PODCAST: Max Out Your Stimulus Check with Rocky Mengle

You probably know you're getting a stimulus check, but did you know you can have an impact on its amount? Senior tax editor Rocky Mengle talks about the moves you can make to upsize your stimulus. Also, will your state raise — or lower — your taxes.

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David Muhlbaum: The third stimulus is here. When will you get your check? How much will it be for, and what can you do to get the biggest one possible? Senior tax editor Rocky Mengle has the answers. Also, the states have fiscal challenges of their own. Will they raise tax rates or lower them? That’s all coming up on this episode of Your Money’s Worth. Stick around.

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David Muhlbaum: Welcome to Your Money’s Worth. I’m Kiplinger.com senior editor David Muhlbaum, joined by my co-host, senior editor Sandy Block. How are you doing, Sandy?

Sandy Block: I’m doing good.

David Muhlbaum: Good. Well, in our main segment, we are going to talk about the next stimulus bill, but we’re really only going to be able to get into one part of it with any detail, and that’s stimulus checks. And two reasons for that, stimulus checks affect the most people directly and they’re what people care about the most. The other is the scope of this thing, this legislation is huge. There’s lots of money and a wide range of policies in it. So, Washington has been busy legislating in the first quarter of 2021, and getting lots of attention from us and from all sorts of people. But this is also the time of year most state legislatures get together to draft laws and set a budget. And of course, states, unlike the federal government, have to balance those budgets. Sandy, you get the task of looking at what the states are cooking up in terms of budget and tax policy, and those are 50 different states. So, I’m guessing it’s pretty hard to generalize, but my first question would be: Pandemic effect, can we draw any conclusions?

Sandy Block: Well, we can try. A lot of the states said that they were hit very hard by the pandemic, obviously when unemployment spikes, that reduces their tax revenue, and a lot of states had to spend billions of dollars on healthcare to provide for people who were ill. There’s also a lively debate about whether states didn’t fare as badly as they thought, and there is money for the states in the most recent stimulus package. So, that’s kind of a moving target. But what I found in my research was really interesting. Several state — and I think they may be taking their cue from Washington, because as you may recall, President Biden pledged to raise taxes on the wealthiest when he campaigned for president — several state governors are proposing similar high income tax increases, and that ranges from a proposed tax in Washington State on capital gains of more than $25,000 or $50,000 for married couples. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has proposed five new higher tax rates for people who earn $5 million or more.

Sandy Block: So they’re really targeting the very wealthiest. The one exception is Pennsylvania, which has a flat tax, and its governor wants to raise it to 4.49% from 3.07%, which sounds like a pretty big tax hike on everybody, but it’s not, because he also wants to expand the amount of income that low- and middle-class residents can exclude. So again, he’s looking at the wealthiest. And I think part of this is a response to the pandemic, ways to close budget gaps, but I think they might also be looking at these tax increases just to fulfill long-term obligations. Some of these states have big pension obligations, of course, they all have roads, infrastructure, essential services and all kinds of things. So, I think the pandemic may be the spark, but I think there’s probably something more ambitious going on here too.

David Muhlbaum: Let me just jump on the Washington State one that you opened with. You said 9% capital gains rate on gains of more than $25,000 for single or $50,000 for a married couple, but it’s not income tested, it’s just on capital gains, right?

Sandy Block: Right.

David Muhlbaum: That could make for some weird things if someone sells a house or a business?

Sandy Block: Well, yeah. And that’s a good point, and I haven’t delved into the details. But the reason that one is interesting is Washington State has no income tax.

David Muhlbaum: Right.

Sandy Block: They’re kind of in a unique situation there, and that they can’t just increase the amount of income tax because they don’t have one in the first place. So, I think that’s why it started, but that’s a good question, and I’m sure the opponents would argue exactly what you said could cause all kinds of economic dislocation, they’ll sell $24,900 of stock or something like that.

David Muhlbaum: Right.

Sandy Block: I could see all kinds of problems with that, but I think that’s the reason that that’s called out is because they don’t have an income tax in that state.

David Muhlbaum: Got it. And my understanding also from your reporting is that the converse is true as well, there are states looking to cut taxes.

Sandy Block: That’s right. And what they’re looking at, specifically, West Virginia and Mississippi....

David Muhlbaum: West Virginia!

