Frequent-flier miles awarded for opening new accounts sometimes come with a big catch: taxes
Thousands of Citibank customers received notices in January saying the miles they received for opening new accounts in 2011 produced taxable income. Some customers, for instance, received a 1099 with $750 of income for 30,000 miles, the Wall Street Journal reported. The IRS confirmed they are taxable. Such bonuses are often enough to book a domestic flight or they can cover an upgrade to business class from coach. But analysts say the actual trips booked with the miles can be worth less than the amount of income reported by the credit card company. And the tax bill could cost more than the flight itself, says George Hobica, president of fare-tracking site AirfareWatchdog.com. “It might be a wash, depending on your tax bracket,” says Hobica. “I certainly wouldn’t do it.”
Thanks to countless deductions and credits, the federal income tax brackets are ruined.
Few people pay 10%, 15%, 25%, 28%, 33% or 35% of even their “marginal” dollar in income taxes. So, Monday’s proposal from President Barack Obama is really about average tax rates.
The plan picks up on one of Warren Buffett’s frequently cited notions — that the richest Americans pay a lower percent of their income in taxes than those earning far less. A progressive tax system, such as the one purportedly used in the United States, is designed to do the opposite.
Wouldn’t it be nice to write off that flight to Hawaii? Or what about the champagne-and-caviar-adorned soirée at Carnegie Hall? Maybe you can, says Doug Stives, a CPA from Red Bank, N.J., who re-engineered his life in 2006 to become the Most Tax-Efficient Man in America, as Tax Report columnist Laura Saunders writes. Stives shared a couple of practical, tax-saving suggestions with SmartMoney.com.
Get on someone’s payroll. Stives had been a partner at an accounting group for nearly four decades when he decided to take on a role as a tax and accounting professor at Monmouth University in central New Jersey. He also started his own consulting business on the side. While his paycheck is now 25% lower than it had been, his take home is nearly 90% as much, says Saunders. Stives estimates that the fringe benefits from working at the university – health insurance, disability insurance, life insurance, pension-plan coverage, unemployment coverage and workmen’s compensation coverage, among others – add up to about $40,000 a year.
Mix business and pleasure. Usually it’s a No. 1 professional no-no. But combining your work life with your personal life can slim the price tag of otherwise expensive vacations. As a part-time consultant and full-time teacher, Stives travels a considerable amount for seminars and teaching gigs, often to alluring vacation spots like Hawaii and Lake Tahoe. To deduct airfare, you need to spend more than half your working days on business, says Stives. Weekends don’t count, nor do travel days. If Stives leaves for Hawaii on a Friday, works three days mid-week and returns home the following Monday, he’s squeezed a mostly tax deductible 11-day trip out of three working days. (Hotels, meals, and rental cars are only partly deductible.) But make sure you don’t get carried away, he says. It’s a good idea to pay in full for at least some trips you take to show the IRS you don’t deduct everything.
As part of his broader effort to bring down the deficit and win support from both parties for his budget proposal, President Barack Obama pledged not only to work to rein in entitlements like Medicare and Medicaid, but also, according to The Wall Street Journal, “overhaul the tax code to root out “spending embedded” in it—a reference to tax breaks.”
Meanwhile, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner “reiterated an administration call for corporate-tax changes that eliminates loopholes and reduces the overall rate companies pay.”
It’s partly a shot at the corporate tax rate–which on the surface seems to be quite high, but in reality is so full of loopholes that many corporations ultimately pay very little in taxes. US News & World Report blogger Susan Milligan–echoing Tax Guy Bill Bischoff–says lowering the corporate tax rate isn’t really the answer. It’s true that many U.S. companies pay significantly lower effective rates than the official top rate, but many tax experts say it’s still high enough to be a drag on domestic investment.
Still, Closing the loopholes is far more critical, argues Milligan who says, ” Lowering the corporate tax rate would cost jobs. Mind you, the job loss would not be among those sad grunts now pictured in newspapers, signing up for unemployment benefits. No, the new unemployed would be the well-paid tax attorneys who scour the tax code for loopholes. They would be followed in the unemployment line by the lobbyists who bustle around Capitol Hill fighting to keep those loopholes.”
The Tax Blog brings together a team of award-winning tax journalists from the Dow Jones network and around the web to examine the tax issues, changes and legislation that affect families, investors and small business owners. Our contributors include Tax Report columnist Laura Saunders (WSJ), Tax Guy columnist Bill Bischoff and senior reporter Jilian Mincer (SmartMoney.com), retirement-focused reporter Anne Tergesen (WSJ), wealth management writer Arden Dale (Dow Jones Newswires), TaxWatch columnist Eva Rosenberg and personal finance reporter Andrea Coombes (MarketWatch), and reporter Alyssa Abkowitz (SmartMoney). They’ll provide the latest news and insight, mine the tax code for tips and loopholes, and answer your questions about tricky tax situations. Contact the The Tax Blog with ideas, suggestions or tax questions at email@example.com.