Best Road Trips on a Budget

Best Road Trips on a Budget

Summer is here and it’s time to get out of town. However, you don’t want to set off on the open road without a plan. While there are an endless number of places to visit across the United States, here are a few suggestions for routes that are filled with natural parks, mountains and beaches, all of which are notably affordable, if not free. 

From New York City to Charleston, South Carolina 

First stop, Cape May, NJ, where you can hit Cape May Beach for some sun, then walk and bird watch for free at The Meadows. Next stop, Ocean City, MD, where there’s a 3-mile-long boardwalk with lots of arcades and fast-food joints (read: kid-friendly and affordable). 

After that, head toward the fabled Outer Banks of North Carolina. Lots of adorable towns and free public beaches pepper this area, but you can’t miss Cape Hatteras. Should you want a break from the sand, you can take in all the critters at the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, then climb to the top of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse – both free. Last stop, iconic Charleston, where the eye-popping architecture is complimentary, as is visiting The Battery, biking the Palmetto Trail and swooning over the miraculous Angel Oak Tree. 

From Chicago, IL, to Santa Monica, CA, via Route 66 

Starting in Grant Park, the official beginning of Route 66, you can walk and hike across lots of gorgeous tree-filled greens, bike along Lake Michigan, snap pics by Buckingham Fountain and check out sculptures and installations, all gratis. 

Next, head to Carthage, MO, to the 66 Drive-In, where you can pay to watch one movie and get the second one for free. After this, make your way to bucket list-worthy national parks, including Yosemite, Grand Canyon and Petrified Forest National Parks. While these parks do charge entrance fees, they’re minimal and the jaw-dropping nature is priceless. Last stop, beachy Santa Monica, where the waves, the pier, the mountains – everything is waiting to greet you. 

From Houston, TX, to Portland, OR 

First stop is Dallas, where you can see the JFK Memorial and the Calatrava Bridge, both without charge. Next stop, Amarillo, where a must-see is the Cadillac Ranch, rows of old Caddies nose-down in the ground. Free and a great photo op. 

Head to Denver, where Rocky Mountain National Park is just a heartbeat away. Stop by Red Rocks Park in the city for awesome natural formations (no charge), followed by the Denver Museum, which is free every first Saturday of the month. 

After this, head to Boise, ID, where you can hike in the Boise River Green Belt, hoof it around the Idaho State Capital Building, then get yourself back into nature at the Camel’s Back Park. Last stop, Portland, where a few free things of note include visiting Mill Ends Park, the world’s smallest park and the Vacuum Museum, (yes, you read that right), where you’ll see vintage vacuums. And then, of course, what you came here for, the nature stuff: Forest Park, where you can check out the Witch’s Castle, the Urban Waterfall at Ira Keller Forecourt Fountain Park and of course, Columbia River Gorge, for crazy gorgeous waterfalls and all kinds of outdoor fun. 

These three road trips are just a sliver of the many routes that offer freebies along the way. But remember: head for the great outdoors. More often than not, you’ll see some memorable sites that won’t cost an arm and a leg. 

Sources 

https://www.nytimes.com/2003/03/21/travel/driving-heading-south-taking-it-slow.html

https://blog.esurance.com/6-must-see-roadside-attractions-along-route-66/

https://www.trippy.com/drive/Houston-to-Portland

Small Business Survey: How Are Today’s SMBs Using Technology?

Small Business Survey: How Are Today’s SMBs Using Technology?

For small business striving to reduce the overhead associated with hiring workers, one method is to make efficient use of technology. According to a recent survey by CompTIA, 73 percent of midsize businesses and 56 percent of firms with fewer than 20 employees say technology is a primary factor in pursuing their business objectives. 

Budgeting

According to the 4Q 2018 survey, the average small/midsize business (SMB) invests anywhere from $10,000 to $50,000 a year on technology. About half (52 percent) of small business owners think they’re not spending enough on business technology. 

