Winds of March, we welcome you — the final stretch of winter is here, bringing with it warmer days and a bouquet of seasonal to-do list items to keep your finances in check.
This month, we have a few pointers on the 2024 spring real estate season to help you overcome another difficult year for home buying. And don’t forget: Important deadlines are coming up for taxpayers and workers who need to spend any leftover money in their flexible spending account.
1. Sign up for the IRS’s Direct File pilot program
Tax Day (April 15 in case you forgot) will be here before you know it. Before you head to your usual tax filing software of choice, you should consider looking into the IRS’s new free pilot program, which is officially open for qualifying taxpayers in 12 states.
Not everyone will be able to use this new system, and since it’s still in the testing phase for the next few weeks, even eligible taxpayers may have a hard time signing up. The Direct File website will only be open for “short, unannounced windows of time” during testing, IRS officials said in a statement.
First, you’ll need to check to see if you’re eligible for Direct File: Only taxpayers in Arizona, California, Florida, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Hampshire, New York, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Washington and Wyoming can use the program. You’ll also need to sign up for ID.me, a digital wallet that confirms your identity to give you access to benefits and services.
Direct File only covers federal returns, and only some states agreed to partner with the IRS to allow taxpayers to transfer their federal information to their state’s online tax tool. If you’re in one of those states, Direct File will redirect you to complete your state return outside the new program.
Single taxpayers can’t use Direct File if they earned more than $200,000 last year, or $160,200 if they had multiple employers. Those married and filing separately cannot have wages exceeding $125,000, and earnings for joint filers can’t exceed $250,000.
The program only covers certain tax forms (specifically: W-2, 10-99-G, SSA-1099 and/or 1099-INT) so Direct File isn’t an option if you’re a freelancer. You also can’t use it if you have itemized deductions or credits beyond the earned income tax credit, child tax credit and the tax credit for other dependents.
2. Spend your remaining FSA dollars
Have you checked in on your flexible spending account recently? While the deadline to spend all the money deposited last year in your FSA — an employer benefit account that lets you set aside pre-tax dollars for qualifying health care expenses — has already passed, many workers actually have a “grace period” deadline of March 15.
The contribution limit for 2023 was $3,050 per employee. Since these accounts typically have a “use it or lose it” policy, you need to spend what you contributed, or you’ll leave money on the table. So if you have leftover cash on your account, the time to spend it is now.
You can use the funds for costs like insurance copays, dental work or elective procedures, but there are a ton of other things you can buy online that qualify: sunscreen, feminine products, over-the-counter medications, medical equipment and many more items are fair game.
Some FSAs even cover expenses like massages or fitness memberships if you have a documented medical reason. And if you need to travel to and from medical appointments, you may be able to get your gas mileage and other costs, like meals, paid for through your account.
If you need some inspiration on how to spend your remaining money, take a look at FSAstore.com. You can browse by category, brand, health condition or price to load up on the items you need.
3. Get ready for spring homebuying season
Anyone who has looked into buying a home in the past few years already knows that conditions have been tough for buyers, and this spring season won’t be much different.
The Federal Reserve is expected to cut interest rates at some point this year, and mortgage rates are likely to fall slightly, too. That said, mortgage rates are expected to stay in the high-6%-range ahead of the annual uptick in home sales — and with housing inventory expected to remain low, prices aren’t likely to cool much, either. According to real estate listing site Redfin, the U.S. average monthly mortgage payment for U.S. homebuyers jumped 20% in January to $2,605.
Regardless, plenty of people will still need to make home purchases this spring for a variety of reasons. In this market, preparation is the best strategy prospective buyers have.
Check your credit score and make sure you’re on top of other mortgage lending criteria, like your debt-to-income ratio. You may even want to get pre-approved for a mortgage so you can get a better sense of your budget and show sellers that you’re ready to strike a deal.
Given the challenges ahead for buyers this season, you’ll probably have to make some compromises. It can help to create a list of what home features you’re willing to give up and what you absolutely need. Being flexible on things like home size and location can help you find options you can afford.
While you should be willing to adjust your expectations, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t negotiate. Last year, many sellers were forced to offer concessions as buyers backed out of deals at the last minute. If that happens again this spring, you may be able to convince a seller to drop their price or pay for certain expenses like closing costs.
As always, Money is on top of market trends and changes, so be sure to follow our latest real estate coverage to stay in the know.
More from Money: