I don’t want a big tax refund.
No, I’m not loopy. I just know that if my tax situation doesn’t change much — I did not add a dependent, get married or buy a home — I try to figure out what I call the tax “sweet spot,” meaning I get a tiny refund or owe a few hundred dollars or less.
Many people like getting a large refund. They treat it like found money, but it’s not a reward. That big refund means they gave the government their money to use all year long — interest-free.
So far this year, according to the most recent data from the IRS, the average federal refund is $2,853, up $22 from the same period last year. Closer to the start of the tax season, the average was $3,539.
I’m not giving up on trying to persuade folks to change the withholding allowances on their W-4s so that they get their money during the year — when they can put it to better use than giving it to the government. But I recognize that, for many people, a refund can be an opportunity to save a sum of money they might otherwise have wasted.
If you are getting a refund, there’s a way to gamble to receive even more savings. You read that right: There’s a lottery that is actually a good way to use your tax refund.
Some credit unions have been offering “prize-link savings” initiatives that encourage people to save by giving them a chance to win money through the “Save to Win” program. Last year, the American Savings Promotion Act, which was passed with bipartisan support, cleared the way for banks nationwide to offer the accounts. The Michigan Credit Union League & Affiliates, Doorways to Dreams (D2D) Fund, Filene Research Institute and eight Michigan credit unions created the concept behind this prize product.
Under the program, a credit union member opens a 12-month share certificate with at least $25. Every $25 deposit earns an entry in a drawing — and you can enter up to 10 times a month. You can save more, but you don’t get extra entries. Prizes are given each month, quarter and, in some states, annually — with awards of as much as $10,000. There are no monthly fees for these accounts, although members must leave at least $25 in to keep their accounts open.
This is one lottery in which you cannot lose. Even if you don’t win any money, you are motivated to save.
Tax time is a great opportunity for turning people’s refunds into a savings habit, said Timothy Flacke, executive director of D2D Fund. “A tax refund is for many people the single largest financial event of the year,” he said.
The prize-link savings program takes something that is not exciting for most people and turns it into something meaningful, he said. “Most people think of saving as self-denial and drudgery. This program is fun and brings an element of suspense.”
The program is offered by credit unions in five states — Michigan, Nebraska, North Carolina, Washington and Connecticut. Policy changes in 12 others allow prize-linked savings products.
If you’re interested in one of these accounts, go to savetowin.org.
There’s even a national “SaveYourRefund” prize campaign, sponsored by D2D Fund. The contest, which closed April 10, awarded weekly cash prizes for those who put $50 or more of their federal tax refund into a qualified savings product using IRS Form 8888. A lucky taxpayer who submitted an original photo that represented a savings goal or motivation will win a $25,000 grand prize. Try next tax season by going to saveyourrefund.com.
I asked Flacke about the negative connotation of associating saving with a lottery. He had a good answer: People playing state lotteries already spend billions of dollars. So why not capitalize on the appeal?
“But the line in the sand we have drawn is that any prize-linked savings have to ensure the savers have access to their own savings,” he added. “What they are saving is not put at risk.”
I hope more institutions and states adopt this program. Because if people are going to get refunds, at least they’ll have an enticing new reason to save.