Monday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: How hotel prices changed in 2020 vs. 2019. Also in the news: A new episode of the SmartMoney Podcast on emergency loans and the perks of buying local, what to know about EFTs and adding them to your portfolio, and what to do if you receive an unpaid notice from the IRS.

Analysis: How Have Hotel Prices Changed in 2020 vs. 2019?
Hotel prices have dipped significantly.

Smart Money Podcast: Buying Local, and Emergency Loans
How to help local businesses hit hard by the pandemic.

What are ETFs and why you should consider them for your portfolio
Many investments wrapped in a single package.

What to Do if You Receive an Unpaid Notice From the IRS
Don’t panic.

Q&A: Where’s that tax refund?

Dear Liz: Like the writer in a recent column, I received a stimulus check for my late mother and dutifully mailed the IRS a check as the agency requested on May 6. The check finally cleared on Aug. 12. So, yes, the IRS will absolutely eventually cash it. However, I’m still waiting for the federal tax refund for my mother’s final tax return, which I mailed on April 20. I figure if it took them over three months to just cash a check, it’ll be at least a couple more months, if not longer, to process the return.

Answer: You’re probably right, and — as the previous column emphasized — the IRS does not need calls from people about non-urgent matters as the agency slowly works through its massive backlog. If you can wait to talk to the IRS, in other words, you should.

Q&A:The IRS doesn’t need your worry

Dear Liz: My mother received a stimulus payment on behalf of my late father in April. Per an IRS directive on May 6, I returned the money to the IRS. As of Aug. 1, the check I sent has not been cashed. I have made two phone calls to the specific IRS phone number that deals with any stimulus payment issues and both times have been told, “Don’t worry about it.” Do you have any suggestions for us?

Answer: Yes. Don’t worry about it. And stop calling.

The IRS is dealing with a tremendous backlog that accumulated while its operations centers were shut down because of the pandemic. Although the centers have reopened, the pandemic is still affecting the agency and probably will do so for some time.

The IRS recently warned that “live assistance on telephones, processing paper tax returns and responding to correspondence continue to be extremely limited.” The IRS will cash the check eventually; your calls won’t speed that up and will unnecessarily tax an already overwhelmed system.

In the future, consider using the IRS’ online payment systems. They’re safer than sending checks in the mail and you’ll get instant confirmation that your payment was received.

Friday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Can you have too much credit? Also in the news: How to safely move during a pandemic, what personal finance apps should be doing to better serve older people, and how to avoid paying a penalty if you missed the tax filing deadline.

Can You Have Too Much Credit?
Credit scoring formulas don’t punish people for having too many credit accounts, but too much debt can hurt scores.

How to Move Safely During a Pandemic
Keeping yourself and your stuff safe.

This is what personal finance apps should be doing to better serve older people
What a survey revealed about the apps.

How to Avoid Paying a Penalty If You Missed the Tax Filing Deadline
You could qualify for a first-time penalty abatement.

Wednesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Ask a points nerd: Why won’t the FAA require masks? Also in the news: How to get started if you’ve never had a bank account, Virgin Atlantic files for bankruptcy in the US, and it’s time for a mid-year tax withholding checkup.

Ask a Points Nerd: Why Won’t the FAA Require Masks?
We need more federal regulation when it comes to passengers’ air safety.

How to get started if you’ve never had a bank account
Welcome to the world of banking.

Virgin Atlantic Files for Bankruptcy in the US
What that means for your miles.

It’s Time for a Mid-Year Tax Withholding Checkup
Spare yourself from end-of-the-year surprises.

Q&A: Side effects of IRA conversions

Dear Liz: I thought your readers would benefit from additional knowledge about Roth conversions. I started converting our IRAs to Roth IRAs when my wife and I turned 60 years old. Years later, I realized that our premiums for Medicare Part B and D were higher because our income in those years exceeded $174,000.

Answer: Triggering Medicare’s income-related monthly adjustment amount (IRMAA) is just one of the potential side effects of a later-in-life Roth conversion.

That’s not to say these conversions are a bad idea.

People with substantial amounts in traditional retirement accounts might benefit from transferring some of that money to Roth IRAs, particularly if the required minimum withdrawals that start at age 72 would push them into a higher tax bracket. They may have a window after they retire, when their tax bracket dips, to convert money and pay the tax bill at a lower rate.

Roths also don’t have the required minimum distributions that apply to other retirement accounts, so people have more control over their future tax bills.

Converting too much, however, can push people into higher tax brackets. Many financial advisors suggest their clients convert just enough to “fill out” their current bracket.

For example, the 12% bracket for married people filing jointly was $19,401 to $78,950 in 2019. A couple with income in the $50,000 range might convert $28,000 or so, because a larger conversion would push them into the 22% tax bracket.

But there are other considerations, as you discovered.

People with modified adjusted incomes above certain levels pay IRMAA adjustments that can add $144.60 to $491.60 each month to their Medicare Part B premiums for doctor visits and $12.20 to $76.40 to their monthly Part D drug coverage premiums. Higher income could reduce or eliminate tax breaks that are subject to income phaseouts, and conversions can subject more of your Social Security benefits to taxation.