Sandy Block: West Virginia, yeah my home state. West Virginia and Mississippi are looking at phasing out their income taxes entirely, and their thought is that as the workforce becomes more mobile, people might want to move there. As people no longer feel like they have to live close to work, they can live anywhere, and if they can live anywhere, why not live in the mountains and not pay any taxes or in Mississippi, I guess, where it’s really warm and they have good food or whatever. I can only speak for West Virginia there. But I think that’s what their thinking is: “Let’s go in the other direction. Let’s make our state even more attractive.” And neither one of these states had particularly high taxes to begin with, but let’s cut our taxes even more and see if we can attract some of these high earners.

Sandy Block: Because the big issue here is people are more mobile, and rich people are the most mobile of all. We write a lot about retirees, they can move. But well-off people oftentimes don’t need to go to the office either, they can live wherever they want. And I think that’s what some of these states are looking at, and that’s been the biggest criticism of the proposals to raise taxes on high earners. Will some of these people just up and leave in favor of a place that will not tax them?

David Muhlbaum: So, West Virginia might try to get rid of its income tax, but they’re still going to have expenses, costs, roads, what have you. Are they going to just live with lower revenues, or are they going to find it somewhere else?

Sandy Block: No. What West Virginia’s governor has proposed is a 1.5% percentage point increase in the state sales tax, and I think he also wants to increase some taxes on tobacco and other things as well. That would put West Virginia in line with... There’s nine states now that have no income taxes, and they tend to have higher sales taxes than other states, because again, they have to pay for things, and the best example of that is Tennessee. It has no income tax, but its average state and local sales tax is 9.55%, which is the highest in the U.S. And there’s a big interesting economic argument about this. Some people say consumption taxes are better. You’re not taxed on your wages, you’re not penalized for working harder, but others say that sales taxes are regressive. Everyone pays the same rate, and lower-income people spend more of their income on goods than rich people. I like writing about these kinds of things, because that’s an interesting back and forth about how that plays out.

David Muhlbaum: Right, yeah. And we also see states trying to compensate for that a little bit with carve-outs for, "Okay. So yes, we understand the sales tax is regressive, so we won’t tax food or non-prescription medication or something like that." But there are states that have high sales taxes even on food.

Sandy Block: That’s right. And that’s a problem, if you say, “Oh, we’re going to raise our revenue with sales taxes, but we’re going to exempt groceries, prescription drugs, and whatever.” Then you start running out of money, and one of the things that the folks at the Tax Foundation support, because they like the idea of consumption taxes, is broadening sales taxes to services, lawyers, real estate, but guess who has really strong lobbyists? Services. So, to the extent that you could expand sales taxes, you could possibly make them more fair and more lucrative, but it’s a lot harder to raise taxes than lower them.

David Muhlbaum: Well, we’ll be looking forward to seeing what these states actually pull, and then reflecting that in our tax maps.

Sandy Block: That’s right.

David Muhlbaum: We’ll be busy putting together a new update on our tax maps, both for retirees and for everyone else so that if you want to use that tax policy to make you consider booking that moving van, well, you’ll know where to go.

Sandy Block: That’s right. And if nothing else you can see where your state stands, and if you are considering moving either in search of lower taxes or just because maybe you want to relocate out of your city to some place a little quieter, it’s a good idea to figure out how you’ll be taxed, because that’s a big part of your budget.

David Muhlbaum: And Sandy, just to add one more complication, it’s not a cut-and-dried affair necessarily for a person to move to another state, and suddenly be sprung from an income tax at their workplace imposes. I’m thinking particularly of New Hampshire and Massachusetts duking it out over this.

Sandy Block: Right, right. We’ve talked about that and written about that before, you may end up... Depending on where you live, you still may end up owing taxes in your state where you work. And the other caution that we always give to people is don’t think that you can spend part of the year in a low-tax state, and part of the year in a high-tax state, and file and claim the low-tax state as your residence. High-tax states are very aware of that, and they will chase you down if you’re trying to be a part-time low-tax payer. So, be careful about that. But if you’re moving for good, our tax maps are very, very helpful in figuring out not just where you want to go, but what you’ll have to pay when you get there.

David Muhlbaum: And for those individuals who think, “Well, they’re not going to notice me.” They might because you’re where the money is. So...

Sandy Block: Oh yeh. New York tracks E-ZPass, is all I can say. They keep track of E-ZPasses. I’ve heard some real interesting stories about how carefully New York keeps track of its high earners, and how much time they spend there and how much time they spend somewhere else. So, yeah, don’t think that they won’t notice.

David Muhlbaum: When we return for our main segment, another round of stimulus from the federal government, and yes, stimulus checks. What latitude do you have to max out your payment?

