Federal unemployment benefits prompted by pandemic job losses expired at the end of July, and a recent flurry of government activity resulted in an executive order issuing $400 a week to people who are unemployed.
The weekly benefit will help the more than 30 million Americans now claiming unemployment as well as the hundreds of thousands of new applicants each week. The details surrounding this round of benefits have not been finalized, however, and it remains unclear as to who will be eligible, exactly how much they will receive, and when the payments will begin.
Here’s what we do know.
$400 a Week Isn’t Guaranteed
While this payment program, called Lost Wages Assistance, will come on top of state unemployment benefits, it looks like not everyone eligible will receive the full $400 each week. The reason? One stipulation of this new benefit is that states must provide 25 percent, or $100 of each payment, unlike the recently expired program, which was fully federally funded.
Some states aren’t in a financial position to supplement federal unemployment and may take advantage of a loophole that will lower the payment. The federal government has noted that states can count existing benefits they pay an unemployed worker toward their share of the new supplement. That would reduce the federal payment to $300 per week.
One expert believes few states will provide the additional $100 on top of state unemployment benefits. Many states are facing budget shortfalls due to decreased tax revenue during coronavirus lockdown—the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities predicts state budget shortfalls could total $555 billion.
“They’re stretched,” Andrew Stettner, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, recently told the New York Times. “They don’t have money for masks for the teachers in their schools. They’re probably not going to come up with an extra $100 for everyone on unemployment insurance.”
In late August, the states of Kentucky, West Virginia, and Montana announced that they would provide the $100 in matching funds so that unemployed workers will receive the full $400 weekly federal benefit. South Dakota has opted out of the program entirely, and other states have announced that they will not provide the extra money. In those states, eligible people who receive unemployment will get $300 each week.
Not Everyone Will Qualify
Unfortunately, new Labor Department guidelines for the Lost Wages Assistance program could exclude the people who need it most, including people who freelance or work part-time.
People who qualified for the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation or Pandemic Unemployment Assistance programs through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act and can continue to provide self-certification that they lost their job because of COVID-19 should receive the new unemployment benefits. To ensure that they receive the new benefit, however, they should be careful to state on the application that they are unemployed or underemployed due to COVID-19.
Another loophole could be problematic as well. People who receive less than $100 a week in state unemployment benefits won’t be eligible for the federal weekly $300. Experts estimate this could exclude as many as 1 million workers, including low-wage earners and people who work part-time.
When will the benefits be paid?
Right now, there’s no clear guidance on when the first Lost Wages Assistance checks will be sent. Some estimate it could take months, as states that are already managing huge loads of unemployment filings will have to administer their portion of the program. Precedent may be helpful; some states took months to send out checks under the initial pandemic federal unemployment assistance program.
One Department of Labor official who works in Hawaii recently said in a media interview that the state’s computer system will have to be reprogrammed to meet federal requirements, a problem many states with older computer systems are facing. States with updated computer systems also may not be able to get payments out quickly, according to some estimates.
State offices are busy fielding questions about the new benefits—one New Mexico government official told a news outlet that his office received thousands of calls the first workday after the initial stimulus bill was signed into law in March.
While much about the Lost Wages Assistance program remains up in the air, there is some good news. The program is retroactive to August 1, so qualified recipients will receive a large first payment at some point.
The benefits are scheduled to continue through the week of December 6, which means recipients will receive financial help for another four months. This will provide some certainty for families and individuals as they make decisions about budgeting and spending this year. While the money does have an endpoint, federal elected leaders may implement another round of unemployment benefits at that time if Americans still need additional financial help due to the pandemic.
While the world may feel chaotic as the coronavirus pandemic continues to disrupt daily life, there’s no better time to get a hold on your finances. The future may seem uncertain, but having a strategy for managing your finances will help navigate whatever lies ahead.
If you’ve never created a financial plan, here are some commonly asked questions to get you started.
What Is a Financial Plan?
A financial plan outlines your financial goals and how you can plan to reach them. Possible goals can be paying off debt, saving for retirement, sticking to a monthly budget, or creating an investment plan.
These kinds of financial strategies are not just for wealthy people. Anyone who’s interested in taking charge of their finances and working toward long-term goals can make a financial plan by either working with a financial planner or creating one themselves.
What’s the Benefit of a Financial Plan?
The benefits of a financial plan are many, but the most important is that you establish control over your money and grow in confidence as you stick to a budget, save, and invest wisely. Financial plans can look decades ahead while allowing for flexibility for big life events such as the loss of a job or a child’s wedding.
