Category: Life hacks

The Top 7 Tax Credits to Maximize Your Return in 2017

Recently, Mother Nature temped us with spring temperatures here in the Heartland.  After a few days of open windows, patio drinks and outside workouts, winter weather returned, but that dose of Vitamin D served as a sunny reminder that the seasons are soon to change – and the end of Tax Season is near.

Even with a few extra days to file, this year’s deadline of April 18 is just a page on the calendar away, so if you haven’t already finished your return it’s time to get started!  As with most areas of personal finance (and life in general), being organized and allocating enough lead time to assembling and preparing your return will reward you in the end.

When you’re pulling together all of the important paperwork to document and include in your return, there are two considerations to keep in mind that will help you maximize your tax return and ensure you’re paying only what you owe or getting the biggest refund back:  deductions and credits.

A deduction is a qualifying expense which reduces your taxable income by the same percentage as your tax rate.  This means, if you fall into the 25% tax bracket ($37,651-$91,150 for a single person or $75,301-$151,900 for married couples filing jointly) a $1,000 deduction saves you $250.  We detailed common deductions earlier this year in the post The Top 7 Tax Deductions to Maximize Your Return in 2017.

A credit lowers your tax bill dollar for dollar, so a $1,000 credit reduces your tax bill by $1,000 no matter your tax bracket.  There are two types of credits, refundable and nonrefundable.  Nonrefundable credits allow you to reduce your tax liability to zero, but any overage will not result in a tax refund.  Any surplus from refundable credits can come back to you as a refund.

Child Tax Credits – This is a nonrefundable credit of up to $1,000 for each qualifying child. Qualifying children must be related to you, under 17 years old, eligible for you to claim as a dependent, and live with you more than six months out of the year. You must also provide at least half of the financial support for the child. 

Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) – Offers savings to lower income workers and families. The Internal Revenue Service website provides resources for determining your eligibility for this refundable credit.

Adoption Credit – If you adopted a child domestically, internationally or from foster care, you may be able to take a nonrefundable credit of up to $13,460 for qualified expenses incurred, including adoption fees, court costs, attorney fees, and travel expenses. If you adopted a special needs child, you may be able to take the credit even if you didn’t incur any adoption expenses.  Step-child adoptions are excluded from this benefit.

Energy Savings Credit – You may qualify for a credit if you installed a solar, wind or geothermal mechanism for energy collection and use in your home, or purchased a fuel cell or electric vehicle.

Retirement Savings Contributions Credit (Saver’s Credit) – This credit rewards lower income tax payers for making eligible contributions to their traditional or ROTH IRA or employer-sponsored retirement plan. The amount of the non-refundable credit is 50, 20 or 10 percent of retirement contributions up to $2,000 (or $4,000 if married filing jointly), based on adjusted gross income.

Child and Dependent Care Credit – If you have a child under the age of 13 or are responsible for a physically or mentally disabled adult who required and received day care by a non-related provider while you and your spouse worked or looked for work, you may qualify for this credit.

The amount of your credit is based on how much you spent (less any employer provided child or dependent care benefits, including pre-tax flexible spending account dollars), as well as your income.  The higher your income the lower the percentage of costs you can claim, though even those in the top tax bracket can claim 20% of their costs.  Maximum credit is $3,000 for one child or dependent adult enrolled in day care, or $6,000 for two or more.

American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC) and the Lifetime Learning Credit (LLC) – AOTC is a credit for tuition paid by you or through borrowed funds, such as student loans, for the first four years of college.  You can get a maximum annual credit of $2,500 per eligible student in your family. If the credit brings the amount of tax you owe to zero, you can receive 40 percent of any remaining amount of the credit (up to $1,000) as a refund.  To qualify for the AOTC, the student must be pursuing a college degree, be enrolled at least half time for at least one academic period during the calendar year, not have claimed the AOTC or the former Hope Credit for more than four years, and not have a felony drug conviction.

Non-degree seeking students may claim the LLC for courses taken at an accredited institution to develop or improve their job skills.  There is no limit on the number of years you can claim the non-refundable LLC, which is worth up to $2,000 annually.  Between the AOTC and the LLC, the LLC has a much lower income maximum.  You cannot claim the AOTC and the LLC in the same year.  You cannot claim either the AOTC or the LLC if your education expenses were reimbursed by an employer or funded through grants or scholarships.

The deadline for filing your 2016 return is April 18, so you have three extra days this year to make sure you’ve accounted for every single credit and deduction that will benefit you.   

