Weekly business rail, with tax tips, BBB tips on choosing a health club and more.

Tip of the Week


Individuals and businesses spend more than 7 billion hours a year complying with federal tax-filing requirements, according to the Internal Revenue Service. To reduce the amount of time you spend, and maybe how much you owe, follow these seven tips from USAA when preparing your 2011 tax return.


1. Watch that deadline. The tax code is always changing, and the filing deadline is a moving target, too. This year, it's April 17. The IRS extended the deadline because April 15 falls on a Sunday and April 16 is Emancipation Day, a holiday in Washington, D.C. If you file for an automatic six-month extension of your tax return, be aware that the extra time only covers the paperwork. The IRS still expects you to pay your tax liability by April 17. If you don't, you'll be subject to interest and penalties.


2. Get college credit. Scheduled to expire at the end of 2010, the American Opportunity Tax Credit was extended through December 2012 and is worth up to $2,500 per college student. The college tax credit is only available for tuition, fees and course-related books and supplies at an eligible post-secondary educational institution. Room, board and transportation aren't covered. The full credit of $2,500 is available for those whose adjusted gross income is $80,000 or less if single and $160,000 or less if married filing jointly. The credit is reduced if you earn more. Also, you don't qualify if your adjusted gross income is greater than $90,000 if you're single or $180,000 if you file a joint return.


3. Get help with your energy-saving enhancements. Did you invest in new insulation, a heater, an air conditioner, windows or doors in 2011? If so, you may be eligible for an energy efficiency tax credit valued at 10 percent of the cost, up to a credit of $500 for qualified purchases. This tax credit applies only to an existing home that is your principal residence. New construction and rentals don't qualify.


4. Understand a new twist in investment tax reporting. Until recently, the burden of calculating gains and losses on the sale of investments fell on individual taxpayers. That's changing as this responsibility is gradually transferred to financial institutions.


5. Hit by a natural disaster? Seek tax shelter. With the onslaught of tornadoes, floods and blizzards, 2011 saw more than its fair share of catastrophes. If you were among the victims, you can take an itemized casualty loss deduction for property losses that weren't reimbursed by insurance.


6. Pay for that 2010 Roth IRA conversion. Did you convert a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA in 2010? If so, you had an option to split the income and report half on your 2011 tax return and half on your 2012 tax returns. If you elected to do so, it's time to make that first payment. 


7. If you use a tax preparer, choose carefully. New regulations require paid tax preparers to have a Preparer Tax Identification Number. Before hiring someone to do your taxes, make sure he or she has one. 


- ARA


BBB Watch


"Joining a health club can be a major investment, so first check out www.bbb.org to see how your club ranks," said Steve J. Bernas of the Better Business Bureau. "Take time to ask the gym and yourself some important questions before rushing to sign up for a membership."


Five questions to ask the gym:


- What are the terms of any introductory offers? Gyms often use special introductory offers to lure in new members. Make sure you understand the terms and what the price will be once the introductory period is over.


- Will my membership renew automatically? Many times people who joined a gym didn't realize that their contract would renew automatically and that they would have to take specific steps to cancel their contract. 


- How can I get out of my contract? Getting out of a gym contract isn't always as easy as getting into one, so make sure you understand what steps you would need to take to cancel your membership.


- What happens if I move? Gyms have any number of different policies when it comes to how moving will affect your membership. It might depend on how far away you're moving and if they have other locations nearby.


- What happens if the gym goes out of business? Ask the gym to explain what will happen to your money if they suddenly close down.


Five questions to ask yourself when looking at potential gyms/health clubs:


- What are my fitness goals? Determining your fitness goals in advance will help you select a facility that is most appropriate for you. If you have a serious health condition, consult with a medical professional when setting your fitness goals.


- Is this location convenient? If the gym is across town, you'll be less likely to work out. Choose a fitness club that is convenient to work or home so the location is not a deterrent to getting exercise.


- Can I really afford this every month? Monthly gym fees add up and, after any introductory periods are over, the price could jump higher than your budget can handle. Do the math before you join and make sure you can afford a gym membership.


- Am I feeling pressured to join? Do not give in to high-pressure sales tactics to join right away. A reputable gym will give you enough time to read the contract thoroughly, tour the facilities, and make an informed decision.


- Did I get everything in writing? Read the contract carefully and make sure that all verbal promises made by the salesperson are in writing.  What matters is the document you sign, so don't just take a salesperson's word for it.


For more advice from BBB on how to be a savvy consumer all year long, visit www.bbb.org.


The List


According to The Street, here are 10 products that have huge markups:




Printer ink

Bottled water

Jewelry

Coffee and tea (at stores vs. at home)

Text messages

Wine and Champagne

Perfume

Mattresses

Cosmetics

Movie snacks

Number to Know


15,000: Amount that unemployment benefits were down the first week of February, according to the Labor Department. That’s the second lowest amount since 2008.


Tech Talk


According to reports, Apple may be unveiling the iPad 3 in March. The company has schedule an announcement for then, and most experts believe it will be the third-generation iPad.


GateHouse News Service