The COVID-19 virus has spread unease and fear in 2020, and not just from a health standpoint. With millions of Americans out of work and small businesses forced to close shop due to the pandemic, financial fears have pushed front and center over the past few months. This article will address a common financial fear as of late: How to ride out this storm while keeping your credit score as stable as possible.
Check Credit Score Regularly
You should already be regularly monitoring your credit report during the best of times, but it’s especially important to do so during this tumultuous season in order to spot possible mistakes before they have a chance to negatively affect your credit score. Contact the creditor immediately if you do catch a mistake. Recent mistakes can typically be rectified with minimal headache while ones that sit on your credit report longer can take longer to get resolved. With COVID scams happening and many Americans’ income in flux, it’s good practice for the time being to check your credit reports monthly. In fact, the three national credit reporting agencies—Equifax, Experian, and Transunion—are offering free weekly credit reports until April of next year. You can access your reports at AnnualCreditReport.com.
Make On-Time Payments or Contact the Creditor
When possible, continue to make on-time payments, even if it’s just the minimum amount due, through the pandemic. A positive payment history is a major step in ensuring that your credit score stays the course. However, if your income has been affected and emergency savings accounts have been drained, this might not be possible. If this is the case, the best course of action is to contact the lender or creditor as soon as possible as they may have workable payment options available to help you get through this time. Proactive and early communication is paramount. Be prepared to discuss how much you can afford to pay and when you expect to resume regular payments.
Consider a Balance Transfer
You may have found over the past few months that you’ve needed to rely more on credit cards while simultaneously being unable to pay them off each month. If so, now might be a good time to explore a balance transfer where your debt would be transferred to a card that offers a lower interest rate on that balance and may reduce your monthly payment. The low-interest rates are typically temporary, but the payment reduction from lower-interest rate cards can at least help to keep your credit card debt from escalating out of control until you can get back on your feet.
Budget and Make a Plan / Prioritize Payments / Revisit Budget
This crisis is affecting almost everyone, whether you’ve lost your job, you’ve experienced a reduction in work hours, or you’re anxious about the economic fallout of the pandemic, so there’s no better time to rework your budget following these steps:
- Assessing any take-home income.
- Examine your financial commitments and variable spending
- Determine where you can cut back, even temporarily
Taking steps to free up more money in your budget helps to decrease financial stress, which allows you to focus on the most necessary financial commitments while better positioning yourself to protect your credit. If needed, that money can be used for essential expenses, like food and bills, but if you’re in a better position, you can sock away some of it in an emergency savings account for future use.
Congress passed the Paycheck Protection Program Flexibility Act (PPPFA) on June 5, 2020, amending several provisions in the original PPP loan program. Along with granting business owners more flexibility and time to spend the PPP loan proceeds, the Act permits funds to be used on a wider-ranging variety of expenses while still allowing for loan forgiveness. Here is how this will affect businesses moving forward with a PPP loan.
Extended Covered Period
Originally, borrowers had 8 weeks from the receipt of loan proceeds to spend funds on forgivable expenditures. Now the covered period specifies 24 weeks after the origination of the loan, or December 31, 2020, whichever is sooner. To qualify for forgiveness, however, borrowers must maintain payroll levels for the full 24-week period. Borrowers do have the option to stick with the 8-week deadline, and they must likewise maintain payroll levels through the full 8 weeks to qualify for the full loan forgiveness amount.
Additional extensions include the timeline for eliminating reductions in workforce and wages, as well as restoring workforce levels and wages to pre-pandemic levels required for loan forgiveness (both extended to December 31, 2020).
Changes to Percentage of Payroll Costs
The PPPFA reduced the payroll expense requirement from 75% to 60%, which means that 40% of the PPP loan funds may now be put towards forgivable non-payroll expenses such as mortgage interest, rent, and utilities. Note that the expenses originally designated as forgivable have not changed.
Changes to Repayment Period
For borrowers whose loans are not forgiven, the PPPFA increases the repayment timeline from two years to five years. The 1% interest rate remains the same.
