The 11 Most Valuable Personal-Finance Lessons of 2018

Ask Kim

The 11 Most Valuable Personal-Finance Lessons of 2018

How to reduce taxes and medical bills, help the next generation save for retirement and protect against identity theft were some of the issues on readers’ minds in 2018.

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Editor’s Note: Kim Lankford answers readers’ real-life financial queries in her popular Ask Kim column on Kiplinger.com and in Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine. She receives hundreds of questions every month.

SEE ALSO: Time-Tested Tactics to Build Your Wealth

Thank you for your questions this past year. They let me know which topics are important to you—and most likely to other readers, too. Your questions ranged from how to reduce health care costs and make the most of tax breaks in retirement to how to protect your home from a disaster and protect yourself from scam artists. For many of you, the new tax law presented new challenges and required a different financial strategy for 2018. Here are the 11 most valuable personal finance lessons based on your questions this past year:

Adapt to Tax Law Changes

The new tax law changed some traditional financial-planning strategies. Fewer people will be itemizing their income tax deductions now that the standard deduction has almost doubled, which means that they need to use a new strategy to get a tax break for their charitable gifts. See Tax Strategies for Charitable Giving and New Tax Law Offers Added Incentive to Make Tax-Free Transfer of RMDs From Your IRA to Charity. Also see Make the Most of Potential Tax Deductions Under the New Tax Law. The new tax law also made some big changes to 529 college-savings plans, allowing you to use up to $10,000 per year tax-free to pay for private-school tuition for kindergarten through 12th grade. See 529 Savings Plans Have More Uses. You can also transfer money from a 529 plan to an ABLE account, which can be a big help for children who have special needs. See How to Use College Savings to Benefit Children With Special Needs.

Make Tax-Smart Contributions to Your Grandchildren

You can help your children and grandchildren get a head start on their financial futures—and reap some tax benefits, too. Many readers wanted to help their grandchildren save for college through a 529 college-savings plan. But they wondered what they would need to do to get a tax deduction for their 529 contributions while making sure they didn’t hurt the child’s chances for financial aid. See Shopping for a 529 Plan for a Grandchild and How a Grandparent’s 529 Account Affects College Financial Aid. Also see How to Help Pay a Grandchild’s Tuition. Readers also sought advice on using a Roth IRA to help a working child or grandchild build up significant tax-free savings for the long term. See How to Turn a Teen’s Summer Wages into Millions and Helping Young Workers Open a Roth IRA. For other ideas to help your kids and grandkids financially, see Financial Gifts for Kids.

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Stretch Your Retirement Savings

Understanding the tax laws can help you stretch your retirement savings. See Contribute More to Retirement Accounts in 2019 and Get a Tax Reward for Saving for Retirement. Some people don’t realize they can contribute to a Roth IRA, or that they just need to take some extra steps if their income is too high. See 5 Ways Roth IRAs Help Retirees and Tax Consequences of a “Backdoor” Roth IRA.

And after saving for retirement for years, many readers are starting to withdraw the money and want to minimize the tax consequences. See How to Calculate Tax-Free and Taxable IRA Withdrawals. Older readers also had a lot of questions about required minimum distributions—withdrawals they must make from 401(k)s and traditional IRAs after they reach age 70½. See 6 Questions Retirees Are Asking About RMDs, How Investments Are Sold When RMDs Are on Autopilot, and The Rules for Making a Tax-Free Donation from an IRA.

Score a Triple Tax Break With a Health Savings Account

A health savings account saves money on health care costs—and it’s also one of the most tax-advantaged ways to save for the future. Now that more people have high-deductible health insurance policies, whether they are through an employer or on their own, they’re eligible to contribute to an HSA, which provides a triple tax break: your contributions are tax-deductible (or pretax if through an employer), the money grows tax-deferred, and it can be withdrawn tax-free to pay your deductible, co-payments and many other eligible medical expenses tax-free in any year. (See Health Savings Account Limits for 2019 for more information about how to qualify and how much you can contribute. Also see Jump-Starting a Health Savings Account With an IRA Rollover.) And HSAs have more uses than you may realize – see Using a Health Savings Account to Pay for Long-Term-Care Insurance premiums. HSA contributions have to stop when you sign up for Medicare, but there are still a lot of uses for the money after you reach age 65. See Answers to Questions About Health Savings Accounts and Medicare.