And if you’re filing online, don’t forget to use a portal!  Both Ebates and MrRebates.com offer cash back from H&R Block and TurboTax online or you can earn 1,000 miles by going through Southwest’s Rapid Rewards shopping portal.

Disclaimer:  Many of the credits mentioned above have income minimums or maximums, as well as other qualifying criteria not expressly mentioned.   I am not a tax or accounting expert, so I encourage you to seek the advice of a professional to confirm your individual eligibility for these and other credits and deductions.

How Our Home Is Helping Us Achieve Financial Success

One of the biggest factors in our ability to live below our means is the choices we’ve made when it comes to housing.  Here’s how living little has helped us pay off our student loans and other debt, save for retirement, build an emergency fund, and become self-employed, plus ways you can transform your home from a money pit into a financial asset.

When Ryan and I first met, he had just moved back to Kansas City from San Francisco.  Instead of renting an apartment in one of the new luxury complexes that scatter the suburbs, he leased a one-bedroom unit a mile from his work, built circa 1970.  While it might not have looked like much from the outside, this place was plush.  For a fraction of the price our trendy peers were paying, his apartment was outfitted with all of the appliances and fixtures you would need, plus it had a working fireplace.  We still talk about how much we miss that fireplace!  Saving big bucks on his rent meant that he could buy me this, without going into debt:

Once his lease ended, Ryan moved into the house I bought before we met.  After the stock market crashed in 2008 and the housing bubble burst in many parts of the U.S., the government offered significant credits for first time home-buyers.  I took advantage of the 2009 legislation that entitled new buyers a tax credit totaling 10% of the purchase price of the home or a maximum credit of $8,000.

I’d only been out of school and at my job for two years at that point, and while it was a stretch, I saw opportunity.  I was approved for a staggering $225,000 at 5.25% on a 30-year loan, which I remember people at the time telling me that rate was a steal!  After setting my spending cap well below the amount Wells Fargo told me I could afford, I started house-hunting, targeting a popular suburb in an excellent school district that had charm, character, and most importantly, great resale value.

At a little over 900 square feet of living space, my 1.5 story Cape Cod with three bedrooms and one bath, an unfinished basement and a single-car garage was more than enough space for just me.  In fact, before Ryan moved in, the upstairs bedroom was completely empty.  Even though he left his old futon and hand-me-down mattress in the dumpster at his old apartment complex, we were still a little apprehensive about merging our stuff and the prospect of sharing a single, tiny bathroom.

Turns out, sharing a bathroom was no. big. deal.  In reality, some of our best conversations happen in the morning, while one of us is in the shower and the other one at the vanity.  And while it may be small by today’s standards, when it was new, our post-war tract house built in 1951 likely housed a growing family with children, all of whom shared that single bathroom.

Going from paying for two homes to one, helped us free up money in our budget for other goals.  Since moving in together, we’ve had raises and job changes, refinanced into a 15 year mortgage at a much lower rate, rid ourselves of private mortgage insurance (PMI) and, after paying off our student loans in 2016, are now sending extra money to principal every month.

Living little also means lower utilities.  Even in an area where the climate has us constantly running either the furnace or central air, we pay less than $100 a month for natural gas and electricity, combined.  When you add up our utilities, insurance, mortgage and taxes, we’re spending about 15% of our take home pay on housing expenses.

Here are ways you can cut costs and save money on living expenses:

  • Don’t rent or buy more than you can afford. There’s nothing wrong with a big, stately new home or a loft with urban charm, if that’s your financial priority.  But you can’t have it all.  Build your budget around what matters most to you.  If that’s your home, you’ll need to find cuts in other areas to keep your budget balanced and healthy.
  • Find a roommate. Move back in with mom and dad.  Rent a room, either on Airbnb or by connecting with your local college or medical school to see if they have students in need of short term housing during their practicums, rotations or summer semesters.
  • Regularly look for ways to pay less. Compare renter’s or homeowner’s insurance rates regularly.  We switched and saved an extra $500 by changing companies and paying in full for the year.  If you have the Internet or cable, do the same thing.  Call and see if they’d be willing to lower your cost to keep you as a customer.  Trim your utility costs with a programmable thermostat, by dressing for the season instead of running the furnace or AC, insulating windows, outlets and attics, and by unplugging electronics while not in use.
  • Watch for hidden costs. Our homeowner’s association fees are a whopping $15 a year.  Sure, a community pool, fully-equipped gym, lawn and landscaping services, and other amenities may seem attractive, but you’re paying an inflated price for them.  Consider an apartment complex or a neighborhood without these up-charges.
  • Check on interest rates. Refinancing comes at a cost, both monetary and time, but it could be worth it.  When we refinanced, it not only lowered our interest rate, but the updated appraisal showed that the home had increased in value by nearly 15% in five years.  This increased value meant we were that much closer to having paid down the 20% required to get rid of PMI.
  • Consider location. While we live in a relatively low cost of living city, housing costs decrease the further you live from a major metropolitan area.  While I’m geographically tied to my job, I often think about the benefits of moving back to my hometown, where you can buy a house the same price as a new SUV.  With the rise of telecommuting, if you can find a job that pays big city wages, small town living can offer a financial edge over your downtown-dwelling or suburban HOA paying peers.

