Hi! I’m Dr. Emily Roberts, the founder of Personal Finance for PhDs. I’m a financial educator specializing in graduate students, postdocs, and PhDs in their first Real Jobs. My website is P F f o r P h D s dot com. The contents of this video are for education purposes only and should not be considered tax, legal, or financial advice for any individual. This video will show you the steps to take when you are facing a high tax bill due to your fellowship income.
I’m assuming that you found this video because your tax software or tax preparer has delivered some really, really unwelcome news, which is that you owe a large amount of tax this year, perhaps $1,000, $2,000, $3,000 or even more. And you are panicked because that is a huge amount of money for a graduate student or postdoc to come up with!
This is unfortunately a very common occurrence for graduate students and postdocs whose stipends or salaries are paid from fellowships or training grants and not reported on a Form W-2.
Specifically, this video is for postbacs, graduate students, and postdocs who are US citizens, permanent residents, and residents for tax purposes who are attending a university or training program in the US. Furthermore, all or part of your income is not reported on a Form W-2. I’m going to refer to you as a “fellow” in this video, although that might not be exactly the term that your university uses.
In this video, I will share with you the steps you should take when facing a high tax bill, both to address the current bill and also avoid getting into the same situation again next year. In the companion video, Why Is My Fellowship Tax Bill So High?!, linked in the description below, I explain why PhD fellows often face high tax bills.
- Why Is My Fellowship Tax Bill So High?!
- How to Complete Your Grad Student Tax Return (and Understand It, Too!) [workshop]
- Quarterly Estimated Tax for Fellowship Recipients [workshop]
- Taxpayer Advocate Service [website]
- Free course on fellowships and income tax [email]
Step 1: Don’t panic! IRS agents are not going to break down your door and haul you off to jail over this tax bill. You can manage this. Take a deep breath. I’ve interviewed several graduate students and PhDs on the Personal Finance for PhDs podcast who were in this exact situation, and they all found that the IRS was pretty reasonable to work with.
Part b to this step, which I want you to keep in mind throughout this whole process of resolving your bill, is to stay in contact with the IRS. Don’t stick your head in the sand about this matter. File your return on time, respond to the letters they send you, even if you can’t pay right away. Falling out of communication is tempting, but it’s kind of the worst thing you could do.
Step 2: Double-check your tax return. I want you to be sure that it’s correct and that you really do owe that much income tax.
I told you in the companion video, Why Is My Fellowship Tax Bill So High?!, that fellowships are taxed as ordinary income. That means that you should pay the same amount of tax on your taxable fellowship income that you would on that amount of employee income.
Use an income tax calculator like the one pictured from smartasset.com. It’s not going to be super precise in calculating your tax liability, but it should get you in the right ballpark. If you have one or more dependent children, choose a calculator that takes that into account. Enter your pertinent details.
Take a look at the calculated federal income tax.
Compare that amount to the total tax line on your Form 1040. Are they fairly close, maybe within 10%? If that’s the case, your tax return passes this quick check, and it’s likely that you do owe that large tax bill.
However, if your tax liability from your tax return is much higher, like double or more, what the calculator said, that’s a major red flag. You need to go through your return with a fine-toothed comb to figure out whether something went awry in the preparation process. I would be suspicious that your fellowship income has been confused with self-employment income.
If you are a grad student and would like to learn more from me about how to prepare an accurate tax return, join my paid tax workshop, How to Complete Your Grad Student Tax Return (and Understand It, Too!), which is linked in the description below.
Step 3: File your tax return and pay what you can. You can wait until Tax Day if you like, but do file by the deadline. Pay as much as you comfortably can, but do not put your bill on a credit card or anything similar.
If you have existing savings, how much should you put toward this bill vs. keep for yourself? My opinion is that you should treat IRS debt, which is what this bill is on the verge of becoming, similar to how you should treat credit card debt. That is to say, keep a small emergency fund of $1,000 to 2 months of expenses, and put any cash savings above that level toward paying this bill. That means forgoing investing and repaying lower-priority debts until it is paid. If you are familiar with my 8-step Financial Framework, I would place this bill in Step 2.
If you can completely pay the bill without dipping into your small emergency fund, that’s great! You’ll still need Step 4, though, so keep watching the video.
If you can’t pay the bill in full, keep working the steps.
Step 4: Update your budget.
Your next step is not to get in touch with the IRS regarding paying your outstanding balance, although you should do that soon. First, you need to figure out your budget for this year.
In Step 4a, I want you to figure out how to stave off a large, surprise tax bill at this time next year.