How Do I Get Started Creating a Financial Plan?
Whether you work with a certified financial planner or build your own financial plan, your first step should be writing down your financial goals. You’ll want to consider both short- and long-term goals, such as a short-term plan for paying for a college tuition in the next five years or retiring decades from now. The more specific you are, the more you can define your financial strategy.
Start by writing down your financial goes for the next five, 10, and 20 years. Think about how much you’d like to save, what big (expensive) life events are coming up, and how much money you’ll need to fund the retirement you dream of. The more detailed your goals, the more motivated you’ll be to prioritize and follow through with them.
What Documents Do I Need to Create a Financial Plan?
To get an accurate overview of your financial situation, you’ll need to review documents detailing everything from your mortgage to your retirement savings account. As you evaluate these documents, you’ll gain a better understanding of your spending history, income, investments, and liabilities. This information will give you a strong foundation to work from as you build a realistic financial plan and work toward your goals.
What Kinds of Goals Should I Consider Including in My Financial Plan?
While every financial plan is personalized, it’s beneficial to consider goals that will strengthen your savings and help you reach your financial goals. Here are some examples.
Preparing for emergencies. Financial experts recommend building up a savings of three to six months of expenses in case of a catastrophe such as a sudden job loss. This savings should be a priority—as COVID-19 has shown, financial situations can take a turn for the worse unexpectedly. A savings buffer will help you pay bills if you are suddenly looking for a new job or facing cutbacks at work.
Dealing with debt. If you have significant debt, your financial plan should prioritize paying it off—starting with high-interest loans or balances such as unpaid credit card debt. Paying off these balances will free you from paying interest on money you’ve borrowed and free up more cash for you to save or invest. You can approach this goal from several angles, including taking out a debt consolidation loan or directing money from a second job toward loan payments.
Retirement savings. No matter what age you are, it’s wise to save for retirement. The younger you are, the more benefit you will receive from compounding interest that will quickly build your retirement account. One way to quickly grow your retirement savings is to enroll your employer’s matching savings program.
Big purchases. If you are considering an expensive purchase, such as a second home or a new car, you’ll want to not only save for this purchase but also build up your credit so that you’ll qualify for a good loan. You can do this by paying bills on time and paying off high-interest debts.
How Do I Stay Motivated to Stick to My Financial Plan?
Financial plans can be daunting, especially if you’ve never had one before. Instead of becoming overwhelmed, focus on small goals that serve as milestones on your journey toward financial health. You’ll find that small victories can snowball—paying off a high-interest credit card balance will free up more money to invest, save, or pay toward other debts.
Once you have a plan in place and are following it, you’ll gain a new sense of control and confidence as you build savings, pay off debt, and being to shore up your finances against unforeseen circumstances.
The coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc on many aspects of people’s financial lives. Despite this, many people report that they have not stopped contributing to their children’s 529 college savings plans.
In early May, Savingforcollege.com released survey results showing the pandemic’s economic impact on families saving for college. About two-thirds of respondents reported seeing a decrease in their 529 plan’s value since January. Approximately one fourth said that someone in their household had lost a job or was making less money. However, most also said they hadn’t changed their strategy for saving for college.
As the situation developed, though, and economic hardship continued, more families (although not a majority) did report an impact on their college savings. A CollegeBacker survey in May reached out to 1,200 American adults. About 16 percent said they had paused their college savings contributions. Additionally, 17 percent planned to withdraw money from their college savings accounts, and 13 percent had decreased the amount they were contributing.
The June 2020 State of Savings report from Ascensus, which analyzed 529 plans with fewer than 500 participants between early 2019 and May 31, found about a 21 percent decrease in the amount of one-time contributions between the end of March and the end of May. However, Ascensus’ analysis showed hardly any change in automated contributions during that time period.
“There are many families facing a tougher situation so you do see some occasional monthly reductions in their contribution rates, but overall it hasn’t been as dire as you might expect,” Jordan Lee, founder and CEO of CollegeBacker, said in a press statement. Here’s what you need to know about 529 plans during the pandemic:
This Is How 529 Plans Work
The value of a 529 plan is that it allows adults, primarily parents or grandparents, to save money for a designated beneficiary. The account will grow tax-deferred, and money can be withdrawn tax-free for qualified expenses related to education.
The money can be withdrawn for other expenses (financial planners recommend this option only be used as a last resort) if times are hard. However, the plan’s earnings would then be subject to a 10 percent penalty, and the account holder would also be charged federal income tax on the withdrawal.
