Practical money matters by Nathaniel Sillin

IF YOU’RE eligible for Medicare or will be in the coming year, there are a few changes you should know about for 2017.
An increase in the federal labor department’s consumer price index, or CPI, means there’ll be an increase in social-security benefits and Medicare part-B premiums. For most recipients, the increases almost offset each other but people who aren’t covered by the “hold harmless” provision – about 30 per cent of recipients – face a larger part-B premium increase.
These changes, along with several others, will go into effect soon and you should consider how they could affect your budget.
Social-security benefits. Since 1975, social-security benefits have had an automatic annual cost-of-living adjustment, known as COLA. The adjustment depends on the CPI and helps keep your benefits in line with the rising cost of goods.
There wasn’t a COLA for 2016 benefits but there is a 0.3 per cent adjustment for next year. That means you’ll get an additional $3 per $1,000 that you receive in benefits. The estimated average monthly benefit for all retired workers is expected to increase by $5, from $1,355 to $1,360.
Medicare part-B premiums. These will also rise. COLA also affects part-B premiums, the part of Medicare that covers some types of procedures and medical equipment. However, for about 70 per cent of Medicare recipients, the Social Security act’s “hold harmless” provision prohibits an increase to Medicare part-B premiums of more than the previous year’s COLA adjustment.
According to the agency responsible for Medicare and Medicaid services, held-harmless recipients will pay $109 per month in part-B premiums, an increase of $4.10.
The remaining 30 per cent of social-security beneficiaries will have their part-B premium increase by about 10 per cent.
You could fall into the non-held-harmless group if you are a new enrollee, are enrolled in Medicare but don’t receive social-security benefits, are billed directly for your Medicare part-B premium, receive Medicare and Medicaid benefits and your state Medicaid programs pay your part-B premium or you are a high-income earner subject to an income-adjusted premium.
For the non-held-harmless group, the premium depends on the recipient’s adjusted gross income, known as AGI, or the joint AGI for couples who file a joint tax return.
The lowest monthly premium – for individuals who have an AGI of $85,000 or less, or $170,000 for couples – will increase from $121.80 to $134 a month per person.
On the high end, for recipients with an AGI of more than $214,000, or $428,000 for couples, the monthly premium will increase from $389.80 to $428.60 per person.
Medicare part-A and part-B deductibles. These will also increase. Most people don’t have to pay Medicare part-A premiums but you could still have to pay a deductible or coinsurance for some part-A benefits.
The deductible for inpatient hospital coverage, which helps cover the first 60 days of care, will increase from $1,288 to $1,316 per benefit period.
Daily coinsurance for the 61st to 90th days of treatment will increase from $322 to $329.
Daily coinsurance for days 91 and beyond will rise from $644 to $658.
Each day past day 90 counts towards your lifetime reserve. You have a maximum of 60 lifetime reserve days; after which you could be responsible for all costs.
Skilled nursing facility care is completely covered for your first 20 days. Daily coinsurance for days 21 to 100 of skilled nursing care will increase to $164.50 and you could be responsible for all costs beyond day 100.
The part -B annual deductible will also increase, from $166 to $183. Generally, after you’ve met your deductible, you’ll pay 20 per cent of Medicare-approved costs for services covered by part B.
Bottom line: Social-security benefits, Medicare part-B premiums and part-A and part-B deductibles and coinsurance will increase in 2017. Whether you’re held harmless or not, take steps to understand which changes could affect you and alter your budget accordingly.
Nathaniel Sillin directs Visa’s Practical Money Skills For Life financial education programs. Follow him on Twitter at His articles are intended to provide general information and should not be considered legal, tax or financial advice. Always consult a tax or financial adviser for information on how the law applies to your individual financial circumstances.

