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Stimulus Checks: What You Need to Know

Christy Bieber
By: Christy Bieber

Our Personal Finance Expert

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Stimulus checks are payments made by the government during periods of economic difficulty. The most recent stimulus payments were made to lessen the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly the lockdowns put in place to slow the spread. Also known as Economic Impact Payments, the government issued three COVID-19 stimulus checks in 2020 and 2021.

Here's what you need to know about these direct payments, including who is eligible, how much money was available in the stimulus checks, how to check your payment amounts, and what to do if you did not get your money.

What is a stimulus check?

Stimulus checks are direct payments to American families made by the U.S. government, most recently in response to COVID-19.

Three stimulus checks were paid out during the pandemic:

  • The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) authorized the first check in March 2020. It provided up to $1,200 per eligible adult and $500 per eligible dependent child.
  • An additional stimulus check was authorized in December 2020, providing up to $600 per eligible adult and dependent child.
  • A third stimulus check of up to $1,400 per adult and dependent was made available by the American Rescue Plan Act on March 11, 2021.

Who gets a stimulus check?

The COVID-19 stimulus checks were available to eligible U.S. individuals with Social Security numbers. However, eligibility rules varied depending on the checks.

For the first two payments, people claimed as a dependent on a tax return weren't eligible for their own check. However, individuals who claimed dependents under 17 could receive a payment for them. The third check widened the criteria for dependents, meaning households could receive money for adult dependents as well as for dependent children over the age of 17.

There are also income limits. Each of the three checks is available in full to single tax filers with an income under $75,000. Heads of house with an income under $112,500 are also eligible, as are married joint filers with an income under $150,000. However, phase-out rules -- the level at which high earners lose eligibility for checks -- differ for each payment, as we'll discuss in more detail below.

The IRS utilized tax return information from 2018, 2019, and 2020 to determine income and eligibility for the stimulus payments. The agency also obtained information from the Social Security Administration and VA to send payments to benefits recipients who don't file tax returns. And it established an online form for non-filers to claim their payments.

How can I check my stimulus check status?

The IRS Get My Payment tool is no longer available. This is because all three stimulus payments have now been made and the IRS says most people have already received their money. Log in to your IRS account to find out what payments you received. Once you've accessed your account, click on the "Economic Impact Payment Information" section to view your first, second, and third payment information.

If you did not get the right amount or did not receive a payment you were entitled to, you may be able to get a "Recovery Rebate Credit." To do this, you will need to file (or amend) a 2020 or 2021 tax return, depending on which stimulus payments are missing or incorrect. The deadline for both 2020 and 2021 returns has passed, but you can still file back taxes. Visit the IRS website for more information.

How much will my stimulus check be?

The amount of your COVID-19 stimulus checks varies depending on your family status and income.

First stimulus check

The first stimulus check was worth up to $1,200 per eligible adult and $500 per dependent child under 17. Single adults received as much as $1,200. Married couples with no children got up to $2,400. Married couples with two children received up to $3,400.

If your income exceeds $75,000 as a single filer, $112,500 as a head of household, or $150,000 as a married joint filer, your check amount was reduced at a rate of $5 per extra $100 earned. So if you made $76,000 as a single filer, your check would be reduced by $50.

Eligibility phased out for single filers with incomes above $99,000, heads of household with incomes above $136,500, and married joint filers with incomes above $198,000 for their own payments. However, some still received dependent payments. Married joint filers with two children and $199,000 in income lost their own $2,400 payments but received $950 of the $1,000 in dependent payments.

Second stimulus check

The second check provided $600 per eligible adult and child dependent. The phase-out rules worked the same way. However, because the check was for a smaller amount, eligibility disappeared entirely at a lower income threshold. Singles with incomes above $87,000 received no payment. Nor did heads of household with incomes above $124,500 -- unless they received some dependent funds. And married joint filers lost eligibility for their own payments at $174,000.

Third stimulus check

The third check was for $1,400 per eligible adult and eligible dependent (including adult dependents). However, the phase-out rules worked differently. Those with incomes above $80,000 as a single filer, $120,000 as head of household, and $160,000 as married joint filers did not receive a payment at all, regardless of how many dependents they have.

When have stimulus checks been issued?

There have been three stimulus checks authorized by the U.S. government. Most of the money has already been paid out.

Stimulus check 1, 2020

This is when the first stimulus check was delivered:

  • March 27: The CARES Act, which authorized the payment, was signed into law.
  • April 11: The IRS began making direct deposits to those with bank information on file. Most were delivered by April 15.
  • April 20: Paper stimulus checks started going out at a rate of around 5 million per week. Payments continued through early summer.
  • End of April: Beneficiaries of certain benefits, such as Social Security retirement benefits, began receiving payments at the end of April via direct deposit.
  • May: SSI beneficiaries began receiving checks, as did Social Security beneficiaries who use representative payees to manage their benefits.
  • May 18: IRS started to send payments via prepaid debit card, also known as Economic Impact Payment Cards.
  • June and July: Eligible individuals in U.S. territories started to receive stimulus payments.
  • August and September: Individuals who used the Get My Payment tool to report eligible dependents prior to May 17 began to receive checks if they'd missed out on dependent funds.
  • Mid-September: Individuals who lost payments because spouses owed past-due child support began receiving catch-up stimulus checks.
  • Nov. 21: Extended deadline for non-filers to use online tool to register and get their stimulus payment by Dec. 31, 2020.

