Why the Fiscal Cliff May Cost You $6,000 in 2013

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Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

House Speaker John Boehner walks past journalists on his return to the U.S. Capitol after meeting with President Barack Obama at the White House in Washington on Dec. 13, 2012

You can’t turn on the television or open a magazine these days without hearing or seeing the term fiscal cliff. The media is awash with reports of President Obama and Speaker John Boehner’s negotiations over tax increases and spending cuts set to go into effect on Jan. 1, and of the likely dire macroeconomic effects of going over said cliff.

What gets less sustained attention is how the cliff, should it fail to be averted, will affect the individual taxpayer. This is primarily because the American tax code is very complicated, and the changes set to go into affect are manifold — so when the time comes, each of us is going to experience our own private cliff dive.

The well-off will be the hardest hit in dollar terms. Besides large marginal-tax-rate increases, the wealthy are most exposed when it comes to big hikes in capital gains and dividend increases, because they tend to generate more of their income from investments than those lower down the income ladder. And the more money you make, the better chance there is that you get hit with the Alternative Minimum Tax, which absent congressional action will ensnare 31 million taxpayers in 2013, up from 4.3 million in 2012, according to the Tax Policy Center.

But by no means are families in the middle class exempt from serious fiscal-cliff-related pain. In fact, one could argue that certain members of the middle class would suffer the most from our collective cliff dive — not because they’ll get hit with the biggest tax bill (again, the rich win that prize) but because their relatively modest incomes are going to take a disproportionately large hit.

What’s more, it’s possible to describe the (hypothetical) middle-class family that would be the hardest hit in this respect. We’ll call them the Cliffs. Mr. and Mrs. Cliff together make $82,000 and have four children. Because the Cliffs both work, they sometimes need to pay for child care. Even though money is tight in their household, however, the Cliffs have been able to invest in $10,000 worth of blue-chip, dividend-paying stocks, in addition to socking away money in their 401(k)s.

(MORE: Can the Estate Tax Solve the Fiscal Cliff?)

So how much will the Cliffs’ taxes go up as we go off the cliff? Some $530 per month, or more than $6,000 a year. Yes, you read that right. Here’s how:

Payroll-Tax Increase: As part of the effort to stimulate the economy, the payroll tax that workers pay for Social Security was reduced temporarily from 6.2% to 4.2%. That cut is set to expire in 2013, meaning the Cliffs will see 2% of their $82,000 go to the Social Security Trust Fund, rather than their bank account.

Annual hit: $1,640

Expiration of the Bush Tax Cuts: The temporary tax cuts that President Bush signed into law in 2001 and 2003 are set to expire on all levels of income on Jan. 1. That means that for married couples filing jointly, their first $17,800 of adjusted gross income will be taxed at 15% rather than 10%, and their adjusted gross income between $60,350 and $72,300 will be taxed at 28% rather than 15% (the marginal tax rate for income between $17,800 and $60,350 will remain unchanged at 15%).

Yes, you read that right too: their marginal rate will jump from 15% to 28%. In addition, the standard deduction for married couples filing jointly will decrease from $12,100 to $10,150.

Annual hit: $2,677

(MORE: Why Your 401(k) Match Will Get Cut)

Decreases in the Child Tax Credit: The Bush tax cuts also increased the child tax credit from $500 to $1,000. But with the expiration of those cuts, the child credit expires as well. The four Cliff children were saving Mr. and Mrs. Cliff $4,000 in federal income taxes, but that savings will be reduced $2,000 after Jan. 1.

Annual hit: $2,000

Dividend-Tax Increases: The Cliffs’ $10,000 investment in the stock market is spread out among a few high-dividend paying stocks, which average a yield of 3% — or $300. With dividends scheduled to be taxed as ordinary income in 2013, that $300 will be taxed at 28%, vs. the 15% dictated by current law.

Annual hit: $39

For the Cliff family, this means a total tax increase of $6,356 in 2013, or roughly $530 per month. For a middle-class family, this amount is huge. That’s more than what it takes to rent a one-bedroom apartment in Tulsa, Okla. It’s more than twice the average employee-paid share of health-care coverage for families. And it’s roughly the average cost of tuition for a private elementary school.

To think that America’s leaders are in Washington now, using this debate as a way to score Brownie points with activist supporters, or as a chess piece in a larger game of political one-upmanship, is beyond depressing when you see how individual middle-class Americans will be hurt. While our economy is deeply depressed, and the American government is borrowing at historically low rates, politicians are dithering while the affordability of basic necessities like these hang in the balance for families like the Cliffs.

MORE: Fixing Inflation Adjustments Is the Smart Way to Shrink the Deficit

4 comments
Bobbit
Bobbit

15% cuurent tax rate for people earning between $17.000 and $68,000. Did i read that right. Wow, you americans got it, or should i say had it, good. 

nsmurali
nsmurali like.author.displayName 1 Like

Also remember, that you may not have to worry about taxes if you lose your job or hours are drastically reduced. The promise is that the big government armed with taxes on the wealthy is there to hold hands and sail you out of trouble all the time. Reality is those words come from mouths of politicians during election year. Unlike the feds, US businesses are not yet allowed to print money whenever there is shortage of money or debt is looming! In fact, most businesses will not borrow just to pay payroll and benefits! There is no room for funny  games with money when it comes to running a biz. You have to pony up the money or slash expenses. In any business, payroll is the biggest ticket item.

Tak
Tak like.author.displayName 1 Like

Increase taxes on the rich or the middle class takes a big hit, what a surprise.  What happens when all the "rich" are tapped out and the middle class becomes the rich, who will save us from the clowns in Congress and the executive branch then?  Class warfare... Take from the "haves" so the "have nots" need not worry.  How about making opportunities for us all to work on becoming "haves."Party does not matter.  You cannot continue spending without revenue increases. The trick is ask a smaller number to pay more or increase the number paying?  Well the last three years the President said he was focusing on jobs, that would have increased the number paying, well he said he was trying.... That should be good enough, right?  We bought the BS out of DC, perhaps a little pain spread all around will get voters to realize, you the taxpayer pay for whatever free lunch the talking head is offering, unless you happen to be in the group who pays no taxes then increases to taxes mean more stuff for you.  Who's paying their fair share then?