Upgrading

The largest share of small businesses (36 percent) say that in recent years they’ve focused their technology budget on infrastructure, such as laptops, desktops, servers, phones and storage. The second largest item in their tech budget was industry-specific software. Areas in which small businesses say they most need to improve technology include: 

  • Integrating different applications, platforms and devices
  • Cyber and data security
  • Managing and using data effectively
  • Modernizing equipment and software
  • Improving ROI on technology purchases
  • Hiring skilled employees with experience working with newer technologies¬†

Customer Service

One interesting find was that customer service is the biggest technology spending priority for SMBs going forward. Small business owners are looking to technology to help them renew existing customer accounts, identify new customer segments and markets, and innovate new products and services. 

New Trend

A new trend among SMBs is to use technology as a service or product that can be offered to customers. In fact, more than half (52 percent) of professional service firms such as accountants and lawyers introduced such a service last year. For example, an accounting firm might provide a cyber security audit or become a software reseller (buy at wholesale price and sell to customers for a profit). Among SMBs that have begun offering technology services, almost half say that revenue stream is growing faster than their regular business. 

Preferred Tech Vendors

Where do the majority of SMBs buy technology? Pretty much the same places as individual consumers, namely online retailers such as Amazon and brick-and-mortar stores like Best Buy. 

Priorities Compared to Two Years Ago

Another interesting finding from the study revealed that SMBs are not executing on their technology plans as well as they had hoped. The share of respondents who say they’ve achieved their vision and strategy dropped from 23 percent in 2016 to just 18 percent in 2018. The report asserts that, “Many firms are taking two steps forward and one back as they navigate these new learning curves.” 

Emerging Technologies

Despite their sluggish success, more than half (53 percent) of SMBs believe that emerging technologies, such as Internet of Things (IoT) devices, artificial intelligence (AI) and drones will drive opportunities for them in the future. Thirty percent of SMBs say they’ve already incorporated some form of emerging technology into their business to: 

  • Increase productivity: 63%
  • Meet customer demand: 47%
  • Enhance innovation: 42%
  • Boost sales: 42%
  • Differentiate themselves from the competition: 39%
  • Avoid obsolescence: 22%¬†

Still, some SMBs are hesitant to invest in emerging technologies. Ten percent think it will trigger a negative impact on their business while 23 percent believe it’s soon to project the potential impact, especially given the cost of entry, the technical training required, and the time it would take to identify high-quality and cost-efficient vendors or suppliers.

5 Ways to Get a Jump on Next Year’s Taxes

5 Ways to Get a Jump on Next Year’s Taxes

Yes, tax season is officially over. And you might be kicking back and relaxing, putting off thinking about next year’s taxes as long as you can. However, smart taxpayers know that the more you plan ahead, the better chance you have of reducing the amount you pay next time around. Here are a few easy ways to get a handle on your financial future – aka next year’s taxes. 

Understand Claiming Dependents. When you know the rules, it can be a game changer. Let’s start with the basics. You can take a $4,000 exemption for each dependent. You also can claim their related expenses such as child care and medical costs, along with tuition payments. However, if you share custody with someone, support an elderly parent or if a relative lives with you, things can be a bit complex. Sometimes, if you plan how much money you’re going to spend on the dependent and/or how many days the dependent lives with you, this can make a major difference in the tax benefits you reap. 

Try a Tax Calculator. This handy tool helps you anticipate the upcoming year. You can set up a variety of “What if?” scenarios. If you have an income that’s variable, like a seasonal business or freelancing, you might set up high, medium and low-income situations and see how these affect your tax bottom line. 

Consider Bunching Deductibles. Paying a major expense over a long period of time has its advantages, but you might get little or no tax benefit. With bunching, you pay more of one type of deductible expense in one year. For example, your child needs braces. The rule is that you can only deduct medical expenses after they exceed 10 percent of your adjusted gross income, or AGI; 7.5 percent if you and your spouse are over 65. If you pay the braces off over a couple of years, you may never reach your AGI ceiling. However, if pay for them in one year, you are more likely to get a tax break. 

Put Money Into Retirement All Year Long. While you can wait until right before you file next April to stow your money away into your IRA, let’s be honest: do you think, right now, you’ll have it ready to go? Rather than scrambling at the last minute, contribute to your IRA every month—or whenever you can—all year long. The amount will have longer to compound interest, plus you’ll be ahead when it comes to your retirement. 