Consumer business by Denisha Maxey

WHILE LOTS of people took advantage of November’s Black Friday to complete their holiday gift shopping, tons of consumers are still rushing to beat the clock. Last-minute shoppers are all too common during the holiday season. With Christmas just a few days away, the pressure is on to get our gift-buying done.
Are you feeling the stress? Take advantage of these last-minute shopping tips to make sure you have your gifts wrapped and under the tree before Christmas! Couple with Christmas gifts in snow
Before you start your shopping trip, create a list of the gifts you still need to purchase and set a budget. It is easy to overspend while shopping during the holidays. Stores offer their best bargains at this time of year, offering 60 to 70 per cent off in enticing deals that encourage consumers to spend more money.
Personalize your Christmas shopping list and be specific about what types of gift you still need to buy. Sticking to your list will stop you from impulsive buying and overspending.
In some instances, it is not too late to still purchase gifts online. A lot of companies are still advertising holiday cyber sales and also offering express shipping at little to no additional cost.
You could still find a great deal and have it arrive on time. Most online companies are updating their websites daily with the exact date and time you will need to have placed your order to have it arrive by Christmas. bbb - logo
Make sure you are checking your e-mail for online coupons and promo codes, especially if you intend on buying items from a company’s website you visit frequently. I finished my own last-minute shopping at the weekend and was able to save a few extra dollars.
I even checked my e-mail while standing in line at one of my favorite stores and found a promo code to use for my purchase. Whether it is a small percentage or a huge discount off your total, any money saved is always a bargain.
Gift cards are popular holiday presents. They make great stocking stuffers and are just as good as giving cash. If companies offer incentives to purchase gift cards for use at their locations, you get something out of the deal, such as saving $5-$10 off the price of the cards.
One last additional important tip to remember during the holidays is to check and verify company policies. A lot of companies alter their refund, return and exchange policies, especially for popular items like electronics. Often, these policies will have a shortened or extended deadline or might only offer a store credit for returns. Companies generally do not publicly post their policies, so make sure you inquire or request a copy before committing to a purchase.
The clock is ticking for last-minute holiday shoppers. However, you are not alone, so expect crowds in almost every store you visit. Be patient, get all your shopping done and then enjoy the holidays with your loved ones!
Denisha Maxey is the manager responsible for the dispute resolution and alternative dispute resolution team at Houston Better Business Bureau.

Practical money matters by Nathaniel Sillin

BETWEEN visiting friends and family and celebrating the holidays, your taxes might be the last thing on your mind at present. However, putting off tax preparation until later could be a costly mistake. While tax season doesn’t start until mid-January, if you want to affect the return you file in 2017, you’ll need to make some tax moves before the end of 2016.
You might make this a yearly tradition – while there could be slight alterations in the rules or numbers from one year to the next, many of the fundamentals behind tax-saving advice remain the same.
Sell losing investments and offset capital gains or income. Do you have property, stocks or other investments that have dropped in value and you’re considering offloading? If you sell the investments before the end of the year, you can use the lost value to offset your capital gains, the profits from your capital assets. Excess losses can offset up to $3,000 from ordinary taxable income and be rolled over to following years.
Optimize your charitable contributions. Many people make an annual tradition of donating their time and money to support charitable causes. It’s a noble thing to do and could come with a tax benefit. The value of your donation to a qualified charitable organization, minus the value of anything you receive in return, could offset your taxable income.
Charitable contributions are deductible if you itemize deductions. However, most taxpayers find it best to take the standard deduction – $12,600 for married people filing jointly, $9,300 for heads of households and $6,300 for single or married people filing separately for the 2016 tax year. If it’s best for you to take the standard deduction for 2016 but you think you might itemize your deductions next year, consider holding off until the new year to make the donations.
Defer your income to next year. You might be able to lower your taxable income for 2016 by delaying some of your pay until after the New Year.
Employees could ask their employer to send a holiday bonus or December’s commission in January. It could be easier for contractors and the self-employed to defer their income because, for them, it’s as simple as waiting to send an invoice. Don’t let FSA savings go to waste. Employer-sponsored flexible spending accounts let employees contribute pre-tax money into their accounts, meaning you don’t have to pay income tax on the money. FSA funds can be spent on qualified medical and dental procedures such as prescription medications, bandages or crutches and deductibles or copays.
FSA funds that you don’t use by the end of the year could be forfeited. However, employers can give employees a two-and-a-half month grace period or allow employees to roll over up to $500 per year.
Check with your employer to see if it offers one of these exemptions and make a plan to use your remaining FSA funds before they disappear.
What can wait until after January 1? Procrastinators will be pleased to hear that there are tax moves you can make after the start of the new year.
You have until the tax-
return filing deadline, April 18 in 2017, to make 2016-tax-year contributions to a traditional IRA. The money you add could offset your income and you’ll be saving for retirement – a double win.
The maximum contribution you can make is $5,500 – or $6,500 if you’re 50 or older – for the 2016 tax year. However, the deductible amount depends on your income and eligibility for an employer-sponsored retirement plan.
Bottom line. Don’t wait for the tax season to start to take stock of your situation and get your finances in order. While there are a few tax moves that can wait, what you do between now and the end of the year could have a significant impact on your return.
Editor’s note: You can find more information online through the links included in our electronic version of this article above.
Nathaniel Sillin directs Visa’s Practical Money Skills For Life financial education programs. Follow him on Twitter at His articles are intended to provide general information and should not be considered legal, tax or financial advice. Always consult a tax or financial adviser for information on how the law applies to your individual financial circumstances.

