Your Tax Refund – Why Is It So Small?

This time of year, W-2 forms are coming in, shoe-boxes are coming out and kitchen tables are disappearing under a pile of documents.  It’s tax time, and the most common set of questions we hear revolve around the same issue: Why is my refund so small? How can I make it bigger? While we are not tax professionals, here are some observations we’ve had while serving our members over the years. You may want to discuss them in further detail with your tax advisor. 

Question:  Why is my refund so small?

Answer: There’s no secret to withholding. You tell the IRS factors about your life, your employer holds money back to “guess” at how much you’ll pay in income taxes, and then whatever has been withheld is paid to the IRS for covering your annual income tax burden. If, in fact, you’ve withheld more during the year than you need to pay, the IRS will pay you back any extra income you’ve withheld.

If your tax refund is smaller than you expect, then you didn’t withhold enough money to cover your tax bill. If the amount is surprising because it doesn’t look like last year’s refund, then you probably had something different happen this year. Did you pick up extra income? Did a child move out? Did you stop paying the interest on your mortgage or student loans? Knowing this, if you’re looking for a reason why your refund was smaller, start with the changes in your life.

If you still can’t figure it out, look at how much you made this year as well as your total withholding.  If you made significantly more than last year while withholding the same amount, that could be the reason.  If you want better, more specific answers, take your information to a tax preparation professional. 

Question:  So, should I withhold more?

Answer:  We hear this one a lot. Many of our members were raised on “the IRS savings plan,” particularly if they came from poorer or lower middle-class backgrounds. Families that had trouble getting ahead would plan on tax refunds for a once-a-year spending spree. Now, as the children of those families have grown up, they want to have that type of spree as well.

It’s not a good idea to withhold more money so you can have a bigger refund. In fact, it’s about the worst investment you can make, because you get paid no interest on it. Your money will even lose value due to inflation while the government holds it, so it’s like you paid someone for the privilege of not accessing your money while it earned zero interest. Imagine a free checking and savings account, except the exact opposite in every way: It’s not free, you can’t access it like a checking account, and you don’t earn interest on it like a savings account. It’s a free checking and savings account you set up for someone else. 

Question:  How can I get more money back?

Answer:  The obvious way to get more money back is to find more deductions or withhold more during the year. However, there are other ways to make tax time more profitable. 

Imagine that, instead of withholding an extra $100 every month, you invested it in a savings certificate, money market, or Christmas club account.  Over the course of the year, you’d accumulate $1,200 in principle, just like you’d have an extra $1,200 coming from the IRS. In other words, this method is just as good as the IRS savings plan: If something crazy happens on your tax return or you have some money to avoid a big tax bill, you can have a big annual spending spree.

But it’s better than withholding for a variety of reasons. First, you can access it if you’re putting that money into a money market or other savings program. (Try the high yields on our Kasasa Cash Rewards Checking account with a Saver attached.)  Second, your money will be protected from inflation, and then it will grow. Earnings on different programs vary based upon what you choose to invest in, along with other factors. But even earning a couple of percentage points above inflation could lead to another $100 in your pocket on top of the principle, and save you $100 that you would have lost to inflation. $200 isn’t chump change, particularly on a modest investment, and it could even be more depending upon how much you invest and the program you choose.  Even if you don’t earn much, though, it’s still better than giving that money away.

Even better, you can use that money to double dip.  If you withhold that extra $100 every month, then deposit it into one of our tax-exempt college or retirement savings funds, you can have a big payday while building deductions for next year, so you’ll get even more back.  Obviously, your specific situation will vary and there are limits to how much you can put into each of your tax-exempt accounts, but if you’re interested in starting the snowball effect of compound interest, tax deductions and long-term savings, give Destinations Credit Union a call at 410-663-2500 and we’ll get you set up in no time.  

How To Get Your Spring Break On

Spring break isn’t just for party-hearty college students anymore. These days, families are also taking a break from winter and jetting off to sun-drenched climates to frolic on warm beaches. 

Spring break for college students spans the first few weeks of March, while families are more inclined to take their spring vacation to coincide with the long Easter weekend, which runs from April 3-5 this year, orPassover, which is April 22-30 this year. The fact that college and public school holidays don’t overlap should ensure that PG-rated co-eds don’t intrude on a G-rated family vacation. 

