Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Claim: The price of generic drugs can vary widely from one pharmacy to the next.


Example: [Collected via e-mail, 2003]
On Monday night (July 22), Steve Wilson, an investigative reporter for channel 7 News in Detroit, did a story on generic drug price gouging by pharmacies. He found in his investigation, that some of these generic drugs were marked up as much as 3,000% or more. Yes, that's not a typo . . . three thousand percent!

Mr. Wilson did a thorough research, and checked out all the major drugstore chains, discount chains, independent pharmacies, and even checked on some Canadian pharmacies. So often, we blame the drug companies for the high cost of drugs, and usually rightfully so. But in this case, the fault clearly lies with the pharmacies themselves.

For example, if you had to buy a prescription drug, and bought the name brand, you might pay $100 for 100 pills. The pharmacist might tell you that if you get the generic equivalent, they would only cost $80, making you think you are "saving" $20. What the pharmacist is not telling you is that those 100 generic pills may have only cost him $10!

At the end of the report, one of the anchors asked Mr. Wilson whether or not there were any pharmacies that did not adhere to this practice, and he said that Costco consistently charged little over their cost for the generic drugs. They gave the link to Costco, which I will include here, so that you can go and check prices for yourself. Costco Online pharmacy

I went to the Costco site, where you can look up any drug, and get it's online price. It says that the in-store prices are consistent with the online prices. I was appalled. Just to give you one example from my own experience, I had to use the drug, Compazine, which helps prevent nausea in chemo patients. I used the generic equivalent, which cost $54.99 for 60 pills at CVS. I checked the price at Costco, and I could have bought 100 pills for $19.89. For 145 of my pain pills, I paid $72.57. I could have got 150 at Costco for $28.08.

I would like to mention, that although Costco is a "membership" type store, you do NOT have to be a member to buy prescriptions there, as it is a federally regulated substance. You just tell them at the door that you wish to use the pharmacy, and they will let you in.

Origins: As the popularity of this e-mail attests, the fact that one can find a wide disparity in drug prices from one pharmacy to the next was apparently surprising news to many people. And there's probably some truth to the notion that because we tend to view generic drugs as great "money-saving" alternatives to brand drugs, we often don't consider that the mark-up on generics can vary widely from one retailer to the next.

The basic facts laid out in the message quoted above are true. Steve Wilson, a reporter with WXYZ-TV in Detroit, conducted an investigative study into the cost of generic drugs at various pharmacies and other retail drug outlets and found quite a disparity between the highest and lowest prices

charged for certain generic drugs. For example, the Prescription Drug Price Comparison Chart available in conjunction with Wilson's report shows that a one-month supply of Fluoxetine HCL (the generic for Prozac), which wholesales for $1.48, varied in retail price from a high of $92.24 to a low of $9.69 just within the Detroit area.

Comparison shopping applies to generic drugs just as much as it does to food, clothing, DVDs, automobiles, or any other product. Those willing to do some hunting around get the best prices, and many drug comparison sites are available on the web to help consumers compare the costs of various drugs at different retail outlets before submitting their prescriptions (although medical insurance or HMO restrictions may limit which pharmacies a covered patient can use). Price differences between pharmacies can't necessarily be chalked up to nothing more than mere greed, however — some pharmacies offer additional levels of service (such as staying open 24 hours a day) and have to recoup the costs of those additional services by charging higher prices.

Although we can't guarantee that Costco always has the lowest prices on generic drugs, it is generally true that their pharmacy will fill prescriptions for non-members (but be prepared to pay by cash or ATM card rather than check).

Later versions of this message had the following table added to the beginning:

The Cost of Prescription Drugs

Did you ever wonder how much it costs a drug company for the active ingredient in prescription medications? Some people think it must cost a lot, since many drugs sell for more than $2.00 per tablet. We did a search of offshore chemical synthesizers that supply the active ingredients found in drugs approved by the FDA. As we have revealed in past issues of Life Extension, a significant percentage of drugs sold in the United States contain active ingredients made in other countries.

