7 Pros and Cons of Investing in a 401(k) Retirement Plan at Work

A 401(k) retirement plan is one of the most powerful savings vehicles on the planet. If you’re fortunate enough to work for a company that offers one (or its sister for non-profits, a 403(b)), it’s a valuable benefit that you should take advantage of.

But many people ignore their retirement plan at work because they don’t understand the rules, which may seem confusing at first. Or they worry about what happens to their account after they leave the company or mistakenly believe you must be an investing expert to use a retirement plan.

Let's talk about seven primary pros and cons of using a 401(k). You’ll learn some lesser-known benefits and get tips to save quickly so you have plenty of money when you’re ready to kick back and enjoy retirement.

What is a 401(k) retirement plan?

Traditional retirement accounts give you an immediate benefit by making contributions on a pre-tax basis.

A 401(k) is a type of retirement plan that can be offered by an employer. And if you’re self-employed with no employees, you can have a similar account called a solo 401(k). These accounts allow you to contribute a portion of your paycheck or self-employment income and choose various savings and investment options such as CDs, stock funds, bond funds, and money market funds, to accelerate your account growth.

Traditional retirement accounts give you an immediate benefit by making contributions on a pre-tax basis, which reduces your annual taxable income and your tax liability. You defer paying income tax on contributions and account earnings until you take withdrawals in the future.

Roth retirement accounts require you to pay tax upfront on your contributions. However, your future withdrawals of contributions and investment earnings are entirely tax-free. A Roth 401(k) or 403(b) is similar to a Roth IRA; however, unlike a Roth IRA there isn’t an income limit to qualify. That means even high earners can participate in a Roth at work and reap the benefits.

RELATED: How the COVID-19 CARES Act Affects Your Retirement

Pros of investing in a 401(k) retirement plan at work

When I was in my 20s and started my first job that offered a 401(k), I didn’t enroll in it. I was nervous about having investments with an employer because I didn’t understand what would happen if I left the company, or it went out of business.

I want to put your mind at ease about using a 401(k) because there are many more advantages than disadvantages.

I want to put your mind at ease about using a 401(k) because there are many more advantages than disadvantages. Here are four primary pros for using a retirement plan at work.

1. Having federal legal protection

Qualified workplace retirement plans are protected by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), a federal law. It sets minimum standards for employers that offer retirement plans, and the administrators who manage them.

ERISA offers workplace retirement plans a powerful but lesser-known benefit—protection from creditors.

ERISA was enacted to protect your and your beneficiaries’ interests in workplace retirement plans. Here are some of the protections they give you:

  • Disclosure of important facts about your plan features and funding 
  • A claims and appeals process to get your benefits from a plan 
  • Right to sue for benefits and breaches of fiduciary duty if the plan is mismanaged 
  • Payment of certain benefits if you lose your job or a plan gets terminated

Additionally, ERISA offers workplace retirement plans a powerful but lesser-known benefit—protection from creditors. Let’s say you have money in a qualified account but lose your job and can’t pay your car loan. If the car lender gets a judgment against you, they can attempt to get repayment from you in various ways, but not by tapping your 401(k) or 403(b). There are exceptions when an ERISA plan is at risk, such as when you owe federal tax debts, criminal penalties, or an ex-spouse under a Qualified Domestic Relations Order. 

When you leave an employer, you have the option to take your vested retirement funds with you. You can do a tax-free rollover to a new employer's retirement plan or into your own IRA. However, be aware that depending on your home state, assets in an IRA may not have the same legal protections as a workplace plan.

RELATED: 5 Options for Your Retirement Account When Leaving a Job

2. Getting matching funds

Many employers that offer a retirement plan also pay matching contributions. Those are additional funds that boost your account value.

Always set your 401(k) contributions to maximize an employer’s match so you never leave easy money on the table.

For example, your company might match 100% of what you contribute to your retirement plan up to 3% of your income. If you earn $50,000 per year and contribute 3% or $1,500, your employer would also contribute $1,500 on your behalf. You’d have $3,000 in total contributions and receive a 100% return on your $1,500 investment, which is fantastic!

Always set your 401(k) contributions to maximize an employer’s match, so you never leave easy money on the table.

3. Having a high annual contribution limit

Once you contribute enough to take advantage of any 401(k) matching, consider setting your sights higher by raising your savings rate every year. For 2021, the allowable limit remains $19,500, or $26,000 if you’re over age 50. A good rule of thumb is to save at least 10% to 15% of your gross income for retirement.

Most retirement plans have an automatic escalation feature that kicks up your contribution percentage at the beginning of each year. You might set it to increase your contributions by 1% per year until you reach 15%. That’s a simple way to set yourself up for a happy and secure retirement.

