang for the buck is simply being aware of how much pleasure you get out of the money you spend on various items. It is different for every person.

I’m not a big fan of buying $8 drinks at bars. That $8 gives me a lot more bang for the buck when put toward concert tickets or travel abroad.   Other low bang for the buck items I tend to forego: expensive jewelry  (I worry about/lose it), books (I’d rather get them from the library and not have to store/dust them), flying 1st class, eating at expensive restaurants, staying in fancy hotels, MochaFrappa whatevers at coffee shops.
High bang for the buck items I’m willing to pay top dollar for: travel (my biggest expense category by far), North Face gear (I spent $100 on my backpack but have been using it for 8 years, ditto on my fleece), comfortable shoes (my knees are bad, so Pumas are worth every penny for me).

Your “bang for the buck” items will be different than mine. No matter what they are, by being aware of them you can cut spending in areas you get less pleasure from and funnel that money toward things you’ll really enjoy.

What are YOUR high and low bang for the buck items?

How do you deal with lifestyle inflation?  Feel free to email me or comment below.

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Filed under Saving

The 3 Stupidest Ways to “Save” Money

i'm with stupid

By now you’ve probably figured out that I’m completely in favor of 20somethings saving more money,  (Compound interest anyone? Small amounts saved today -i.e.  fewer meal at restaurants- turn into big amounts later on in life -i.e. more tropical vacations ).  That said, there are good and bad ways of doing so. Here is my tribute to the 3 most common ways in which smart people do stupid  things with the belief they are “saving” money……..

3.  Ignoring Small Problems Until They’re Big Problems

  • Health problems: While many health problems (an achy muscle, a weird pain)  go away for free  with some rest and relaxation, some pains (a painful tooth or an ignored cold that turns into a sinus infection) lead to larger expenditures down the line. You have to be the judge – if the potential cost (i.e. getting a tooth pulled) is  much larger than the cost of catching it now (i.e. getting a check up), suck it up and fix it now.
  • Financial problems: The same goes for financial problems.  Cost of paying a financial consultant now to sit down with you and map out your financial future? Fairly small. Cost of 19% interest on $20,000 in credit card debt (not to mention the wear and tear of the anxiety that debt creates)? Huge. Same goes for taxes. As prices for  tax prep services get more competitive, there is little reason not to take advantage of software of even a live professional to help you out if you’re tax clueless (for more information, check out my previous post “Beating the Tax Man in 4 Steps”). Doing your taxes right the 1st time is much, much cheaper than an audit.

2.  Buying Things Because They’re Cheap or  “On Sale”

  • Extras of things you already own: You see your favorite (fill in item here – shirt, widget, pair of pants, electronic doohickey) on sale and you think “Well, I use the one I have all the time, couldn’t hurt to have another one. And it’s 50% off! What if mine breaks? What if the neighbor’s pet snake eats it?” and the item goes home with you.  The problem is that the second of anything is rarely as exciting as the first, and by the time you break/lose/throw out an item there’s probably a newer, shinier version of it on the market you want instead. Resist buying things “just in case” and you’ll save yourself both time and money (remember that you’re paying not only the sticker price but also  interest if you bought it on a credit card,  the cost of a larger home or storage space to store extra items, and the lost opportunity cost of time spent cleaning your extra widgets that could be used traveling, hanging out with friends, or working).
  • Food: Yes, Burger King Whoppers and Ramen noodles are cheap now, but they lower your productivity (ever tried to write a stellar paper after eating a package of  Ho-Hos? Can anyone say “sugar crash”?) and can lead to more expensive health problems down the line (obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure to name a few). Full disclosure:  I am  the #1 culprit of this mistake (“but Beyond Beer Money, I’m skinny, I’m young, I exercise, I eat Ho-Hos and still write “A” papers”…) but even being the cookie monster that I am I’ve noticed a big difference after making simple changes.  I’m not recommending you start buying everything from Whole Foods Market ($7 for strawberries? No thanks.) but shopping at cheap, healthy places like Trader Jo’s (my personal favorite) and making small substitutes (spinach leaves > iceberg lettuce, juice > soda, lean meats/fish like chicken and salmon > hamburgers) can make a huge difference. It’s hard to change the world while you’re pumped full of processed sugar.

