The third and possibly final stimulus check from the federal government is on its way. Most people will get their stimulus money via direct deposit to tens of millions of bank accounts. If you and your family qualify for the most extensive distribution, you likely have some immediate or future needs. Whatever you decide to do, strategize to spend this money wisely.

Stimulus Checks And Extended Unemployment Benefits

Did you get your stimulus check yet? The maximum tax-free amount is $1,400 per individual ($2,800 per married couple if jointly filing), and $1,400 per dependent, including those ages 17 and up. The federal government extended unemployment benefits with a $300 additional supplement to state benefits through September 6, 2021.

Typically, unemployment benefits are fully taxable. However, the IRS gave a tax break by allowing taxpayers to exclude up to $10,200 ($20,400 for married couples filing jointly) benefits on their 2020 taxes for those who made less than $150,000 in adjusted gross income (AGI). As stimulus checks were going out to households, the IRS announced tax returns are now due on May 17 this year instead of April 15.

How To Use Your Money Depends On Your Needs

Every household varies as to their need for this money. For instance, lower-income families are more likely to devote much of their spending to living necessities.

In a June 2020  US Census study,  adults in households with income between $75,000 and $99,999 were more likely to use their stimulus money to pay off debt or add to savings compared to households overall. In contrast, 87.6% of adults earning $25,000 or below planned to use their stimulus payments to meet their expenses.

The stimulus money is part of more considerable fiscal support targeted to boost consumer and business spending. As the economy grows, more people will work.

The Fed has accommodated our weak economy with low-interest rates and continued liquidity. These efforts will stimulate our economy and help our financial markets, but they may cause higher inflation. Fears of higher inflation have added volatility in the stock market.

Some believe higher economic growth and inflation may be transient, causing some stock market opportunities ahead. Chair Powell seems to be staying on course of a stimulative monetary policy and will tolerate higher inflation over the 2% target. 

Is This A Financial Windfall?

Merriam Webster  defines windfall as “an unexpected, unearned, or sudden gain or advantage.” A windfall can range from being a sum of $1,000 to something far more significant. This money may result from an inheritance, legal settlement win, salary bonus, or a winning lottery ticket.

A small windfall, newfound money, or stimulus money can serve a similar function by bringing you a step closer to your financial goals. That is a win for you whether you direct the money to help you with your day-to-day expenses or cushion your retirement nest egg.

Strategize What You Need Now And For Your Future

Strategize before spending your additional money by paying what is most urgently needed now.  The funds should improve your financial situation. Most people receiving checks have had a difficult time making ends meet. They may have lost their jobs, had their hours cut, or their job remains in jeopardy.

You may need to shore up your finances now. Are there holes in your budget that need mending that you can take care of first?   Pay your bills, reduce your debt to manageable levels, eliminating high-interest credit card debt. Should you have money left over, save for emergencies.

On the other hand, if you have little to no debt, devote your extra money to where you can catch up on retirement savings and investing.  Allocate where you can boost your financial future–replenish your emergency fund, retirement, investing– by adding to where the money can potentially grow.

Our Recommendations For Spending The Money Wisely  

 

1. Prioritize Your Everyday Bills

If you have outstanding household bills for your rent, mortgage, or utilities that need attention, consider negotiating with your providers. Ask if lower rates are possible or stretch out due dates. You want to avoid being late paying bills and affecting your credit score. It never hurts to try to do that at a time when people are most understanding.

Staying current on your bills can relieve the angst. And you don’t want to pile on late charges and add to your debt load.

2. Paying Off Your High-Cost Debt First

When you carry a lot of debt–credit cards, car, mortgage, student loans, or personal loans–can be overwhelming. Your stimulus money may not stretch that far. Interest rates are low for mortgages, car, and student loans, so your best bet is to reduce your credit card balances. Card issuers typically charge 15%-16% interest rates, and the compounding effect makes that balance grow faster.

It may be tempting to spread the cash proceeds around to all of your loans but target the most detrimental cost first.

3. Neglecting Any Car Repairs?

During COVID, you may be using your car less. If you are not following through with tune-ups, you can damage your vehicle in the long run. Do you have any car repairs you postponed but now can bring into the shop? Your repair guy will likely welcome you back.

4. Replenish Your Emergency Funds Or Start One

Many people have withdrawn money during the past year. They may have had to close businesses, leave jobs to take care of their family, or lost their jobs. It is time to reassess your emergency savings. Refill this fund so you can cover six months of your basic living needs should something unforeseen happen. A job loss, pet surgery, an unexpected illness, or car accident can mean higher costs beyond your budget.

Replenishing these savings can give you peace of mind. Those unexpected events do happen, as many of us learned the hard way last year.

Make sure to keep this money in liquid assets such as a higher-yielding savings account that is readily accessible. These days there is very little income to earn from low yields. But, economists are expecting higher interest rates as the economy strengthens. Therefore, use short-term securities like CDs so you can roll this money into higher yields when they are available.  