A regular roundup of local-authority activities by Trishna Buch

THE PURCHASE at auction of mechanical road-works equipment worth up to $300,000 was approved by Dickinson city council on Tuesday after an open bid failed to find an acceptable vendor.
The councilmembers approved the purchase of an asphalt layer, a motor grader, a compactor, a bulldozer and a soil stabilizer through a state-licensed auctioneer after hearing that six companies had entered bids for the contract.
Two of the bids arrived without all the required documents and four quoted costs above budget, so all six were rejected, leaving the city to go to auction.
During the meeting, the councilmembers appointed Andrea Greer as the city’s representative on Southeast Texas Housing Finance Corporation’s board of directors until January 28, 2020.
They also reappointed Deborah Fortner and Edward Mikowski to the city’s planning and zoning commission, Shamarion Barber and Allen Carlile to its board of adjustments and David Floyd and Herman Gana to its building standards commission.
Scott Apley was appointed to the building standards commission and Leslie Boudwin was named a regular member of the planning and zoning commission, with Paul Slater named an alternate.

Change of jobs in the zone

LIGHT industry is to have the welcome mat rolled out by the city of Dickinson after councilmembers voted to create a zoning district on the edge of town on Tuesday.
To do so, they had to approve altering the zoning ordinance section of the city’s newly adopted comprehensive plan.
According to meeting documents, the new district will be “located in the city’s extraterritorial jurisdiction and the areas annexed by the city within the last year”.
It will feature “large-scale industrial development that focus[es] on research and development, warehousing, assembling, high technology and small-scale distribution and processing”.
The approval led the councilmembers to remove several permitted uses from the city’s general commercial district and cover them under the light industrial district, including equipment rental and leasing, lumber and building materials retailing, plumbing, radio and TV broadcasting, water bottling and wholesaling and warehousing.

Hallisey tops appointments list

MAYOR Pat Hallisey will represent League City on the Houston-Galveston area council’s general assembly and board of directors for 2017, with position three councilmember Larry Millican as his alternate.
They were appointed during Tuesday’s city council meeting, while position five councilmember Greg Gripon was named an alternate to the area council’s transportation policy council.
Position two councilmember Hank Dugie was reappointed as an alternate on the Clear Creek watershed steering committee,
Daniel Henn and Susan Pierce were appointed to the city’s historic commission, to which Dick Calkins and Dave Hake were reappointed.
Robert Conaway and Cory Thomas were appointed to the city’s hotel occupancy tax advisory board, to which Lisa Howard, Ronnie Richards and Kalpesh Patel were reappointed.
Leslye Mize was appointed to the library board, to which Tommy Frankovich and Kathleen Nenninger were reappointed.

