Unemployment Compensation Exclusion – Stay tuned!

When the American Rescue Plan was passed recently, consumers paid most attention to the $1400 stimulus checks (which we’ll discuss in an upcoming post), but there’s another feature that has gotten less attention. If you received unemployment compensation in 2020, it’s good news for you!

The first $10,200 of unemployment income you received in 2020 will now be excluded from your taxable income. This exclusion applies in 2020 only. Exception: you are not eligible for the exclusion if you are a high-income household (over $150,000). In states that follow most provisions of federal tax law, including Iowa, the exclusion also applies to state income tax.

This Unemployment Compensation Exclusion will make a big difference on tax returns for people who qualify, reducing tax bills (and/or increasing refunds) by $1,000 or more for some households. Note: the amount depends on how much unemployment compensation you received and on your total taxable income.

The software we use at Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) sites was updated very quickly; the update was in place by Friday March 19, only a week after the law was signed. I’m sure the same is true for most other tax software packages.

Some of you may be wondering: what if I filed my tax return earlier in the season??

Do not fear – you are also eligible for the exclusion. However, we do not yet know how that is going to be handled; we need to wait for word from the IRS. For now, the IRS says: “WAIT – don’t take any action until we’ve announced how you should handle it.” The worst-case scenario is simply that you would need to file an amended tax return.  However, some of us are hoping that the IRS and their computers will be able to simply pull out those tax returns, recalculate them, and issue the additional refunds. If that would happen, taxpayers would see two results: 1) an additional refund (check or direct deposit); and 2) a letter explaining the adjustment. Don’t be surprised if the refund arrives before the letter. The same issue arises for state tax returns, and the possibilities are basically the same as well: they may be able to recalculate and issue additional refunds with no action from you, OR you may have to file an amended return. Reminder: for now, the IRS does NOT want anyone to file amended returns for this purpose.

If you are eligible for the Unemployment Compensation Exclusion but filed your taxes before it was enacted, you will need to stay tuned for more information and you may need patience. As always, never ignore a letter from the IRS, and pay attention to your bank statements.

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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Pandemic-Induced Goals?

The current period of job loss and reduced income has affected people in different ways. The result? Different households face different financial challenges at this point. Whatever your situation, now is s a good time to assess your financial situation, evaluate your priorities, and take steps to improve your situation as necessary. If you’d like some help, your local ISU Extension financial educator is available to work with you, providing free, non-commercial information and a sounding board as you make your plans.

  1. Some of you have been living with seriously reduced income – and still are. Your task has been to find every possible way to reduce your expenses and/or find new income and make use of new resources, including public assistance if you qualify. You must communicate with all of your creditors, but avoid making promises you cannot keep. If returning to something like normal looks unlikely, you may need to consider major lifestyle changes.
  2. Some of you lost income for a while, but are now back to an income you can live on. It is likely that you got behind on bills, built up credit card debt, and/or depleted your savings during your crisis. Strong focus on repaying those debts and building up emergency savings will get you ready in case of an unexpected expense or another loss of income. Careful examination of your spending choices will help you regain equilibrium and then build a strong cushion.
  3. Others of you had stable income, but have realized that if you did lose income, you would be in a very difficult spot. Facing the reality that you lack basic financial security can motivate you to build up savings and pay down debt. Start by cutting your living expenses so that your regular monthly expenses are 10-25% less than your income. Putting the extra funds toward savings and expedited debt payment will build you a cushion that will bring peace of mind and make your life easier if/when hardship strikes.
  4. Still others have stable income, and have felt secure that even if you did have a cutback, you would be okay. In your case there is no obvious need for change, but it’s wise to maintain control of your finances through good planning. You may wish to build an even stronger savings cushion, after seeing others struggle with lost income for six months or longer. As you build savings, seek out accounts that pay slightly higher interest while still providing ready access to your funds.
Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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Unemployment and Taxes

Did you know unemployment benefits count as taxable income? If you (or someone you know) have received unemployment income during this year when so many people have experienced job loss, here is the bigger question: Did you have taxes withheld from the payments?

If you are currently receiving unemployment income, now is a good time to check and see if federal and state income taxes are being withheld; if they are not, you should be able to change that going forward. Why does it matter? Next winter when you file your 2020 tax return, you will find out how much tax you owe on your 2020 income. If you didn’t have enough withheld from your paychecks, then you may need to pay in by April 15. It’s possible that the amount you need to pay in could be $1,000, $2,000 or even more. In addition, you may owe penalty for not having enough withheld, and/or a penalty for late payment if you cannot pay the bill in full by April 15.

What can you do now? If you received unemployment income and did NOT have taxes withheld, I would encourage you to go to the IRS Tax Withholding Estimator, and enter information about all your income for the year, along with the information it asks for about family size and other tax-related issues. Don’t worry; this is anonymous – it’s just a calculator for your own benefit. Based on the results of your calculations, you should have a pretty good idea of what to expect. If it looks like you will owe taxes, you can start saving now, or even send in one or two quarterly estimated payments using IRS form 1040 ES. Checking in with your tax preparer might also be a good idea.

The IRS recently issued a poster alerting people to take action and avoid the unpleasant surprise of a big tax bill. If you can, please consider posting it on social media or posting printed copies at your place of work, or house of worship, or at local businesses, to help others plan ahead.

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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When Income Goes Down…

bar graph showing 7 months income and expenses; first month income and expenses equal, then income suddenly drops, while expenses decline slowly, until in the seventh month they are in line with lower income.

When income goes down, it often goes down suddenly – one month it is normal, and the next month it is suddenly much less. People may be much slower to reduce their expenses, often taking many months until their expenses are finally in line with their new (lower) income. Why? Denial, unwillingness to modify their lifestyle, lack of needed skills, or other reasons.

That slow response will, unfortunately, delay their recovery and increase their financial problems. The graph (above) depicts a family whose income declined by $800/month. It shows five months where the family’s expenses continued to exceed their new income. During those five months, their spending exceeded their income by a total of $2,000.

Where did that $2,000 come from? Perhaps they had an emergency savings account – if so, the balance in that account is now depleted. If they, like many Americans, had no savings, then they had no choice but to go in debt — they may have made partial payments on some bills, or built up the balance on their credit cards. They are $2,000 in the hole. And while it only took a few months to get into that hole, it may take years to repay that $2,000! (or to rebuild their savings)

The second graph depicts the same situation, but in this case the family rapidly reduced their spending to match their new income. This family also spent more than they earned, but only in the first two months, and only by about $500. They will recover much more quickly from this financial setback.

Reducing expenses isn’t easy. But in the long run, people who quickly adjust to the new situation are more satisfied with the outcome. Even in situations where the income reduction is expected to be temporary, people who adjust quickly come out of the situation in a stronger financial position.

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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