The pandemic brought on the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.
Even with the promise of new vaccines, public health experts don’t expect life to go back to normal anytime soon.
The economy started to recover from being shut down from June to October, says Jill Schlesinger, personal finance expert and host of “Jill on Money.” The U.S. lost 22 million jobs over the course of two months, and about 12 million have returned so far, she says.
“What that tells you is that, yes, it has been a really strong recovery, but we’re not there yet,” she says. “And as this economy was making progress, we had a surge in the virus. And the economy is slowing down again.”
When Schlesinger’s “Jill on Money” podcast started receiving emails from panicked listeners in March, she says she couldn’t help but laugh.
“As a certified financial planner, all the stuff that I say every single day, all year long, all these years, it just sort of comes back into vogue,” she says. “My mother says to me, ‘really you need a black suit.’ And, you know, she’s right. You need a black suit. So this is the black suit of your financial life. These are the things you need to be thinking about.”
The ‘Black Suit of Your Financial Life’ Going Into 2020
From personal finance expert Jill Schlesinger
How to prepare for tax season
Neither the $1,200 nor $600 stimulus checks are taxable, she says. But unemployment benefits through the state or the CARES Act are taxable.
“If you didn’t withhold because maybe you couldn’t, you couldn’t afford to, you’re going to need to plan on paying the tax due on that in April,” she says.
For people fortunate enough to keep their jobs, check the IRS website’s withholding estimator.
“You want to see, have I withheld enough money to pay my tax bill in April?” she says. “That to me is the most important thing you can do. It’s proactive and it’s easy.”
Will the IRS extend the deadline again?
Schlesinger doesn’t think so and recommends planning for an April 15 tax day.
“I also want to remind a lot of folks we had a tax law change in 2017 and that tax law changed the actual definition of what you could deduct and what you couldn’t. If you’re an employee, you can’t deduct anything. You’re done. No miscellaneous business expenses,” she says. “You really have to be careful of that.”
Self-employed contractors or gig workers who worked from home can deduct part of their housing expenses, she says.
“Remember that to qualify as a deduction, you have to have exclusive use of some portion of your home for conducting business on a regular basis. And it’s got to be your principal place of business,” she says. “So if you’re shacking up with your parents down on the Cape and you want to try to figure out how to deduct a room of theirs, [its] not going to work.”
Tax deduction rules for people who worked from other places during the pandemic
About 20% of people are working remotely during the pandemic, many from outside their normal residence, Schlesinger says.
The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants recommends counting the days spent working in a different state, city, county or jurisdiction, she says.
“Then you’re going to check with your primary residence rules about other jurisdictions, and you can make some adjustments to your withholding,” she says.
“Now, the good news is if you happen to have gone to a place that has a lower tax impact on you, you might have over withheld. OK, so you’ll get a little tax refund come April. But it is worth going through this exercise because you may owe more, but you might be due some.”
Put your money into a Roth IRA
Many people who earned less money in 2020 may see their tax bracket drop.
“Maybe you were in the 22% tax bracket, but now you’re in the 12% tax bracket,” she says. “So maybe you’d rather pay the 12% tax on your income right now, put the money into a Roth and have it grow without any taxation because down the line, it’s unlikely you will remain in the 12% tax bracket.”
Tax rates for individuals are at their lowest in decades, she says.
“The old rule of thumb was put money away on a tax-deferred basis for retirement, because when you retire, you’ll likely be in a lower tax bracket,” she says. “I’m not sure that that is a rule of thumb anymore. We don’t know. You could be in a higher tax bracket because maybe tax rates overall will be rising in the future.”
‘Time in’ the stock market
“I am a big fan of time in the market, not timing the market. If you had a freakout in March and you bailed out of everything you owned and went to cash, I understand that. So you can feel bad for yourself for about a second. Now, get off your pity pot and let’s get a plan of action to put your money back to work. And the easiest way to do this is to put it on autopilot. You say to yourself, ‘All my money is sitting in cash right now. I am a long-term investor. I made a mistake. So I’m investing for 30 years. In the future, I’m going to take 10% of the money and automatically have the money go into a diversified portfolio. And that way I’m going to stick with it.’
“OK, now, I think that there’s something really interesting here is that you don’t have to know where the stock market’s going next. What you have to know is where you are going next. If you have a lot of confidence in your ability to retain your job, if you’ve got an emergency reserve fund, if you’ve paid down your credit card debt and you’re funding retirement accounts, then just keep at it.”
Pay off credit card debt, then switch to saving
“When I was in the business of giving financial advice, I found that people who were able to actually pay down their debt became phenomenal savers. Phenomenal. And here’s why. Because we would walk them through this process and we’d say, ‘OK, how much money are you spending?’ And now you are going to try to identify some amount of money again automatically that you can push toward your credit card debt or any outstanding nefarious debt. And once you’re done paying down that debt, really you’re turning a switch. It’s like basically you’re on a train track and you’re sort of saying, ‘OK, let me just switch it over to the right track.’ And that right track, instead of paying down debt, is going to go to saving.”