4. Getting free investing advice

After you enroll in a workplace retirement plan, you must choose from a menu of savings and investment options. Most plan providers are major brokerages (such as Fidelity or Vanguard) and have helpful resources, such as online assessments and free advisors. Take advantage of the opportunity to get customized advice for choosing the best investments for your financial situation, age, and risk tolerance.

In general, the more time you have until retirement, or the higher your risk tolerance, the more stock funds you should own. Likewise, having less time or a low tolerance for risk means you should own more conservative and stable investments, such as bonds or money market funds.

RELATED: A Beginner's Guide to Investing in Stocks

Cons of investing in a 401(k) retirement plan at work

While there are terrific advantages of investing in a retirement plan at work, here are three cons to consider.

1. You may have limited investment options

Compared to other types of retirement accounts, such as an IRA, or a taxable brokerage account, your 401(k) or 403 (b) may have fewer investment options. You won’t find any exotic choices, just basic asset classes, including stock, bond, and cash funds.

However, having a limited investment menu streamlines your investment choices and minimizes complexity.

2. You may have higher account fees

Due to the administrative responsibilities required by employer-sponsored retirement plans, they may charge high fees. And as a plan participant, you have little control over the fees you must pay.

One way to keep your workplace retirement account fees as low as possible is selecting low-cost index funds or exchange-traded funds (ETFs) when possible.

One way to keep your workplace retirement account fees as low as possible is selecting low-cost index funds or exchange-traded funds (ETFs) when possible.

3.  You must pay fees on early withdrawals

One of the inherent disadvantages of putting money in a retirement account is that you’re typically penalized 10% for early withdrawals before the official retirement age of 59½. Plus, you typically can’t tap a 401(k) or 403(b) unless you have a qualifying hardship. That discourages participants from tapping accounts, so they keep growing.

The takeaway is that you should only contribute funds to a retirement account that you won’t need for everyday living expenses. If you avoid expensive early withdrawals, the advantages of using a workplace retirement account far outweigh the downsides.

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Coronavirus Mortgage Relief: Hardship Options During the Pandemic

Millions of Americans are worried about the financial impact of the coronavirus. Unemployment is on the rise, expenses are spiraling, income is dwindling, and homeowners are finding themselves in serious hot water. Fortunately, mortgage lenders are offering a helping hand to make those monthly payments more manageable and alleviate some of the burden. Read this […]

Coronavirus Mortgage Relief: Hardship Options During the Pandemic is a post from Pocket Your Dollars.

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When Is It Worth it To Hire an Accountant To Do Your Taxes?

The post When Is It Worth it To Hire an Accountant To Do Your Taxes? appeared first on Penny Pinchin' Mom.

When tax season rolls around, it’s easy to entertain the idea of hiring someone to do your tax return for you. Rather than spending a frustrating afternoon filling out forms and trying to wrap your head around complex tax terminology, how nice would it be to hire an accountant this tax season and call it … Read More about When Is It Worth it To Hire an Accountant To Do Your Taxes?

The post When Is It Worth it To Hire an Accountant To Do Your Taxes? appeared first on Penny Pinchin' Mom.

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Understanding What to Do with Unfiled Tax Returns

The IRS has taken down Al Capone, Wesley Snipes, Martha Stewart and other big names in the past for tax fraud. The federal government takes taxes very seriously. Not filing your tax returns is a serious offense. Although there won’t be a nationwide manhunt for late returns, you may still see some hefty fines and… Read More

The post Understanding What to Do with Unfiled Tax Returns appeared first on Credit.com.

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6 Tips to Find Affordable Health Insurance When You Become Self-Employed

If you're dreaming about leaving a corporate job to work for yourself, getting affordable health insurance is probably one of your top concerns. Fortunately, there are more protections now than ever for those who leave the safety of a group health plan.

This post will cover six tips to find affordable health insurance when you become self-employed or leave a job for any reason, so you and your family get the coverage you need.

Major benefits of the Affordable Care Act (ACA)

The Affordable Care Act (ACA), known as Obamacare, became law in 2010, with significant provisions taking effect in 2014. One critical ACA benefit is that you can't be denied coverage or charged sky-high premiums when you have a preexisting medical condition. However, insurers can charge different rates based on where you live, your age, tobacco use, and family size.

One critical ACA benefit is that you can't be denied coverage or charged sky-high premiums when you have a preexisting medical condition.

The ACA also removes annual and lifetime caps on your health coverage. And no matter how much care you receive, the law caps how much you have to pay for it.

Out-of-pocket annual maximums vary depending on your health plan, but if you get in-network care, you'll never have to pay more than $8,150 as an individual, or $16,300 as a family, for the 2020 plan year. For 2021, these amounts increase to $8,550 and $17,100. Note that these limits don't include your monthly premiums.

What is the Affordable Care Act (ACA) Subsidy?

The ACA also offers many low- and middle-income Americans a health subsidy, which cuts the cost of premiums depending on your income and family size. It's a tax credit paid to your health insurance provider every month, which allows you to pay a lower premium.