Extensions Were Granted to Return Money Refunded as a Result of the Pandemic
Federal regulators offered one break, however, for 529 plans during the pandemic. In some cases, families paid for college expenses for spring 2020 out of their 529 plans and may have received a refund for tuition or room and board due to schools closing their physical campuses and going online for much of the semester.
In a typical year, account holders would be required to reinvest the refund into their 529 plan quickly or be penalized. This year, the Internal Revenue Service allowed families 60 days (the deadline was July 15) to return the money without a penalty.
529 Plans Are Good Investments
The pandemic has forced many families into tough situations, as working members of families have faced layoffs, furloughs, and other economic hardships. However, 529 plans remain an excellent investment, as rules for how the money can be used have been relaxed over the years. Qualified expenses can include everything from tuition for vocational and trade schools to paying off student loans to some costs associated with K-12 education.
Federal laws restricting gifts to $15,000 each year are less stringent for 529 accounts. This means that grandparents or other adults who want to invest in a child’s education can give as much as $75,000 in a single contribution. In addition, if the account’s recipient decides not to go to college, another family member can use the money.
Your Budget May Be More Flexible Than You Think
Experts advise families to keep making contributions to their 529 plans—and even increase them if possible—during the pandemic. Some financial planners point out that typical budget items, such as eating out and vacations, may not be spent and the money could instead be allocated to college savings.
Families also should regularly review their budget and financial planning outlook. The current economic situation is changing rapidly due to ongoing questions about employment and the market. However, college will still be an expense in most cases, and a 529 college savings plan remains an excellent way to save for college even if you find yourself in financial hardship.
Plans May Be Uncertain, but 529s Are Flexible
The pandemic has forced many to change their plans, and your student may even be considering putting college off or choosing a different route all together. Restrictions on indoor gatherings have required many American colleges to remain online, an educational format that is less appealing to many students.
The good news is that 529 plans are designed for flexibility. This means you can continue saving while your student’s educational future unfolds, and the plan likely will cover other educational expenses if your student decides to pursue a nontraditional educational opportunity. And if your student foregoes education entirely to work or travel, the 529 plan can be transferred to a qualified relative whose education can benefit from the savings.
During economic crises, it can be instinctive to change course with your finances as uncertainty and perhaps even panic set in. However, it will benefit you financially to avoid making quick decisions about your money, particularly during a recession. Financial stability, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, will reduce stress on your family and keep you moving toward your financial goals.
Here are some sound options for managing your finances during the pandemic.
Pad your emergency savings
While the pandemic has hurt many aspects of the American economy, personal savings rates have soared. CNBC recently reported that the US Bureau of Economic Analysis showed a personal savings rate (the percentage of disposable income that people save) of 33 percent in April, the highest it’s been since the 1960s, when the agency began keeping track. Nationwide stay-at-home orders have encouraged savings, as people have drastically reduced their spending on travel, shopping, and entertainment and eating out.
If you continue to have a steady income, this is an excellent time to build an emergency fund for situations ranging from job loss to an unexpected medical bill. Financial experts recommend saving between three and six months of living expenses to make sure that you can weather unforeseen hardships, including the pandemic if it stretches out.
A good place to start would be saving any lump sum of money you receive, such as a tax refund, work bonus, or a commission. You could also decrease the amount you contribute to your 401(k) temporarily and move the difference into your emergency fund.
Adjust your budget
Millions of Americans have been affected by COVID-19 shutdowns, whether they have been furloughed, laid off, or experiencing a reduction in wages. The economic fallout is far from over, so even those who have yet to be impacted by COVID-19 could as companies examine their long-term revenue and adjust their plans in the coming months.
Regardless of your job situation, this is a good time to make adjustments to protect yourself against job loss or wage reduction. You can think through your long-term income potential and job security and consider ways to insulate your family from income loss as the impact of COVID-19 unfolds over the coming months and years. You may also want to make your budget more conservative, increase your savings, and reduce non-essential spending.
Look at payment reduction options
While your income may seem stable now, that may not be true a few months down the road as the economic crisis stretches out. To be prepared for financial difficulties, familiarize yourself now with programs that allow for payment deferment or reduction on key debts.
Mortgage payments: If a time comes when you can’t make your mortgage payment, call your bank. Many states will allow property owners to take a “holiday” from mortgage payments if their cash flow has been impacted by COVID-19. Lending institutions may allow you to postpone payments without incurring late fees, extra interest, or a negative impact on your credit score.