While timing has helped us, we’ve also been strategic in the choices we’ve made to rent, buy and now, stay in our current home.  Where you live is one of the biggest financial commitments you will make.  Avoid becoming house-rich and cash-poor by making smart moves.  Literally.

Which Meal Subscription Service is the Best?

This is the conclusion of a series offering reviews of the top meal delivery services, plus tips and tricks on how to get these subscriptions shipped straight to your kitchen for a fraction of the advertised price.  Posts include A Low Price for PlatedHow to Hack Hello Fresh, Home Chef Coupons and Cash Back, and Save Big on Blue Apron.  Here’s how these competitors compared:

Best value:  The pre-discounted advertised price for Blue Apron’s two person, three meal per week plan is $59.94.  Through Ebates I was able to redeem a $30 off coupon and a $7.50 cash back rebate, for an adjusted total cost of $22.44 or $3.74 per meal.

Honorable mentions:  The pre-discounted advertised price for Home Chef’s two person, three meal per week plan is $59.70.  But after redeeming a generous 20% cash back rebate from MrRebates.com, plus an automatic $30 credit for first time customers, my adjusted cost was $23.76 or $3.96 per meal.

The pre-discounted advertised price for Hello Fresh’s two person, three meal per week plan is $59.94.  I scored $25 off through MrRebates.com by using the coupon code FRESHNEW50HF, which is advertised as $50 off your first two orders but still worked for this single purchase.  After my coupon redemption and a $5.94 cash back rebate, my adjusted total cost was $29 or less than $4.84 per meal.

Worst value:  The pre-discounted advertised price for Plated’s two person, three meal per week plan was the highest at $72.  I was unable to find a cash back rebate through Ebates or MrRebates.com, or points and miles for purchasing through any other shopping portal. I used Google to find a $30 off coupon code, which is better than their advertised offer of your first night free, valued at $24. After coupon redemption, my total cost was $42 or $7 per meal.


Most family size and number of meal per week options:  Home Chef offers plans for two, four or six people.  Any of those family sizes can pick between two and six meals delivered per week.

Honorable mention: Plated offers two, three or four meal per week plans for families of two, three or four.

Least family size and number of meal per week options:   Blue Apron’s only two-person plan includes three meals per week.  For a family of four, you have the choice of receiving two or four meals per week.

For two people, Hello Fresh offers plans that include three, four or five meals per week. But, families of four only have the option of three meals per week.  And if you choose their vegetarian plan, regardless of whether you’re ordering for two or four people, you are limited to three meals per week.


Best menu options:  With Plated, each week you can pick between eleven different meals, seven unique to that week, as well as four “Encore Recipes,” top-rated customer picks available all month.

Home Chef offers ten different recipe choices per week, and you are able to select meals by dietary preference (low-calorie and low-carb) as well as choose to avoid foods that may contain common allergens or aren’t permissible for consumption by certain faiths (soy, nuts, gluten, dairy, mushrooms, red meat, pork and shellfish).

Honorable mention:  There are six Hello Fresh meal options from which to choose every week and you are given complete freedom when it comes to choosing your menu.

Worst menu options:   With Blue Apron, you have six options, but aren’t given complete freedom when it comes to choosing your menu.  Based on your initial selection some second and third choice options may be blocked, which I assume is to keep the customer from choosing the three meals with the costliest ingredients.


Most delivery dates available:  Hello Fresh delivers on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

Honorable mentions:  You can choose Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday (residential only) delivery options for Blue Apron.

Home Chef can arrive on Wednesday, Thursday or Friday.

Fewest delivery dates available:  Plated only delivers on Wednesday and Saturday.

