Smart Money Podcast: The Tax Episode

Sean and Liz discuss deductions, credits and how to know when to call in a tax pro.

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Welcome to NerdWallet’s Smart Money podcast, where we answer your real-world money questions.

This week’s episode starts with a discussion about what will and won’t lower your tax bill.

Then we pivot to answer a number of listener questions about taxes.

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Our take

Lowering your tax bill generally comes down to two things: tax credits and tax deductions. Tax credits directly reduce the amount of money you owe to lower your overall tax liability. If you get a $1,000 tax credit, then your tax bill is reduced by $1,000. There are a variety of tax credits, including credits for parents, education and saving for retirement. Tax deductions work to reduce the amount of income that is subject to taxation. Contributing to a 401(k) with your employer is one example.

If you’re debating filing your taxes on your own or hiring a professional, ask yourself a few questions. First, do you feel comfortable filing your taxes on your own? Next, have you experienced any major life changes — like becoming self-employed or becoming a parent — that would make your tax situation more complicated than in previous years? And, do you know how to vet a tax professional? Do your research into both options before jumping into a decision about which way to go.

Know how to navigate capital gains if you sold an asset, like stocks, in the previous tax year. How long you held the asset before selling determines your capital gains rate. If you sold the asset less than a year after purchasing it, you are subject to short-term capital gains, which is generally the same as your income tax rate. But if you held onto the asset for more than a year before selling, you are subject to long-term capital gains, which is 0%, 15%, or 20% depending on your income and filing status.

Our tips

  • Know your comfort level: If your tax situation is simple, you can probably get away with filing on your own. But if you are unsure about how to manage your taxes, you might want to hire a professional.

  • Brush up on capital gains obligations: The amount of time you hold onto a stock can have big implications for the taxes you owe.

  • Consider using losses to offset some gains. Tax loss harvesting may help you reduce your tax bill, but check with a pro if you’re not sure.

More about taxes on NerdWallet:

Have a money question? Text or call us at 901-730-6373. Or you can email us at [email protected]. To hear previous episodes, go to the podcast homepage.

Episode transcript

Sean Pyles: Welcome to the NerdWallet Smart Money podcast, where we answer your personal finance questions and help you feel a little smarter about what you do with your money. I'm Sean Pyles.

Liz Weston: And I'm Liz Weston. To send the Nerds your money questions, call or text us on the Nerd hotline at 901-730-6373. That's 901-730-NERD. Or email us at [email protected]. Hit that subscribe button to get new episodes delivered to your devices every Monday. And if you like what you hear, please leave us a review and tell a friend.

Sean: This episode is all about taxes. We are taking on a few of your money questions about filing taxes this year, including whether you should DIY your taxes, how to know what you owe and navigating capital gains. And we are joined by tax Nerd, Sabrina Parys, to answer your questions. But first in our This Week in Your Money segment, we are talking about what will and will not minimize your tax bill.

Liz: There can be a lot of confusion about this topic, so Sean and I wanted to dig into the subject to help you navigate your own tax situation. Lowering your tax bill generally comes down to two things: tax deductions and tax credits. Each works in different ways. So we wanted to lay out how you can make the most of your credits and, if possible, your deductions. We also wanted to do a little bit of myth-busting too.

Sean: And let's start by talking about tax credits. Tax credits are essentially a dollar-for-dollar way to reduce your tax bill. So, if you get a credit for $500, your tax bill would then be lowered by $500.

Liz: And some of the most common tax credits fall into just a few categories. For example, credits for parents — like the child tax credit — that a lot of people started receiving monthly last year. Another one is the adoption tax credit. There are also credits for investing in education or retirement if you meet certain income qualifications. There are credits for green purchases as well, like if you buy an electric car or you put solar panels on your roof.

Sean: And tax deductions, on the other hand, lower your taxable income and thus your tax liability. Deductions can be more common, but also more misunderstood than tax credits. Common deductions are contributions to things like 401(k)s or health savings accounts. These are often called pre-tax contributions because the amount that you put into these accounts are not taxed.

Liz: But there are a number of deductions you can only take if you itemize. So when you file your taxes, you can either take the standard deduction or you can itemize, but you can't do both. And generally, you have to have more itemized deductions to itemize. Does that make sense?