For 2020, an individual earning approximately less than $51,000 or a family of four making under $104,000 per year may qualify for an insurance subsidy.

The ACA subsidy applies when your household income is between 100% and 400% of your state's federal poverty level. For 2020, an individual earning approximately less than $51,000 or a family of four making under $104,000 per year may qualify for an insurance subsidy. 

One challenge to using a subsidy is that it's based on your estimated earnings in the year when you'll get coverage, not on your last year's income. Since self-employment incomes can vary dramatically from month to month, the chances of knowing exactly how much you'll earn in the current or future year may be difficult. 

If you underestimate your income for a health subsidy, you may have to return a portion of the tax credit already spent on your insurance during the previous year. In other words, you may owe additional taxes that you weren't expecting.

When you enroll in an ACA plan, you'll have access to a marketplace account. That's where you can update changes to your expected income or family size that affect your tax credit so you can correct it as quickly as possible.

What is the Affordable Care Act (ACA) Mandate?

The ACA mandated that individuals be covered by a qualified health plan or pay a tax penalty if you're uninsured for more than two consecutive months. The mandate applies no matter if you're employed, self-employed, unemployed, a child, an adult, or where you live. 

Technically, it's still illegal to be uninsured, but the federal government won't penalize you for it.

However, starting in 2019, due to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, the mandate penalty for not having health insurance no longer applies. Technically, it's still illegal to be uninsured, but the federal government won't penalize you for it. 

But several states have their own insurance mandates, requiring you to have a qualifying health plan. You may have to pay the penalty for being uninsured if you live in:

  • California
  • District of Columbia
  • Massachusetts
  • New Jersey
  • Rhode Island
  • Vermont

For example, California residents without ACA coverage in 2020 face a penalty up to 2.5% of household income, or $696 per adult, and $375.50 per child, whichever is greater. So, even if the federal government won't penalize you for being uninsured, you could have to pay a hefty state penalty, depending on where you live. More states will likely adopt penalties to keep the cost of coverage for residents as low as possible.

The ACA established health insurance exchanges, primarily as online marketplaces, administered by either federal or state governments. That's where individuals, the self-employed, and small businesses can shop and purchase qualified insurance plans and find other options, depending on your income.

How to get affordable health insurance

When you go out on your own, the cost of a health plan can be shocking—especially if you just left a company that paid a big chunk of the insurance bill on your behalf.

Remember that the high cost of health insurance pales when compared to the alternative. Having a medical emergency or being diagnosed with a severe illness that you can't afford to treat could be devastating. 

Remember that the high cost of health insurance pales when compared to the alternative.

Here are six tips for finding affordable health insurance when you become self-employed or no longer have job-based coverage for any reason:

1. Join a spouse or partner's plan

If your spouse or partner has employer-sponsored health insurance, joining their plan could be your most affordable option. Group insurance generally costs much less than individual coverage. Plus, some employers subsidize a portion of your premium as a benefit. 

However, some employer plans may not offer domestic partner benefits to unmarried couples. So, find out from the benefits administrator what's allowed. 

If you're under age 26, another option is to join or remain on a parent's health plan if they're willing to have you. Even if you're married, not living with your parents, and not financially dependent on them, the ACA allows you to get health insurance using a parent's plan. However, once you're over age 26, you'll have to use another option covered here.

2. Enroll in a federal or state marketplace plan

As I mentioned, the ACA established federal and state marketplaces for consumers who don't have access to employer-sponsored health insurance. The following states have health insurance exchanges:

  • California
  • Colorado 
  • Connecticut 
  • District of Columbia
  • Idaho 
  • Maryland 
  • Massachusetts
  • Minnesota
  • Nevada
  • New York 
  • Rhode Island
  • Vermont
  • Washington

No matter where you live, you can begin shopping for an ACA-qualified health plan at healthcare.gov. However, you can only apply for a policy during the annual open enrollment period—November 1 to December 15, for coverage that will begin on January 1 of the following year. Some states with healthcare exchanges have an extended enrollment period

In general, if you miss the enrollment window, you can't get an ACA health plan until the following year unless you qualify for a special enrollment. That allows you to purchase or change coverage any time of the year if you have a major qualifying life event, such as losing insurance at work, getting married or divorced, having a child, or relocating. However, you typically only have 60 days after the event occurs to enroll.

If your income is too high to qualify for a healthcare subsidy, you can still buy health insurance through the federal or your state's exchange. You can also get an ACA-qualified health plan directly from an insurance company, a health insurance agent or broker, or an online insurance aggregator.

3. Consider a high-deductible health plan (HDHP)

One way to reduce the cost of health insurance premiums is to choose a high-deductible health plan (HDHP). You enjoy lower monthly premiums but have higher out-of-pocket costs. If you're in relatively good health, an HDHP can make sense; however, if you get sick, it can end up costing you more. 