Although toasting spring’s arrival goes back to Greek and Roman celebrations, its modern incarnation is blamed on a Colgate University swimming coach bringing his team to Fort Lauderdale, Florida for training back in 1934. 

Sensing a marketing opportunity, Fort Lauderdale organized an annual swim meet, and the rest is history. Buoyed by the 1961 movie “Where the Boys Are,” starring George Hamilton; and the 1983 “Spring Break” with Tom Cruise and Shelley Long, the annual ritual has exploded. The 1986 arrival of the annual “MTV Spring Break” hasn’t hurt either. 

South Florida is still the center of the college spring break universe. So, if you can find a cheap flight and some friends to share in the cost of a hotel room, grab your bathing suit and beach towel and you’re in. Beaches in Florida cities such as Fort Lauderdale and Daytona Beach quickly become oceans of tanned bodies once spring break hits, with crowds as large as 400,000 people. 

While large crowds are considered a plus for college spring break celebrants, they can lead to frustration and annoyance if you’re a family seeking relaxation while having a few young kids in tow. 

Orlando, home of Disney World and other resorts, is a surefire hit with both kids and budget-conscious parents. But spring break is also the second-busiest time of year, behind Christmas and New Year’s. Granted, you cansurvive long lines by arriving early and packing your own snacks. But if you go to Orlando for spring break, be prepared for company. 

One popular strategy for guaranteeing family fun without blowing the budget is vacationing in an all-inclusive resort. Familyvacationcritic.comhas a list of the top 50 all-inclusive resorts for families in the Dominican Republic, Mexico, the Cayman Islands and other exotic Caribbean locales. Rates during peak times start at about $300 per person for a five-day stay. Resorts typically feature pools, beaches, fun-filled activities, and meals-all in a safe family-friendly environment. 

Cruises are another popular option, offering activities and services for the whole family, including movies, swimming, waterslides, varied dining options and more. 

But spring break doesn’t have to be all about the beach, especially for families. Visiting a budget-friendly city with inexpensive airline flights can be both entertaining and an educational option for the entire family. 

Los Angeles was the Fiscal Times’ top family spring break destination due to the number of attractions and places to visit. In addition, airfare prices to the city generally don’t experience a spring break surge due to the high volume of flights. Five new hotels, a strong U.S. dollar and a nearby adventure park helped make Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, the second most popular spring break family destination. 

Las Vegas, Quebec City, Phoenix and New York are other great destination cities for family vacations. Norway also landed on the list due to competition among air carriers that has driven airfares below $200, and Spain was suggested because airfares to Barcelona are on par with flights to South Florida this time of year. 

For college students, eight of Kayak’s top 10 spring break destinations for 2015 are within the continental United States and four of those are in Florida. 

Home to the annual SXSW Festival, down-home rib joints, great Mexican food and walkable avenues lined with jumping live-music venues, Austin, Texas topped the list. It was followed by Fort Lauderdale, with its beaches, beachside bars, warm weather and manatees. 

Los Angeles was No. 3 on the list, with median airfare at just $352 in late April. Southern California is home to magnificent beaches such as Malibu, Santa Monica and Venice. In addition, plenty of culture can be found in downtown Los Angeles. But be advised that spring is the wet season, and a powerful El Nino is in the forecast this year, so your chances of rain falling on your spring break parade are fairly high. 

Miami, or SoBe for South Beach, has a lot going for it as a spring break destination. Its chic Art Deco hotels, fun atmosphere, packed beaches and club culture helped it reach No. 4 on Kayak’s 2015 list. But timing is everything. Median airfares reach a high of nearly $600 in early April, but fall to below $400 later in the month. Try to avoid the Winter Music Conference, scheduled for March 21-24 this year. South Beach hotel rooms will fill up and airfares soar during that time. 

Three other Florida beach towns also made Kayak’s top 10, including West Palm Beach (No. 5); Fort Myers (No. 6), and the family-friendly Tampa (No. 10). 