Understand the Rules of Medicare

Knowing Medicare’s rules can help you avoid penalties, find the best coverage, and save money on medical expenses. Many readers who are working past 65 wonder when they need to sign up for Medicare or whether they can delay. See Signing Up for Medicare When You’re Still Covered by an Employer’s Health Plan. Also, quite a few readers have to pay extra for Medicare because of the high-income surcharge, but a few strategies may be able to help them reduce the premiums—especially if they retired recently. See What You’ll Pay for Medicare Premiums in 2019. Although open enrollment for 2019 plans is over, How to Find the Best Medicare Drug Plan for You in 2019 can still help if you’re enrolling in Medicare midyear and need to find a Part D prescription-drug plan. And if you have a Medicare Advantage plan, a new rule lets you switch to another plan from January 1 to March 31 in addition to during open-enrollment season in the fall (see How to Find the Best Medicare Advantage Plan for You in 2019). Many people fill in the gaps in Medicare by buying a Medicare supplement policy (medigap), which has special rules that can be very different than for other health insurance—and some changes will be coming in the next few years. See How Preexisting Conditions Can Affect Medigap Insurance and Two Medigap Plans to Be Phased Out. Readers of all ages who take expensive medications wanted to know this year about strategies, resources and special programs that can help them reduce their drug costs. See How to Save on Prescription Drugs.

Protect Your Home from Disaster

New insurance options, tax laws and mitigation strategies can help you protect your home from disasters. After a year with major hurricanes and wildfires, readers wanted to know about steps to take to protect their homes and finances from disasters and how to get their claims paid smoothly if their homes are damaged. See How to Prepare for Hurricane Florence for advice that can help you prepare for any hurricane, and Key Documents You Need to Take With You in an Emergency. Also find out about how private flood insurance provides an alternative to the National Flood Insurance Program in many areas (see Link]Your New Flood Insurance Options.

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The new tax law also made it more difficult to claim a tax break for disaster losses. Find out about the new rules in Deducting Disaster Losses on Your Tax Return. Many states, though, offer tax breaks that can help you protect your home (see Sales Tax Holidays for Hurricane Prep).

Beware Scam Artists and Identity Thieves

You need to take extra steps to protect yourself from scam artists and identity thieves. Crooks continue to try new schemes to steal your money. See E-mails From the IRS—and Other Signs of a Tax Scam. Credit breaches continued at some large companies, but a new law that took effect in September made it easier and less expensive to protect yourself from identity thieves (see You Can Now Freeze—and Unfreeze—Your Credit Report for Free).

Make the Most of Side Hustles

Even if you have just a little freelance income or money from a part-time job, you can still benefit from some tax breaks. More readers are taking advantage of the gig economy to earn some extra income, and a lot of retirees continue to work in part-time jobs. Many don’t realize they’re eligible for some extra savings opportunities. See Saving for Retirement When You Have a Side Hustle and An Overlooked Tax Break for Part-Timers.

Save on Car Insurance

Readers of all ages can follow a few strategies to help save on car insurance. See How Tracking Rewards Good Drivers and Should You File a Small Auto Insurance Claim?

Get Tax Breaks for Good Deeds

Smart planning can build your legacy. A lot of readers are doing well financially themselves and want to use some of their money to help others. These readers may even receive tax breaks for their good deeds. See Creating a Memorial Through a Scholarship and The Benefits of Donating Stock to a Donor-Advised Fund. Also see Two Key Estate-Planning Documents You Need.

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Manage Your Credit

Some key financial concepts can help everyone. Most readers realize the importance of having a good credit score, although some may be too concerned about the number. See Don’t Sweat Small Changes in Your Credit Score for information about when you don’t need to worry about minor dips in your score and what you can do to improve it. And readers continue to want to know about what tax records they can keep and toss, especially after they file their income tax returns. See When It’s Safe to Shred Your Tax Records.

SEE ALSO: 35 Ways to Earn Extra Cash 2018

As always, please continue to send your questions. Even though I can’t answer all of them personally, I read them and answer as many as possible or forward them to colleagues who specialize in the topic. We all learn a lot from your questions about the issues we should be writing about.

You can find links to all of the columns I’ve written over the past year in the Ask Kim archives. I look forward to your new questions in 2019!

Got a question? Ask Kim at askkim@kiplinger.com.