Paying for a broad range of HSA-eligible medical, dental, mental, and vision costs on a tax-free basis can add up to massive savings!

Another benefit of having an HDHP is that you qualify for a health savings account (HSA). Contributions to an HSA are tax-deductible and can be withdrawn at any time to pay for qualified medical expenses, such as doctor co-pays, prescription drugs, dental care, chiropractic, prescription eyeglasses, and mental health care. 

Paying for a broad range of HSA-eligible medical, dental, mental, and vision costs on a tax-free basis can add up to massive savings!

4. Get a short-term plan

If you miss the deadline to enroll in an ACA health plan and don't qualify for special enrollment, are you simply out of luck? Fortunately, no. You can purchase a short-term health plan until the next enrollment period comes around.

The problem is, short-term plans don't have to meet ACA standards and only offer temporary coverage, such as for a few months or up to a year. You may be eligible to renew a plan for up to three years in some states, depending on the insurer. 

You won't find short-term plans on the federal or state exchange, and therefore can't get a subsidy when you purchase one. However, they can be less expensive than an ACA-qualified plan.

Short-term plans can charge more if you have preexisting conditions, put caps on benefits, or not cover essential services like prescriptions and preventive care. Because they fall short of ACA requirements, you can have one and still be subject to a state-mandated health penalty. 

You won't find short-term plans on the federal or state exchange, and therefore can't get a subsidy when you purchase one. However, they can be less expensive than an ACA-qualified plan. 

Having short-term coverage is certainly better than being uninsured, but I recommend replacing it with qualified health coverage as soon as possible. That's the best way to have the protection you need against the enormous financial risk of medical costs. 

5. Enroll in Medicaid and CHIP (Children's Health Insurance Program)

If you can't afford health insurance, you may be eligible for free or low-cost coverage through Medicaid or CHIP at any time of year, depending on your income, family size, and the state where you live. In general, if you earn less than the poverty level, which is currently $12,760 for an individual or $26,200 for a family of four, you may qualify for these programs. They may have different names depending on where you live. 

Unlike ACA health plans, state-run health programs don't have set open enrollment periods, so if you qualify, coverage can begin any time of year. 

When you complete an application at the federal or state health insurance exchange, you can also determine if you qualify for coverage through Medicaid and CHIP programs. You can learn more about both programs at medicaid.gov

6. Get COBRA coverage

If you leave a job with group health insurance, you can enroll in COBRA (Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act) coverage. It isn't an insurance company or a health plan, but a regulation that gives you the option to continue your employer-sponsored health insurance after you're no longer employed. 

Instead of having your plan canceled the month you leave a job, you can use COBRA to continue getting the same benefits and choices you had before you left the company. In most cases, you can get COBRA benefits for up to 18 months.

The problem with COBRA coverage is that it's temporary and can be expensive. Unlike other federal benefits, such as the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), employers don't have to pay for COBRA. You typically have to pay the full cost of premiums, plus a 2 percent administrative charge, to the insurer. 

If you're not eligible for regular, federal COBRA, many states offer similar programs, called Mini COBRA. To learn more, check with your state's department of insurance.

Health insurance shopping tips

After you become self-employed and purchase health insurance, it's crucial to shop for plans every open enrollment period. Your or your family's medical needs or income may change.

Additionally, new health insurers come in and go out of the health insurance marketplace. Carriers that offered plans in your ZIP code last year may not be the same set of players this year. In other words, a competitor could offer a similar or better plan than yours, for a lower price. So, if you don't shop annually, you could leave money on the table.

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What Is a Backdoor Roth IRA?

Jana S. asked this question recently about Roth IRAs:

I just listened to your podcast about what to do if you overcontribute to a tax-advantaged account, especially when you earn too much to qualify for a Roth IRA. I’m interested in how to do a backdoor Roth. What are the rules that apply for transferring funds from a traditional IRA to a Roth?

If you’re a regular Money Girl reader or podcast listener, you’ve heard me discuss the fantastic tax benefits of a Roth IRA. The problem is, as Jana mentioned, the door to a Roth IRA gets slammed in your face if you make too much money.

But sometimes when you can’t get in the front door, the backdoor is wide open! In this episode, I'll explain a strategy known as the backdoor Roth or Roth conversion. We’ll cover how high earners can have a Roth IRA without breaking the rules.

What is a Roth IRA?

A Roth IRA is a retirement account for individuals that’s never taxed after you make contributions. Instead of getting an upfront tax deduction (like you do with deductible contributions to a traditional IRA), you can withdraw Roth IRA contributions and earnings entirely tax-free as long as you’ve had it for at least five years and reach age 59.5.