David Muhlbaum: Welcome back to Your Money’s Worth. Our guest today is Kiplinger’s own senior tax editor, Rocky Mengle, who has spent the past few months basically running news service level coverage of the federal stimulus proposals. I think it’s entirely possible that of late he’s used the words “stimulus check” more often than say conjunctions like, “and,” or, “but” So, welcome, Rocky. Thanks for taking time to join us to talk about March Madness. I’m just kidding. I’m sure you’d rather talk about brackets, but nope, we want to talk about checks.

Sandy Block: Stimulus checks and how to get the biggest one possible, right?

Rocky Mengle: Right.

Sandy Block: In truth, we’ve been wanting to talk about the third stimulus for weeks, because lord knows it’s a popular topic. But given the lead time it takes to get Your Money’s Worth produced, we’ve been trying to get the timing right, so that we get the facts right.

David Muhlbaum: That’s right. So, Rocky, let’s do some of the disclaimers. As we record this, what’s happening? And by the time people hear this, the money will be flowing?

Rocky Mengle: Yeah. Right now the House of Representatives is debating the stimulus bill, the American Rescue Plan Act. And they are going to vote on that probably this afternoon, and then send it over to the White House where President Biden has said he’s going to sign it as soon as he gets it. So, by the time people hear this podcast, everything should be signed, sealed, and delivered. Oh, well, not delivered in terms of checks being delivered, but the legislation.

Sandy Block: Well, and that’s the other question is how quickly do you think once Biden signs the bill, people will actually start seeing money in the bank?

Rocky Mengle: Well, the president has said that checks will start going out before the end of the month, before the end of March. Now, there’s a chance that we could start seeing payments a little bit sooner. Remember back in December, when the second round of stimulus checks were authorized, the IRS started sending out electronic payments in less than a week, a matter of days. So, it’s possible that they could start sending out direct deposit payments mid March, certainly before the end of the month, but the end of March is kind of the hard deadline that the administration has set.

Sandy Block: Now, we know this is a big, big bill with a total of $1.8 trillion of spending meant to offset the economic impact of the pandemic, and there’s money for state governments, transit systems, restaurants. It looks like it’s going to be better targeted to small firms than the loans of 2020. But of course, it’s the checks, that’s the personal finance bit, and frankly, as direct cash payouts, that’s what a lot of people are going to experience most directly, even though with $420 billion, it’s only about a quarter of the total amount of the bill.

David Muhlbaum: Yeah, just $420 billion, that’s the numerator. The denominator is how many people will get the check. Now, it doesn’t work exactly like that. We already know about what the checks will be. The base amount is $1,400, but there are variables in play that have to do with dependents, how old they are and how much money you already make, and that is what Rocky can explain to us.

Sandy Block: So, you can get the biggest check possible.

David Muhlbaum: Sandy keeps saying that, but we’ll get to that.

Rocky Mengle: The biggest check possible. Okay. Yeah. David, you mentioned the base amount is $1,400, but you can have $1,400 tacked on to that amount for each dependent you have in your family. What’s different this time around is that you can get that extra $1,400 for any dependent, it doesn’t matter what age they are. For the first two rounds of stimulus checks, you only got the extra amount, it was a lower amount, but you only got that amount for dependent children who were 16 years of age or younger. This time around again, now there’s no age limit on the dependent, so that means if you have a high school senior, 17 or 18 years old, you get $1,400 for them. If you have a college student, 23 years old or younger, you’ll get $1,400 for them. If you have elderly parents living with you in your home, that you can claim as a dependent, you get $1,400 for each of them. And that goes to the person who’s claiming the dependent, not the dependent themselves.

Sandy Block: Right. Rocky, your explanation gives a hint at the variables that drive the size of the check, the amount of your income and the number of dependents that you have. But is there some latitude here? Is there anything anyone can do to affect the size of the check or maybe when they’re going to get it?

Rocky Mengle: Yeah, the size of the check, there’s some way to game the system here if you haven’t already filed your 2020 tax return yet. Because the IRS, when they go to process your payment, they’re first going to look to see if you’ve filed your 2020 return. And if so, they’re going to take the information from that return. They’ll take your adjusted gross income, information about your dependents and your filing status from that return, and calculate your check. If you haven’t filed your 2020 return at that point, then the IRS is going to look for your 2019 return and pull the filing status, AGI and dependent information from that return. So, if you’re better off having the IRS base your third stimulus check on your 2020 return, then you want to go ahead and file that ASAP, so that it’s in the system and it’s processed before the IRS starts processing your return.