Credit card payments: In the wake of COVID-19 financial hardship, many credit card companies are offering relief to their clients in the form of lower interest rates, reduced fees, and delayed monthly payments. Contact your credit card company for details about their COVID-19 relief plan.
Federal student loan payments: The US Department of Education currently has reduced the interest rates on federally-backed student loans to 0 percent for a minimum of 60 days, and graduates can also take a break from payments for at least two months if they call 1-800-4FED-AID and request it.
Reconsider your real estate
Your biggest monthly budget item is likely your rent or mortgage. Financial setbacks, such as a job loss, can become severe if you can’t pay it. If you’re a renter and you’re anticipating or experiencing a financial hardship, ask your landlord for a temporary reduction in your monthly payment or if you can apply your security deposit toward rent. In a more extreme scenario, you may need to get out of your lease early and move to a more affordable rental.
If you’re a homeowner, call your bank and ask for mortgage relief, such as deferred payments or temporarily paying interest only on your mortgage. With interest rates extremely low, this may be an ideal time to refinance your mortgage to decrease your payments or shorten your loan terms so that you can pay it off more quickly.
Is it time for more investments?
While your inclination may be to save right now, you may be missing out on excellent investment opportunities. Many stock prices are low, making it a good time to enter the long-term investment market or temporarily increase contributions to your 401(k). Bear markets have rebounded above average for several years, a historic trend that could play out again when the COVID-19 recovery begins.
As with any risk, however, caution is always advised. Before you step further into the market, make sure you have a generous emergency savings fund, stable expenses, and job security.
Deciding how to divide your estate between your children is not always as clear-cut as it seems. An equal division would have you leave each of your children the same amount, but what if one has served as your caregiver for five years? What if one is extremely wealthy, while the other two are struggling financially? If you have four children, who gets the beloved family home or their great-grandmother’s wedding ring?
Experts say that however you decide to divide up your estate, harmony should be a guiding principle. An inequitable inheritance, especially when it comes as a surprise, can cause long-lasting conflict between siblings, and no one wants to leave behind a legacy of family discord.
Here are some ways to ensure that the distribution of your estate is equitable, minimizes conflicts, and follows your wishes.
Figure out what “fair” means
When you consider how your children should share your inheritance, certain situations may call for an equal division of assets. For example, if all your children are in similar economic and life circumstances and you haven’t already given any of them substantial gifts, equal financial distribution may be appropriate.
Alternatively, you may want to factor in the total amount of financial assistance you’ve given your children over their lifetime. In other words, you may want to adjust their inheritance to reflect what you’ve already given them. For example, you may have a child who you gave $50,000 to help pay off private college student loans, while your other children attended state colleges that were much cheaper. You could adjust your financial division to give one child $100,000 and the other two $150,000 each to make the inheritance equitable.
Sometimes people want to leave more money to one child as a reward or a necessity. For example, one child may have sacrificed greatly to provide in-home care for you, or you may have a child with a disability who will need money for care for the rest of their life. You may have created a blended family later in life and want to leave more to your biological children.
These situations can become sticky, but sometimes siblings will understand and even support another sibling receiving a larger share of the inheritance. In other cases, however, perceived inequities can lead to years of sibling disputes. If you’re not sure what will happen, consider making decisions that will create harmony, not conflict, between siblings.
Large family assets
It doesn’t always make sense to divide a large family asset such as a family home or business between multiple children. For example, if one of your children has settled in another state and one has stayed in your hometown, it may make more sense to leave the house to the child who lives locally and give the other child more of your assets to offset the value of the house.
A similar situation could arise with a family business. If one child has made a career in that business while another shows no interest, it could be detrimental to the business to split ownership between the children in the interest of being “equal.” In this case, you could leave the business to the child who works there and give the other child more cash.
Conveying your wishes
While you are of sound mind, clearly define your wishes. You can do this by writing a detailed letter that explains not only what your decisions are, but why you made them. This will eliminate any conjecture about your motivations that could lead to hurt.
Talk to your children. You may find that they are much more understanding than you’ve given them credit for. For example, you may find that a child who already is well-off is more interested in a sentimental family heirloom than an equal share of the assets. Discussions about your estate will help your children understand why you made the decisions you did and stave off potential conflict after you’ve gone. It will also give your family time to accept your wishes. Many times, it is the surprise bequests that create discord.