You can make IRA contributions as long as you have earned income and no matter your age, although you can’t contribute more to an IRA than you earn. To contribute the maximum for 2021, which is $6,000 or $7,000 for those over age 50, you must make at least that much.

For 2021, single taxpayers must have an adjusted gross income of $125,000 or less to make a full Roth IRA contribution.

But, as I mentioned, not everyone qualifies for a Roth IRA. For 2021, single taxpayers must have an adjusted gross income of $125,000 or less to make a full contribution. And married couples who file joint taxes must earn $198,000 or less. If your income exceeds these annual limits, you can keep an existing Roth IRA, but you can’t make new contributions.

Note that if you have a Roth at work, such as a Roth 401(k) or 403(b), there are no income limits to qualify. Unlike a Roth IRA, you can max out these accounts every year no matter how much you earn.

RELATED: Can Minors and Seniors Have a Roth IRA?

What is a backdoor Roth IRA?

A backdoor Roth isn’t a type of retirement account, it’s a method for high earners to fund a Roth IRA even when they don’t qualify for regular contributions. If your income is below the annual Roth IRA threshold, you don’t need a backdoor Roth because you can make regular "front door" contributions.

In addition to tax-deductible contributions, you can also make nondeductible, taxable contributions to a traditional IRA. Interestingly, the IRS allows you to convert nondeductible IRA contributions to a Roth IRA, which is the “backdoor” concept. It's a clever and legitimate way to move money into a Roth IRA, even if you earn too much to qualify for one.

A backdoor Roth isn’t a type of retirement account—it’s a method for high earners to fund a Roth IRA even when they don’t qualify for regular contributions.

To create a backdoor Roth IRA, you must make a nondeductible (taxable) contribution to a traditional IRA and file IRS Form 8606, Nondeductible IRAs. Then you roll over those funds into a Roth IRA. You won't owe taxes, except on any investment growth in the account earned between the time of your traditional IRA contribution and the Roth conversion. If it was a short period, your earnings and resulting tax should be small. Once your funds are in a Roth IRA, the earnings can grow and be withdrawn tax-free in retirement.

As I mentioned, there’s no income limit for traditional IRA contributions. So, converting nondeductible contributions from a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA allows anyone, regardless of income, to fund a Roth IRA.

Problems with doing a backdoor Roth IRA

Though sneaking into a backdoor Roth IRA sounds great, it doesn’t always work as planned.

If you already have pre-tax money in a traditional IRA, tax must be prorated over all your IRAs.

The IRS requires you to lump all your IRAs together when you make a distribution and doesn’t allow you to cherry-pick one account to convert. So, if you already have pre-tax money in a traditional IRA, tax must be prorated over all your IRAs.

For example, let’s say you have $5,000 in a nondeductible IRA that you want to convert into a Roth IRA, and you also have $15,000 in a deductible IRA. Since you have a total of $20,000 in IRAs, the $5,000 nondeductible portion is 25% ($5,000 / $20,000 = 0.25 or 25%) and the taxable portion is 75% ($15,000 / $20,000 = 0.75 or 75%).

You must pay the same ratio of tax on the conversion. In other words, 75% of $5,000, or $3,750, would be subject to tax. It’s up to you to weigh the upfront tax liability against the future benefits of getting tax-free withdrawals from a Roth IRA.

However, if you don’t have any pre-tax IRA funds, you could convert the full $5,000 from a nondeductible IRA into a Roth IRA with no tax due. Yes, this gets complicated. Just remember that if you have a substantial amount of pre-tax funds in a traditional IRA, doing a backdoor Roth IRA doesn’t help you avoid additional tax. Unfortunately, you can’t convert just nondeductible funds and forget about your pre-tax amounts.

Workaround for doing a backdoor Roth IRA

If you really want to do a backdoor Roth IRA, and you have a retirement plan at work, you can use it as a workaround solution. You could remove your pre-tax IRA money from the equation by rolling it over into your 401(k) or 403(b). That would leave you with just nondeductible, after-tax IRA money to convert to a Roth. 

High earners who fund a backdoor Roth IRA still won't qualify to make new contributions to the account, but the converted funds grow tax-free, which could save a bundle.

This strategy only works if your workplace plan allows incoming IRA rollovers. Plus, make sure you're happy with the plan's investment choices and fees because you don't have as much control over a 401(k) as you do with an IRA. If you're self-employed, you could set up a solo 401(k) that allows roll-ins and move your pre-tax IRA money into it.  

Remember that high earners who fund a backdoor Roth IRA still won't qualify to make new contributions to the account. However, the converted funds grow tax-free, which could save a bundle in taxes. Additionally, Roth IRAs don't have required minimum distributions (RMDs), which means you can keep them indefinitely.

Doing a backdoor Roth can be worthwhile if you can afford to pay a potentially significant tax bill on your converted balance.

