If you haven’t noticed, it’s tax time. I have noticed, not only because of the endless emails I receive reminding me of this grand celebration, but also because of the people with whom I interact. As those I know complete their tax returns, I observe their pure joy as they realize they’ll be receiving a refund from the IRS.
Count me in with the masses; my accountant suggested some changes to my tax returns for the past couple of years, and I received several refunds I otherwise wouldn’t have expected. I exuded an appropriate level of joyfulness, as well.
Most people’s tax situations are much simpler than mine. For example, a single guy might work for only one employer, receive one W-2 form, and won’t have much un-withheld income. He will probably receive a small refund. Or a family receives two W-2 forms and, because they didn’t calculate their withholding correctly, they’ll receive a large refund. Cue cheers of joy!
Except, the federal government should be the one celebrating. They’ve been using “our” money — money belonging to those of us who are due a refund — for free! Usually, when you lend money to someone, you charge interest to compensate yourself for its use. Why would you give the government, an organization that will use your money in ways you may not approve, a free ride?
The most common explanation — or rationalization — for not being concerned with lending money to the government for free is simple. It’s because this creates “forced savings.” By having more money than necessary withdrawn from each paycheck, you are automatically putting some money aside for later. You’re just counting on the government to pay you back on time, of course (and without interest).
It might be a good idea to note that some state governments are not issuing refunds on time. The states’ financial difficulties will become your financial difficulties when they delay sending you the “savings” you’ve been counting on.
Even if your return arrives lightning quick and without problem, it’s still a ridiculous situation. But, most of us stand for it, year after year. Why don’t we break the cycle of free loans to the government, then strange joy when our money is returned?
Let’s start with the typical rationale. Here’s why “forced savings” is a poor excuse:
- You are not earning interest. In a high-yield bank account like Barclays, the money could earn interest. If you hand excess money to the government each pay period, the government gets to keep any interest it could be earning. You might as well throw money out the window.
- You don’t have use of the money. The average tax refund, for those who receive one, is almost $3,000. You could have used that money to pay off your debt, repair your house, or invest for your retirement.
- Saving yourself isn’t difficult. Don’t rely on the government for a savings plan. You can automatically transfer a portion of your paycheck into a savings account, and not even think about it (essentially, the same thing you’re already doing). When you re-calculate your withholding and change the form with your employer, set up direct deposit so you receive your pay directly in your bank account. Then, set up an automated recurring transfer to move a portion of your pay into a savings account that’s earning interest.
- It’s easy to treat a refund wrong. Receiving a large check from the government encourages people to make unnecessary or unplanned purchases. While that might be great for the economy in general, you might be making choices you wouldn’t have been if that money was spread out over the course of the year. If it were incorporated into your weekly or biweekly income, you would be more apt to budget it wisely.
The federal government counts on millions of citizens overpaying their taxes throughout the year. In fact, if everyone optimized their withholding, the government might not be able to pay for its day-to-day operations. But you don’t need to worry about what the government will do in that situation. The best decision for your financial health is to optimize your withholding so you do not receive a substantial refund.
In fact, you should consider planning your withholding so you owe the government when you file your taxes. In this scenario, all the drawbacks mentioned above become your advantages. You’ve had access to government money throughout the year. As long as you stay within limits, you won’t owe the government any interest or fees. You can even earn interest or invest the government’s money, tucking that cash into an interest bearing account, ready to pay your tax bill when it comes due.
Of course, be sure to keep track of approximately how much you’ll owe, and never put yourself in a situation where you cannot pay your tax bill by the deadline in April. If you’re going to avoid a tax refund, you need to be smart and not create a bigger issue. But, as long as you can pay your bill by April 15 (or April 18, as it is this year), the government doesn’t care what you do.
Updated January 18, 2017 and originally published January 13, 2017.