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tax refund loan

Filing federal income taxes means getting a refund for many Americans. The average tax refund, according to the IRS, was $2,763 in 2017. That’s a nice chunk of change to get back, but what if you need the money before the IRS sends your refund? Life happens and if you can’t wait for your tax refund, you may want to consider a tax refund loan. It functions like other short-term loans but the loan amount is based on your refund amount. A loan isn’t always the best option, though. Refund advances are also a popular alternative. Let’s take a look at whether you should consider a tax refund loan and where you can get one.

What Is a Tax Refund Loan?

A tax refund loan is officially known as a refund anticipation loan (RAL). It is a loan that a lender makes based on the amount of your federal income tax refund. Lenders are often small financial institutions. This may require a little research on your part to make sure the lender is reputable. Many tax filing services will also offer you a tax refund loan after you file with their service.

Tax refund loans typically only last a couple of weeks – just long enough for the IRS to process your tax refund. The loan that you receive from a lender will have the value of your anticipated refund minus any fees or interest charges. You may receive the loan on a prepaid card, on a check or as an electronic deposit in your bank account. Some lenders only offer one of those methods while others may offer multiple.

Once the IRS processes your refund, it will go directly to the lender. That’s all. Your loan is repaid and you made it through tax season. The only other thing to keep in mind is that if your refund is smaller than your tax refund loan, you will still need to pay the loan back in full.

Why You Might and Might Not Want a Tax Refund Loan

The most obvious reason to consider a tax refund loan is because you need money quickly and for the short-term. Maybe it’s February and you have a major bill coming up. Or perhaps your emergency fund isn’t quite big enough and you could really use the money from your tax refund. A tax refund loan may help you.

The people who most commonly receive tax refund loans are taxpayers who file early in the tax season and claim the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) or the Additional Child Tax Credit (ACTC). Under federal law, the IRS cannot provide tax refunds right away for people who claim these credits. For the 2018 tax season, the earliest date you could expect your refund, if you claimed one of those two credits, was February 27, 2018. So if you claim those credits and you are filing early in the year, you may have to wait longer than usual.

If you are looking for a loan that lasts more than a couple of weeks, a tax refund loan is not the best choice for you. It also may not be a good idea if you suspect for some reason that you won’t be able to pay back the loan in full (such as if the lender offers a loan worth slightly more than your refund and you don’t know if you’ll be able to pay back the difference).

How Much Does a Tax Refund Loan Cost?

Tax refund loans are expensive. In some instances, they look eerily similar to payday loans – small, short-term loans with high interest rates. Note that if you get a loan from a well-known tax filing service, you will likely  pay less than if you go through a third-party lender.

Lenders typically charge an application fee that can be as high as $100. If they are helping you to file your taxes, you will need to pay the cost of filing (probably about $40). There will be another fee that depends on how you receive your loan. For example, getting your loan on a prepaid debit card could carry a fee of $30 while getting it on a check might have a $20 fee. Lenders may also charge a number of other small fees. On top of the fees, you will need to pay interest for the loan. Your interest rate will be in double digits and in some cases may be triple digits.

All told, you can expect to pay 10% or more of your refund just to get a two-week loan. Of course, you may have to pay more if your refund is delayed or if there are any other issues.

Risks of a Tax Refund Loan

The main concern with a tax refund loan is the cost. As mentioned in the previous section, loans get very expensive. Make sure that you understand all of the costs associated with the loan. For example, you may need to pay penalties if your IRS refund doesn’t arrive within a certain amount of time. The last thing you want is for the loan to go delinquent. This will lead to interest and an even higher cost for you.

Another concern is that you receive a lower refund than you anticipate. In that case, you will have borrowed more than you got from the IRS and you will need to come up with the money to pay off the loan. That doesn’t include any extra fees and interest. Luckily, it’s now quite easy to calculate your refund on your own. You just need a free tax refund calculator.

Sometimes the IRS will also take longer than usual to process your refund. That could be due to an error in your return or the IRS could simply have a lot of returns to process (as is the case early and late in the tax season).

Alternatives to a Tax Refund Loan

tax refund loan

Tax refund loans are not usually worth the high cost, so here are a few alternatives that may be better for you.