You also may want to ask your children how they feel about sharing assets. Are they all willing to put the time and money into keeping up the family vacation home? Would one child be willing to allow a sibling to inherit the family silver if they get the grand piano? Heading off potential conflicts through pre-emptive discussion can go a long way toward long-term harmony.
In some cases, you might not want your estate to be divided equitably—however you define that term—between your children. You may feel that one child doesn’t deserve it, or you may be estranged from a son or daughter. While these situations can be unpleasant, it’s worth considering whether an equitable division may be worthwhile to avoid emotional and financial conflict between siblings. An equitable division may also avoid the risk of the “slighted” child suing the estate—a situation where some of your assets could end up in a lawyer’s bank account.
The coronavirus has upended all aspects of people’s lives, from their jobs to their finances to their relationships. Despite the economic and social turmoil, there is some good news for people with the capacity to save for retirement right now. The federal government has pushed back deadlines for taxes and individual retirement accounts (IRAs) to help the economy and allow taxpayers to focus on other expenses.
In March, as much of the United States enacted stay-at-home orders and businesses began shutting down, the Trump administration announced that the tax deadline would be moved from April 15 to July 15. The date corresponds with a previous announcement that many tax payments also would be deferred to July 15.
Additionally, the IRS has waived minimum distributions and extended the deadline for contributing to your IRA to July 15.
What does this mean for your retirement? Most importantly, it gives Americans another three months to make a 2019 contribution to their IRA—no penalties will be assessed for contributions made during the extension. While contributions can now be made until the middle of 2020, they will be considered contributions toward the 2019 taxable year.
The new deadline automatically applies to all individual taxpayers and corporations—you don’t need to apply for a tax filing extension or fill out extra paperwork for a 2019 IRA contribution before July 15.
Contribution Limits and the New Deadline
The deadline has been moved, but the limits on how much an individual can contribute to their IRA account has not changed. For people younger than 50, the contribution limit for 2019 and 2020 is $6,000. For those age 50 and older, the limit is $7,000.
There are several reasons to take advantage of the extended deadline to contribute to your IRA.
If you were not able to save enough money to meet the limit by the April 15 deadline, you now have more time to save up for a larger contribution. Additionally, the recent market decline could make it a good time to invest, as your IRA will grow, tax-free, when the market rebounds.
If you do plan to make a contribution before the new deadline, in the interest of caution some financial advisors are recommending that you note “2019” on your check so that it’s clear what year the contribution should apply.
Other Ways to Take Advantage of the Extended Deadline
The new July 15 deadline also applies to health savings account (HSA) contributions. That means you can continue making tax-deductible contributions to your 2019 HSA through July 15. Money spent from your HSA on qualified medical costs also will not be taxed.
If you owe taxes, July 15 is also now the deadline for making tax payments that were due on April 15. On July 16, penalties and interest on unpaid balances will begin accruing.
Getting a Refund?
If you believe you’ll receive a tax refund, don’t put off filing. There’s no need to delay your receipt of that money in your account.
Special Rules for Required Minimum Distributions
For 2020, the federal government also has waived required minimum distributions (RMDs) for IRAs and 401(k)s and other qualifying employer retirement plans. This waiver applies to all RMDs due on April 1 and December 31 for retirement plans that you own or have inherited.
If you’ve already taken out RMDs in 2020, they are eligible for a 60-day indirect rollover. If you choose this option, the money will be deposited back in your IRA as if you’d never taken the distribution. The IRS also is offering an option under COVID-19 rules that could allow you up to three years to repay the distribution or report it as income.
Here are some ways to take advantage of these special rules.
If you don’t need cash, don’t take an RMD. This way, you can avoid paying taxes on the RMD and will keep the money in your retirement account, where it will continue to grow tax-free.
If you do need cash because you’ve been diagnosed with COVID-19 or you’ve been laid off due to the pandemic, you can take the withdrawal without penalty. The rules allow a withdrawal from a qualified IRA or 401(k) up to $100,000 without paying the 10% penalty charged to people age 59 ½ or younger.
Consider Switching to a Roth IRA
Here’s one more potential benefit of this unprecedented financial time.
Stock values have dropped dramatically, offering additional opportunities to increase your retirement savings over the long term. One option is to convert your traditional IRA to a Roth IRA. The money you move from the IRA to a Roth account will become taxable, but the (likely) lower value of the assets you shift will mean you’ll pay less in taxes than you will after the market rebounds. And after you keep the Roth IRA for five years and reach age 59 ½, you can make tax-free withdrawals from the account forever.