Rocky Mengle: If you’re better off if the IRS uses your 2019 return, then you might want to think about holding off on filing the 2020 return until after you get your stimulus check. And that could mean you get a bigger payment, and you can go on our website, we have a third stimulus check calculator. You can search Google for that, and you can run the numbers. You input your filing status, your AGI, and the number of dependents. You can do that based on your 2019 return or 2020 figures, and compare the difference. And that’ll tell you whether or not you’re better off filing your 2020 return now or wait until later. Now, there is one other catch that’s new for this round of stimulus checks. If the IRS ends up basing your stimulus check on your 2019 return, in other words, you haven’t filed your 2020 return yet, but then you file your 2020 return by July 15th, then the IRS has got to compare the two, and if you would come out ahead with a higher stimulus check based on your 2020 return, the IRS is going to cut you a second check for the difference.

Sandy Block: But Rocky, just to clarify, we’ve emphasized in the last two stimulus rounds, that if you got more than you were eligible for, you didn’t have to give the money back. Is that going to be the case here too?

Rocky Mengle: No. There’s no giving money back to the IRS.

Sandy Block: You get to keep it?

Rocky Mengle: Once they send it to you, it’s yours. Yeah.

Sandy Block: Because I’m envisioning a situation where maybe I had a bunch of some kids living at home in 2019 who are gone, so I’d want to base it on my 2019 return and claim those dependents. The IRS isn’t going to turn around and say, "Oh, nevermind, you have to give that money back, because they’re not your dependents anymore?"

Rocky Mengle: Nope, Nope. They will not do that.

David Muhlbaum: As the father of an older daughter who’s in college and could be construed as a dependent or not, well, this is getting interesting. Rocky, I appreciate you mentioning the calculator and how the calculator essentially allows you to compare the scenarios. We’ve covered dependents, but can you explain a little why the variants, the income limits of the third stimulus that come into play here as well?

Rocky Mengle: Yeah, certainly because there are what we call phase-out thresholds. If your income is at or above a certain amount based on your filing status, then your stimulus check, the base amount plus whatever you would get for dependents is gradually reduced. The higher your income is over that threshold, the more that is taken off of your payment, until that payment is reduced all the way down to nothing. If your income in 2019 was higher than it was in 2020, because maybe you were laid off for a period of time, then your 2019 income might be over that phase-out threshold, in which case you get a smaller check where your 2020 income might be below that threshold amount, where you would then receive the full amount. That’s a scenario where you want to go into the calculator, you want to figure that out and see that you’ll get a bigger check if it’s based on your 2020 return. And in that case, then you want to hurry up and file your return, file electronically too, that’ll get it to the IRS much faster.

Sandy Block: I think on Wall Street, they call this arbitrage.

David Muhlbaum: Yeah. [Laughter]

Sandy Block: So, I’m going to complicate things a little bit, but one of the other big components of this bill that’s getting a lot of attention is the child tax credit. I guess that’s changing too, and could be particularly lucrative for people who have young kids.

Rocky Mengle: Yeah. Big changes there too, and you’re right, Sandy, there’s a lot of money involved for certain families who have a lot of kids or particularly younger kids. Just to set it up real quick with how it works right now: $2,000 per child under the age of 17. There’s a phase out if your adjusted gross income is over $400,000 on a joint return or over $200,000 for all other taxpayers, and up to $1,400 of the credit is refundable. So, it’s partially refundable, and you have to have earned income of at least $2,500.

Sandy Block: And let me interrupt, refundable means if the credit exceeds the amount of taxes you owe, you get a check, right?

Rocky Mengle: You got a check back, you get a refund.

Sandy Block: Yeah.

Rocky Mengle: Yeah. Hence the name refundable. For non-refundable credit, it can only bring your tax liability down to zero. It won’t go below zero and trigger a refund.

David Muhlbaum: Yeah. It’s not just refund, it’s like money coming from the government to you. Yes.

Rocky Mengle: Yeah. Yeah. So, what the American Rescue Plan does... And this is just for 2021, just a one-year change, at least for now. First of all, it makes the credit fully refundable. So, no matter what your tax liability is or your income, if the credit is worth more than the tax you owe, you’re going to get it. You’re going to get a refund check. It bumps the age for qualifying children up to 17, it increases the credit amount from $2,000 to $3,000, and to $3,600, if your child is five or younger, that’s a big jump. It removes the $2,500 earnings requirement, and then half the credit is going to be paid in advance by the IRS with periodic payments, probably monthly, but we don’t know that yet, between July and December of this year.

David Muhlbaum: If you’re planning on filing the credit, would the question of whether you’d receive these payments have anything to do with your income going in?