And the #1 Way People Waste Money Believing They are “Saving” It?

Drumroll please…….


1. Not Having Enough Health and/or Auto Insurance!

  • Yes, paying lower premiums now feels great, and no, no one out there really needs all of the kinds of coverage insurance companies will try to sell you, but paying for a reasonable level of insurance now can help you  avoid bankruptcy later. It can be confusing to figure out how much to get, but there are tons of good guides out there.
  • For car insurance, check out Smart Money’s Guide to Auto Insurance which offers a full explanation in real English.
  • For info on lower coverage health insurance plans for young people (such as temporary insurance and high deductible plans) I recommend starting here. Most companies offer some sort of health insurance option so go to HR and ask questions. You’d be surprised how much people miss out on great deals and benefits from the company they work for solely because they never asked.

If some readers feel they may notice a trend here, you’re right.  Your health is your greatest asset. It allows you to work and to enjoy the fruits of your labor. When it’s in trouble, it can easily drain your assets dry. Protect it.

Other stupid money “savers” I’ve left out that you or “your friends” (i.e. you) commit?

Comment or email me at mail.beermoney@gmail.com

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Filed under Financial Mistakes, Saving, Stop Being A Financial Idiot, The Psychology of Money

Beating the Tax Man in 4 Steps

“Yesterday the IRS announced that obese Americans are entitled to certain tax breaks. Apparently, under the new rules, you’re allowed to claim two or more chins as dependents.” —Conan O’Brien

taxman

Taxes suck. Nonetheless, if you know the basics and make smart decisions, you can avoid handing over your hard earned dough to the Tax Man.  Here are 4 steps to get you started.

1. Prepare ‘em

  • Figure our which form to file. 1040EZ? 1040A? 1040XYZ? OK, I made that last one up, but the best starting point in doing your taxes is to figure out which form you should file to save the most money. Which form you file depends on a range of factors (single or married, income, etc…). For a handy dandy chart to help you decide, click here.
  • Decide who’s going to fill them out. For the truly tax clueless, tax preparers such as H&R Block and Jackson Hewitt can fill out simple returns and answer your questions for about $100. (A word of caution: NEVER use their service that gives you your rebate immediately. What they are really giving you is not your rebate but a loan based on your expected rebate at exorbitant interest rates.) For the DIY-ers out there, tax prep software has come a long way in the last few years. Turbo Tax and Tax Act dominate the market right now with increasingly easy to use interfaces and how to videos. Prices are low, they maintain your info from federal taxes to help you file state taxes, and you can avoid ever touching a piece of paper by filing them online.

2. Maximize Deductions & Credits. Deductions and credits reduce how much you owe in taxes. Keep in mind that if you don’t owe many taxes to begin with these won’t  help you.  Here are a few that are especially relevant to people in their 20s.

  • In school? Hope Scholarship Credit: A tax credit for up to 100% of your first $1,000 in tuition and fees and up to 50% for the second $1,000. You’ll get $1500 max. Can only be used in 1st 2 years of college.
  • In college more than 2 years? Lifetime Learning Credit: A tax credit of  20% of your tuition, room, board and expenses up to $10,000.  Max is $2,000.
  • Moved over 50 miles last year? You can deduct the cost of moving your body and your things to your new spot (Driving? You can deduct gas mileage, parking, and tolls). Check with your tax preparer of tax prep software to get current specs on what you can deduct and how much.

3. File ‘em

For information on where to file…

  • Electronically – go here
  • The old fashioned way (paper) – go here

Note: MSN Money reminds you, “If you’re going to college in one state and spending summers at home in another, you could have two states vying for your tax dollars.”

4. Celebrate! Bored w/ playing beer pong every Friday night? Check out IRS’s attempt at providing resources that are relevant to today’s youth. The 75  (No, seriously. 75.) interactive  activities and games include Tax Word Scramble, and Tax Your Memory. Friday nights will never be the same.

Tax Fun

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