Think Before You Sell the Big Stuff. Let’s say you want to sell your house, but you’ve lived in it for only 18 months. If you wait until the two-year mark, you might qualify to exclude the capital gains on the sale from your taxable income. Better still, if you meet certain exceptions, such as being transferred to another city for your job, you could still avoid paying taxes on the sale of your home. The same principle applies to shares of stock and other capital assets: consider keeping them longer than a year. Why? You’ll pay much lower capital gains tax rates. 

When you prepare all year for the April deadline, taxes can be a lot less stressful and you can save money. And when you think about it, who wouldn’t want that? 

Sources

https://blog.taxact.com/planni…

HSA Accounts and Their Incredible Long-term Benefits

HSA Accounts and Their Incredible Long-term Benefits

While most people have heard of 401(k) plans and IRAs, there are other, lesser-known long-term savings vehicles. One example is that of Health Savings Accounts (HSAs). HSAs are tax-advantaged savings accounts for those with high-deductible health plans (HDHPs). The idea is that since those with HDHPs generally have lower premiums but higher out-of-pocket expenses, they need a way to save for such expenses. 

Not all eligible taxpayers take full advantage of HSAs. The Employee Benefit Research Institute estimated a few years ago that out of the approximately 17 million people eligible, only about 13.8 million opened HSA accounts, leaving almost 20 percent without one. The survey also revealed that very few people maximize their contributions – and nearly everyone takes current distributions, leaving balances far lower than they could be otherwise. 

Why Does This Matter?

The HSA's tax advantages make it a great way to save for retirement and in some ways it is even better than using a retirement account. For example, HSA owners can make tax-deductible contributions either via payroll deductions or on their own; the account grows tax-free on interest, dividends and capital gains; and withdrawals for qualified medical expenses are tax-free. In contrast to a 401(k) or IRA, HSAs do not require withdrawals at a certain age, allowing the account to remain untouched and growing tax-free for the rest of one’s life. Now let’s look at some considerations for fully taking advantage of an HSA. 

Maximize Contributions Before It’s Too Late

HSA contributions are only tax-deductible before a certain age; once someone qualifies for Medicare, this tax advantage ends. Those eligible for Medicare can technically no longer have an HDHP and therefore are not allowed to make deductible contributions to an HSA. Upon reaching 55, catch-up contributions of an additional $1,000 per year are allowed for both the taxpayer and their spouse, if married. 

Look at HSAs as an Investment Tool

While HSAs weren’t intended to be investment accounts, treating it like one is the best way to benefit from the tax advantages. HAS owners should get in the mindset of treating contributions as “untouchable,” and pay their medical expenses with money from outside the account. 

Aside from maximizing contributions and taking out as little as possible, it’s important to invest HSA funds wisely. HAS owners should consider an investment strategy similar to what they use for other retirement assets, within the context of their entire portfolio. 

Lastly, remember that while an employer might make it easy to open an HSA account with a certain administrator or even set employees up with a default provider, the HAS owner ultimately has say over where to keep their money. An HSA is more like an IRA than a 401(k)s in this respect, so look around for a plan that offers high-quality, low-cost investment options. 

Maximize HSA Assets in Retirement

By waiting until retirement to use HSA funds, taxpayers enable those assets to grow tax free with the potential to use the funds tax free as well. They will be able to use the funds tax free only for qualified medical expenses, but, luckily, the definition of medical expenses is expansive. For example, in addition to the typical items, tax-free HSA withdrawals can be used to pay for  portions of the premiums for certain long-term care insurance policies, in-home nursing care, retirement community fees that include certain types of care, and nursing home fees. 

Another item worth noting is that since there are no required minimum distributions, HSA owners never need to worry about being forced to withdraw the money. 

Conclusion

HSAs are largely overlooked as investment tools even though their unique tax advantages make them an excellent choice. Obviously, HSA owners should not hoard funds at the expense of their health care, but if they have the means to fund their HSA and pay medical expenses before retirement with other money, they can reap the benefits in years to come. Lastly, keep in mind that these strategies are all based on current federal tax law. While most states follow federal tax law regarding HSAs, not all do.