When you looking strictly at the cost, Blue Apron was the clear winner.  But they didn’t offer the flexibility of Hello Fresh, Home Chef and Plated, when it came to menu selection, delivery dates or family size.  If  you’re thinking about committing beyond the introductory period, those benefits may be just as important.  Bon appétit!

All opinions are exclusively my own.  Prices and available discounts in these posts are current as of their publication date.  I personally paid for all meal delivery service shipments referenced, and all opinions are unbiased and completely my own.  I may receive a commission if you sign-up for these services, as well as Ebates or MrRebates.com using my embedded referral links.  (Please and thank you!)

Home Chef Coupons and Cash Back

This is part of a series offering reviews of the top meal delivery services, plus tips and tricks on how to get these subscriptions shipped straight to your kitchen for a fraction of the advertised price.   Other posts include A Low Price for PlatedHow to Hack Hello Fresh, and Save Big on Blue Apron.

Home Chef

Cost:  Regularly advertised price for the three meals per week plan for two people is $59.70.  But after redeeming a generous 20% cash back rebate from MrRebates.com, plus an automatic $30 credit for first time Home Chef customers, my adjusted cost was $23.76 or $3.96 per meal.

Delivery dates available:  Wednesday, Thursday or Friday

Meal choices:  Home Chef offers plans for two, four or six people.  Any family size can pick between two and six meals delivered per week.  They offer ten different recipe choices per week, and you are able to select meals by dietary preference (low-calorie and low-carb) as well as choose to avoid foods that may contain common allergens or aren’t permissible for consumption by certain faiths (soy, nuts, gluten, dairy, mushrooms, red meat, pork and shellfish).

Home Chef offered a range of options, from traditional to adventurous.  Selections the week I ordered included steak and potatoes, burger and fries, mushroom flatbread, quinoa and arugula salad, and parsley and pistachio fettuccine.  The three meals I opted for were “calorie conscious” choices (ranging from 402-538 calories per serving) but you never would have known, as they were all filling and far from lacking in flavor.

Packaging and ingredients:  My Home Chef box and its contents, insulated with a thick padded liner, were still cold when I arrived home from work.  While I couldn’t think of a reason to store and way to re-purpose it, this paper-based insulation was easy to recycle.  Produce, spices, starches and other ingredients were divided by meal and situated at the top of the box, with the proteins at the bottom.  Also included in the box were my three recipe cards, a booklet with information on food safety, cooking tips and kitchen tool basics, and a plastic binder were these and future recipes could be kept.

Home Chef box contents, insulation and recipe binder

Recipes and instructions:  Our menu for the week included blue cheese, smoked almond and chive-crusted pork chops with honey-roasted carrots, steelhead trout niçoise with warm potato and spinach salad, and mojito lime chicken with roasted cauliflower and blistered tomato-jalapeño relish.

The recipe cards include a suggested cook by date on them.  The fish was recommended to be cooked within three days, so the trout niçoise was the first meal I made.  I’ve always been wary of warm potatoes and string beans on a salad of leafy greens, but I gave it a go.  And while I don’t think it’ll become a diet mainstay, I did enjoy trying it.

Although the trout was among the best fish we had from any of the meal delivery services, the chicken was another story.  When I opened the package for the mojito lime chicken, one of the filets seemed a little off, both in color and texture.  As much as I hate waste, I maintain an “if in doubt, throw it out” philosophy when it comes to meat, so I discarded both and instead defrosted two chicken breasts that were in my freezer.

The pork chops were the last meal I made.  Like the trout, the pork chops were fresh, juicy and delicious.

Level of difficulty:  Two of the meals did start on the cook-top and then required transfer to the oven, which meant more dishes to do than usual, but otherwise, all three of the recipes were quick to prepare and easy to make.

Ease of cancellation:  I was able to cancel future orders online the same day my box arrived without issue.  Customer support and subscription information were included in the booklet that came inside the box, indicating that “You can make change to your weekly menus anytime before Friday at noon CST.  You are always able to skip weeks in advance, pause your account or cancel our service if necessary.”

Overall impression:  My biggest, and only, disappointment was the questionable meat.  I was very pleased with Home Chef’s introductory cost, the menu variety ranging from home-style to hipster, the option of up to six meals per week (!!!) and the transparency and ease of cancellation.

I’m also impressed with Home Chef’s cause marketing efforts, partnering most recently with Heifer International, an international economic development charity.  During the month of February, if customers select the one meal each week marked with the Heifer logo, Home Chef will make a donation to help Heifer International fight world hunger.

