For many taxpayers, this is the singular reason to rejoice during tax season, which opens Jan. 27. This is when the Internal Revenue Service starts accepting and processing 2019 returns. The agency expects to receive more than 150 million individual returns this season.
Every year, millions of filers look forward to getting a tax refund like it is found money. It’s not. They simply had their employers withhold too much of their own money.
Last year was difficult for a lot of taxpayers, who took to social media to complain about their smaller refunds. Changes mandated in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act impacted the 2018 returns they were filing. Although the law nearly doubled the standard deduction, it also removed personal exemptions and limited or discontinued other popular deductions.
The downward trend in refunds did not mean people paid more in taxes. Instead, many got more money in their paychecks throughout the year. The problem was that the amounts were not noticeable.
A lot of taxpayers cried foul when they didn’t get a refund or ended up owing the IRS. At one point, #TaxScam and #TaxScamStories were trending on Twitter.
In the first week of the 2019 tax season, tax refunds were down by about 8 percent. By the third week, folks were livid. The average refund amount dropped by 16.7 percent, a decrease of $529 compared with a year earlier.
However, by the end of the year, the average refund was $2,869, a decrease of just 1.4 percent year over year, according to the latest figures from the IRS.
Hopefully, this tax season will not have any surprises. It should be back to normal. Those who want a large refund made changes to continue the trend.
Still, I feel it necessary to repeat again this year that a tax refund is not necessarily a good thing. Here are three reasons you should not rejoice in getting a refund.
●You’ve got debt. Let’s say you are carrying credit card debt with the average interest rate of 17 percent. You plan to make a dent in this debt by using your tax refund. But you are costing yourself more money by not paying the debt down during the year.
●You don’t have an emergency fund. Without a stash of cash to handle financial emergencies, you may resort to using credit, thereby increasing your debt. Let’s take the average refund people got last year: $2,869. On a monthly basis, that is almost $240. The Federal Reserve found last year that 27 percent of adults would have to borrow or sell something to handle an unexpected $400 expense.
●You’re prone to splurging. You use the lump sum refund as a justification to buy a big-screen TV or take a vacation because you view the money as a windfall. You deserve to treat yourself, you reason, even though the money could be better used to reduce debt or establish an emergency fund.
Here are three reasons a refund may not be such a bad strategy.
●Saving doesn’t come easy. If you are a natural-born saver, it seems ridiculous that others can’t be disciplined enough to save throughout the year. Yet as Polonius tells his son in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”: “This above all: to thine own self be true.” If this is the only way you can save, do what you have to do.
●You’re not losing a lot of money. Critics of serial refund enthusiasts — myself included — argue that by over-withholding, you are lending the government money interest-free. However, with savings rates so low, giving up the minuscule amount of interest you could earn in a deposit account is worth the guarantee that this forced savings strategy will net a lump sum that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to amass.
●You can’t trust yourself. If, for you, money seen is money spent, then I can see why a refund is your savings grace. People who like getting a refund tell me having Uncle Sam hold their money keeps it out of their reach — eliminating the temptation to recklessly spend it.
I have come to appreciate why people prefer to get a tax refund. But going forward — for tax season 2021 — would you at least consider reexamining why repeatedly getting a refund may not be such a smart money move? The status quo could be keeping you from taking your finances to a higher level.
Have a question about retirement or personal finance? Join Michelle for an online Q&A every Thursday at 12 p.m. Eastern time. Readers may write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1301 K St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To read previous Color of Money columns, go to http://wapo.st/michelle-singletary.
The Color of Money