In our independent investigation of how much profit drug companies really make, we obtained the actual price of active ingredients used in some of the most popular drugs sold in America. The chart below speaks for itself.
Brand Name
of Drug Consumer Price/100 tabs Cost of General
Active Ingredients Percent Markup

Celebrex 100 mg $130.27 $0.60 21,712%
Claritin 10 mg $215.17 $0.71 30,306%
Keflex 250 mg $157.39 $1.88 8,372%
Lipitor 20 mg $272.37 $5.80 4,696%
Norvasc 10 mg $188.29 $0.14 134,493%
Paxil 20 mg $220.27 $7.60 2,898%
Prevacid 30 mg $44.77 $1.01 34,136%
Prilosec 20 mg $360.97 $0.52 69,417%
Prozac 20 mg $247.47 $0.11 224,973%
Tenormin 50 mg $104.47 $0.13 80,362%
Vasotec 10 mg $102.37 $0.20 51,185%
Xanax 1mg $136.79 $0.024 569,958%
Zestril 20 mg $89.89 $3.20 2,809%
Zithromax 600mg $1,482.19 $18.78 7,892%
Zocor 40mg $350.27 $8.63 4,059%
Zoloft 50mg $206.87 $1.75 11,821%
This chart is of dubious accuracy and has little relevance (other than an inflammatory one), as far more goes into the retail pricing of drugs than the raw cost of their active ingredients. Pharmaceutical companies expend money on the research and development costs of creating the drugs, plus the overhead costs of manufacturing, marketing, and shipping them; as well, pharmacies must sell drugs for more than their wholesale prices in order to cover the overhead costs of store operations (including pharmacists' salaries).

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Avoiding airline baggage fees

The nation's airlines are looking for more ways to get in your pocket. The latest effort by Delta and Continental involves raising baggage fees to the point that they may exceed some tickets!

The first checked bag will be $25 ($23 if you do it online) and the second somewhere in the $30 range depending on airline.

Southwest Airlines, meanwhile, still has no baggage fees. Nor will this discount airline charge you to change a trip once you've booked. Perhaps that's why Southwest keeps gaining more market share while the full-fare airlines watch their shares shrink.

Think Southwest is crazy? Well, they must be crazy like a fox. Customers who may be on the cusp about taking a trip are probably more likely to book because they know they won't get hit with a fee to change a ticket.

Nobody knows if Southwest will continue with no baggage fees, but it certainly has made for some strong imaging for them. You can see their "no baggage fees" commercials on constant rotation during the NFL playoff games.

But what if Southwest doesn't serve the markets you need? There's still one way to avoid baggage fees on the full-fare airlines: Don't check a bag!
Just be sure you follow the carry-on rules of your airline to the letter.

Extend Your Laptop’s Battery Life

Laptops tend to lose their charm quickly when you’re constantly looking for the nearest power outlet to charge up. How do you keep your battery going for as long as possible? Here are 15 easy ways to do so.

1. Defrag regularly - The faster your hard drive does its work – less demand you are going to put on the hard drive and your battery. Make your hard drive as efficient as possible by defragging it regularly. (but not while it’s on battery of course!) Mac OSX is better built to handle fragmentation so it may not be very applicable for Apple systems.

2. Dim your screen – Most laptops come with the ability to dim your laptop screen. Some even come with ways to modify CPU and cooling performance. Cut them down to the lowest level you can tolerate to squeeze out some extra battery juice.

3. Cut down on programs running in the background. Itunes, Desktop Search, etc. All these add to the CPU load and cut down battery life. Shut down everything that isn’t crucial when you’re on battery.

4. Cut down external devices – USB devices (including your mouse) & WiFi drain down your laptop battery. Remove or shut them down when not in use. It goes without saying that charging other devices (like your iPod) with your laptop when on battery is a surefire way of quickly wiping out the charge on your laptop battery.