Stayed tuned for one last post in this series – a final analysis and comparison of the cost, quality and convenience of Plated, Hello Fresh, Blue Apron, and Home Chef.

A Low Price for Plated

This is part of a series offering reviews of the top meal delivery services, plus tips and tricks on how to get these subscriptions shipped straight to your kitchen for a fraction of the advertised price.  Other posts include How to Hack Hello Fresh, Save Big on Blue Apron, and Home Chef Coupons and Cash Back.

Plated

Cost:  Regular list price for the three meal per week plan for two people is $72.  I was unable to find a cash back rebate through Ebates or MrRebates.com, or points and miles for purchasing through any other shopping portal.  I used Google to find a $30 off coupon code, which is better than their currently advertised offer of your first night free, valued at $24.  After coupon redemption, my total cost was $42 or $7 per meal.

Delivery dates available:  Wednesday and Saturday.  Plated also required more lead time than the other meal delivery companies I reviewed.  The earliest weekday I could receive an order placed on Thursday, January 5 was Wednesday, January 18.

Meal choices:  Plated offers two, three or four meal per week plans for families of two, three or four.  They also offer a great deal of flexibility when it comes to choosing your menu.  Each week you can pick between eleven different meals, seven unique to that week, as well as four “Encore Recipes,” top-rated customer picks available all month.

Packaging and ingredients:  Produce, spices, starches and other ingredients were divided by meal and situated at the top of the box, with the proteins at the bottom.

In addition to several large ice packs to help keep the contents cold, Plated lines their boxes with strips of plastic covered polyurethane fiber insulation.  While this worked well for its intended purpose, I wasn’t a fan of the waste.  Other boxes have been lined with bags that could be reused for grocery trips during hot summer months or to transport warm pot-luck dishes during the holidays.  But I didn’t foresee a way to re-purpose these strips of plastic and polyurethane fiber, so while it pained me, into the trash they went.

On their website, Plated says you can recycle these liners at polyurethane facilities.  But the recycling facility locator they suggest, Earth911.com, didn’t find one near me.

Box contents and insulation

Recipes and instructions:  The choices I made for the week were Chicken Shawarma with Tomato, Cucumber and Tahini, Creamy Garlic Spaghetti Squash with Kale and Parmesan, and Garlic Butter Salmon with Spinach Rice Pilaf and Roasted Lemon.

The week before my box arrived, I received an email from customer service telling me one of the recipes was missing a step and providing several options to view the amended instructions.  A few days later, I received a second communication from customer service letting me know that on the day my box was to arrive I would receive an email with tracking information.  That email also provided other key information, including a reminder that I wouldn’t need to rush home from work because the contents of my box was guaranteed fresh until midnight the day of delivery and a recommendation to cook any seafood dishes first.

Level of difficulty:  My three meals were easy to prepare and I really appreciated that they were also reasonably low calorie at 590-660 calories per serving.

They were all delicious, but I think my favorite was the Chicken Shawarma.  The naan was fluffy and filling, the cucumber and tomato salad fresh, and I could have licked the tahini from its bowel .  Were it not so tasty, we likely could have shared one portion and saved the second for sacked lunches.

Chicken Shawarma ingredients
Presentation could use some work, but delicious nonetheless!
Garlic Butter Salmon with Spinach Rise Pilaf and Roasted Lemon before
Garlic Butter Salmon with Spinach Rise Pilaf and Roasted Lemon after (don’t mind the steam!)

Ease of cancelation:  I cancelled my subscription the day my box was received.

In the frequently asked question section of their website, Plated offers the following information about cancellations:  Subscription can be canceled at any time and at no cost. Simply visit the “Subscription” tab of your account page to manage your preferences.  At the time Subscription is canceled, any boxes with an “Open” status will be canceled. Any box marked “Confirmed” or “On its way” will still be delivered and charged as your final box. To confirm your final box status, see your account.

This seems intentionally vague and annoyingly confusing.  A separate FAQ answer indicates you have up to noon six days prior to its delivery date to modify your box.  Since their answer about deactivating your account was so unclear, I assume this is the also the cut-off to cancel before you’re locked into your next delivery.

Overall impression:  Compared to the other meal delivery services I tried during this experiment, Plated offers the most freedom and variety of recipes from which to choose, as well as more flexibility on the number of nights per week and diners per order.  However, the delivery days are limited, it took nearly two weeks to get my first order, and the company lacked transparency about their cancellation policy.  Most importantly, (this is a series about getting the most for your money, after all!) their first time and subsequent orders are significantly more expensive than other subscriptions.