Tax Season

This year I went back to using my favorite tax program, Turbo Tax They had a couple of new things this year. One thing was the option to get your refund put on a Green Dot Prepaid Debit Card. This is especially helpful for people who don’t have a bank account.   Otherwise, you can have your refund direct deposited into your savings or checking account.  They also still have the option to have the TurboTax fee deducted from your refund. I have done that in times past. There is an additional $29.95 fee for this service. TurboTax has really made doing your taxes easy. I personally find it enjoyable, I look forward to doing my taxes every year. Having TurboTax walk you through the filing is so helpful and beneficial. This year we actually received a new “making work pay” credit just by answering a few questions.

For my state taxes, I usually just file for free on the Illinois Department of Revenue website I recently learned that our state has an Education Credit which anyone, including home schoolers can use. You will be allowed 25% of your student’s qualified education expenses after the first $250. Your total credit may not exceed $500 in any year regardless of the number of qualifying students. Expenses included in this credit are tuition, book fess and lab fees. On the website there are publications that you can review for more information. For Home School review Publication 119, for regular school review Publication 132. Illinois may not be the only state that offers this credit, check with your tax preparer or use TurboTax to file your state taxes and they will let you know if your state is eligible.

One benefit of using TurboTax is that you can go through all the questions before you have to pay for the use of the software. This year I actually went through the state tax filing to see how the education credit worked. When I went to file my taxes TurboTax was going to charge me $29.95 to file the state. But knowing I could do it for free, I went back and deleted the state tax info and then proceeded to file my federal taxes.

I highly recommend using TurboTax, the process is so efficient, quick and easy.

The Food Network

Lately I have enjoyed watching “cake shows”, on the Food Network Channel.  My favorite is Ace of Cakes, which comes on every Thursday night and chronicles the day to day cake creations at Charm City Cakes in Baltimore.  Duff Goldman is the owner and his staff are his friends.  They are a bunch of laid back, somewhat eccentric, very creative people.  It’s not only fun to watch them create the cakes, but to also watch their different personalities and how they interact with each other.  You can learn more about them at their website

The newest show I have been watching is Last Cake Standing.  This was a 4-week Food Network Challenge, where 6 chefs competed for $50,000 and the title of “Best Cake Artist in America”.

The first week they had to tell their life story in cake.  My favorite chefs from the beginning were Bronwen Weber and Mary Maher.  I’ve seen Bronwen in other challenges before and really like her work.  This was the first time I was watching Mary, I paid close attention to her since she is from Chicago.  The first week they both had exceptional designs.  These cakes have to be 3 feet tall, and they have 8 hours to complete the whole cake.  Then they have to move the cake to the judging table.  I don’t know why I like to watch, it is quite nerve-racking just watching it.  This first challenge they knew ahead of time what the challenge was, the twist was they didn’t have the usual time to set-up their kitchens.  They were there for about 15 minutes, and then the 8 hour clock started.  They usually get about an hour and a half to set-up their kitchens.  This first challenge was won by Mary Maher.  Mary and Bronwen both advanced to the next challenge.  Each week one chef is eliminated.

The second weeks challenge was a wedding cake design.  The twist…they had to find out what the bride and groom wanted for their cake while driving around with them in a limo.  When the chefs got enough information, they had to get back to the studio and begin making the cake.  All this was included in the 8 hours.  Mary was the first back to begin her cake design.  I think had she stayed she would of had a better design, it was a risk she took.  Bronwen stayed  a little longer and was one of the last ones back.  As we watched we got a better feel for the couple and what they wanted.  They really didn’t want a traditional wedding cake, and the bride really didn’t like flowers.  The second week my two favorites Bronwen and Mary were not eliminated.

Third week’s challenge was a team effort, where they had to create Super Hero cakes.  Bronwen and Mary were on opposite teams.  Mary’s team won this challenge.  Bronwen and her teammate then had to do a 30-minute bake-off to determine who would be eliminated.  Bronwen moved to the final challenge.

The final challenge was between Mary Maher, Bronwen Weber and Courtney Clark.  I have seen Courtney’s work before, and she is good, but she gets pretty emotional during these challenges.  I can’t blame her, these are stressful competitions.  She’s also known for her topsy-turvey cakes, so a lot of her designs are like that.  Whereas Bronwen and Mary tend to make unique cakes with many different techniques.

