Large stimulus check or nothing at all? The equation matters more than you may think

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The stimulus check formula could change and so could the amount of money you’s receive in a third payment.


Sarah Tew/CNET

The final payment you could get with a third stimulus check — and whether you qualify for $1,400, $2,800 or $10 — hinges on a very specific, important formula. However, unlike the first two direct payments, this third stimulus check is shaping up to give some households thousands of dollars, while others would receive a much smaller share, or none at all.

The latest reported proposal suggests that adults and dependents could each count toward $1,400, a huge sum compared to the other two, according to The Washington Post. For example, a family of four could potentially get $5,600, compared to $2,400 supplied by the $600 check from December. 

But in other ways, this third stimulus payment could also wind up being the most polarizing of the bunch, if the next stimulus bill “targets” the income limits to send the check to fewer people overall. The desire to keep the money from reaching people with relatively higher incomes means that the income cap could be lower and the cutoff slope could wind up being steeper, too. We’ll explain more below. Meanwhile, here are the top things to know about stimulus payments right now, including when a third check could arrive. This story was recently updated.

How the IRS calculates your stimulus check amount

You can qualify for a stimulus check if you’re a nonfiler who doesn’t pay taxes. But in general, your tax return is one of the most important factors in determining your stimulus check total. The others include your AGI and the stimulus check formula.

The major variables being plugged into the formula’s equation are:

  • Your adjusted gross income you put on your 2019 or 2020 federal tax returns.
  • Upper limits for single taxpayers, heads of household (e.g., a single person with at least one child) and married couples filing jointly.
  • Number of eligible dependents you claim.
  • Reduction rate per $100 of income ($5 for every $100 in income in the first two checks).

Assuming you qualify, the result is under a maximum limit, you will receive at least some stimulus check money. If the number is above it, you won’t receive any. (If you don’t typically file taxes, here’s what you should know.)


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What the sliding scales and reduction rates mean

There’s a sliding scale involved. For the second check, for example, if your AGI was less than $75,000 as a single taxpayer (that means no kids), you would receive the entire stimulus check total of $600. If you made more than that, the size of your check would diminish until $87,000, after which point you’d be ineligible.

For the $1,400 stimulus check — note this could all change — you might receive the full $1,400 amount if you earn under $50,000 a year (your AGI as a single taxpayer), with diminishing returns up until an $80,000 cutoff. But that’s only if the reduction rate remains the same. If it goes up to $10 per every $100 of income, single taxpayers who earn $64,000 a year wouldn’t receive any stimulus money. You can see the differences in our $1,400 stimulus check calculators.

Children change the equation, but more on that below — it gets complex.

The difference between targeted versus untargeted $1,400 stimulus checks

Biden’s third stimulus check for $1,400 isn’t settled on how it could change any variables other than the maximum amount, but if the income limit to get the full amount and the reduction rate (the percentage change you would lose for each $100 you earn) were to both change, the differences add up.

The results below demonstrate how eligibility would change in a targeted stimulus check by changing just the upper income limit in the formula and leaving the per-person maximum and reduction rate the same.

$1,400 stimulus check income limits, compared

$1,400 check (same formula as first two) Single tax filer Head of household Married, filing jointly
AGI to receive full amount Under $75,000 Under $112,500 Under $150,00
Upper income limit for partial payment $103,000 $140,500 $206,000
Targeted $1,400 check (lower income limit) Single tax filer Head of household Married, filing jointly
AGI to receive full amount Under $50,000 Under $75,000 Under $100,000
Upper income limit for partial payment $78,000 $103,000 $156,000
Difference between upper limits Single tax filer Head of household Married, filing jointly
$25,000 $37,500 $50,000

How does adding money for all dependents work?

This is where the calculations get really interesting. The numbers in the chart above don’t include the $600 flat rate for child dependents in the second stimulus check, or the $1,400 for dependents of any age that could wind up in the final bill (or not). There’s no stated cap on the number of dependents that count toward your total check. 

Regardless, the way the equation breaks down would be the same as far as we can tell right now. But let’s say that each dependent is worth $1,400. The equation begins with the largest amount you’d be eligible to receive ($1,400 per single taxpayer or $2,800 for joint filers), and would potentially add $1,400 for each qualifying dependent. Then it reduces the total possible sum according to your AGI.

It’s a little like starting a test with a perfect 100 point score and subtracting every point you “miss,” rather than starting with zero points and adding them all up at the end of the test.

Stimulus checks: Dependents in action

Married couple, filing jointly No dependents 1 dependent 2 dependents
AGI: $156,000 $0 $1,400 $2,800
AGI: $170,000 $0 $700 $2,100
AGI: $200,000 $0 $0 $600

But in this case, the dependents you name can start you at a higher value, say 110 points in our classroom example. So by the time you subtract “points,” you may still get more than people who don’t have dependents — even if your AGI is above the maximum cap. The more child dependents you have, the higher your starting value and the higher your ending value, too.

That’s why it’s possible you could be out of range for a payment based on your AGI, but still receive a partial payment on the strength of your eligible dependents. Still confused? We don’t blame you. You can experiment with ranges in our second stimulus check calculator and third stimulus check calculator and see below for more sums.

 coins-measuring-spoons

Measuring your stimulus check payment is no easy task.


Angela Lang/CNET

Some other ways could a new stimulus check change

If the third stimulus check doesn’t change the formula from the first two payments, but the total per person does rise, this is what you could expect:

  • People who got the first two checks would get more money (because the $1,400 upper limit is higher).
  • More people could qualify because the income limit threshold would rise, which would also raise the cutoff point for receiving no payment at all. We talk more about that here.

Biden’s stimulus plan also seeks to change stimulus check qualifications that would increase the family’s overall pool for tens of millions of people, including money for dependents of any age, and for families with “mixed-status” citizenship. Remember, the bigger the sum a family starts with, the bigger the check they are likely to receive after the IRS makes its deductions based on your AGI. 

For more information, here are the top things to know about stimulus checks. And see how SSDI recipients and checksolder adults and retirees and people who aren’t US citizens or Americans who don’t live in the US can also qualify.



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