Island in $3m hole

MORE than $3 million was belatedly added to Galveston’s 2015-16 operating budget on Thursday after councilmembers were told that seven departments had overrun their budgets by several thousand dollars.
The councilmembers approved a resolution amending the total operating budget for the fiscal year, which ended on September 30, by adjusting several budget accounts by
a total of $3,090,083.
The amendment was necessary to account for unforeseen expenses connected with an election run-off, police overtime, transit consultants’ expenses, city employees’ separation pay, library contributions, parking management and the city’s sewer system.
There was no comment on whether or how the amendments would affect the city’s current operating budget, which runs until September 30 next year.
During the meeting, the councilmembers appointed David Ware to the city’s intermodal transportation committee.

No Indians summer for CenterPoint’s gas hike

FOLLOWING in the footsteps of Santa Fe and Texas City, the cities of Dickinson and League City this week approved resolutions to delay a rate increase sought by CenterPoint Energy Entex by three months.
According to the company, it is entitled to a $31 million total increase in its local natural-gas prices to go into effect on December 21 but all four cities have now invoked their right to push the hike date back by 90 days.

More votes for Johnson

COUNCILMEMBERS in both League City and Dickinson voted for the reappointment of Don Johnson to the Harris-Galveston subsidence district this week.
As reported in The Post last week, Santa Fe had already voted in favor of Johnson’s reappointment by the county, which is now awaiting the results of ballots in each affected city council.

Consumer business by Denisha Maxey

SHOPPING is at the top of everyone’s list this holiday season. With more than half of all sales transactions being made online, retail businesses and shipping companies are working overtime to ensure each of their products arrives at its intended destination on time. Title
Additionally, thieves are working just as hard to get their hands on your packages. During the holiday season, there is an increase of Grinches ready and willing to steal gifts right off unsuspecting consumers’ doorsteps.
Do not be a victim – there are a few simple ways in which you can take matters into your own hands and protect your holiday packages. Using an alternative shipping address when making purchases online is a perfect decoy, especially if you are not expecting to be home when the packages are delivered.
Use your work address if your employer allows you to receive personal shipments at the office. Or have packages delivered to a relative or neighbor’s house, with their permission of course, for safekeeping.
If you live in an apartment complex or condominium community, request to have your packages left at the front office. Notify your office management that you are expecting packages and coordinate when you will pick them up.
Customizing your delivery details is another way in which you can control your shipping options. Include special shipping instructions, such as requiring a signature for packages, e-mail notification of delivered items, or opt to pick them up at the local post office. bbb - logo
After making your purchases, make note of the tracking number when you receive confirmation of your order. You can use your cell phone or other mobile device to track your packages, learn the exact date on which they will arrive and receive updates on any delays due to bad weather or unforeseen incidents.
Installation of security cameras on residential properties has been a growing trend. A security camera is a great tool to have, especially if will placed to cover your front doorstep. There are a lot of budget-friendly options for obtaining security cameras, from contacting your alarm company to do-it-yourself installation kits. Once installed, you can use a mobile device to view live footage of what is happening at your residence.
Make sure you display a clearly visible notice that your home is monitored by surveillance cameras. This will make thieves think twice before entering your property to steal your packages. If they do decide to take the risk, it’s “smile – you are on camera!” and you can provide the footage to authorities to help prosecute the thieves.
There are also steps you can take to protect gifts you are shipping to your loved ones. Most companies will replace items if lost or stolen but, for extra protection, purchase insurance for your package and provide tracking information to its recipient. They can then track the package and know the exact date it will arrive.
Do not let the Grinch steal your Christmas – stay one step ahead of thieves and make sure your gifts end up under your Christmas tree, where they belong!
Denisha Maxey is the manager responsible for the dispute resolution and alternative dispute resolution team at Houston Better Business Bureau.