Rocky Mengle: Yeah, just like with the stimulus checks, there are phase-out thresholds, actually there’s two layers of phase out in the child tax credit for 2021. That extra amount, that extra either $1,000 or $1,600 can be phased out, depending on your adjusted gross income. It can’t be reduced below $2,000, which is the current level. And then the existing phase out with a $400,000 or $200,000 phase-out threshold still applies. So, that’s another way that this credit can be reduced down to zero for people with higher incomes. Guess what? We have a calculator.

Sandy Block: Of course we do!

Rocky Mengle: ... for this as well.

Sandy Block: Thank goodness.

Rocky Mengle: So, you can go on our website, it’s 2021 child tax credit calculator, and it’ll run the numbers for you. You can see how much your credit would be. It will also tell you, assuming we get monthly payments, what those will be from July to December.

David Muhlbaum: Yeah. I was about to make a crack about, there’s no way the tax return is going on a postcard anytime soon, even though postcards may be obsolete. Rocky, you’re obviously a very busy man keeping up with all this, and I understand there were some concerns about the IRS’s ability to keep up with all these changes. This is a lot of stuff, monthly payments. How do you think this is actually going to go down?

Rocky Mengle: Don’t know. The IRS, I guess, says they can do it. There were some lawmakers that were suggesting maybe the Social Security Administration would be a better organization for these monthly payments for the child tax credit, because they’re used to sending out monthly payments, the IRS isn’t. I think with the stimulus checks, the IRS will do just fine. They have experience with two recent rounds, and although there have certainly been glitches, I would give them fairly high marks for how they work that system. But yeah, we’ll have to see how they do with the child tax credit. We say, we’re expecting a monthly, but they’re not tied to that frequency. They could come every other month. Maybe they’ll be just two advance payments or something like that, we don’t know. It will depend on what the IRS thinks it can handle.

Sandy Block: Rocky, I think there is some provision in the bill to give the IRS more money to manage some of this. And just to promote our upcoming issue, I talked to the IRS Taxpayer Advocate about how the IRS is being asked to do more and more, with less and less. So, it will be interesting to see how they manage this.

Rocky Mengle: Yeah, you’re right. They do have some money, and they’re going to need it.

David Muhlbaum: You were talking about their marks, but I think one mark against them was how the IRS handled stimulus checks to people who were behind in child support on an earlier round. I think you wrote about this. They ended up holding back payments from a lot of people who weren’t actually in arrears. I take it they’re not going to try that again.

Rocky Mengle: Well, the first round of stimulus checks, they were allowed to offset payments to pay child support that was owed. That was allowed in the CARES Act for the first round checks. But what they did, they went a little too far, and they were denying payments to spouses who were married to someone who owed child support from a previous marriage.

Sandy Block: Oh, unfair.

Rocky Mengle: Yeah. I think they worked that out, but that created a big hubub last year.

David Muhlbaum: Um, honey?

Sandy Block: That’s right. I can see the dinner table conversation over that one.

Rocky Mengle: Yeah.

Sandy Block: But Rocky, the other thing that the IRS got some flak for was making payments to dead people last time around, and I don’t think it was that many, but that always gets a lot of headlines. Is that going to happen again?

Rocky Mengle: It could, but it depends on when they die. For the third stimulus checks, anyone who died before 2021 is not eligible for a check. If you died earlier this year, then you’re still eligible.

David Muhlbaum: Sandy, take note.

Sandy Block: That’s right. Dad, you’re going to get a check.

David Muhlbaum: Well, thank you very much for joining us today, Rocky. As I warned, we’re only just scratching the surface of the range of the new stimulus act here today. But rest assured that Rocky and his team have A to Z coverage at kiplinger.com. And I’ll put a few choice pieces in the show notes as well.

And that will just about do it for this episode of Your Money’s Worth. If you like what you heard, please sign up for more at Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your content. When you do, please give us a rating and a review. If you’ve already subscribed, thanks. Please go back and add a rating or a review if you haven’t already. To see the links we’ve mentioned in our show, along with other great Kiplinger content on the topics we’ve discussed, go to kiplinger.com/podcast. The episodes, transcripts and links are all in there by date. And if you’re still here, because you want to give us a piece of your mind, you can stay connected with us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or by emailing us directly at podcast@kiplinger.com. Thanks for listening.

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Sandra Block
Senior Editor, Kiplinger's Personal Finance

Block joined Kiplinger in June 2012 from USA Today, where she was a reporter and personal finance columnist for more than 15 years. Prior to that, she worked for the Akron Beacon-Journal and Dow Jones Newswires. In 1993, she was a Knight-Bagehot fellow in economics and business journalism at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She has a BA in communications from Bethany College in Bethany, W.Va.