The two top spring break destinations outside the continental United States were Los Cabos, Mexico, with beaches, bars, and ocean activities; and San Juan, Puerto Rico, which boasts beaches and rainforests. 

Although the typical beach party spring break remains a popular rite of passage for many college students, some are craving alternatives. A group called Break Awayoffers active citizenship and leadership conferences for college students during spring break. Similarly,Projects Abroad promises an opportunity to make a difference by participating in volunteer projects such as rebuilding homes for the poor in Jamaica, protecting endangered turtles in Mexico  or providing educational support for underprivileged children in Costa Rica, Belize, or Fiji. 

One thing is certain: Whatever your preference for marking the arrival of spring, there’s something fun and affordable you can try, alone or as a family.

What Is The Cloud And Is It Safe?

Why do we use the cloud?

There was a time we used to buy furniture to hold our media.  CD racks, DVD racks, photo albums and filing cabinets filled our living rooms, guest room closets and wherever else we could pile them. Even in our cars, we would install massive CD changers to keep our music flowing or carry enormous books of CDs so we could have our tunes while on the open road.  If you try to explain this to young people today, they’ll look at you like you just described preparing your covered wagon rather than a mid-2000s Honda Civic.  If you try to explain audio cassettes, they might just suspect you have a loose screw or two.
Today’s media and data is so small, it might as well not even exist. Using the Apple Music and Spotify libraries as a guideline, every song that’s ever been recorded and released would fit into flash storage drives the size of a 12-ounce can of Crystal Pepsi. Even as our data gets smaller, we make so much more of it that it can get out of hand – much like processor speed, the amount of information the world produces doubles every two years. Some of that information is pictures of kittens and makeup tutorials, but we also produce a lot of data that isn’t nearly that important.
In such a data-driven world, we trust more and more of our lives to the cloud, and often it seems like blind faith.  After all, what is the cloud? How much do you know about it? Are their laws governing the way people use it? Most importantly, have you taken enough steps to protect yourself when all of your information exists on what is, if we’re really honest about it, not much more than a metaphor for the shared hallucination that is modern life? 
Why should I start to care now? 
This week, iPhone users started noticing problems with Safari.  Initially attributed to an iOS update from earlier this month, it is now suspected to be a server-side problem stemming from Apple’s cloud-based syncing with its Safari web browser.  The issue doesn’t affect security, but it demonstrates a critical problem with cloud-based computing, something all of the major tech companies are pushing us toward. And it’s something where we have little control over our online security.
The cloud itself has insinuated itself in a variety of news stories in the last few years, from the theft of intimate photos belonging to Hollywood stars like Jennifer Lawrence to the operation for ending corruption in FIFA. Cloud storage is behind the surge in Amazon’s stock valuation, because they are the largest provider of cloud storage to businesses, including Netflix, the largest private user of bandwidth on the planet. The cloud is the basis for Google’s push into the laptop business via Chromebooks, and by extension, the efforts of a variety of organizations to get low-cost laptops in the hands of less-privileged kids.  It’s even changed Microsoft Office, probably the most ubiquitous piece of software in the world, by forcing Microsoft to create free versions of its Office suite and charge for excess storage of the files you create.
In other words, your investments, your data and the future of law enforcement may be intimately tied to cloud-based computing, and something as simple as a server-side bug can have an enormous ripple effect for millions of users. The issue won’t be going away any time soon, as more people use the web more often on mobile devices, which will eclipse 50% of personal Internet usage in the next few years. These devices rely on storage in the cloud to compensate for smaller on-device storage capabilities and a lack of long-term storage peripherals. 
What is the cloud? 