5. Add more RAM - This will allow you to process more with the memory your laptop has, rather than relying on virtual memory. Virtual memory results in hard drive use, and is much less power efficient. Note that adding more RAM will consume more energy, so this is most applicable if you do need to run memory intensive programs which actually require heavy usage of virtual memory.


6. Run off a hard drive rather than CD/DVD - As power consuming as hard drives are, CD and DVD drives are worse. Even having one in the drive can be power consuming. They spin, taking power, even when they?re not actively being used. Wherever possible, try to run on virtual drives using programs like Alcohol 120% rather than optical ones.

7. Keep the battery contacts clean: Clean your battery’s metal contacts every couple of months with a cloth moistened with rubbing alcohol. This keeps the transfer of power from your battery more efficient.

8. Take care of your battery – Exercise the Battery. Do not leave a charged battery dormant for long periods of time. Once charged, you should at least use the battery at least once every two to three weeks. Also, do not let a Li-On battery completely discharge. (Discharing is only for older batteries with memory effects)

9. Hibernate not standby – Although placing a laptop in standby mode saves some power and you can instantly resume where you left off, it doesn’t save anywhere as much power as the hibernate function does. Hibernating a PC will actually save your PC’s state as it is, and completely shut itself down.


10. Keep operating temperature down - Your laptop operates more efficiently when it’s cooler. Clean out your air vents with a cloth or keyboard cleaner, or refer to some extra tips by

11. Set up and optimize your power options – Go to ‘Power Options’ in your windows control panel and set it up so that power usage is optimized (Select the ‘max battery’ for maximum effect).

12. Don’t multitask – Do one thing at a time when you’re on battery. Rather than working on a spreadsheet, letting your email client run in the background and listening to your latest set of MP3’s, set your mind to one thing only. If you don’t you’ll only drain out your batteries before anything gets completed!

13. Go easy on the PC demands – The more you demand from your PC. Passive activities like email and word processing consume much less power than gaming or playing a DVD. If you’ve got a single battery charge – pick your priorities wisely.

14. Get yourself a more efficient laptop - Laptops are getting more and more efficient in nature to the point where some manufacturers are talking about all day long batteries. Picking up a newer more efficient laptop to replace an aging one is usually a quick fix.

15. Prevent the Memory Effect - If you’re using a very old laptop, you’ll want to prevent the ‘memory effect’ – Keep the battery healthy by fully charging and then fully discharging it at least once every two to three weeks. Exceptions to the rule are Li-Ion batteries (which most laptops have) which do not suffer from the memory effect.

Bonus Tip #1: Turn off the autosave function. MS-Word’s and Excel’s autosave functions are great but because they keep saving regular intervals, they work your hard driver harder than it may have to. If you plan to do this, you may want to turn it back on as the battery runs low. While it saves battery life in the beginning, you will want to make sure your work is saved when your battery dies.

Bonus Tip #2: Lower the graphics use. You can do this by changing the screen resolution and shutting off fancy graphic drivers. Graphics cards (video cards) use as much or more power today as hard disks – Thanks Andrew

Update 7/7/07: Bonus Tip #1 to give caution about turning off autosave, tip #8 to change information about discharging batteries – thanks to all who pointed it out. Added Bonus tip #2, Tip #1 to add in clause in regards to Mac OSX, Tip #1 about the spinning of hard drives – thanks to all who pointed it out

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Great uses for coffee filters


Coffee filters .... Who knew! And you can buy 1,000 at the Dollar Tree/Store for almost nothing even the large ones.

1. Cover bowls or dishes when cooking in the microwave. Coffee filters make excellent covers.

2. Clean windows, mirrors, and chrome... Coffee filters are lint-free so they'll leave windows sparkling.

3. Protect China by separating your good dishes with a coffee filter between each dish.

4. Filter broken cork from wine. If you break the cork when opening a wine bottle, filter the wine through a coffee filter.