This final challenge was a mystery client.  They had to interview the client and find out what they liked and design a cake.  The twist…6 mystery clients.  The Dilley Sextuplets were turning 16, so they had to design a Sweet Sixteen Birthday cake.  This time they had 24-hours to design, create, and deliver the cake to the birthday party.  During the 24-hours they could work straight through, eat, or sleep.

In the end, I actually liked Courtney’s design and idea, and it was done very well.  Bronwen had a really good idea, but was unable to execute it fully.  I do love her personality and attitude and she’s extremely talented.  Mary’s design was very clever.  The sextuplets were getting their drivers licenses as well as turning 16, so the base of her cake was a car.

In the end the winner was Mary Maher of Cakegirls in Chicago.  Her and her sister Brenda competed and they own the Cakegirls bakery.  You can check out their many designs on their website at

Also, for those of you in the Dallas area, check out Bronwen at Frosted Art Bakery, and see her many designs on her website at

Keep in mind these are professional chefs as well as artists.  So if the recession isn’t affecting you or you really love cake, their prices won’t shock you.  As for me, I’ll keep rootin’ for them on the different Food Network Challenges they participate in!!

It’s Tax Time

Yes, it’s tax time. In the past couple of weeks, you probably have been receiving the various forms you will need to file your taxes. By law, everything should be mailed out by January 31, 2009, including your W2. Most people usually dread filing taxes and wait to the last minute. I personally enjoy it. There are so many resources out there to help you file your taxes, and if you do it electronically and use the direct deposit option, you can receive your refund from the IRS within 8 to 15 days. No longer do you have to wait for a paper check in the mail. I have used the following two websites to file my taxes, they are very helpful and make the process relatively painless. My taxes are already filed and I have also received part of my refund, more on that later. I also use the Illinois Department of Revenue site to file directly with them, and I have already received my Illinois refund as well. There are many places online that you can use, but I have actually used these two websites myself. This is by far my favorite and I have recommended it to many people. Years ago, I would purchase the actual software from year to year, but now everything is online. You can even view previous year’s tax returns, if you used Turbo Tax to file them. This is the easiest to use. To begin you go through an interview process that asks questions like did you change jobs, did you contribute to your 401K, did you sell property? (all example questions are not verbatim). When you answer the questions, the info is then put where it needs to go on your tax form. It also helps with any forms that you might have received in the mail. For example the bank sends a 1099-INT form of any interest you earned. Turbo Tax will ask you, did you receive interest, as reported on form 1099-INT? One year I did a person’s taxes for them using Turbo tax and they had a form for their contributions to their 401K. I would have never known where to put that on the tax form. But Turbo Tax asked about it, referring to the form number it was reported on, and then they take you step-by-step in where to put the information. This increased this persons refund by $400. They now use Turbo Tax themselves every year.

Turbo Tax can also file your state returns as well. My favorite part of Turbo Tax is the little box it has at the top of the screen that shows your refund amount in green and your payment amount in red. As you enter numbers in, it will scroll up or down and then stop at the amount of your refund/payment. It’s so exciting to see those green numbers going up and up. Cha-Ching!! At the end, Turbo Tax checks your return and sees that there is nothing that the IRS will question and gives you and opportunity to make changes. They also have a program that maximizes your deductions; it looks for all possible deductions for you. It is a very thorough program. Also another advantage is, you can literally complete your whole tax return for free to see if you will receive a refund or have to pay. You do not pay for the use of this program until you are ready to file your return. You also have the choice of paying by debit card, or you can have your fee deducted from your refund check. This involves a third party bank, where your IRS refund is sent to the bank, and then they deduct any fees due, and then they deposit the balance of your refund into your checking or savings account. I have also used this option without any problems.

You also have the option of printing out the forms and mailing them in, or filing electronically where you can have a check sent to you or have it direct deposited into your checking or savings account. Like I said earlier, doing it electronically will have your refund to you within 8 to 15 days directly from the IRS. I have always done it this way without any problems, and it usually takes about 14 days to be deposited.

Using Turbo Tax is really the best way to file your taxes, especially if you just file the standard return. But I have also used it when we had a home business, and it walks you through everything and has a lot of help topics as you go along. After using this program for a couple of years, I did go to a place to have them done, I don’t remember the circumstances why, but I realized that I could of done them myself, it’s like the same program that the tax preparation places use. **BUT…these programs do not replace the advice you can receive from a tax professional. If you are in doubt or have any questions, please consult with a tax professional.