The cloud is a series of servers which store data that can be accessed by users whenever it’s needed.  This frees up hard drive space while protecting us from data loss due to hardware failure, including a stolen laptop or dropping your phone into the pasta you’re boiling on the stove. It’s not magical, and your information doesn’t live on the Internet in any particularly novel way. Instead of a home video being stored on your local storage, it is stored on someone else’s storage, far away. These server farms are enormous undertakings, and if you’re into mechanical processes and design, they’re also beautiful and fascinating. For example, check out these pictures of Google’s data centers:
How much of my data is stored on the cloud? 
The amount of your information stored on the cloud varies from person-to-person, but if you’re reading this on a device that plugs into a wall at any point, you’ve got at least some data on the cloud.  If you own an iPhone, your device backs up your photos, videos and music to the cloud, in addition to storing periodic backups of your phone.  If you have a web-based email address, like one from Gmail, Yahoo! or AOL, your emails are backed up there as well.  Depending upon which apps you use, your health details, dating history or even your exact current location could be on the cloud as well, possibly being shared with third parties. 
Wait, who can see what? 
For the time being, the government can probably see more of your data than you think. Exact details are fuzzy, and you can make your own moral judgments on homeland security, domestic spying and Edward Snowden. However, if you think the government doesn’t want access, keep in mind that Apple is currently fighting both California and the United States federal government to keep a form of encryption on your data that it can’t break. Apple no longer wants to surrender data to the government, so it has blinded itself from seeing large swaths of your data. The government is less happy about this, because that data might point to potential threats to homeland security. Again, this article isn’t trying to make a moral or political claim. The point is that the government is a third party who wants the ability to look at your data, which represents another point of vulnerability to a malicious attack.
Outside of the government, a lot of the companies that maintain those expensive server farms pay for all of that technology by sharing some or all of your personal information with private businesses.  You should already know that, of course.  If a web service is free to you, then the company providing it makes its money some other way.  If they’re charging you, they still might make money by selling your data.
You’ll never know, because you accepted the terms without reading them. Don’t feel bad, though, we all do that. The iTunes end user license agreement (EULA) is over 20,000 words long, about four times as long as the Constitution of the United States. There are, however, some resources to help you.  For a shortened and simplified version of various EULAs, try, which is a donations-based organization that explains what you’re agreeing to and offers an add-on for your browser so it’s only a click away. 
Is my data safer when it’s in my control? 
That question is up for debate, but usually the answer is no. In most instances, end users are the most vulnerable point of attack for cyber scammers. However, when you have control of your data, you can work to make it safer. When you don’t, you’re trusting someone else with it. To put it another way, Apple Pay, Samsung Pay, and other tokenized payment plans are the safest way to make a purchase because they require your thumbprint, protects your data with single-use encryption that’s worthless to a third party, and doesn’t store your info in the cloud.  Doing your best to emulate those services is a good idea. 
So, what do I do to protect myself from the cloud? 
The easiest solution is to spend some time and some money. Find a single site to store your files, whether it’s with Google, Microsoft, Apple, or Dropbox. Read each of their EULAs and decide for yourself. Then pay them to get as much storage as you need, rather than spreading your files among various services in order to stay under the amount for free storage.
Next, go through and make a list of which sites and services have what information of yours. Determine your level of comfort. Delete what you can live without, move the rest to somewhere you feel safe. Clear out your email inbox whenever you can. Don’t archive private data, like medical records or financial statements, with your email provider. Instead, save them locally on storage you have at home or work, which you can disconnect from the Internet. A 2-terabyte solid state removable storage drive is less than $100 and offers you great protection.  As an added measure, back up your drive in a second location once a month, in case something happens to your house.
Finally, as you move forward, try to think critically about what you’re telling people. If someone can make money off your information, they’ll find a way to do so. The only way to protect your information and that of your family’s is by being vigilant. 

