Looking through the trees for a tax deduction

Q: I made investments in tropical hardwood trees in Costa Rica. The trees were planted during the fall of 2001. One of the conditions of investment is that I had the opportunity to examine the trees to see that they were planted and beginning to grow during the first year, with the right to request replacement of imperfect trees. I traveled to Costa Rica to do this. Are the expenses I incurred for the trip (airfare, hotel, rental of jeep, meals, airport taxes, etc.) tax deductible?
D.B., Cincinnati

A: We asked the folks at the IRS to research this one. They say you might be entitled to a limited deduction under Section 212 of the IRS code if the trip was made for the purposes of the collection or production of income or management of property and you were in Costa Rica for seven days or less.

The information officer suggested you seek a "private letter ruling" from the IRS, which would be a statement of advice as to a possible deduction. To find out how to apply for a letter ruling, call 800-829-1040.

Q: My employer offers a 403(b) plan. It lets us choose from mutual funds offered by several companies. How do I figure out which companies to pick? And how do I determine which funds I should invest in? I'm in my mid-20s.
M.W., Somerville, Mass.

A: Start by determining your long-range investment needs, says Peter Di Teresa, an analyst with information firm Morningstar Inc., in Chicago.

Mr. Di Teresa works with Morningstar's "Online University" (www.morningstar.com), which deals with educational issues. Once you've identified your investment goals, identify the types of funds that match those needs, such as large-company funds, small-company funds, etc.

Then, find the best funds available to you from the choices offered by your employer. Morningstar offers free tools. Use the "asset allocator" tool to help identify the best mix of stocks, bonds, and cash for you. Then go to the "fund selector" tool to look for top-rated funds from the companies in your 403(b) plan. (Other sites, such as Fidelity, at www.fidelity.com, offer many of the same tools.)

In getting started, say experts, you could always put your contributions in a fund linked to the S&P 500 index. The goal: to simply match the market's performance. Then, as you become more savvy, move to other funds within the same fund family.

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