5. Protect a cast-iron skillet. Place a coffee filter in the skillet to absorb moisture and prevent rust.

6. Apply shoe polish. Ball up a lint-free coffee filter.

7. Recycle frying oil. After frying, strain oil through a sieve lined with a coffee filter.

8. Weigh chopped foods. Place chopped ingredients in a coffee filter on a kitchen scale.

9. Hold tacos. Coffee filters make convenient wrappers for messy foods.

10. Stop the soil from leaking out of a plant pot. Line a plant pot with a coffee filter to prevent the soil from going through&nb sp; the drainage holes.

11. Prevent a Popsicle from dripping. Poke one or two holes as needed in a coffee filter.

12. Do you think we used expensive strips to wax eyebrows? Use strips of coffee filters..

13. Put a few in a plate and put your fried bacon, French fries, chicken fingers, etc on them. It soaks out all the grease.

14. Keep in the bathroom. They make great "razor nick fixers."

15. As a sewing backing. Use a filter as an easy-to-tear backing for embroidering or appliqueing soft fabrics.

16. Put baking soda into a coffee filter and insert into shoes or a closet to absorb or prevent odors.

17. Use them to strain soup stock and to tie fresh herbs in to put in soups and stews.

18. Use a coffee filter to prevent spilling when you add fluids to your car.

19. Use them as a spoon rest while cooking and clean up small counter spills.

20. Can use to hold dry ingredients when baking or when cutting a piece of fruit or veggies.. Saves on having extra bowls to wash.

21. Use them to wrap Christmas ornaments for storage.

22. Use them to remove fingernail polish when out of cotton balls.

23. Use them to sprout seeds. Simply dampen the coffee filter, place seeds inside, fold it and place it into a plastic baggie until they sprout.

24. Use coffee filters as blotting paper for pressed flowers. Place the flowers between two coffee filters and put the coffee filters in phone book..

25. Use as a disposable "snack bowl" for popcorn, chips, etc.


Wednesday, January 6, 2010

What You Need to Know About Big Box E-Tailers

Fewer hassles, more choices. But watch out for shipping charges that can offset your discounts.
By Thomas M. Anderson, Associate Editor
From Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine, February 2010

1. No jockeying for parking, no mega cart. BJ’s Wholesale Club (, Costco Wholesale ( and Sam’s Club ( match the low prices at their brick-and-mortar stores. That saves you the hassle of finding a space in a crowded parking lot on Saturday morning. Plus, you can use online tools to pull up previous orders and create shopping lists.

2. Membership has its privileges. For $45 a year, you can become a member of BJ’s Inner Circle; a Gold Star or Business membership at Costco is $50; and Sam’s Club charges $40 for new Advantage members. (Nonmembers may buy items online if they pay surcharges ranging from 5% to 15%.) And all three extend their rebate programs for top-tier memberships to online purchases. A BJ’s Rewards membership ($80 a year) entitles you to a 2% rebate on all purchases, up to $500 annually. Costco’s $100-a-year Executive members also earn a 2% rebate, up to $500. Sam’s Club Advantage Plus members ($100 a year) earn a tiered rebate, up to 2%, on purchases worth up to $1 million per year.

3. The Web is an even bigger box. A warehouse club’s Web site typically carries 80% more products than the local store does -- though not the perishables, such as bananas and salad fixings. BJ’s specializes in consumer goods. Sam’s Club caters to entrepreneurs by providing special supplies for small businesses. Costco’s strategy is to provide an inventory of high-quality products and eclectic items, such as a man-size safe from Cannon ($850 including shipping). Prices usually reflect what you’d pay in the club’s store, plus shipping costs.

4. You can stock up discreetly on products that you’d rather not be seen carting out of a store in large quantities. For example, Costco sells prescription drugs online (it’s the only one of the Big Three that does). In a survey of pharmacies in 2008, Consumer Reports found that Costco had the cheapest prescription prices. Costco also sells wine online (in fact, the store is the world’s biggest retailer of Dom PĂ©rignon champagne). The catch? delivers wine only to addresses in California, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington.

