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Stimulus check smaller than you expected? Here are 6 reasons why

More than 100 million people have already received their third stimulus check, with tens of millions more to go. But some may find they got less money than they thought they'd get. Others may not qualify at all. We explain.

Why did you get a smaller portion of the $1,400 stimulus check? We may have some answers.
Sarah Tew/CNET

If you're among the more than 100 million Americans who've already received a third stimulus check for up to $1,400 per person, did you get less than you expected? Or maybe you haven't received your payment yet and you're concerned you won't get one at all. (P.S. We have a stimulus calculator you can use to see how much you should get).

The March stimulus bill did qualify more groups of people (including dependents), but it also left many people out due to new income restrictions. If you're one of those people, it's possible your stimulus size was smaller, or maybe you're not eligible to receive any money at all. If you do qualify, you can track your payment using the IRS tool, but it won't tell you how much money to expect.

In addition to new rules shrinking the check size for some, there may be additional life changes that could cause your third check to be reduced -- or the issue could come down to a calculation error, garnishment or the AGI and tax return the IRS used to tabulate your total. We'll help explain everything that could lead to a smaller third stimulus check for you. Also, here's what to know about a possible fourth check. This story was recently updated with new information.

Your AGI was too high to get the $1,400 per person maximum

Your adjusted gross income, or AGI, needs to be below these income limits to receive the $1,400 stimulus payment in full:

  • Single taxpayer who makes less than $75,000.
  • Head of household who makes less than $112,500.
  • Married couple filing jointly who make less than $150,000.

If you made more than that amount, you won't get the full $1,400, but you could get a partial check -- as long as you don't hit the upper income limit for the third payment. These are lower phase-out amounts than for the first and second checks, which means you may receive a much smaller payment this time -- if you qualify at all. This chart shows the upper income limit. If your AGI meets or exceeds this number, you won't get a stimulus check, even if you have dependents. If you fall below it, you could receive a partial check.

Upper income cap to receive all 3 stimulus checks

$1,200 payment limit (AGI) $600 payment limit (AGI) $1,400 payment limit (AGI)
Single tax filer $99,000 $87,000 $80,000
Head of a household $146,000 $124,500 $120,000
Married, filing jointly $198,000 $174,000 $160,000

For the first and second stimulus checks, Congress used a similar formula to determine payment amounts, using the same income limits and rate at which payments phase out. We have calculators to help you do the math for the second $600 payment and the first $1,200 check -- and also the third check.

The IRS used your 2019 or 2020 taxes and it made your total smaller

Because the third check timing lands in the middle of 2020 tax season, the IRS will use either your 2019 or 2020 taxes (whichever's on file when it sends your payment) to determine how much you'll get. So, for example, if your AGI was higher in 2020 than in 2019 (in other words, you made more money overall) and you haven't filed your 2020 taxes, the IRS will use your income from 2019. Don't worry, you won't be expected to pay that money back if you wouldn't have qualified with your 2020 tax return.

Also, any dependents you have, including adults, can contribute to the total sum you'll get with the third check. Again, our third stimulus calculator can help estimate the total amount. Here's what nonfilers, people who don't file taxes, should know, and here's more about the relationship between your tax status and any possible stimulus check.

Now playing: Watch this: Stimulus check 3: How much money you'll get

You have fewer dependents now than you did before

For the third check, the definition of a dependent you can claim on your taxes has changed. You can get a $1,400 payment for any qualifying dependent this time around.

Yet, if you don't have the same number of dependents for whatever reason, you might not receive their share in your final check. For example, if someone has died, the IRS expected you to return any money you were paid on their behalf -- but again, it does depend on which tax return the IRS uses.

For the first two checks, age was an important factor in how much stimulus money a household got. Older adults are in many cases entitled to their own stimulus check. In the first round of direct payments, households were given an extra $500 for each "child dependent," which Congress defined as a legal minor, 16 years old or younger. 

The IRS' definition of a child dependent for your taxes (23 or under, and financially reliant on the tax filer) isn't the same one used for the first two stimulus checks.


Did you get the right amount of stimulus check money? A missing dependent could explain the discrepancy for some.

Sarah Tew/CNET

A calculation error could mean a smaller check for you at first

It happened with the first check and with the second. Clerical errors, deposit mistakes and complex rules might result in your household getting less money with the third stimulus check than you might be entitled to -- for you and your dependents. Or maybe you don't normally need to file taxes and as with the first two checks, you need to take an extra step to claim your money.

For the first two checks, for whatever reason, if an issue prevented you from receiving all or part of your stimulus money, you can claim it as a Recovery Rebate Credit this tax season

For the third payment, if the IRS uses your 2019 taxes but you made less money in 2020, you'll be able to claim the amount owed to you when you file your taxes in 2022. The IRS is expected to issue more details in the months ahead.

A family member in your household recently died

If your household receives a stimulus check that included a spouse or child dependent who died between your last tax filing and the receipt of the stimulus check, the IRS may've sent you a smaller sum if your tax filing status, deductions, credits or AGI changed. In some cases, the IRS has asked for the payment to be returned

The result might depend on which tax return the IRS uses. For example, if the IRS goes by your 2019 tax return, it's likely you'd get to keep the amount you received for the person who has died.

Your stimulus payment was garnished

With the third stimulus check, any or all of your payment is subject to garnishment by private debt collectors. Here's what you can try to do if your bank tells you that your money is frozen and is about to be seized.

For more information about stimulus money, here's every way you could get more money this time and what to do if you run into a stimulus check problem. Here's how you can see if you qualify for the new child tax credit for up to $3,600 per child.