At the very least, you should consult a tax pro before any Roth conversions to make sure you understand the ramifications. Ideally, you’d also be talking with a fee-only, fiduciary financial planner to make sure conversions, and your retirement plan in general, make sense.

Q&A: IRS pays interest on late refunds

Dear Liz: I filed my return electronically with direct deposit. I have yet to receive my refund or that stimulus relief check. We have to pay interest on any late tax payment. Will the IRS pay interest on late refunds?

Answer: The IRS has said it will pay interest on late refunds if the return was filed by July 15, the extended tax deadline. The interest “will generally be paid from April 15, 2020, until the date of the refund,” the IRS says on its site. Don’t expect to get rich: The interest rate for the second quarter, which ended June 30, is 5% a year, while the interest rate for the third quarter, which ends Sept. 30, is 3% a year.

Q&A: IRA conversions and taxes

Dear Liz: You recently advised a reader that if their income was too high to contribute to a Roth IRA, they could still contribute to an IRA or any after-tax options in their 401(k). You didn’t mention a two-step Roth IRA — first making a nondeductible contribution to an IRA and then immediately converting that amount to a Roth. That way those people whose income is too high to contribute to a direct Roth IRA can still have a Roth IRA using the two-step process.

Answer: This is known as a backdoor Roth contribution, which takes advantage of the fact that the income limits that apply to Roth contributions don’t apply to Roth conversions. Conversions, however, typically incur tax bills and don’t make sense for everyone. If you have a substantial amount of pretax money in IRAs, the tax bill can be considerable. (The tax bill is figured using all your IRAs, by the way. You can’t get around it just by contributing to a separate IRA that you then convert.)

Incurring that tax bill could make sense if you expect to be in the same tax bracket in retirement, or in a higher one. If you’re young and a good saver, it’s a good bet that will be the case. Roth conversions also can be advisable later in life if your tax bracket could jump when you reach age 72 and have to start taking required minimum distributions from your retirement accounts.

If you expect to be in a lower tax bracket in retirement, however, you probably should forgo Roth conversions because you’ll pay more now in taxes than you would later.

Of course, if you have little or no pretax money in your IRA, then backdoor conversions get a lot more attractive because the tax bill would be minimal. Otherwise, you should seek out a Roth conversion calculator to get a better idea of whether a conversion might be the right choice.

Q&A: Retirement accounts and taxes

Dear Liz: I am 41 and have had a traditional IRA for about two decades. I funded it for the first 10 years, taking a tax deduction for the contributions. Since I’ve had a 401(k) with my employer for the past several years, I obviously cannot take a deduction for the IRA amount, but I could still put money in. My 401(k) is fully funded, as is my husband’s. Does it make sense to also fund our IRAs with post-tax, nondeductible amounts? I realize any gains we make will be taxed at withdrawal, but I also know that as long as the money stays in the IRA, it can grow tax deferred.

Answer: First, congratulations on taking full advantage of your workplace retirement plans and still being able to contribute more.

You potentially can deduct contributions to IRAs when you have a 401(k) or other workplace retirement plan, but your income must be below certain limits. You can take a full deduction if your modified adjusted gross income is $104,000 or less as a married couple filing jointly. After that, the ability to deduct the contribution starts to phase out and is eliminated entirely if your modified adjusted gross income is $124,000 or more. (If you don’t have a workplace retirement plan but your spouse does, the income limits are higher. The deduction starts to phase out at $196,000 and ends at $206,000.)

If you can’t deduct contributions, you can look into contributing to a Roth IRA — but that too has income limits. For a married couple filing jointly, the ability to contribute to a Roth begins to phase out at modified adjusted gross income of $196,000 and ends at $206,000. If you can contribute, it’s a good deal. Roth IRAs don’t offer an upfront tax break but withdrawals in retirement can be tax free. You also can leave the money alone for as long as you want — there are no required minimum withdrawals starting at age 72, as there typically are for other retirement accounts.

If your income is too high to contribute to a Roth, you could still contribute to your IRA or to any “after tax” options in your 401(k). But you might want to consider simply investing through a regular taxable brokerage account. You don’t get an upfront tax deduction but you could still benefit from favorable capital gains tax rates if you hold investments for a year or more. Furthermore, you aren’t required to take withdrawals. That flexibility can help you better manage your tax bill in retirement.

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Probate workarounds can save your heirs time and money. Also in the news: Student loan refi rates keep dropping, which airline you should fly in 2020 (and beyond), and how to know if you should refinance your mortgage.

Probate Workarounds Can Save Your Heirs Time and Money
There are often workarounds to help get assets to heirs, but avoiding probate isn’t the right move for everyone.

Student Loan Refi Rates Keep Dropping, Should You Take the Plunge?
The advertised minimum fixed interest rate on refinanced student loans dropped to an average of 3.51% on July 1.

Ask a Points Nerd: Which Airline Should I Fly In 2020 (and Beyond)?
Flying has become a lot more complicated.

How to Know if You Should Refinance Your Mortgage
Mortgage rates continue to drop.