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Ask Kim

The 7 Most Valuable Personal Finance Lessons of 2015

Your questions led to a gold mine of information about saving, managing money and making the most of your benefits.

My favorite thing about working on this column is hearing from you, and I learn so much from researching the answers to your personal finance questions. This year, some big changes affected retirees' finances, and readers of all ages asked great questions about strategies to save money and make the most of their benefits. Based on your questions, I’ve come up with the top seven personal finance lessons of 2015.

See Also: Best Personal-Finance Products and Services of 2015

1. A few key strategies can help you save money on rising health care costs. Whether you have coverage on your own, through your employer or even through Medicare, you’re probably paying higher premiums or larger out-of-pocket costs for your medical expenses and prescription drugs. Readers of all ages asked a lot of questions about how to navigate plan choices during open enrollment and strategies for saving money throughout the year.

The cost of prescription drugs continues to be one of the fastest-rising health care costs, especially if you take expensive brand-name drugs. See How to Cut the Costs of Prescription Drugs for money-saving strategies. Taking advantage of new health-care trends can help you save money, too. See 5 Ways Your Health Insurance Plan May Change in 2016 and What to Do If Your Employer Offers Telehealth in Your Health Plan.


Many readers with high-deductible health insurance policies are discovering the value of health savings accounts, which provide a triple tax break: Your contributions are pre-tax (or tax-deductible), the money grows tax-deferred in the account, and you can take tax-free withdrawals for medical expenses in any year – even after retirement. See How Much You Can Stash in a Health Savings Account and How to Find a Good Health Savings Account.

Even though Medicare covers the bulk of your medical expenses after you turn 65, you’ll still have some complicated decisions to make and the costs continue to rise. See 5 Smart Ways to Cut Health-Care Costs in Retirement and 11 Common Medicare Mistakes.

Readers had a lot of questions about how much they’ll pay in Medicare premiums in 2016 and what they can do to reduce the costs. See How Much Will Your Medicare Part B Premiums Cost in 2016? and What You'll Pay for Medicare Part D Coverage in 2016.

2. Smart withdrawal decisions can help you stretch your retirement savings. After carefully saving for retirement for decades, many readers are shifting their focus to retirement withdrawals. If they’ve saved for years in tax-deferred accounts, they’ll be hit with some big tax bills when they have to take required minimum distributions after age 70½. I received a ton of questions this year about RMDs – how they work, how to minimize the tax hit and how to avoid expensive RMD mistakes.


See The Basic Rules of Calculating and Withdrawing RMDs From Retirement Plans and What Retirees Need to Know About RMDs.

Also see Retirees, Avoid These 5 Costly RMD Mistakes and Retirees, Reduce Your RMDs With a Roth Conversion for RMD strategies.

A lot of readers are still working after age 70½ and were wondering how it would affect their RMDs. See RMD Rules for Older Workers.

Many readers were relieved and grateful when Congress made permanent the ability to transfer up to $100,000 tax-free from an IRA to charity for people over 70½; such transfers can count as your required minimum distribution without boosting your adjusted gross income. Congress tended to wait until the end of the year to approve the law, leaving retirees to worry whether they’d be able to make a transfer in time to meet their RMD deadline. Now that the law is extended permanently, they may make the transfer anytime during the year. See You Can Give Your 2015 IRA Required Distribution to Charity Now for more information.


3. Understanding your Social Security options -- and the new rules -- will help you maximize your benefits. As readers start to reach their mid 60s, they want to know how to make the most of their Social Security options and when to take their benefits. See How Much Will I Get From Social Security When I Retire? and How Social Security Cuts Your Benefits If You're Still Working and Social Security Survivor Benefits.

Readers who had mastered complex strategies for claiming Social Security had a lot of questions after Congress changed the rules for the popular "file and suspend" and "restricting an application" strategies. See New Rules for Social Security Spousal Benefits.

4. You can help a charity and help yourself, too. Many readers have done well financially and want to share some of their good fortune with worthy charities. They also want to know how to choose charities that will make the most of their contributions -- and how to get the biggest tax break. See 5 Things You Should Know About Giving Stock to Charity. Donor-Advised Funds: Tax Break Now, Charity Later. Also see How to Avoid Charity Scams for resources to help you research the charities to support and avoid scams that target generous people after a disaster or news event.

5. Tax breaks can add up no matter how old you are. Readers were very interested in frequently overlooked tax breaks and strategies at every life stage.


Couples just starting out asked great questions about how to make the most of benefit choices and tax breaks when they marry. See 10 Financial Things Newlyweds Must Do.

Families with young children asked about The Best Way to Get a Tax Break for Child Care Costs and Can I Write Off My Kid’s Summer Camp on My Tax Return? and What Kids With Summer Jobs Need to Know About Taxes.

Parents and grandparents asked about Tax Deductions for Contributions to 529 College-Savings Plans. And retirees had a lot of questions about tax breaks if they're thinking about moving. See Which States Won’t Tax My Retirement Income? and How Snowbirds Can Trim Tax Bills in Retirement.

And you may still be able cut your taxes, even after the filing deadline. See How to Claim Overlooked Tax Breaks From Previous Years and Don't Throw Away These Tax Records.

6. You may be able to stretch your tax breaks for retirement savings. Many readers wanted to know about strategies to help them save even more than they already are for retirement. See Retirement Plan Contribution Limits for 2016 and Making Contributions to Multiple Retirement Plans. Also see Contributing to a Spouse’s IRA in Retirement and An Overlooked Tax Break for Saving for Retirement.

If you had any freelance or self-employed income, you may be able to save even more money for retirement. See Set Up a Solo 401(k) With Low Fees and Self-Employed? Get Tax-Free Income Via a Roth Solo 401(k).

Readers also asked about steps they can take to provide tax-free income in retirement. See Should I Contribute to a Roth or Traditional 401(k)?, Rules for Converting Money From a Traditional IRA to a Roth and Converting Nondeductible IRA Contributions to a Roth.

7. Checking up on your homeowners insurance pays off, too. You can also save money -- and protect one of your biggest investments -- by properly insuring your home against storms and disasters. After huge snowstorms and record-breaking cold weather last year, readers had a lot of questions about How to Protect Your Home and Finances From Storms and How Much Does Flood Insurance Cost? They also asked about strategies to get the most out of their home insurance while avoiding premium hikes; see Homeowners, Skip Small Damage Claims. And they discovered new ways to cut their utility bills; see Lower Your Electricity Bill by Switching Providers.

Thank you again for asking great questions! You can see links to all of the columns at the Ask Kim archives. I hope they help answer your questions and provide some strategies to help with your own finances. I look forward to hearing from you in 2016!

See Also: 10 Things to Be Thankful For

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