Finish Your 2011 To-Do List? The Clock's Ticking!

Read John McCarron's Chicago Tribune column, "Take Care Of Business"

Remember those 2011 new year's resolutions? If you haven't contributed to your child's college savings plan or spent your use-it-or-lose-it flexible savings account funds, there are still a few days left to get it done. Chicago Tribune columnist John McCarron shares tips on taking care of business.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

There are just six days left before New Year's. With time running out on 2011, there are some important things to do beyond buying a new calendar or deciding on your New Year's resolution. From contributing to your 401(k) to spending use-it-or-lose-it flexible savings account money, what do you do with this last waning week? What do you accomplish before New Year's? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Chicago Tribune contributing columnist John McCarron joins us from his home in Evanston, Illinois, to discuss what you need to do before the beginning of 2012. Nice to have you with us today.

JOHN MCCARRON: Well, it's good to be here. Happy Boxing Day, Neal.

CONAN: And Happy Boxing Day to you. What's at the top of your to-do list before the end of 2011?

MCCARRON: Yeah. I was looking for a column idea for today, and I'm thinking what do people want to read about the day after Christmas, and I thought, well, maybe, you know, actually it's an important week. A lot of things need to get done by the end of the week. So I threw one together with a few bullet points. I think my top one was here in Illinois, we have one of those college savings plans, those 529 program.

CONAN: There are in many states, yeah.

MCCARRON: There are, indeed, and it's - unlike some other things, they give you until the tax deadline in April. You have to make your contribution by the end of the year. So it's time to write that big check if that's how you're going to finance your child's college education.

CONAN: There are also some other kinds of deadlines. If you want to make a tax-deductable charitable contribution, again, you've got just six days.

MCCARRON: That's exactly right. And in fact the Tribune where my column appears has their own charity, so this also gives me a chance to plug that. And I had some fun with some other local grief that occurs out here in the Chicago area - maybe all your northern listeners would appreciate - that's changing the vehicle sticker on your windshield. And the city of Chicago goes June to June, so they thought they were OK. Most of the suburbs, it's January 1, like the one I live in. So there we are out there, you know, in, well, it's not too bad, but near-freezing temperatures with our Windex or nail polish remover, we're trying to (unintelligible) razorblades, so it can get bloody trying to get the old sticker off and get the new one on.

CONAN: There are also - a suggestion you have to go on a crash diet to at least get within shouting distance of the last New Year's pledge.

MCCARRON: Well, yeah, and it just seems so cruel that the big eating binge of the year just comes in the last 30 days, you know, somewhere between Thanksgiving and New Year's Eve. It seems - that's always the hardest time for me, but I thought maybe if I'd add that old chestnut, maybe some people would take my advice.

CONAN: Also a lot of people pledge come January 1 to hit the gym. By this time, 51 weeks later, some of - a few may have dropped out.

MCCARRON: Yeah. It's kind of hard to catch up in one week, especially, as I said, if you're going to all these Christmas parties. Although I managed to throw in the column that, well, you know, everything you read about this health business isn't - we had some sort of counterintuitive studies this year that said - one of them said that salt wasn't really all that bad for you. Another one said that saturated fats really showed no higher incidence of cardiac distress. I don't know. I - my wife's a nurse, and she said no, don't listen to that. The same old rules apply.

CONAN: Yes, indeed. You can ignore half the studies that come out touting changes to the appreciations of fat, chocolate and caffeine; these are perennial studies and just wait for the next one.

MCCARRON: That's right. It reminds me of that Woody Allen movie about the future where he says it turns out all the things they said were bad for you turned out to be good and vice versa.

CONAN: We'd like to hear what you think we need to get done by the end of the year, rushing toward us now. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. I'd always heard about changing the batteries in your smoke alarm on the days we change the clocks.

MCCARRON: Well, that's a good idea too. But, you know, for one thing, you've got to change the time on the clocks, so you're busy as heck just doing that. And, you know, this week, between Christmas and New Year's, it seems to me it's just the ideal time to get all sorts of things done, like the deadlines going forward, where people who, you know, aren't on payroll deduction who basically have to withhold their own taxes and send it in, now is the time, I think, to write those four dates down on your calendar for 2012.

CONAN: You don't happen to know what they are, do you?

MCCARRON: Oh, I do. As a matter of fact, I prepped here; they are January 15th, so that's pretty quick, April 15, June 15 and September 15.

CONAN: So they hit you twice on 4/15.

MCCARRON: That's not fair, but it's true. Although I notice this year they give you - I think the 1040 deadline this year isn't until April 18. It seems like - Washington seems like they're doing us a favor by giving us a couple extra days.

CONAN: We're talking about the tasks we need to accomplish before the end of the year. Give us a call. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Let's go to Teresa. Teresa, on the line with us from Boston.

TERESA: Hi. How are you?

CONAN: I'm well. Thank you.

