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All About Tax Refunds

Tax season can be stressful. But for many taxpayers, there is light at the end of the tunnel in the form of a tax refund. Indeed, many people even depend on their annual refund, using the windfall for everything from making an extra mortgage payment to saving for retirement. If you’ve ever had serious questions about how tax refunds work, we’ll fill you in on what you might not know.

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Why You Get a State and Federal Tax Refund

Tax refunds usually call for a celebration. In reality, they often mean that you made a mistake by paying more income tax than was necessary.

How does this happen? If you work for an employer, you were required to fill out a W-4 form when you were hired. On that form, you indicated the amount of taxes that needed to be withheld from each paycheck.

Taxpayers receive a refund at the end of the year when they have too much money withheld. If you’re self-employed, you get a tax refund when you overpay your estimated taxes. While you might consider this extra income to be free money, it’s actually more of a loan that you made to the IRS without charging interest.

Tax refunds can also come from refundable tax credits if there’s any money left over after your federal income taxes are covered.

The Tax Refund Process

What You Should Know About Tax Refunds

Once the government gets your tax return and processes your information, it officially approves you for a refund before sending off your money. Tax refund processing varies depending on the way that you file your taxes.

Refunds for tax returns filed electronically are generally sent out less than 21 days after the IRS receives your information, though they can take up to 12 weeks to show up. Refunds for tax returns filed on paper often arrive between six and eight weeks.

You could be wondering, “why does my tax refund take so long to show up?”

Delays can happen as a result of mistakes, budget cuts and overwhelmed tax preparers. The timelines that the IRS provides are only estimates, so it’s probably not a good idea to count on using a refund to make an important payment or purchase.

In some cases, you might be tempted to take out a refund anticipation loan. Sure, you’ll get your money earlier. But as a consequence, you may have to pay a hefty fee and interest.

Claiming Your Tax Refund

There’s actually more than one way to receive your tax refund. You can request that the government send you a paper check in the mail. Or you can decide to go for a direct deposit tax refund and have your money put into three different places, including a savings and a retirement account.

Ready to get in on the investing game? You also have the option of using your tax refund to buy $5,000 or less in Series I savings bonds.

Whatever you decide to do with it, you have three years to claim your refund from the initial filing deadline. That’s good news if you miss the April 15 due date or you still haven’t filed your taxes from three years ago. And if you were granted an extension, you’ll have three years from the extended deadline to ask for a refund check.

Unfortunately, you don’t always get to keep your entire refund. Sometimes, the IRS makes a mistake and sends you more money than you were meant to have. Anyone who owes child support or has overdue student loan bills may have some of their refund taken and applied to those debts. Word of advice: If your refund check seems larger than it should be, you might want to wait before you head out on a shopping spree.

You could also receive a smaller refund check than expected as well. That’s proving to be somewhat common in the 2019 tax filing season. This is the second tax-filing year in which the Trump tax plan is in effect, and while the new law has resulted in some bigger paychecks, it’s also resulted in smaller refunds. Some people used to receiving refunds are even finding themselves owing money to the government.

Where Is My Tax Refund?

Missing tax refund

Once you file your taxes, you may be concerned about when your tax refund will arrive. Thankfully, the IRS has a tool on their website that can clear up your anxiety.

After you click on the Where’s My Refund link, enter your refund amount, your filing status and either your Social Security number or your individual taxpayer identification number. Then you’ll know whether your federal tax refund is on the way or there’s some problem that needs to be addressed. It’s that easy.

An app called IRS2Go provides another way to check your refund status. And if you’d rather use your phone to find out where your money is, you can call up the IRS Refund Hotline (800-829-1954). Note, though, that the IRS receives high call volumes.

It’s possible that your refund really is missing, especially if you’ve recently moved. After you’ve updated your address online, the IRS can send you a replacement check.

Finding the status of your state tax refund might take a little longer. You’ll have to visit the website for your state’s Department of Revenue. Many states have their own “Where’s My Refund” tool but some – like Massachusetts – require you to register before you can figure out where your refund is.

A Final Thought

Getting a tax refund is exciting and many of us look at it as a gift from Uncle Sam. While it’s all too easy to accept a refund rather than update your W-4 form, you might be better off having the correct amount withheld from your checks so that you don’t receive a refund at all.

If you have student loans to pay off or you consistently carry a balance on your credit cards, it might be better to use the money that you normally overpay in tax withholding to pay down those debts. That way, you owe less interest over time. And if you’re afraid that you’ll end up having to pay the government at the end of the tax year, the withholding calculator on the IRS website can tell you the exact amount that needs to be withheld.

Finally, if you find yourself relying on your refund year after year, you might need to put together a proper financial plan to get yourself on a sound financial footing. Consider working with a financial advisor who can help you build a financial plan and invest your money.

Photo credit: ©iStock.com/Juanmonino, ©iStock.com/Andrew Rich, ©iStock.com/bowdenimages

Amanda Dixon Amanda Dixon is a personal finance writer and editor with an expertise in taxes and banking. She studied journalism and sociology at the University of Georgia. Her work has been featured in Business Insider, AOL, Bankrate, The Huffington Post, Fox Business News, Mashable and CBS News. Born and raised in metro Atlanta, Amanda currently lives in Brooklyn.
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