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Personal Finance | Perspective

Why you should love that tax refund less

February 14, 2019 at 6:14 PM

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Washington Post business reporter Heather Long explains why millions of Americans could see smaller tax refunds in 2019. (Patrick Martin/The Washington Post)

For some, the 2017 tax overhaul has been a bust — and not necessarily because it increased their taxable income.

Some early tax-return filers this year are fuming about receiving smaller refunds than they’ve been accustomed to getting. Their rage sheds light on one of the problems with the tax code — Americans’ passionate love affair with their tax refunds.

But it’s not entirely your fault if you’re infatuated with getting a refund. The system is biased in favor of your paying too much tax.

As a wage earner, you're required to pay federal income tax by having it withheld from your pay throughout the year. This is your tax “withholding,” which is based on the number of allowances you claim on your W-4.

You’re in an “overwithholding” situation if too much tax is withheld, resulting in a refund when you file your tax return. But the instructions on how many allowances to claim for tax credits are geared toward overwithholding, according to a report last year from the Government Accountability Office.

About three-quarters of wage-earning taxpayers have too much withheld from their paycheck, the GAO said.

Related: Surprise, no tax refund for you! What not to do if you owe the IRS.

For you to neither owe the government nor get a refund, your total withholding allowances have to match the tax deductions and credits reported on your federal return. With the right withholding, you can get close enough to breaking even, with a small refund or tiny tax bill.

Behavioral economists look at the mental accounting people do when faced with a choice of receiving money incrementally or in one large chunk. Turns out that, psychologically, most people prefer the lump sum.

"Americans want tax refunds because getting money on April 15 feels like a bonus,” Dan Ariely and Jeff Kreisler write in their book “Dollars and Sense: How We Misthink Money and How to Spend Smarter."

When money is received monthly in relatively smaller amounts, it can be harder to save, because there are more immediate needs.

"This is a case where it's good to know yourself,” one reader explained. “I am much better at saving a big windfall than I am at saving every month. Sure, in a perfect world I'd figure out how to be a better monthly saver, but I'm not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good."

However, let's say you're carrying credit-card debt. Rationally, any extra money in your paycheck could be used to reduce the debt throughout the year, so you would pay less interest.

Ironically, polls show that consumers anxiously await their tax refund just so they can pay down debt.

A Kaiser Family Foundation poll last year focused on the potential impact of the 2017 tax law on individuals. People were asked: “If you receive a tax refund as a result of this tax plan, what will you do with that tax refund? Will you save or invest it, pay off a bill or debt, or spend it on something you have put off?"

Thirty-six percent of respondents said they would save or invest the money, and 44 percent said they would pay off a bill or debt.

When I ask people why they love getting a refund, many say they're terrified of getting a big tax bill. That's not an unreasonable response, considering we know that the vast majority of employees live paycheck to paycheck.

Related: Talk is not cheap when it comes to love and money

Okay, but what if you could be reasonably assured you wouldn’t owe the Internal Revenue Service or that, if you did, you’d have to pay a small amount?

Gallup and USA Today asked this in a 2007 poll that is clearly still relevant: Which would you prefer to happen when you file your annual income taxes with the IRS each year — get a refund because you paid more in taxes than you owed during the year, or basically break even because you paid about what you owed in taxes during the year?

Forty-five percent of survey respondents said they want the refund.

Here's my concern. Overwithholding comes with a cost. If you don't have savings throughout the year — which you might if you had less money withheld from your paycheck — and you're faced with a financial emergency, you could end up increasing your credit card debt.

Overwithholding is not good for low-income workers who struggle with having enough cash every month. Some end up paying their bills late, hurting their credit rating. Or they get trapped in a cycle of expensive payday loans to make ends meet. They “could benefit more from larger regular paychecks than from larger annual tax refunds,” the GAO concluded.

For many people, the allure of getting a tax refund is clearly so big that they easily overlook its true cost. When you overwithhold from your paycheck, you’re essentially just giving Uncle Sam an interest-free loan. And for that, you gain nothing.

Read more:

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Retiring with a big age gap: These couples share the joys and challenges.

Michelle Singletary writes the nationally syndicated personal finance column The Color of Money. Her award-winning column is syndicated by The Washington Post Writers Group and is carried in dozens of newspapers nationwide.

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