5. No coupons required. Each warehouse-club site has a section for items that are on sale that day -- no coupon necessary. Among recent offers that beat other top online deals by at least $100: a 47-inch Philips flat-screen HDTV ($998 at, shipping included) and a Reebok CrossWalk treadmill ($600 at, including shipping). The member coupons you receive in the mail may also be used online.

6. But watch out for the shipping. Unfortunately, the sites don’t tell you how much shipping will cost before you add an item to your online cart. “Shipping costs add to the confusion about shopping online at warehouse clubs,” says Michael Clayman, editor of industry newsletter Warehouse Club Focus. But some sale offers -- with or without a coupon -- waive the shipping. Larger items and more-fragile products may cost more to send. If you don’t like the price, you can cancel the transaction at checkout. As is usually the case with online shipping, you’ll save if you’re willing to wait for delivery.

The Most-Overlooked Tax Deductions

1. State sales taxes. Although all taxpayers have a shot at this write-off, it makes sense primarily for those who live in states that do not impose an income tax. You must choose between deducting state and local income taxes or state and local sales taxes. For most citizens of income-tax states, the income tax is a bigger burden than the sales tax, so the income-tax deduction is a better deal.

The IRS has tables that show how much residents of various states can deduct. But the tables aren’t the last word. If you purchased a vehicle, boat or airplane, you get to add the state sales tax you paid to the amount shown in the IRS tables for your state, to the extent that the sales-tax rate you paid doesn’t exceed the state’s general sales-tax rate. (Download IRS tables in .pdf format here).

The same goes for any homebuilding materials you purchased. These items are easy to overlook, but they could make the sales-tax deduction a better deal even if you live in a state with an income tax. The IRS even has a calculator on its Web site to help you figure the deduction, which varies depending on the state where you live and your income level.

2. Reinvested dividends. This isn't really a deduction, but it is a subtraction that can save you a bundle. And this is the break that former IRS commissioner Fred Goldberg told Kiplinger's a lot of taxpayers miss.

If, like most investors, your mutual fund dividends are automatically used to buy extra shares, remember that each reinvestment increases your tax basis in the fund. That, in turn, reduces the taxable capital gain (or increases the tax-saving loss) when you redeem shares. Forgetting to include the reinvested dividends in your basis results in double taxation of the dividends -- once when you receive them and later when they’re included in the proceeds of the sale. Don’t make that costly mistake. If you’re not sure what your basis is, ask the fund for help.

3. Out-of-pocket charitable contributions. It’s hard to overlook the big charitable gifts you made during the year, by check or payroll deduction (check your December pay stub). But the little things add up, too, and you can write off out-of-pocket costs incurred while doing good works. For example, ingredients for casseroles you prepare for a nonprofit organization’s soup kitchen and stamps you buy for your school’s fundraising mailing count as a charitable contribution. If you drove your car for charity in 2009, remember to deduct 14 cents per mile.

4. Student-loan interest paid by Mom and Dad. Generally, you can only deduct mortgage or student-loan interest if you are legally required to repay the debt. But if parents pay back a child’s student loans, the IRS treats the money as if it was given to the child, who then paid the debt. So, a child who’s not claimed as a dependent can qualify to deduct up to $2,500 of student-loan interest paid by Mom and Dad. And he or she doesn’t have to itemize to use this money-saver.

5. Moving expenses to take your first job. Here’s an interesting dichotomy: Job-hunting expenses incurred while looking for your first job are not deductible. But moving expenses to get to it are. And you get this write-off even if you don’t itemize. If you moved more than 50 miles, you can deduct the cost of getting yourself and your household goods to the new area -- including 24 cents per mile for driving your own vehicle for a 2009 move -- plus parking fees and tolls. The same holds true for any new job you take.

6. Military reservists’ travel expenses. Members of the National Guard or military reserve may tap a deduction for travel expenses to drills or meetings. To qualify, you must travel more than 100 miles from home and be away from home overnight. If you qualify, you can deduct the cost of lodging and half the cost of your meals, plus 55 cents per mile for 2009 for driving your own car to get to and from drills. In any event, add parking fees and tolls. You get this deduction regardless of whether you itemize.