One year I waited to the last day to file, close to midnight, and it took a little longer to download all the info, but it was still filed on time. I think this was back when everyone was still using dial-up. But I have not had any problems using this program. I showed my dad how to use it one year and he now uses it every year. I also told a friend of mine about it, because she also put it off to the last minute, and she couldn’t say enough about it. They also have other services you can pay for such as Audit Defense, where they will assist you if you get audited. You can also have a professional review your return to get you your biggest refund. They have different editions of the program to use for your different needs, and they vary in price. There is a free edition for filing simple returns and the 1040EZ. Use the Deluxe program to maximize your deductions, Premier for investments and rental property, Home & Business for personal and business filing in one or the Business program for Corporations, Partnerships and LLCs.  This is the website that I used this year to file my taxes. The reason I didn’t use Turbo Tax this year is because I needed to take advantage of a Rapid Access Loan (RAL), and Rapid Tax had this available. A Rapid Access Loan is essentially a loan you receive from a specific bank, Santa Barbara Bank & Trust (SBBT) based on your refund amount. So if you need your money within 3 business days, this is the way to go. What happens is, you will receive up to $3000 minus all fees due from SBBT once you file your tax return. The IRS then sends your refund to SBBT. If your refund is more than $3000, when the IRS sends your refund to SBBT they deduct the amount of the loan, and then direct deposit the balance into your account. The rates for this are: to receive $300 to $2857 it is 3.5% of the loan. From $2857 to $3000 it’s a flat rate of $100, there is an additional $30.95 handling fee. Using Rapid Tax, you will also have the cost of the program that you used to file your taxes deducted, so there is no out-of-pocket expense to you. I used Rapid Tax this year to take advantage of the RAL.

As far as the functionality of the process, it was user friendly, but I felt like it wasn’t as thorough as Turbo Tax. Rapid Tax also has different programs to use. The Basic has unlimited email and live support, unlimited W2, above the line deductions (e.g. moving expense, teaching expense, student loan interest, alimony). The Standard program has all the basic features plus itemized deductions, joint tax returns, unlimited dependents, adoption credit, earned income credit for child and education expenses and child tax credit. You can also go through your whole return for free to see if you will receive a refund or have to pay. It is in the final steps where you will pay for the program once you file your return. Also available are additional services such as professional review of your return, professionally bound file copies, or a 3-year audit protection plan, these are all at an additional cost. I was satisfied with the process, and receiving my money was not a problem. So I do recommend this site as well. My tax returns are not that difficult to do, so that is why I felt confident in using another program. I feel that Turbo Tax is the better choice from the two.

Hope this has helped, and let me know what you think if you happen to try any of these websites.

Modest Needs

ModestNeeds.Org - Small Change. A World Of Difference.

Back in 2002 or 2003, I came across this website and thought it was a fantastic idea. I am so excited to hear that they have been featured in Forbes Magazine, and that article was syndicated to the homepage of AOL. This is what the website is about.

Keith Taylor is the Founder and CEO. Back when he was in graduate school, he worked at a theater and had two teaching jobs at two different colleges. One month he had to skip paying rent because he had some unexpected car repairs. His boss at the theater heard about what happened and handed him a $525 check made out to the landlord. Keith remembered this act of kindness and when he was a teacher at a Tennessee University, he decided to start a little web site offering people help with small bills. His salary at the time was only $33,000. He had some television interviews and received some publicity for what he was doing. He just wanted to help people. But in 2002, his hobby became something bigger. He allowed other people to donate money to help with people’s needs. He was connecting people with needs with people who wanted to help. Back then you couldn’t get help with rent. It was for the unexpected expenses that may come up within a month. I recently visited the site and saw that things are different. You can now get a Self-Sufficiency Grant for one months rent, or other needs that you have. Modest Needs is a short-term fix. It’s for people who are self-sufficient, but need help to stay that way. All applications are screened, the ones that are not cut are then asked to provide up to 15 documents to verify their situations and identities. If approved for funding, checks are not made out to the individual, but to the landlord, or utility company. Modest Needs reports that seven out of every ten recipients log back into the site as donors. It’s a great way to help people in need, or get help when you are in need.

Once the article was featured on AOL, within about 10 hours, people across the US and around the world funded more than $22,000 worth of requests. This was funded by one-time donations of $10, $20, $30, or $50. It’s nice to know that there are people out there who are able to help and actually want to. As you can see, it doesn’t take a lot of money from one individual. Just a note for those who want to donate, Modest Needs raises operating funds from outside resources, so your donations go to fund the needs.

They have Back-to-Work Grants, Independent Living Grants, and Non-Profit Grants. If you want to learn more, click on the link at the right in my Helpful Links, or the banner at the top of this article.