Consider that your converted funds count as income for tax purposes, which could move you into a higher tax bracket for that year. Plus, it's a transaction that you can't undo if you change your mind later on. So be sure to speak to a tax or financial advisor about the pros and cons of a backdoor Roth before crossing the threshold.

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Money Audit: Can I Retire Early?

Mint devotees James, 51, and wife, Carol, 43, hope to mark 2018 as the year they achieve what many only dream of accomplishing: retiring early from the daily grind. He’s a technical manager and she’s a self-employed real estate agent…

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The post Money Audit: Can I Retire Early? appeared first on MintLife Blog.

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How To Become a Freelancer and Make a Full-Time Income

Today, I have a fun interview to share with you that will show you how to become a freelancer. I recently had the chance to interview Ben Taylor. Ben has been freelancing since 2004, and he has worked for dozens of companies. Yes, this is a career path that you can learn! As Ben will […]

The post How To Become a Freelancer and Make a Full-Time Income appeared first on Making Sense Of Cents.

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10 COVID-19 Stimulus Benefits for the Self-Employed

Since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020, life and business certainly have changed. If you’re self-employed full-time or earn business income on the side of a day job, you may be wondering what economic relief applies to you.  

Let's review what relief Congress passed to help self-employed Americans cope with financial challenges. I’ll review ten key stimulus benefits that apply to solopreneurs and small businesses.

If you're experiencing economic hardship due to the coronavirus, using some of these new regulations may be the ticket to managing your personal and business finances better.

10 ways the self-employed can get financial relief

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act became law on March 27 as the largest stimulus legislation in American history since the New Deal in the 1930s. Here are ten ways it provides relief for individual solopreneurs and small business owners.

1. Getting lower interest rates

On March 3, the central U.S. bank, also known as the Federal Reserve or Fed, made a surprising emergency interest rate cut of half a percentage point. That’s the largest single rate cut since the financial crisis of 2008. While this move wasn’t part of a coronavirus stimulus package, it was an aggressive cut meant to prepare the economy for problems the pandemic was expected to cause.

An economic recovery could take a few years, which likely means the Fed rate will stay near zero through 2023.

In mid-September, the Fed reiterated its promise to keep interest rates near zero until the economy improves and the unemployment rate declines. They indicated that a recovery could take a few years, which likely means the Fed rate stays near zero through 2023.

While savers never celebrate low interest rates, they're beneficial to borrowers. In general, the financing charge on variable-rate credit cards and lines of credit goes down in lockstep with interest rates. Carrying a balance on your personal and business credit cards may be slightly less expensive, depending on your card issuer and type. For instance, if your card’s annual percentage rate or APR is 20%, your adjusted rate could go down to 19.5%.

If you have a fixed-rate credit card, the APR doesn’t change no matter what happens in the economy or with federal interest rates. Also, note that if you pay off your balance in full each month, a credit card’s APR is irrelevant because you don’t pay interest on purchases.

2. Having more time to file taxes

Earlier this year, the due date for filing and paying 2019 federal taxes was postponed from April 15, 2020, to July 15, 2020. You didn't have to be sick or negatively impacted by COVID-19 to qualify for this federal tax delay. It applied to any person or business entity with taxes due on April 15, 2020.

If you missed the tax filing deadline, be sure to request an extension.

Most businesses make estimated tax payments each quarter. Those payment dates have shifted, too. The 2020 schedule gives you more time as follows:

  • The first quarter was due on July 15, 2020, which changed from April 15, 2020
  • The second quarter was due on July 15, 2020, which changed from April 15, 2020
  • The third quarter was due on September 15, 2020
  • The fourth quarter is due on January 15, 2021

Individuals and businesses can request an automatic extension to delay filing federal taxes. But it doesn’t give you more time to pay what you owe for 2019, only more time to submit your tax form—until October 15, 2020.

If you missed the tax filing deadline, be sure to request an extension. Individuals must file IRS Form 4868, and most incorporated businesses use IRS Form 7004.

However, depending on where you live, you may have to pay state income taxes, which have not been postponed. If you need a state tax filing extension, check with your state’s tax agency to determine what’s possible.

Taxes due on any date other than April 15, 2020—such as sales tax, payroll tax, or estate tax—don’t qualify for relief.

3. Getting more time to contribute to retirement accounts

You typically have until April 15 or the date of a tax extension to make traditional IRA or Roth IRA contributions for the prior year. But since the CARES Act postponed the federal tax filing deadline, you also have until July 15 or October 15, 2020 (if you requested an extension) to make IRA contributions for 2019.

However, this deadline doesn't apply to retirement accounts you may have with an employer, such as a 401(k). Nor does it apply to self-employed accounts, such as a solo 401(k) or SEP-IRA, which correspond to the calendar year.

4. Getting more time to contribute to an HSA

Like with an IRA, you typically have until April 15 or the date of a tax extension to make HSA contributions for the prior year. Under the CARES Act, you now have until July 15 or October 15, 2020, to make HSA contributions for 2019.