TERESA: That's good. I spent today - I went out to lunch with a friend who needed to use a Groupon before the end of the year, and then I went and used a LivinSocial coupon that also expires at the end of the year. So trying to get those coupons done with. You feel like you really need them when you buy them and then you don't use it for the last minute.

CONAN: So would you have done this had you not had the coupon?

TERESA: No, no. It was sort of like, like $20 of cupcakes. I mean, I really like cupcakes, but I probably wouldn't have driven into Boston. It was just outside of the city. I probably wouldn't have driven in the day after Christmas if it wasn't for the coupons, but I wanted to use it.

CONAN: I can understand wanting to use it. And then you can refer back to that pledge to join the gym.

TERESA: Yeah, exactly.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Teresa, thanks very much. Do you have, John McCarron, any coupons you get to use?

MCCARRON: Oh, yeah. You know, my wife and I are in the market for a box spring and a mattress. And we're looking at a big sale, and I think Macy's says, you know, got to be here by year's end. But I'm suspicious about those because it seems like soon as that sales expires, another one comes along. Although if you're buying for a business and it's a business expense, it's the real deal. You can't deduct it against your 2011 business income unless you get the deal done, you know, by quittin' time Friday.

CONAN: There's also a lot of businesses. If you don't spend whatever is in your account at the end of the fiscal year, you're not gonna get that in your budget next year.

MCCARRON: Well, that's right. And then, you know, a lot of people too who aren't even in business have these flexible health savings accounts. And another Tribune writer, Mary Schmich, wrote a column last week about the crazy things - not so crazy, really - that people spend on towards the end of the year, you know, dental checkups and go buy an extra set of eyeglasses, new prescription or whatever. There's really quite a frenzy that goes on at the end of the year on health care.

CONAN: Let's go next to Rob, and Rob's on the line with us from Kansas City.

ROB: Yes, sir. Hey, guys. Happy Boxing Day.

CONAN: Happy Boxing Day.

ROB: I just wanted to mention, I'm a residential energy professional working out of the KC(ph) Metroplex. And you only got six days left to purchase certain items like insulation and energy-efficient doors and things like that before you lose the chance to get the tax credit available from (unintelligible) the Department of Energy and the Energy Star programs.

CONAN: And these are pretty substantial energy credits, aren't they?

ROB: Yeah. You know, some of them are, you know, actually not nearly as good as they were last year, from the stimulus. But, you know, they're still available, where you can get up to three to 500 dollars, you know, for some insulation or some – maybe a new door or a couple new windows. You know, there are some other ones that lasts until 2016, but there are a few that are ending this year. So you know, it's just a quick Google search on the Net for tax credits for energy-efficient stuff, and it'll take you direct to the site.

CONAN: John McCarron, I don't know about there in Chicago. Here in Washington, all we here on the radio is ads for insulated windows.

MCCARRON: Well, yeah, and while you have the gentleman on, I wonder if you write up the job now and commit to it, what if you don't get the work done until February, or maybe it's some outdoor work that can't happen until Spring. Can you take the credits still?

ROB: Well, actually, a lot of it allows you to actually purchase the material. So even if you couldn't get the work done, you could go, you know, to Home Depot or Lowes or someplace like that and pick up some installation and then, you know, either do it yourself or have - hire a contractor after the first year and still get that tax credit, you know, to put on your 2011 return.

CONAN: And I think maybe if you sign a contract with the company before the start of the New Year, that should be enough too?

ROB: Yeah. And you know what, I'm not positive on that, but you know, there's always, you know, there's ways to do things.

CONAN: All right. Rob, thanks very much for the call. Good advice.

ROB: Thanks, guys.

CONAN: Let's see if we go next to - this is Toby. Toby with us from Chapel Hill.

TOBY, HOST:

Hi. This year I really need to get my Christmas tree down because I never managed to get it down last year. And as I got deeper and deeper into the year, it got more and more embarrassing to family and friends, complaining that I still had my Christmas tree up. But on the upside, it was up long before theirs were this year. So that's my comment.

CONAN: And do you have a real tree or a plastic tree?

TOBY: Oh, no. It's one of those fake trees. If it was a real tree, it would have been a fire hazard. And - but I just have no storage space, so my thinking was ultimately I came down with my storage area, and I could put it in intact with the bolts and everything still on it, and then I could just take it out next year, and then save myself some time, but I just never got around the taking it down.

CONAN: So pre-decorated is the idea?

TOBY: Exactly. And plus, you know, it kind of makes you smile when you're sitting there, it's summertime and you've got a Christmas tree standing around in the corner.

CONAN: John McCarron, when do you plan to take your tree down?

MCCARRON: Oh, Martin Luther King Day is my drop date on that. I feel guilty if I don't get it down by King Day.

CONAN: Toby, thanks very much for the call.

TOBY: Thank you very much. Happy New Year.

CONAN: Happy New Year to you too. Let's see if we go next to - this is Francis. And Francis with us from Mount Shasta in California.