Changes to Rehiring Requirements
The PPPFA also extends the rehire date to December 31, 2020 and allows for a reduced headcount. Rather than basing loan forgiveness on a borrower’s ability to rehire the same number of employees on payroll as was used to calculate the loan, the PPPFA allows for loan forgiveness amount to be determined by documentation showing that the borrower was (1) not able to rehire former employees and unable to hire similarly qualified employees, or (2) not able to return to pre-pandemic levels of business activity in response to federal guidelines related to COVID-19.
Changes to Payroll Tax Deferment
The CARES Act originally prevented borrowers who received PPP loan funding from deferring additional payroll tax once the lender decided to forgive the loan, but the PPPFA eliminates this restriction, and borrowers can now defer the payroll tax for the period from March 27 to December 31, 2020.
Overall, the PPPFA will ease the burdens of businesses that received PPP loans, but it doesn’t fix everything or answer all the questions, so expect more regulations and changes to the PPP program in the near future.
The U.S. Government has already started sending stimulus payments to Americans from the $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus bill known as the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which was signed into law on March 27, 2020. But there is still some confusion surrounding the details. Here are some things to know about the stimulus payments.
The stimulus plan outlines that individuals will receive the following: $1,200 for individual tax payers with an adjusted gross income of up to $75,000; $2,400 for married couples filing jointly with an adjusted gross income of up to $150,000, and $112,500 for heads of household. Additionally, families will receive $500 per qualifying child under the age of 17. Dependents over the age of 17 who are claimed under someone else’s tax return will not receive their own payment, which means that most college students won’t qualify to receive a check. If your adjusted gross income (AGI) is more than what’s outlined above, you’ll fall into the “phase out” category—the more your AGI increases, the more the stimulus amount granted decreases, specifically by $5 less for every $100 over the limits noted above. The total phase out amounts based on AGI are: $99,000 for single filers, $198,000 for married couples filing jointly, and $136,500 for heads of household. The AGI will be based on your 2019 tax return, or your 2018 tax return if you haven’t filed 2019 yet.
Stimulus checks will be direct deposited into the bank account listed on your 2019 tax return (or 2018, if you have yet to file for 2019) beginning mid-April. The IRS will send a physical check to your most recent address on file if a bank account is not listed on either tax return. For those whose banking information has changed since then, the IRS is developing a web-based portal where individuals can provide their banking information to the IRS online to ensure that as many people as possible can take advantage of receiving a direct deposit rather than waiting for a check in the mail. This tool is expected to be available around April 17.
You will receive a notice of payment from the Treasury approximately two to three weeks after your payment has been disbursed, which will be sent to your last known address. The notice will include the method by which payment was delivered (direct deposit or check), the address where payment was sent, and a phone number to contact the IRS if, say, your banking information has changed but hasn’t been updated and therefore you did not receive the payment.
As long as you meet the income guidelines, you should still receive a stimulus payment if you owe back taxes, even federal, state, and student loans. The one exception is for those who owe child support payments.
Who doesn’t Qualify?
In addition to high wage earners and college students, other individuals may be left out of receiving a stimulus check: senior citizens and disabled people who are claimed as dependents by someone else; non-resident immigrants, temporary workers, and immigrants who are in the country illegally (immigrants with green cards, H-1B, and H-2A work visas qualify to receive payment); unemployed high wage earners: those who earned more than $99,000 last year but are now unemployed will be eligible for a rebate on their 2020 tax returns if they earn below the phase-out limits this year; Too, parents of babies born in 2020 won’t receive their $500 payment for that child until next year.
Low Income Earners
Individuals who make less than $12,000 a year are not required to file taxes. If you fall into this category and haven’t filed taxes in the last two years, you are still eligible to receive a check, but there’s an extra step involved. First, if you receive social security benefits, you will automatically receive a stimulus check. But for the estimated 10 million Americans who fall into the “low income” wage earning bracket, don’t receive social security benefits, and haven’t filed taxes for the last two years, the IRS has set up a web portal that will allow you to register for a stimulus check. Visit IRS.gov and look for “Non-Filers: Enter Payment Info Here”. The IRS has also partnered with TurboTax to set up a web page where individuals can answer a few questions and then choose to receive their payment via paper check or direct deposit.