To qualify for an HSA, you must be covered by a qualifying high-deductible health plan. In early March, the IRS issued a notice that a high-deductible health plan may cover COVID-19 testing and treatment and telehealth services before meeting your deductible. And just as before the coronavirus, you can pay for medical testing and treatment using funds in your HSA.

5. Delaying tax on retirement withdrawals

While you typically must pay income tax on retirement account withdrawals that weren’t previously taxed, the good news is that for a period, you can delay or avoid tax altogether. The CARES Act gives you two options for withdrawals made in 2020:

  • Repay a hardship distribution within three years to your retirement account. You can replace the funds slowly or all at once, with no change to your annual contribution limit. If you take money out but return it within three years, it’s like you never took a distribution.
  • Pay taxes on a hardship distribution from your retirement account evenly over three years. If you can’t pay back your distribution, you can ease your tax burden by paying one-third of your liability for three years. 

Since withdrawing contributions from a Roth retirement account doesn’t trigger income taxes, it’s a good idea to tap a Roth before a traditional retirement account when you have the option.

6. Skipping early withdrawal penalties

Most retirement accounts impose a 10% early withdrawal penalty if you take make withdrawals before age 59.5. Under the CARES Act, if you have a coronavirus-related hardship, the penalty is waived.

Under the CARES Act, if you have a coronavirus-related hardship, the penalty is waived.

For instance, if you, your spouse, or a child gets diagnosed with COVID-19 or have financial challenges due to being laid off, quarantined, or closing a business, you qualify for this penalty exemption. You can withdraw up to $100,000 of your retirement account balance during 2020 without penalty. However, income taxes would still be due in most cases.

The no-penalty rule applies to workplace retirement plans, such as 401(k)s and 403(b)s. It also applies to IRAs, such as traditional IRAs, Roth IRAs, and SEP-IRAs.

Since you make after-tax contributions to Roth accounts, you can withdraw them at any time (which was also the case before the CARES Act). However, the earnings portion of a Roth is subject to income tax if you withdraw it before age 59.5.

7. Getting larger retirement plan loans

Some workplace retirement plans, such as 401(k)s and 403(b)s, permit loans. Typically, you can borrow 50% of your vested account balance up to $50,000 and repay it with interest over five years.

You can delay the repayment period for a retirement plan loan for up to one year.

For retirement plans that allow loans, the CARES Act doubles the limit to 100% of your vested balance in the plan up to $100,000. It applies to loans you take from your account until late September 2020, for coronavirus-related financial needs.

You can delay the repayment period for a retirement plan loan for up to one year. For example, if you have $20,000 vested in your 401(k), you could take a $20,000 loan on September 30, 2020, and delay the repayment term until September 30, 2021. You’d have payments stretched over five years, ending on September 30, 2026. Any amount not repaid by the deadline would be subject to tax and a 10 percent early withdrawal penalty.

Note that individual retirement accounts—such as traditional IRAs, Roth IRAs, and SEP-IRAs—don’t allow participants to take loans, only hardship distributions.

8. Suspending student loan payments.

Starting on March 13, 2020, most federal student loans went into automatic forbearance until September 30, 2020, due to the CARES Act. On August 8, the suspension of student loan payments was extended through December 31, 2020.

On August 8, the suspension of student loan payments was extended through December 31, 2020.

The suspension covers the following types of loans:

  • Direct Loans that are unsubsidized or subsidized
  • Direct PLUS Loans
  • Direct Consolidation Loans
  • Federal Family Education Loans (FFEL)
  • Federal Perkins Loans

Note that FFEL loans owned by a private lender or Perkins loans held by your education institution don’t qualify for automatic forbearance. However, you may have the option to consolidate them into a Direct Loan, which would be eligible for forbearance. Just make sure that once the suspension ends, your new consolidated interest rate wouldn’t rise significantly.

During forbearance, qualifying loans don’t accrue additional interest. Even if you have federal student loans in default because you haven’t made payments, zero percent interest applies during the suspension period.

Additionally, missed payments during the suspension don’t get reported to the credit bureaus and can’t hurt your credit. Qualifying payments you skip also count toward any federal loan repayment or forgiveness plan you’re enrolled in.

However, if you want to continue making student loan payments during the suspension period, you can. With zero percent interest, the amount you pay gets applied to your principal student loan balance, enabling you to get out of debt faster.

With zero percent interest, the amount you pay gets applied to your principal student loan balance, enabling you to get out of debt faster.

If you’re not sure what type of student loan you have or the pros and cons of consolidation, contact your loan servicer. Even if your student loans are with private lenders or schools, they may offer relief if you request it.