Sean: So, yes it does, but it gets a little bit technical because you want to see if all of the itemized deductions would exceed the amount that is the standard deduction, which for the 2021 tax year is $12,550 for single filers or $25,100 for those who are married and filing jointly. So when I was going through to do my taxes this year, I looked at all of my potential deductions — essentially it was my property taxes for my house. And I saw that my deductions did not exceed $12,550. So I took the standard deduction.

Liz: Whereas with my husband and I, we live in Los Angeles and our mortgage is probably a bit larger than yours. So when we put together the property taxes and the mortgage, charitable deductions and other things that we deduct, we do have enough to itemize our deductions because it was larger than the standard deduction.

Sean: But a lot of folks can get tangled up sorting through which things are actually deductible and which things are not.

Liz: One of the complicating factors is that the law changed a few years ago. Many more people could itemize their deductions before that law changed, than can do it now. So maybe their mortgage was helping them at some point, but now it no longer is.

Sean: There's also a lot of misinformation out there. I've seen influencers on TikTok that have said that you can deduct every expense if you run it through a business. The IRS will see through that in a heartbeat. You probably shouldn't do that.

Liz: Yes, exactly. And also you'll hear a number of nonprofit organizations say that you can write off your deductions, like — give us your car, you'll get a tax deduction. That's true only if you itemize.

Sean: It's true in a sense, but it's not really the whole picture. My $20-a-month donation to public radio is not pushing me to the threshold that would make itemizing worth it. So the donation does not actually end up being tax-deductible for me.

Liz: But you're still going to do it, right?

Sean: Oh, of course I have to. But that said, there is an exception for the 2021 tax year. Folks who made charitable contributions in 2021 may be able to deduct $300 for single filers and $600 if you're married and filing jointly on their tax return without having to itemize.

Liz: Well, that's good news. Good.

Sean: I think that is enough about itemizing for now. And let's take a brief interlude between our tax conversations to do a check-in on our no-spend month challenge. For new listeners, here is the deal. The month of February, we are doing a no-spend month challenge where Liz and I are attempting to not spend money on things that we do not need. And we are inviting you, our beloved listeners, to join us.

So on that note of our listeners, we got a couple notes from folks and I want to share them with you guys. So one was from a listener named Will, and he mentioned that he had saved over $700 compared to his spending last month, in part thanks to the NerdWallet app, which is pretty cool.

Liz: Wow. Oh, that's great news. I'm glad he's having a better experience than I am.

Sean: Nnenna in the Bay Area left us a message to say that they actually find no-spend months to be too restrictive, but that they have their own way to curb impulse spending. They mentioned that if they want something like an expensive bag, they will make a line item on their budget for the next month for that purchase. And then they'll set a reminder for that next month to buy the item so that by the time the reminder comes around, they will have at once budgeted for it and also waited enough time to see if they truly want that item, which can help curb discretionary spending on things that you don't need.

Liz: Oh, I love that. I have a running list — and you're doing this as well — of the things that we did not spend money on to remind us why we're doing this, but having that little pause built in can really help.

Sean: And I'm a huge fan of the reminders app on my phone as well. I'll use it for about everything. So I might take a page out of Nnenna's book and try this out for size. So Liz, how has the last week or so been for you with the no-spend month challenge?

Liz: Pretty terrible. I needed to take a trip unexpectedly. There was an unexpected airfare. There was unexpected hotel and meals. And then I went shopping with my daughter. We're going to scratch off this week as just, OK, let's do a reset and hope for the rest of the month we'll do better.

Sean: As much as this challenge is about actually saving dollars, it's about having the conversation with yourself and reevaluating your spending. And second-guessing your urge to just buy something. And I think you've been doing that every step of the way, right?

Liz: Definitely. That's definitely true. And just feeling guilty about all the spending.

Sean: Yeah. Which is hard because you don't want to make this something that is a negative experience for you. You don't want to feel bad about failing at something. You want to give yourself grace, as we talked about in the beginning, but as long as you're continuing to have that conversation with yourself — reevaluating what you do and don't spend money on — I think it's still a success.

Liz: I'm not throwing in the towel. And that's the big difference. It's kind of like people who diet and then they blow their diet and then they give up entirely. I'm not going to give up. I'm going to keep going and see what else I can do for the rest of this month, that will be within the bounds of the no-spending month. But I'm interested to hear how you did with your trip to Florida.

