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Pros and cons of paying taxes with a credit card

Paying with plastic is an IRS payment option, but it's an expensive one

Summary

Paying your taxes by credit card is convenient, but the fees will likely outweigh any rewards

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Tax time can be stressful, particularly if you don’t have the money to pay what you owe. While a credit card can be a convenient way to cover the bill, make sure you understand all the ways it will cost you.

Tax laws forbid Uncle Sam from directly accepting credit cards, so the federal government farms out that option to three three third-party services – Link2Gov Corp., Official Payments Corp. and WorldPay US. All charge convenience fees. The convenience fee for paying 2017 taxes with credit cards ranges from 1.87 to 2 percent of the payment, depending on the third-party service used.

You can also pay by credit card if you use tax preparation software that has e-file and e-pay built in, though the fees tend to be higher. For example, TurboTax charges a 2.49 percent fee when you use a credit card to e-file your return. Those using a debit card will pay a flat fee of $2 to $3.95. You can also pay by digital wallet; regular debit or credit card fees would apply.

Let’s look at a hypothetical $4,000 tax bill and what it would cost to pay by credit card.

EXAMPLES: TOTAL COST TO PAY $4,000 TAX BILL BY A CREDIT CARD
Payoff methodCharge to pay by credit cardPayoff detailsTotal cost
12-month payoff, 15.59% interest$80 (2% convenience fee)12 equal payments of $369.39$4,432.69
($4,080 financed, $352.69 in interest)
Minimum payments, 15.59% interest$99.60 (2.49% e-filing convenience fee)197 monthly minimum payments, starting at $94.26$8,538.17
($4,099.60 financed, $4,438/57 in interest)
Balance transfer, 0% interest for 12 months$202.40 (2% convenience fee, then a 3% balance transfer fee)12 equal payments of $350.20$4,202.40
(no interest)
Assumptions: Minimum payment of 1 percent of balance plus interest and an APR of 15.59 percent, and no further charges made on the card. Use CreditCards,com’s credit card calculators to figure your own example. The IRS website has additional details on paying by credit card and e-filing.

You’ll pay much more if you can’t pay off your card balance.

When you shift your debt from Uncle Sam to your credit card issuer, you pay interest on whatever balance you carry. If you pay only minimum payments, this year’s tax bill could haunt you for many more.

A 0 percent balance transfer card buys you time, saves money.

You could open a balance transfer credit card and transfer your tax payment to it. Balance transfer offers to people with good credit typically include an interest-free period of a few months to more than a year.

A year-long promotional credit card rate of 0 percent would likely make for a pretty sweet deal. “But you’d better make a plan to pay that credit card off within the year, so it really is 0 percent,” warns Dawn W. Brolin, chief executive officer of Powerful Accounting, a CPA firm based in Windham, Connecticut.

Also, keep in mind that if you are late on a payment, your interest rate could skyrocket.

To transfer a balance, you’ll typically pay a fee of about 3 percent of the balance transferred, and people with less-than-perfect credit may not qualify for a transfer covering the full amount of the tax bill.

A cash advance convenience check is an expensive option.

Credit card holders also can pay their tax bill with a cash-advance convenience check, but this option comes with a high price. Here’s why: Cash-advance convenience checks have steep transaction fees, high interest rates and no grace period, making them an expensive choice.

“People always need to read the fine print,” says Mark Foster, director of education for Credit Counseling of Arkansas (CCOA). “Cash advances typically have a higher interest rate than other purchases and they don’t typically have a grace period.”

IRS installment agreement spreads out payments.

Before whipping out the plastic, compare the costs of paying by credit card with the costs of an installment agreement with the IRS.

That’s what Dana Andrews of Wheatfield, New York, did when he had a $15,000 tax bill. After weighing whether to put the tax bill on his credit card versus working with the IRS, Andrews decided to go with the installment plan.

With an installment plan, taxpayers typically get six years to pay off a debt. This means your minimum monthly payment would be the total amount owed divided by 72.

Of course, you will pay a fee to set up the installment plan ($149 or $225, depending on whether you apply online or by mail, phone or at an IRS office), interest and late penalties. The setup fee drops to $31 or $107 if you have the payments deducted from your bank account. Taxpayers whose income meets the Department of Health and Human Services’ poverty guidelines may be able to qualify for a reduced setup fee ranging from $31 to $43.

The costs don’t stop there. Even if you have an installment plan, you still must pay a late penalty of 0.25 percent per month until the debt is paid in full.

Interest, compounded daily, must also be factored in. The interest rate, which equals the federal short-term rate plus 3 percent, is set quarterly.

If you do select an installment agreement, know that you won’t receive future tax refunds until your debt is paid. Instead, the refunds will be applied to any remaining debt.

Cards versus IRS installment agreement?

Some – including the IRS – tout using credit cards to make tax payments as a way to earn rewards, such as frequent flyer miles or cash back. However, card issuers typically award rewards worth 1 percent of your spending, while the third-party convenience fee could top 2 percent.

“Taxpayers would likely be paying more to the third party than they would get back for redeeming points,” says Michael Rozbruch, founder of Michael Rozbruch’s Tax and Business Solutions Academy.

Another thing to take into consideration: An IRS installment agreement won’t impact your credit, while paying by credit card would increase your debt load. That would impact your credit utilization ratio, which could lower your score, leaving you with increased interest rates and a reduced credit line, Foster says.

Ideally, you should have enough money withheld from your earnings throughout the year so you don’t have to scramble for cash on tax day, says Brolin. But if your savings won’t cover the taxes you owe, you have to determine which form of payment will cost you the least.

Regardless of what option you choose, plan to have more money set aside to ensure that you don’t fall short next year.

“If you don’t make some adjustments, whatever happened this year will probably happen again,” Foster says.

See related:9 smartphone apps that help with taxes, 2017 Balance transfer card survey

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