FRANCIS: Good morning, gentlemen.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

FRANCIS: My thing for between now and New Year's is I take all the charitable deductions - I shouldn't call them deductions because I don't do deductions. But all the charities that have asked me for money through the year, I spread them out all over my kitchen table and prioritize them and decide which groups are going to get my charitable deductions. So I write Christmas checks all afternoon to the world.

CONAN: You're like John Beresford Tipton writing $1 million check to each?

FRANCIS: Well, I don't have that much money.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FRANCIS: Here in Northern California, retired on a pension, you haven't got that much money. But I do prioritize which organizations I think will do the most good for the most number of people, usually environmental organizations. And I just write them out a check or a membership or something like that.

CONAN: Greg Jeff - John McCarron, other than the - your own newspaper's charity, do you do the same thing?

MCCARRON: Well, I do. I usually pay by mail. I'm back in, you know, the licking stamp generation. And I put the worthy solicitations in our bill organizer. And of course at the end of the year they work their way to the fore and I sit down much as your caller. That's an excellent idea, by the way. And the one I always give a really strong look at is United Way, especially with all the cutbacks coming down at the state and national level for basic services. I think sometimes they're so familiar that we tend to look for the more exotic charities, but United Way, it seems to me, is the one that stands out as really helping people right on the street level in our communities.

FRANCIS: This way you can keep track of them.

CONAN: Francis, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it. Good luck.

FRANCIS: Good way to keep track of them.

CONAN: Thanks.

FRANCIS: Bye-bye.

CONAN: We're talking with John McCarron of the Chicago Tribune about what needs to get done before the year expires. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And here's an email from Amanda in Miami: Finish your Ph.D. research. What a way to end the year and get ready to write the dissertation in 2012. And this email from Jennifer in Mountain View: Trying to have a baby to qualify for the 2011 tax deduction. I hope she's pretty far along in that process. Let's go next to Sue. Sue is with us from Woodland in California.

SUE: Hey. How you doing?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

SUE: Great. Hey, I'm going to lose a pound this week as I clean one room a day.

CONAN: One room a day?

SUE: That's right.

CONAN: How many rooms in your house?

SUE: See, today I've cleaned the pantry and my (unintelligible) filters, and I've had a carrot and three glasses of water.

CONAN: A carrot and - I think you're on track.

SUE: I hope so.

CONAN: All right. And just make sure you don't dip that carrot into any of the - that guacamole that you have saved leftover from the holiday party.

SUE: Oh, no. Good lord, no.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: OK, Sue.

SUE: Like second Christmas day, finding stuff - all the stuff I forgot I had.

CONAN: By the way, as you're changing - as you're cleaning these rooms, there's a lot of filters in various part of our houses. Is this the time of year you want to change those too?

SUE: Yep, changing filters and smoke alarm batteries that I was too lazy to change back in October when the clocks changed, and yeah, all that stuff.

CONAN: John McCarron of the - your furnace have some filters that might need changing?

MCCARRON: Well, no, because we have hot water. But I have an air-conditioning filter that - I'll be probably put that off until we crank it up in June when the heat comes. But I really like the idea of that two-fer, of losing weight while you're doing home chores. I know I always - I kind of look forward to shoveling snow in the winter. I call it the Irish health club because there's no dues and no monthly minimums.

CONAN: Sue, by the time you're done, I suspect your vacuum cleaner may need to be cleaned too.

SUE: Oh, I've got too many cats and dogs. I already change it just about weekly, so too late for that.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call.

SUE: You're welcome.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we go next to - this is Michael. Michael with us from Honolulu.

MICHAEL: Yes, good morning. A couple of quick things before we get cut off. First is on that energy component. It doesn't have to be paid for. It has to be installed. If it's not installed, you don't get the credit. And second of all, on the payments of the January, April, September stuff, January is the 2011 payment. And you need to make that state payment prior to the end of the year in December in order to deduct it, even if it may not be due until January next year.

CONAN: It sounds like you're somewhere in the accountancy business.

MICHAEL: I certainly am, for almost 70 years.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much for clarifying that. We appreciate the correction.

MICHAEL: And I'm also from Chicago originally. Thank you, John.

CONAN: And I bet you're having a much better time in Honolulu than...

MICHAEL: Hey, I'd rather live in Honolulu than Chicago, let me tell you.

CONAN: John, would you rather live in Honolulu than the suburbs of Chicago?

MCCARRON: Oh, absolutely not. I'd probably be bored in Honolulu. You know, too much good food and sunshine, I think, might be bad for you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MICHAEL: Happy Christmas, gentlemen.

CONAN: Happy Christmas, Michael. Thanks very much for the phone call. And, John McCarron, thank you so much for your time today.

MCCARRON: Oh, thank you, Neal. It was fun being on.

CONAN: John McCarron, a contributing columnist at the Chicago Tribune, with us today from his home in Evanston, Illinois. Tomorrow we'll talk about nuclear power. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission says U.S. plants are safe, but with public opinion mixed, their future is uncertain. Join us for that. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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