Stimulus check 2, 2021

The timeline for the distribution of the second stimulus check was much shorter. Congress approved the COVID-19 relief bill on Dec. 21, 2020 and it was signed into law on Dec. 28. The first direct deposits were made Dec. 29, and the first paper stimulus checks were put in the mail on Dec. 30.

The deadline for the IRS to provide the second check via mail, direct deposit, or debit card was Jan. 15, 2021. Anyone who did not receive their second check will have to file a 2020 tax return to get it.

Stimulus check 3, 2021

Direct deposits for the third check began the weekend of March 13. The IRS began mailing physical checks and Economic Impact Payment cards (EIP cards) in the following weeks. On Jan. 26, 2022, it announced that all third-round Economic Impact Payments had been issued.

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What do I do if I didn't receive my stimulus check?

If you did not receive your stimulus check, or the amount was incorrect, it's not too late to claim. But you will need to file a tax return to obtain your funds.

  • If you did not receive your first or second stimulus check, you will need to file a 2020 tax return.
  • If you did not receive your third stimulus check, you will need to file a 2021 tax return.

The deadline for filing both returns has passed. But you can still file a past return to claim unpaid funds in the form of a "Recovery Rebate Credit."

You can claim this credit if you did not receive any stimulus money at all. If you received the incorrect amount, you can claim a partial credit and get any additional funds you're owed.

The stimulus checks were an advance on a tax credit, which is why it's possible to claim your payment by filing a tax return. Unfortunately, since the IRS is no longer sending out these advances, filing a return is the only way to get a hold of unpaid stimulus money.

When can we expect the next stimulus check?

The third stimulus check passed through a process called "budget reconciliation," which allowed Democrats to push the legislation through with a simple majority vote in the Senate. The bill did not get any Republican support.

There is a limit on the number of times reconciliation can be used. Democrats are now focused on other priorities and Republicans have made it clear they're not interested in providing additional COVID relief. As such, it's unlikely a fourth stimulus check will be authorized.

Where can I invest my stimulus check?

If you need your stimulus checks to pay immediate bills, this should be your first priority. If you don't need the money immediately, you can invest your stimulus check. You have a number of options for how to do that.

High-yield savings accounts

The best high-yield savings accounts are a good place to put your stimulus checks if you need the money soon or want to bolster your emergency fund. Depositing money in a high-yield savings account makes it accessible, avoids risk, and means it can earn a reasonable rate of return.

Certificate of deposit

Opening a CD with your stimulus check can provide a higher interest rate than a high-yield savings account without requiring you to take on additional risk. Like savings accounts, certificates of deposit are FDIC insured. But you must be willing to allow your money to be locked up for a period of time to get the best CD rates. If you're not familiar with CDs, you can learn more about them with the following guides:


A brokerage allows you to invest in a variety of assets, including ETFs, stocks, and mutual funds. You can potentially earn larger returns by investing with one of the best online stock brokers.

However, be aware that stock market investments can go up as well as down, so you may risk losing your money. If you will need it within the next two to five years, this is probably not the best option. Short-term investing is riskier than making longer-term investments.

Money market account

Opening a money market account (MMA) with your stimulus check is another option. MMAs are similar to savings accounts, but you'll generally have easier access to your money through a debit card and/or checks. The best money market rates may be slightly lower than interest rates on savings accounts. This is the tradeoff you must accept for easier access to your money. However, like savings accounts and CDs, these are FDIC insured.

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  • A stimulus check is a payment authorized by the U.S. government to help cope with a period of economic difficulty. The most recent checks paid out to reduce the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic were the largest ever. The first payment was approved in March 2020 under the CARES Act which authorized checks of up to $1,200 per adult and $500 per dependent under 17. A subsequent relief bill in December 2020 provided for an additional $600 in stimulus money per eligible adult and eligible child dependent. And a third relief bill, the American Rescue Plan Act, was signed by President Joe Biden on March 11, 2021. The third bill provided for $1,400 payments for eligible adults and dependents.

    Despite the name, many payments were sent via direct deposit or debit card, as well as paper checks. The money was distributed by the IRS and is an advance on a tax credit.

  • Most Americans with Social Security numbers are eligible for coronavirus stimulus checks. However, those who file married joint returns with spouses who use ITIN numbers could not initially receive checks. Higher income Americans also saw their checks reduced or their eligibility eliminated entirely.

    The full amount of the stimulus checks was available for single filers earning up to $75,000, heads of household earning up to $112,500, and married joint filers earning up to $150,000. For those earning more, the amount of the check was reduced by $5 per each extra $100.

  • All three COVID-19 stimulus checks have been distributed. Anyone who did not receive the full amount of stimulus funds due to them will need to file a tax return to get any missing funds.

    It is unlikely that a fourth check will be authorized.

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