A new scoring model from Fair Isaac Corp., the company behind the FICO score, is set to be implemented later this year by Equifax and other major credit bureaus. The popular score is commonly used by lenders to determine your eligibility and interest rate for certain loans. Read on to find out if it could affect you.
Consumers in Debt
The new model, FICO 10, will start incorporating consumers’ debt levels into its tabulation, which could cause a decrease in score for some overextended consumers, particularly those who have both personal loans and rising debt. This change is speculated to create greater divide to scores in the 600s. If your score is in the 600s and you’re making payments on time and hacking away at debt, your score could increase. On the other hand, if you’re struggling to pay off debt and missing payments, your score could go down.
Combat Credit Card Spending
FICO 10 will give more consideration to how consumers have changed their payment history in the previous two years, benefitting individuals who are making progress in paying off debt and judging more harshly those who show increasing financial strain. Currently, credit card utilization, which is the percent of your available credit lines you’re using, accounts for 30% of your score, but it could become even more important in FICO 10. The goal is to keep your utilization as low as possible, so be sure to pay balances in full each month or at least keep the balances low. One option to paying off credit card debt is to consolidate it by taking out a personal loan, but this only works if you use that loan to pay off debt while refraining from piling new debt on your credit cards.
Create a Monthly Budget
Because delinquent payments will carry greater weight in the new model, it’s crucial to pay bills on time, so if missing payments is a habit or even an occasional slip-up, you’ll want to be more mindful of this. The best way to keep up with payments is to create a monthly budget. This will not only help with keeping payments at the forefront of your mind (and on your calendar), but you’ll have a better overall picture of your finances and whether or not you’re overspending. Also consider enrolling in autopay, with your loan or credit card payments automatically taken from your bank account at the same time each month.
Though banks and lenders decide which credit model they’ll use, Fair Isaac claims that FICO is used in 90% of all lending decisions, so take the next few months to make changes that will start cutting away at high interest rate debt and provide better overall financial wellness.
As the clock winds down to the end of the year, there are a few last-minute money moves to make in order to lower your tax bill.
Maximize Your 401(k) and HSA Contributions
While tax deductible contributions can be made to traditional and Roth IRA accounts until April 15 of 2020, the deadline for 401(k)s and HSA accounts is December 31 of this year. You can contribute up to $19,000 to a 401(k), 403(b), most 457 plans, and federal Thrift Savings Plans (plus $6,000 in catch-up contributions for those who are 50 or older). As for HSA accounts, the maximum contribution for 2019 is $3,500 for individuals and $7,000 for family coverage. And if you’re 55 or older you can contribute an additional $1,000.
Start Thinking About Retirement Contributions for 2020
Retirement contributions to 401(k)s have increased for 2020. Individuals can contribute $19,500 next year, and those 50 or older can contribute an additional $6,500. If you prefer to spread out your contributions evenly throughout the year, you’ll need to adjust your monthly contribution amounts by January.
Take Advantage of Your Flexible Spending Account
Funds in a flexible spending account revert back to the employer if not spent within the calendar year. Some companies might provide a grace period extending into the new year, but others end reimbursements on December 31.
Prevent Taxes on an RMD with Charitable Donations
After seniors reach age 70 ½ they must take a required minimum distribution each year from their retirement accounts (an exception to this rule is a Roth IRA account). Seniors who aren’t dependent on this money for living expenses should consider having it sent directly from the retirement account to a charity as a qualified charitable distribution, effectively preventing the money from becoming taxable income.
Consider a Roth Conversion
Because withdrawals from traditional IRAs are taxed in retirement while distributions from Roth IRAs are tax-free, you might think about converting some funds from a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA. Just be sure this move doesn’t tip you into the next tax bracket. You’ll need to pay taxes on the initial conversion, but the money will then grow tax-free in the Roth IRA.
Take Stock of Losses
Sell any losses in stocks for a deduction of up to $3,000, but be aware that purchasing the same or a substantially similar stock within 30 days of the sale would violate the wash-sale rule. If that happens your capital loss would be deferred until you sell the new shares.
Meet with a Tax Advisor
If you’re unsure whether or not you’re ending the year in a favorable tax bracket, check in with an advisor who can identify actionable steps to reduce taxable income through retirement contributions or itemized deductions.