Your February Financial To-Do List

Lifestyle and Budget Consumer Reports

It's nearly Valentine's Day, and I'm not opposed to spending a little money to give bon bons, bouquets, and bling to your loved one. But this month I'll also take a little time to get my finances in order.

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Not the most romantic sentiment, to be sure. But disagreements over money are the main reason both first and second marriages dissolve. This checklist may help you to avoid such problems and build on the progress you made in January

1. Find Good Tax Prep Help

There are good reasons to prepare your taxes early. If you're getting a federal tax refund this year, filing early means you can put that money to good use sooner.

If you owe money instead, preparing early gives you time to figure out how you’ll pay before the deadline. The free preview features by tax software companies like TurboTax and H&R Block can help you figure out how much you'll owe. When our tax pro recently tried the programs, she found that both were easy to use and took less than 15 minutes to complete. 

If you decide to prepare your own taxes, first read our recent comparison of H&R Deluxe tax prep software with Turbo Tax Deluxe. If you need to find a new tax preparer instead, start looking now before the good ones are too busy to take on new clients.

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You may also qualify for free tax help if your household income was low to moderate for your community last year, or if you're at least 50 years old. The AARP Foundation Tax-Aide service will pair you with trained volunteers who can handle Form 1040 and schedules A and B.

2. Get a Free Credit Report

The Fair Credit Reporting Act requires each of the nationwide credit reporting companies—Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion—to provide you with a free copy of your credit report, at your request, once every 12 months.

We suggest you order one credit report from a different major credit bureau each quarter, which allows you to take a peek at your credit files several times a year for free. The bureaus don’t collect exactly the same information, so getting one from each gives you a more complete picture of your credit history. To order your first free report in 2016, go to annualcreditreport.com.

3. Buy Products on Deep Discount

Consumer Reports product research experts, who track prices all year long, have compiled a list of items that are typically at their lowest price in February. If you're shopping for the best deals this month, look for sales on indoor furniture, mattresses, humidifiers, and winter clothes.

If you think you can get an even better deal on products and services try haggling. In a Consumer Reports National Research Center survey of 2,000 American adults, 89 percent of people who said they haggled received a better price at least once.

4. Check for New Credit Card Fees

Credit card issuers keep finding new ways to charge fees. The average card now charges six different fees, according to a survey by CreditCards.com. Besides familiar dings for late payments and balance transfers, some unexpected charges to look for are fees for re-opening a closed account, returned checks, and hard copies of your credit card statement.

Not all cards have a laundry list of fees. Take a look at your credit card statements for the past six months to see if you were charged unexpected fees. If you were charged, consider searching for better deals on websites such as Bankrate.com, CreditCards.com, CardRatings.com, and Lowcards.com.

5. Check Your Property Tax Assessment

February is the deadline for property tax appeals in some cities. If your property has recently been reassessed and you disagree with the reassessment, you may have a limited number of days to appeal. Find out when you can file a grievance; forms and procedure information should be found on the website for your town's tax assessor's office. 

You can determine how much your home is worth by using current home-sales data to compare the assessed value to those of six or more similar houses in your town. Another option is to pay for an appraisal. If you feel your home has been assessed at least 10 percent too high, appeal to the tax assessor's office.

A word of advice: Before filing a formal request for an appeal, meet with your town's assessor. Explain how you came to your conclusion and provide five to 10 property comps to strengthen your case. You should also find out how the assessor arrived at his assessment. You may be able to resolve your differences before going through the appeals process.

If you decide to file an appeal, don't jump at tax-cut solicitations that offer to file an appeal for you for a fee. They might not be as thorough because they don't know your property as well as you do. If you do use a third party, make sure you understand the payment structure, which might involve a one-time fee, a contingency fee, or both. Check with the Better Business Bureau and your state attorney general's office for any complaints.

Pay your tax bill if it is due while your appeal is in process. If you win, you can gain a retroactive refund or credit.

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