5. Add To Your Retirement Savings

Whenever you have extra money from a bonus, overtime, or raise, consider adding some of this money to your retirement savings. Notably, a 401K employer-sponsored plan or an IRA and Roth IRA makes sense. If you don’t have a retirement account, this is a good time to do so. 

Technically, your tax-free stimulus payment is unearned income. As such, it may be tricky to deposit money into your Roth IRA directly. Therefore, you may want to substitute earned money from other accounts, replacing those dollars with your stimulus money.

It is worth the effort to do so. Putting some money into a Roth IRA makes it a triple tax-free win. You aren’t paying taxes upfront. The contributed amount grows tax-free, and when you withdraw money after your turn 59.5 years.

Be Aware of Contribution Limits

You can have both a 401K and an IRA, but there are IRS contribution and income limits you need to be aware of so you can get the full deduction. Be mindful of those income limits for traditional IRA and Roth IRA for 2020 and 2021. They vary according to whether you are the single or head of the household, married, filing jointly, a retirement plan at work covers one or both spouses.

Contribute generously up to the maximum amount allowed:

The 2020 and 2021 limits are $19,500 for 401K and most 400 plans, and with a catch-up limit, $26,000 for employees aged 50 or over.

Total contributions for 2020 and 2021 are limited for all traditional IRAs and Roth IRAs to $6,000 or $7,000 if you’re age 50 or older.

6. 529 Savings For College

These accounts have federal tax benefits, like retirement accounts. Open a 529 savings account to set aside some money for your children’s college fund. Earnings on investments grow on a tax-deferred basis and tax-free when you withdraw money for educational costs. Generally, there are no contribution limits except for the $15,000 cap to qualify for the annual gift tax exclusion.

Each state has its own plan, and you don’t need to reside in the state to use their program. You may think that they are young and it is too early to think about their future, let alone college, if they are still at the crawling stage. The truth is that time goes by quickly, and before you know it, they are in high school. Don’t let this valuable time slip away without putting money into this fund. It will help your children to avoid borrowing heavily for college tuition.

7. Allocate Your  Savings To Investing

In a perfect world, all of your extra money should go toward investing. If you have a strong financial foundation with manageable debt, you should invest the money. Add to your investments or opening up an investment account for you or your kids.

Any savings you have from stimulus checks to a significant financial windfall should go to your investment accounts. That is if you have taken care of other needs. Invest early and have a plan in mind which considers your risk tolerance, timeframe, and diversification. 

When you are beginning to invest, you may not know where to start. Buying individual stocks can be very rewarding but can be risky. Consider low-cost index mutual funds or exchange-traded funds (ETFs) if you are uneasy purchasing individual stocks. Buying a pool of stocks is a popular way to own securities with diversification, avoiding concentration risk.

Professional portfolio managers actively manage mutual funds. They are constantly evaluating and choosing securities for the fund’s specific investment approach. Mutual funds are available for stocks, bonds, precious metals, other securities, varying risks,  and varying geographic markets. 

Active managers earn annual fees or expense ratios of your investment and are responsible for the fund’s performance. If you invest $1,000 in a mutual fund with a 1% expense ratio, you pay $10 per year towards the fund’s expenses.

Active Versus Passive Investing

Investors who buy actively managed funds pay higher expense ratios than passively managed index mutual funds that track a market-weighted portfolio. The latter index fund replicates the S&P 500 index via computers for a fraction of the fees, averaging 0.20%-0.50% expense ratios, below the typical 1%-2.5% costs of active managers.

You can buy a low-cost index mutual fund or an ETF consisting of a basket of securities, such as money markets, stocks, or bonds depending on your risk appetite. ETFs are similar to mutual funds but tend to be cheaper and more liquid. If both are available, I usually buy the ETF version. There are many funds with terrific choices, such as Vanguard, who pioneered indexed funds.

8. Give To Others

It is always a good time to give charitable donations to others. We always target giving 10% of our income to charitable contributions, but we have done more to offset the time we couldn’t do so. Everyone has their reasons for giving what they can and may stem from religious or ethical sources.

The minimum of one-tenth of one’s income belongs to God per measure handed down from the Patriarchs. As Jacob himself said to God, “Of all that You give, I will set aside a tenth to You” (Genesis 28:22). Giving 10% of your net income every year is a desirable goal—those who can do that.

Giving, like expressing gratitude, is among the most worthwhile healthy emotions to feel. Being grateful can even help us with our finances.

As part of 2021 $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, Biden extended the favorable tax deduction treatment in 2021 that was available last year. Taxpayers who take the standard deduction rather than itemize their tax deductions may set aside $300 (or $600 if you are married and filing jointly). The IRS suspended the typical limit of 60% of adjusted gross income for the amount of the charitable deduction made in a year.

The IRS has temporarily suspended limits on charitable contributions for those who itemize deductions on Schedule A. Check with your accountant whenever it relates to your taxes. 

 

Final Thoughts

Use your stimulus payment or windfall by spending the money wisely to improve your financial situation. It’s a personal decision based on your needs now or in your financial future. Strategize before spending this additional money so you can get the most of it. Hopefully, you are turning the corner to better times.