  1. Wait for your refund. Yes, waiting is not always the ideal solution but if you e-file your tax return and elect to receive your refund via direct deposit, the IRS may process your return in just one or two weeks. In some cases, waiting two weeks will be better than paying $100 or more for a short loan. Keep in mind that different filing methods will take longer. This tax refund schedule will give you an idea of how long your return will take.
  2. Lower your tax refund. If you’re getting a big tax refund ever year, it means you’re overpaying on your taxes throughout the year. It’s nice to get a big refund check, but you could also have that money in your bank account during year. To do that, you would need to increase the allowances on your W-4. This option will require a bit more planning on your part but it’s a good way to maximize your take home pay.
  3. Find a free refund advance. Tax filing services are one of the biggest lenders for tax refund loans. These services usually call them refund advances and offer them mostly as a way to entice new customers. The result has been that some refund advance loans are very cheap or even free. Below are three free refund advance loans you should consider.

H&R Block’s Refund Advance

If you need your refund now, you may want to consider filing with H&R Block. H&R Block offers something it calls Refund Advance. It’s a short-term loan worth $500, $750, $1,250 or $3,000 depending on your refund amount. So if you expect a refund of $600, you can apply for a $500 refund advance.

H&R Block charges no interest on the loan. There also aren’t any finance charges or fees. All you need to do is complete a loan application. (The loan is an offer from BofI Federal Bank.) You will receive the funds for your loan, in most cases, on the same day that the bank approves your application. The loan will be on an H&R Block Emerald Prepaid Mastercard®.

There are just a couple of caveats. One is that you will need to file your taxes in person at an H&R Block store. Refund Advance is not available for online filers. The second thing to keep in mind is that you will need pay for the tax-filing service. This is more expensive in person than it is online. You may pay $200 or more just for the filing.

TurboTax’s Tax Prepaid Visa® Card

TurboTax offers all of its online filers the option to receive their refund on a Turbo Prepaid Visa® Card. Filers who want an advance on their refund can opt to receive a Turbo Prepaid Visa® Card with cash advance. You simply choose the cash advance option when you e-file your taxes and then fill out a loan application. (The refund advance loan is an offer from First Century Bank.)

If approved, you will receive a cash advance in the amount of $250, $500, $750 or $1,000. There is no interest and there are no loan fees. After the IRS accepts your return and after your loan application gets approved, you will receive your prepaid card, in the mail, in 5-10 business days. It’s worth mentioning that the majority of e-filers will receive a refund from the IRS in just 14 to 21 days.

Jackson Hewitt’s Refund Advance

For the 2017 tax year, Jackson Hewitt offered its customers a Refund Advance of up to $3,200. Applicants who need cash before tax season can also apply for a credit line of up to $400 as early as mid-December.

Depending on the amount of your refund, Jackson Hewitt offers a loan advance of $100, $200, $500, $750, $1,000 or $3,200. Just like the tax refund loan options above, Jackson Hewitt’s Refund Advance charges has no interest and has no loan fees. (The advance loan offer comes from MetaBank.) Once the bank approves your loan application, your advance will get loaded onto an American Express prepaid card.

The Takeaway

tax refund loan

A tax refund loan is a short-term loan that you can use to get the value of your federal income tax refund just a bit sooner. They are popular for people who claim the EITC and need a little help making ends meet early in the year. However, tax refund loans are not the best option for most people because they are very expensive. After deducting all fees and interest, you may have to pay 10% or more of your refund just to get a loan for a couple of weeks. If you really need some financial help, consider getting a refund advance instead. Tax filing services like H&R Block, TurboTax and Jackson Hewitt offer big advances at little or no cost to you.

Tips for Getting Through Tax Season

  • If you find yourself relying on a big refund check to pay the bills, your financial plan might need a little work. Or maybe you’ve never really sat down to create a financial plan. Either way, consider working with a financial advisor. Finding an advisor who understands you and your goals isn’t always easy, but a matching service like SmartAdvisor will take some of the guess work out. Answer some questions about your finances and we’ll do the rest to get you matched with a financial advisor who meets your needs.
  • If you’re getting a big tax return every year, it’s because you overpaid on your paycheck taxes during the year. This is the case for most taxpayers. It’s nice to get a big check in the mail but it’s also nice to have that money throughout the year. With some extra money in a high-interest bank account, you could increase your annual earnings and better cover your expenses throughout the year.

Photo credit: ©iStock.com/cabania, ©iStock.com/scyther5, ©iStock.com/AntonioGuillem

Derek Silva, CEPF® Derek Silva is determined to make personal finance accessible to everyone. He writes on a variety of personal finance topics for SmartAsset, serving as a retirement and credit card expert. Derek is a member of the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing and a Certified Educator in Personal Finance® (CEPF®). He has a degree from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and has spent time as an English language teacher in the Portuguese autonomous region of the Azores. The message Derek hopes people take away from his writing is, “Don’t forget that money is just a tool to help you reach your goals and live the lifestyle you want.”
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