If you are still on fellowship and still not having income tax withheld from your paychecks, I actually recommend that you figure out your tax bill for the current tax year before you commit to a payment plan for the tax year that has already ended.
That starts with estimating how much tax liability you will accrue on your fellowship income in this tax year.
You can use a calculator that I made, which you will receive after registering for my short, free email course at PFforPhDs.com/fellowshiptax/. Alternatively, you can use a calculator like the one I referenced in Step 2.
Figure out how much money you will need to set aside from each of your current fellowship paychecks to pay your tax bill for the current year. Build that number into your budget.
I recommend opening a separate savings account nicknamed Tax and setting up an autodraft from your checking account into the savings account for the correct amount of money immediately after you receive each paycheck. Then, when it comes time to pay your tax bill for the current year, you’ll have the money ready. This is what I call a system of self-withholding.
In Step 4b, you should determine if you are required, in the current tax year, to make estimated tax payments on a quarterly basis.
You do this by filling out the Estimated Tax Worksheet on p. 8 of Form 1040-ES. The worksheet is a high-level draft of your tax return. At the end, it will tell you whether you are required to make estimated tax payments and if so in what amount. The payment deadlines for each quarter are in mid-April, mid-June, mid-September, and mid-January of each year. If you are required to make these payments, your system of self-withholding will keep you on track to be ready to make them.
If you would like my teaching and support in how to fill out the Estimated Tax Worksheet and handle common scenarios that PhD trainees encounter, join my paid tax workshop, Quarterly Estimated Tax for Fellowship Recipients, which is linked in the description below.
In Step 4c, you will reassess your budget. You need that savings rate to go toward your current year’s tax bill, but you also need to know how much you can feasibly put toward your previous year’s tax bill on a monthly basis going forward. It’s vital to know the maximum that you can realistically pay to the IRS on a monthly basis for that bill prior to setting up a payment plan with them.
Specifically, there are two types of plans, short-term and long-term. If you can adjust your budget so that you will pay off your entire past year’s bill within 120 days, you can opt for the short-term plan. If you can’t, you’ll opt for the long-term plan.
Sidebar here: I said earlier that you shouldn’t put your tax bill on a credit card. That is generally speaking good advice, because the typical interest rate on a credit card is far higher than the interest rate the IRS will offer you.
The one maybe-possibly exception would be to put the bill on a promotional 0% interest rate credit card. You should only consider this if you’re 1,000% confident that you will pay the entire bill before the promotional period ends and the interest rate jumps up. Compare the fees for using such a card, if you qualify for one, with the fees and interest the IRS will charge you over the period you expect to hold the debt.
I don’t love the option of using a credit card to pay this bill, but I also don’t love you being in debt to the IRS. Either way, it’s a high-priority debt that you should strive to pay off quickly.
Step 5: Make a plan with the IRS. Now that you know how much you can afford to pay toward your previous tax bill and whether you’re able to opt for a short-term plan, you’re ready to set up a payment plan with the IRS. Make sure that the required amount of payment is set at less than what your budget tells you that you can afford.
The best website I’ve found to help with this process is the Taxpayer Advocate Service, which is linked in the description below. It explains all of the options the IRS will give you so you can decide which is the best fit. For example, if you owe less than $10,000, the guaranteed installment plan gives you three years to pay the debt. Once you have assessed all your options, get in touch with the IRS to set up your payments. If this is your first time being late on paying your tax bill, you can ask to have any penalties waived.
Step 6: Follow through. Pay the IRS on the schedule you agreed to, and in fact try to pay them even sooner! Again, following my Financial Framework, I recommend that you get creative with your budget to funnel as much money as you can toward your IRS debt and any other high-priority debts you may have. Consider this a financial sprint with a definite end point, after which you can take your foot off the gas a smidge.
I hope hearing those steps helped calm you down and show you that there is a path through this situation. You are not the first nor will you be the last graduate student or postdoc to get on a payment plan with the IRS, if it comes to that.
If you haven’t yet, I encourage you to watch the companion video linked below, Why Is My Fellowship Tax Bill So High?!, to understand how this situation came about.
If you would like to learn more about income tax on fellowships, I please register for my free email course on the subject, linked below. You can also find it at PFforPhDs.com/fellowshiptax. This will really help you if you are continuing on fellowship in the current year.
Again, I’m very sorry that you’re facing a high fellowship tax bill. It may take you some time to completely resolve the issue, but you will get through it and nothing terrible is going to happen in the meantime. The IRS is fairly reasonable to work with. Good luck to you.
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