Sean: Well, I'm back from my vacation, and I can proudly say that I stayed strong in the face of very expensive souvenirs.

Liz: Very good.

Sean: I went to this beautiful photo gallery in the Big Cypress National forest with my mom. And there were these gorgeous prints of the surrounding landscape and orchids, and all these things that I love. And I was very tempted to buy prints, but they ran in the several hundred dollar range. And I just was not prepared to buy that. Even if I wasn't doing a no-spend challenge, it would've been pretty pricey. So I felt strong and didn't buy those things. However, I did spend more on food than I was expecting. I think that's just part of having an experience and traveling and getting together with my mom again, like I want to have of these great memories. And so I allowed myself to spend a little more and I think that's OK.

I also bought a couple books. That's my weakness. Anytime someone recommends a book to me, I tend to just buy it right then and there so I can add it to my list and not forget about it. Did that a couple times. However, I will say I have some good wins in here. And one is that I have not browsed eBay once since starting this challenge. That's one of my biggest weaknesses. The app has gone off my phone. I haven't even opened the website on my browser. Because of that alone, I estimate that I've saved around $120. Because I was spending about $30 a week on eBay, which is kind of embarrassing to admit. And also I held strong and I still have not purchased that Lego set that I had mentioned before. Liz, despite your heinous attempt at tempting me to buy it by sending me a link to the kit that was on sale, I still have not purchased it.

Liz: Good for you.

Sean: I'm doing really good.

Liz: That was evil of me. I apologize.

Sean: You acknowledged it in the moment that it was evil. And I think that maybe allowed me to stay stronger, that much easier. I'm doing OK. I mean, so far this month, I think I've saved around $300. And as we mentioned before, the important thing really is shaking up your shopping habits and I've totally done that.

Liz: That's awesome. I love hearing that.

Sean: I think we'll have one last check-in before this is over. So listeners, if you have anything else to share about how this is going for you, please feel free to reach out to us. Shoot us a text on the Nerd hotline 901-730-6373. Or email us at [email protected].

Liz: Let's get into this episode's money question segment with tax Nerd, Sabrina Parys. Welcome onto the podcast, Sabrina.

Sabrina Parys: Hi, Liz. Thanks for having me.

Sean: It's great to have you on. So let's get into our first of three listener questions. It comes from a listener's voicemail and here it is.

Listener 1: Hi, my name is Liz and I have a tax-related question. Typically, I do my taxes on TurboTax, but I'm wondering at what point I might start to consider the use of a tax professional. I'm fairly comfortable doing my own taxes in this way since I'm single and have your typical income streams and circumstances. However, this year I was part of a class-action litigation that resulted in a settlement and received payments for it. I learned from limited research I've done that generally, a settlement payment for personal physical injuries is nontaxable, but I know my individual circumstances may change things. I'm a bit intimidated by this unique situation, and I've started wondering at what point should you consider moving on from doing it yourself to a tax professional? Thanks so much.

Sean: Sabrina — when do you think someone should switch from their favorite DIY tax-filing software to hiring a professional?

Sabrina: That's a really good question. I don't think that there's a rule of thumb necessarily, but generally speaking, the more complex your tax situation is the more likely you might benefit from some professional guidance.

Liz: Let's talk about the risks of doing it on your own.

Sabrina: The IRS ultimately puts the responsibility of accurate reporting on you, the taxpayer, and that's whether or not you use software or a paid professional. At the end of the day, it really comes down to your comfort level with taxes and how much help you want.

Liz: One thing I think about is the audit risk. I want to have somebody else represent me in front of the IRS, if my tax return gets picked for an audit; that's just common sense. You don't want to go in there and say something stupid and make things worse. So even if you do a DIY solution, if you get a notice from the IRS, you definitely want a tax pro to help.

Sean: And what circumstances might lead someone to making the jump from doing a DIY to hiring a CPA?

Sabrina: Again, I don't think there's a simple answer, but I can think of a few situations that might lead someone to want to work with a CPA. Let's talk about major life changes. They can often usher in new tax implications. Let's say that you welcomed your first child last year. That means that you might have a dependent to claim for the first time, or you might suddenly be eligible for some new tax credits. If you're not aware of that, you might accidentally leave some money on the table.