7. Child-care credit. A credit is so much better than a deduction; it reduces your tax bill dollar for dollar. So missing one is even more painful than missing a deduction that simply reduces the amount of income that’s subject to tax.

If you pay your child-care bills through a reimbursement account at work, it's easy to overlook the child-care credit. Although only $5,000 in expenses can be paid through a tax-favored reimbursement account, up to $6,000 (for the care of two or more children) can qualify for the credit. So, if you run the maximum through a plan at work but spend even more for work-related child care, you can claim the credit on as much as $1,000 of additional expenses. That would cut your tax bill by at least $200.

8. Estate tax on income in respect of a decedent. This sounds complicated, but it can save you a lot of money if you inherited an IRA from someone whose estate was big enough to be subject to the federal estate tax.

Basically, you get an income-tax deduction for the amount of estate tax paid on the IRA assets you received. Let’s say you inherited a $100,000 IRA, and the fact that the money was included in your benefactor's estate added $45,000 to the estate-tax bill. You get to deduct that $45,000 on your tax returns as you withdraw the money from the IRA. If you withdraw $50,000 in one year, for example, you get to claim a $22,500 itemized deduction on Schedule A. That would save you $6,300 in the 28% bracket.

9. State tax paid last spring. Did you owe tax when you filed your 2008 state tax return in the spring of 2009? Then, for goodness’ sake, remember to include that amount in your state-tax deduction on your 2009 return, along with state income taxes withheld from your paychecks or paid via quarterly estimated payments.

10. Refinancing points. When you buy a house, you get to deduct in one fell swoop the points paid to get your mortgage. When you refinance a mortgage, though, you have to deduct the points over the life of the loan. That means you can deduct 1/30th of the points a year if it’s a 30-year mortgage. That’s $33 a year for each $1,000 of points you paid -- not much, maybe, but don’t throw it away.

Even more important, in the year you pay off the loan -- because you sell the house or refinance again -- you get to deduct all as-yet-undeducted points. There’s one exception to this sweet rule: If you refinance a refinanced loan with the same lender, you add the points paid on the latest deal to the leftovers from the previous refinancing--and deduct the amount gradually over the life of the new loan.

11. Jury pay turned over to your employer. Many employers continue to pay employees’ full salary while they serve on jury duty, and some require employees to turn over their jury pay to the company coffers. The only problem is that the IRS demands that you report those fees as taxable income. To even things out, you get to deduct the amount you pay to your employer.

But how do you do it? There’s no line on the Form 1040 labeled Jury fees. Instead the write-off goes on line 36, which purports to be for simply totaling up the deductions that get their own lines. Add your jury fees to the total of your other write-offs and write “jury pay” on the dotted line.

12. Property-tax deduction for nonitemizers. This break, new in 2008, also works in 2009, but millions of taxpayers who claim the standard deduction may miss it. Normally, to write off property taxes, you must itemize deductions. But this new rule lets homeowners who don’t itemize boost their standard-deduction amount -- by up to $500 if they’re single and up to $1,000 if they’re married and file a joint return -- to account for property taxes paid during 2009. You’ll need to include extra paperwork -- a Schedule L -- with your 2009 tax return to get this break.

13. Casualty-loss deduction for nonitemizers. For 2009, taxpayers who claim the standard deduction can add casualty losses to their standard-deduction amounts -- if the loss occurred in a presidentially designated disaster area. Also, the casualty-loss deduction for losses in presidentially declared disaster areas is not subject to the usual reduction equal to 10% of your adjusted gross income. If you suffered such a loss, be sure you let Uncle Sam help you out by lowering your tax bill. As with the property-tax deduction for nonitemizers, you’ll need to file a Schedule L with your return to pump up your standard deduction to include the loss.

