Avoiding an IRS audit
An audit is no one's idea of fun, says Blake Ellis at CNN. The IRS is looking for tax cheats more assiduously than ever, so don't display red flags that raise Uncle Sam's suspicions. Avoid having too many zeroes on your return, for example. "While rounding numbers on your tax return to the nearest dollar is okay, rounding to the nearest thousand is not." If you work from home, don't be afraid to claim home-office deductions, but make sure you have documentation to support those expenses. And when it comes to your tax preparer, choose someone who "will get you the best refund possible — but not if it means breaking the law." If he or she suggests deductions that sound too good to be true or doesn't ask you for documentation, find someone else.
Now is always the best time to gauge your financial fitness, says Lisa Scherzer at Yahoo. Use age-based targets to figure out how much you should save for retirement. One rule of thumb is to check how much you're saving in relation to your age. By age 40, you should try to have accumulated one to three times your annual income. If you're part of a dual-income couple, see if you can cover all of your costs with just one partner's paycheck — if so, "you're in excellent shape." And check your home's value. Ideally, it should be worth 2 to 2.5 times your income, and your mortgage should not be more than 80 percent of its value — a tough standard in expensive housing markets such as New York and California.
Pre-paying your mortgage
If you have cash to spare, consider putting it toward your mortgage, said Linda Stern at Reuters. Adding an extra few hundred dollars on to your mortgage payment each month can help you finish paying the mortgage early and save thousands of dollars in interest costs over the life of the loan. In effect, paying extra achieves a similar result to refinancing, without the associated fees and hassles. "You're not technically lowering the interest rate, but you are reaping similar savings." But beware that this "strategy fits a narrow category of homeowner." There may be better things for you to do with that extra money, such as maxing out a retirement account, starting a college savings plan, paying down credit card debt, or making sure you have a sufficient cushion of emergency funds.