Sean: One thing I was a little surprised by is that, when I became a homeowner last year, I assumed — all right — this is it. This is the year I have to hire a CPA because now that I can potentially write off my property taxes, it's going to be too complicated for me to file my taxes on my own. So I need a pro to do it. And when I looked into it, it actually was not that complicated because I didn't itemize. So I ended up doing my taxes through a DIY software again this year. So, even though you do have big life changes, that might not mean you need to hire someone to do your taxes for you.

Liz: There's certain things like becoming self-employed where you really should have a tax pro. And it doesn't necessarily need to be a CPA. There's another level of tax pros called enrolled agents. And most people know what these are, but they essentially are tax pros. They can represent you in front of the IRS, but they're not as expensive as a CPA. So that's something else to keep in mind.

Sean: Because that is one factor that in my mind is a little bit of a deterrent to hiring a CPA or any kind of tax pro, is how much more expensive it can become to file your taxes.

Liz: So Sabrina, are there other situations where people should think about hiring a tax pro?

Sabrina: Whenever you are facing a new situation that's unfamiliar to you, and you're not sure what the tax implications are, it could be a good idea to work with the tax pro. It doesn't necessarily mean that you'll end up using the tax pro to file your return. Anything like trading — especially when it comes to virtual currencies — changing your marital status, moving to a new state, those are tricky situations to navigate sometimes. So it could lead to you wanting to work with the CPA.

Sean: One thing that I've noticed a lot of this year is these online tax services promoting the fact that they have professionals on hand if you do have a question. It seems like they're trying to bridge the gap between what they offer and what a CPA could do for you.

Sabrina: I think that's definitely become a more popular offering for a lot out of these DIY providers. It's usually in the form of onscreen help or sometimes a full review. And that could be a good middle-of-the-road option if you want to stick to the DIY software. But I think it's also important to know the qualifications of the human helper and make sure that they're able to help you with your particular tax situation.

Sean: And you may not be able to do that with someone that is just talking with you through a chat box.

Liz: That does lead us to how do you vet a potential tax pro?

Sabrina: Figuring out where to start can feel like the hardest part. A good first step could be to ask around. Your friends, coworkers or family members could have some good recommendations for you. Another resource is also the IRS. The Treasury Department has this online directory of tax preparers, and it's pretty regularly updated and it works much like another search engine would. You can plug in your ZIP code and filter for tax pros by proximity, and even by their type of credential.

Sean: Speaking of credentials, what sort of titles and qualifications should people be looking for?

Sabrina: Tax preparers can have a lot of credentials. And I think it can be hard to wrap your head around that. A basic requirement: A tax preparer who charges for their services must at least have what the IRS calls a PTIN, or a preparer tax identification number. That's also a fairly basic requirement. So you might want to look for someone who's credentialed. Someone who, like Liz mentioned earlier, is a CPA or a certified public accountant, or an EA — an enrolled agent — or even a tax attorney. It could add some extra security to the process.

Sean: What kind of questions would you want to ask any potential tax pro that you want to hire?

Sabrina: That is a really critical thing to think about, because even if someone seems qualified, you probably want to ask a few things before you sign on any dotted line. You can ask, "How long have you worked as a tax preparer? Are you a generalist, or do you specialize in some area of taxation? How long will it take to prepare my return?" And importantly, "How will you bill me? Will it be a flat fee? Will it be hourly?" Asking some of those questions could also help you to spot red flags. I think, for example, you'll want to be wary of a tax preparer who promises you a refund without even looking at your tax documents.

Liz: Yeah.

Sean: I can see how it could be tempting to go with someone who seems convenient and nearby, but folks should remember that they're handing over very sensitive documents to any sort of person that they would hire. So you want to make sure that they are certified to do this kind of work and that you feel good working with them and can trust them. Any other thoughts around the DIY-CPA debate?

Sabrina: At the end of the day, how you want to do your taxes and who you want helping you is going to be a highly personal decision. So like any other thing that's important, do your research and figure out what works best for you.

Liz: And back to my fear of audits, not all tax pros can represent you in front of the IRS. So, that's something else to keep in the mix when you're thinking about this.

Sean: Well, let's get onto our second listener question.