Winter Weekend Getaways On A Limited Budget

We’d all love to get away for a fun weekend, but don’t want to dip into savings. There are many ways to escape the winter doldrums without breaking the bank. You don’t have to take an expensive ski trip or visit a tropical island paradise to receive the intended benefits-namely getting away for some rest and relaxation so you can return revitalized and ready to face winter again. Here are some tips and creative ideas for planning an inexpensive trip that won’t leave you in the red: 

Stay close to home 
Sometimes all you need is a slight change of scenery or break from the routine to feel refreshed and revitalized. Is there a cute bed and breakfast the next town over that you’ve been meaning to try? A nearby local attraction? If you’ll be driving instead of flying, you’ll have more money in your budget for lodging and dinner. If you can, reserve a room with a fireplace or spa, since there’s little that beats staring into a crackling fire with a glass of wine or relaxing in a bubbling hot tub. Find a bed and breakfast offering specials near you at 
Avoid popular destinations 
Save yourself some time: Don’t even bother thinking about Maui or Cancun. Winter is also peak season for ski destinations such as Aspen, Park City and Jackson Hole. If you want to hit the slopes or bask on sun-drenched beaches at the most popular resorts this time of year, you’ll be paying top dollar. If your goal is a ski getaway, why not try out a resort that’s close to home? Or if your heart is set on a tropical beach, try out one of the up-and-coming areas where prices are still low. Chances are, you’ll have just as much fun. In addition to saving money, you’ll escape the crowds. 
Visit a national park 
National parksare one of America’s most treasured resources. Together, the U.S.’s 400 national parks draw 275 million visitors per year. Summer is peak season in most of them. A visit during winter would let you enjoy nature without crowds of tourists. If you’ve already been to the national parks in your area, try taking a road trip to one in the next state over. There’s a reason these areas have been preserved-they contain some of the most awe-inspiring scenery in the country. Many parks don’t charge admission, and those that do will usually offer three-day passes. You can often find interesting accommodations within the park boundaries, but better deals can usually be found at motels in surrounding towns. 
Do your Internet research 
The Internet is definitely your best friend for finding the best travel deals. Make it a point to bookmark budget travel pages and sign up for their email alerts. Receiving alerts on great deals can fill up your in-box, but you can always set up a special folder for travel planning. Alerts can save you hours of online research, and if you’re lucky, one will pop into your inbox at exactly the right time. Many travel websites, includingBudget Travel, theTravel Channel andKiplinger, have put together lists of the best sites for finding good travel deals. There are new websites popping up all the time to help find the best deals on airfare,car rentals,hotels,bus and traintravel and even all-inclusive packages. It’s just a matter of deciding which ones are your favorites. 
Use your air miles 
If you’ve been saving up frequent-flier miles through an airline rewards program, now might be the time to use them. Often, these programs have expiration dates, so if you don’t use them, you may lose them. And with airfare for your getaway taken care of, that only leaves food and lodging to worry about. 
Take advantage of coupons 
Tons of amazing travel deals can be found through online coupon sites such as Groupon, LivingSocial and Travelzoo. And besides saving you money, they can take you on an adventure. Many merchants who are offering deals through these sites are just getting established or are up-and-coming. They may not have a premier location or a big advertising budget, but since they’re seeking new business, they’ll most certainly appreciate it when you show up. Signing up for multiple online-coupon sites can easily overwhelm your email inbox. Luckily, there are now several aggregators, including DailyDibs, that can compile deals from online coupon sites and send you a daily report. 
Use Airbnb 
Although the hotel industry is not a fan of Airbnb, travelers certainly are. Not only can you save substantially on lodging, but you can stay in a place with all the comforts of home, including kitchens where you can save even more by cooking your own meals. The site offers 1.5 million listings in 34,000 cities and 190 countries, so it’s likely there are available accommodations in the vacation destination you’ve chosen. Reviews of hosts provide a measure of security. Choose wisely however: Airbnb properties range from rooms in someone’s home to short-term luxurious vacation rentals. The plus: most are in desirable neighborhoods and contain all the comforts of home. 
Take couch surfing to a new level 
You can’t get much cheaper than free! Operating on the same principles as Airbnb, lets you send out queries to people who might be interested in hosting you in their home for free. Popular among Millennials looking to travel and meet new friends, couchsurfing lets you experience a locale on a local level. Often your hosts will not only put you up for the night and feed you in the morning, but also take you sightseeing and introduce you to their friends. The idea is that if you’re part of this network, you’ll reciprocate by hosting travelers in your home sometime, too. 
Try house-swapping 
Know some friends in another city who may want to escape for a little while, too? Arrange for a house swap. With accommodations taken care of, all you’ll need to worry about is the cost of travel. If you’re flying, you should be able to find a good deal by using one of the plentiful cheap airfare finders. If you don’t have friends interested in switching abodes, you can look for places on sites such as HomeExchange.comand LoveHomeSwap.
Whatever you do, make it a fun vacation. Set a budget and reward yourself for sticking to it by planning your next getaway when you get back!