9. Having Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans forgiven

The PPP is part of the CARES Act, and it supports small businesses, organizations, and solopreneurs facing economic hardship created by the pandemic. The program began providing relief in early April 2020, and the application window ended in early August 2020.

Participating PPP lenders coordinated with the Small Business Administration (SBA) to offer loans to businesses in operation by February 15, 2020, with fewer than 500 employees. Loan amounts could be up to 2.5 times the average monthly payroll up to $10 million; however, annual salaries were capped at $100,000.

For a solopreneur, the maximum PPP loan was $20,833 if your 2019 net profit was at least $100,000. The calculation is: $100,000 / 12 months x 2.5 = $20,833.

When you spend at least 60% on payroll and 40% on rent, mortgage interest, and utilities, you can have those amounts forgiven from repayment. Payroll includes payments to yourself, but you can’t cover benefit costs, such as retirement contributions, or payments to independent contractors.

In other words, a solopreneur could have received a PPP loan for up to $20,833, paid the entire amount to themselves, and not repaid it by having the load forgiven. Using a PPP loan for qualifying expenses turns it into a grant.

The best part about PPP loan forgiveness is that it won’t qualify as federal taxable income. Some states that charge income tax have indicated that they won’t tax forgiven amounts.

However, if you have employees, the PPP forgiveness calculations and requirements are more complex. For example, you must maintain reasonable salaries and wages. If you decrease them by more than 25% for any employee (including yourself) who made less than $100,000 in 2019, your forgiveness amount will be reduced. 

PPP loan forgiveness also depends on keeping any full-time employees on your payroll. But if you had employees who left your company voluntarily, requested a cut in hours, or got fired for cause during the pandemic, your loan forgiveness amount won’t be reduced for those situations.

The best part about PPP loan forgiveness is that it won’t qualify as federal taxable income. Some states that charge income tax have indicated that they won’t tax forgiven amounts.

However, not all states have issued their rules on taxing PPP forgiveness. So be sure to get guidance if you live in a state with income tax.

You must complete a PPP Loan Forgiveness Application and get approved by your lender to qualify for forgiveness. The paperwork should come from your lender, or you can download it from the SBA website at SBA.gov. Most PPP borrowers have from six months after loan disbursement or until the end of 2020 to spend the funds. 

The forgiveness application explains what documents you must include, and they vary depending on whether you have employees. Once you submit your paperwork, your lender has 60 days to decide how much of your PPP loan can be forgiven.

If some or all of a PPP loan isn't forgiven, you typically must repay it within five years at a 1 percent fixed interest rate. You don't have to start making payments for ten months after loan disbursement, but interest will accrue during a deferral period.

10. Getting SBA loans

In addition to PPP loans, the Small Business Administration (SBA) offers several loans for businesses and solopreneurs facing economic hardship caused by a disaster, including the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) can be up to $2 million and repaid over 30 years at an interest rate of 3.75 percent. You can use these funds for payroll and other operating expenses.
  • SBA Express Bridge Loans gives borrowers up to $25,000 for help overcoming a temporary loss of revenue. However, you must have an existing relationship with an SBA Express lender. 
  • SBA Debt Relief is a program that helps you make payments on existing SBA loans for up to six months.

Depending on your state, you may qualify for unemployment assistance, which allows self-employed people, who typically are ineligible for unemployment benefits to get them for a period.

This isn’t a complete list of all the economic relief available for small businesses and solopreneurs. There are federal tax initiatives, funds from local and state governments, and help from private organizations that you may find by doing a search online.

How to manage money in uncertain times

When it comes to surviving uncertainty, such as how COVID-19 will affect the economy, those who have emergency savings will feel much less financial stress than those who don’t. That’s why it’s essential to maintain a cash reserve of at least three to six months’ worth of living expenses in an FDIC-insured bank savings account.

If you don’t need to dip into your emergency fund, continue shoring it up when possible. If you don’t have a cash reserve, accumulate savings by cutting non-essential expenses, and even temporarily pausing contributions to retirement accounts. That’s a better option than succumbing to panic and tapping your retirement funds early.

If you don’t need to dip into your emergency fund, continue shoring it up when possible.

If you find yourself in a cash crunch, contact your creditors before dipping into any retirement accounts you have. Many lenders will be willing to work with you to suspend payments or modify existing loan terms temporarily.

RELATED: How to Reduce Money Anxiety—Compassionate Advice from a Finance Pro

My new book, Money-Smart Solopreneur: A Personal Finance System for Freelancers, Entrepreneurs, and Side-Hustlers, covers many strategies to earn more, manage variable income, and create an automatic money system so you can strengthen your financial future. It’s a great resource if you’re thinking about earning side income or have already started a business.

Many economic factors that affect your personal and business finances aren’t under your control. Instead of worrying, look around, and figure out how you can create more income or cut unnecessary expenses. Working on tasks that you can control gives you more clarity and helps manage stress in uncertain times.

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