14. Hope credit for college juniors and seniors. Parents of college kids know the $2,000 Hope credit is just for the first two years of college; after that, the lower Lifetime Learning credit applies. But wait! That’s not how it works for 2009. Instead, the credit has been renamed, increased and expanded. It’s now called the American Opportunity Credit, and it will rebate up to $2,500 for each qualifying student for the first four years of college. The full credit is available to individuals whose modified adjusted gross income is $80,000 or less, or $160,000 or less for married couples filing a joint return. The credit is phased out for taxpayers with incomes above those levels. The income limits are higher than last year’s. (More on the American Opportunity Credit here.)

15. Making Work Pay credit. You’ve probably been enjoying the fruits of this credit via reduced payroll tax withholding since spring 2009. But to lock in your savings–by reducing your tax bill by $400 if you’re single or $800 if you’re married and file a joint return–you’ll need to actually claim the credit on your 2009 tax return—and you’ll use brand-new Schedule M to do so. The credit is equal to 6.2% of your earned income, capped at $400 or $800. For single filers, it starts phasing out at $75,000 of adjusted gross income and dries up at $95,000. The phase-out zone for couples is $150,000 to $190,000.

16. Sales-tax deduction for new vehicles. If you bought a new car, truck, motorcycle or motor home after February 16, 2009, and before the end of the year, you can deduct the sales tax paid -- up to a maximum purchase price of $49,500 per vehicle -- either as an itemized deduction or, if you claim the standard deduction, as a supercharged standard deduction. The benefit begins phasing out for married couples with adjusted gross income over $250,000 and singles with AGI over $125,000, and it is completely gone for single filers with AGI of $135,000 or more and joint filers with AGI of at least $260,000. Nonitemizers need to file a Schedule L with their return to get the benefit; itemizers who elect to deduct state income taxes will claim the car sales tax as a separate itemized deduction.

17. Credit for energy-saving home improvements. The tax credit equal to 10% of the cost of energy-saving home improvements is increased to 30% for 2009 and 2010, up to a maximum of $1,500 in the two-year period. The credit applies to biomass fuel stoves, qualifying skylights, windows and outside doors, and high-efficiency furnaces, water heaters and central air conditioners. The dollar limit on a particular type of improvement, such as the $200 cap on the credit for windows, has been repealed, so don’t limit yourself to the old rules. Finally, there’s also no dollar limit on the credit for qualified residential alternative energy equipment, such as solar hot water heaters, geothermal heat pumps and wind turbines. Your credit can be 30% of the total cost of such systems.

18. Break on the sale of demutualized stock. Taxpayers won an important court battle with the IRS in 2009 over the issue of demutualized stock. That’s stock that a life insurance policyholder receives when the insurer switches from being a mutual company owned by policyholders to a stock company owned by stockholders. The IRS’s longstanding position was that such stock had no tax basis, so that when the shares were sold, the taxpayer owed tax on 100% of the proceeds of the sale. But after a long legal struggle, a federal court ruled that the IRS was wrong. The court didn’t say what the basis of the stock should be, but many experts think it’s whatever the shares were worth when they were distributed to policyholders. If you sold stock in 2009 that you received in a demutualization, be sure to claim a basis to hold down your tax bill.

19. Home-buyer credit. We put this last on the list because it’s hard to imagine any taxpayer missing this big a tax break. But the rules changed late in the year, so snafus are certain. For most of the year, only first-time home buyers qualified for this credit. A “first-time buyer” is defined as someone who didn’t own a home in the three years leading up to the purchase of a new home. But big changes apply to homes purchased after November 6, 2009. First, in addition to the $8,000 credit for first-time home buyers, there’s a $6,500 credit for longtime homeowners, those who continuously owned a home for at least five of the eight years leading up to the purchase of a new home. The new law also increases how much buyers may earn and still claim the credit. For deals closed before November 7, the right to the first-time buyer credit gradually disappears as adjusted gross income rises between $75,000 and $95,000 on single returns and between $150,000 and $170,000 for married couples who file jointly. For purchases after November 6, the phase-out zones–for both the $8,000 credit and the $6,500 credit -- are $125,000 to $145,000 for singles and $225,000 to $245,000 for married couples. More questions? See FAQs on the Home Buyer Tax Credits