Listener 2: Hi, Nerds. My name is Ying and I'm calling from Pennsylvania. And my money question to you guys is what are taxes and how would we know when something needs to be paid or filed for taxes, and when we would need to pay or file for those taxes? I know it might seem like a trivial question, but I've always had my parents take care of my taxes for me. And as a soon-to-be college graduate, I kind of want to learn about it more and hopefully take on that responsibility of myself. So with that, I've recently opened a Roth IRA account and a brokerage account to start investing the money that I have on the side. And to my understanding, I do have to eventually file and pay for taxes on those. I'm just wondering if you guys can answer those questions and I just want to thank you guys for listening and big fan of the podcast. Thank you.

Sean: OK. I love this question because it gets a little philosophical. What are taxes? What are they? I don't know. I do know. I wish I didn't, but anyway, our listener has a lot of things that they want information about and let's start at that basic level. What are taxes?

Liz: Well, taxes are money you pay the government. Or else. So not filing or not paying what you owe can incur serious penalties. That's why this is so important to know.

Sean: Our listener is also wondering about how taxes factor in with Roths — what's going on there?

Liz: OK. The good news about Roths is that you don't pay taxes on the growth or on withdrawals in retirement. Now that's different from most retirement accounts because most retirement accounts give you a deduction upfront and your money grows tax-deferred, but you pay taxes when it comes out. With Roths, you don't get that upfront deduction, but the money's tax-free in retirement. That's why people get so excited about it.

Sean: It's the pretax versus post-tax way of paying for retirement funding or retirement account. With a Roth, you put money that's basically in your checking account into this retirement account manually versus with something like a 401(k) — it's automatically withdrawn typically and put into these accounts and is thus pretax.

Liz: Exactly. And we always talk about the importance of tax diversification, of having money in different tax buckets. So you can control your tax bill better when you get to retirement.

Sean: Well, speaking of taxes and investments, one quick note: We are not financial or investment advisors. This is just general information. Our listener seems concerned about knowing how much they would potentially owe and how can people figure out what they might owe from their brokerage account and investments?

Liz: Your brokerage account is going to send you a form that's called a 1099-B, and that summarizes your transactions for the year. You'll use that to fill out a Schedule D on your 1040 tax return. You can use tax filing software, but if you are an active trader, you might want to consider using a tax professional at least for a year or two while you get the hang of it. Something else people need to know — crypto transactions are taxable, too. So if you've been trading cryptocurrency or you have sold cryptocurrency and made a profit, that is taxable, honey, and you need to declare to the IRS. Sorry.

Sean: This is the dark side of the gamification of buying crypto and investing is, you got to pay taxes on it, these things.

Liz: Yeah.

Sean: Now let's get onto our third listener question. It comes from a listener's email and here it is. They wrote, "If you sell stocks in less than a year of holding them and make a $15,500 profit, it's taxed as capital gains, right? Then if you sell some losses held short or long term, does that lower the capital gains tax on the profits? I'm mixed up as to whether it's worth it to sell losses before the end of the year, or just hold. Sincerely, Carol."

Liz: OK. Sabrina, can you explain what capital gains tax is, how it works and what's the difference between short term and long term when it comes to capital gains taxes?

Sabrina: Sure. Capital gains are a really critical concept for anyone who's investing to understand. Basically anytime that you make a profit on the sale of an asset, like, let's say the share of a stock — that profit is called the capital gain, and it gets subject to taxation. And the rate at which that gain gets taxed depends on how long you held the asset for before you sold it. So let's say that you held onto it for more than a year before you sold it. It gets taxed at the long-term rate, which is either zero, 15% or 20%, depending on your income and your filing status. And if you held the asset for less than a year before selling, you'll get taxed at the short-term rate, which is equal to your ordinary income tax rate, aka your tax bracket. And that rate is generally less advantageous than the long-term rate, because it can be steeper for most people.

Sean: Let's also talk about tax-loss harvesting. Which it seems like our listener is also asking about here. Can you explain what that is and its relationship, if any, to capital gains?

Sabrina: Sure. So tax loss harvesting — other than being a mouthful — is also a tricky concept to wrap your head around, but I think what it really boils down to is that you're essentially selling an asset at a loss to offset your gains. Now that doesn't sound great at first. I don't think anyone really approaches investing with the goal of losing money, right? But when you sell an asset at a loss and you get to subtract that loss from your total gains for the year, you're actually lowering the amount of your capital gains. That reduces or even eliminates how much you might get taxed on them.

Liz: And the thing with capital gains is, you first offset your long-term capital gains with your long-term capital losses, and then your short-term capital gains with your short-term capital losses. And then you net those two out. So it's a lot of math. Sabrina, talk about what happens if you have a loss after all that math is done.

Sabrina: Right? So let's say you had a less-than-stellar year and you ended up realizing more losses than gains. With tax-loss harvesting, there's another silver lining. You can also deduct up to $3,000 of those losses from your ordinary income on your taxes each year. Let's say those losses exceed $3,000. Another nice bonus is that you can continue deducting the balance on future returns until it's exhausted.

Liz: OK. So it doesn't go away, if you can't use it that year — you can use it in subsequent years.

Sabrina: Correct.

Liz: OK, cool.

Sean: I'm going to say my head is spinning just slightly from all of this. And to bring it back to our first listener's question, I think this would be a great area where you might want to hire a professional to manage your taxes if you're even considering throwing out the word tax-loss harvesting when it comes to filing your own.

Liz: But people need to be careful about something known as the wash-sale rule.

Sabrina: Typically, when you participate in tax-loss harvesting, that asset that you ended up selling for a loss gets replaced with another similar asset, and that's in order to maintain your portfolio's goals or your asset allocation. But it's important to know that at least 30 days need to pass between the sale of that first asset that you sold for a loss, and the purchase of the similar replacement. Otherwise, you'll trigger a wash sale, and that will basically disallow all that loss that you can claim.

Liz: It's also important to point out that tax-loss harvesting only works for investments in taxable accounts. It won't work on things like 401(k)s, IRAs, 529s, any account that's already tax-sheltered.

Sean: So our listener Carol is also wondering about whether there's any benefit to timing the sale of stocks for a tax benefit. What do you guys think?

Sabrina: As a precursor, I think that it's important to say that taxes — even though they might feel like it — are not the be-all and end-all of life and you should generally not make a decision to do something just because of them. But that being said, tax-loss harvesting does have the obvious benefit of resulting in some tax savings, which can be great. But that doesn't mean that it's an approach that makes sense 100% of the time.

Sean: Yeah. If you sell awesome stock that had a bad year, you might potentially lose out on growth the next year. Right?

Sabrina: Exactly.

Liz: Or if you bought something else to replace it, it might not perform as well as the thing that you sold. So you’ve got to have another reason for doing this other than just wanting to offset some gains.

Sean: Yeah. And in the past, we've talked about the risks of timing the market. And this seems like another one.

Liz: Yeah. Any final thoughts about tax-loss harvesting, Sabrina?

Sabrina: At the end of the day, tax-loss harvesting is a strategy that's important to know about, but it should also operate hand in hand with your investment goals. I think some people tend to use it as a year-round strategy. Other people tend to use it at the end of the year. Some people don't use it at all. If you have any doubts about what kind of approach makes sense for you, I think it's always — good idea, like we talked about earlier, to work with a tax professional. They can help you think about what tax minimization strategies make sense for your long-term goals.

Liz: Excellent. Good advice.

Sean: Great. Sabrina, thank you so much for answering our listeners' questions today.

Sabrina: Yeah, thank you for having me.

Sean: And with that, let's get on to our takeaway tips. First up, know your comfort level. If your tax situation is simple, you can probably get away with filing on your own. But if you are unsure about how to manage your taxes, you might want to hire a professional.

Liz: Next, brush up on capital gains obligations. The amount of time you hold onto an investment can have big implications for the taxes you owe.

Sean: And lastly, consider using losses to offset some gains. Tax-loss harvesting may help you reduce your tax bill, but check with a tax pro if you are not sure.

And that is all we have for this episode. Do you have a money question of your own? Turn to the Nerds and call or text us your questions at 901-730-6373. That's 901-730-N-E-R-D. And you can also email us at [email protected] and visit NerdWallet.com/podcast for more info on this episode and remember to subscribe, rate and review us wherever you're getting this podcast.

Liz: And here's our brief disclaimer, thoughtfully crafted by NerdWallet's legal team. Your questions are answered by knowledgeable and talented finance writers, but we are not financial or investment advisors. This Nerdy info is provided for general educational and entertainment purposes, and may not apply to your specific circumstances.

Sean: And with that said, until next time, turn to the Nerds.