Why you should be happy to get a tax refund, not guilty

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When it comes to be tax time, people love to start throwing around phrases that enrage me and make me wish to become a cartoon hero that points at someone and ejects a roll of duct tape towards their mouths to silence them. In my dreams, I would be a cross between Spiderman and a librarian.

Anyway, how often have you heard this phrase?

“If you get a tax refund, it means you’ve given the government too much money.”

This oft-repeated phrase assumes rationality: ‘If you get a refund, it means you sent extra money to the government! Why would you let them make interest off your hard-earned money? You should only send the minimum amount!’ Then these people are usually out of breath because of their own self-proclaimed brilliance.

Technically, they’re right. I live in a world of reality, however, which means that “technically” isn’t always correct. Here’s why I’d rather get a tax refund than owe the government money:

First of all, if you end up owing the government money at tax time, most people don’t have extra cash lying around. We know this because they are horrible at managing their money and have record debt rates. Sorry, it has to be said.

Second, how much interest are we really talking about? Let’s say you get a government rebate of $600. At my high-interest account, that’s $1.50/month in interest. Oooh, the government is making bank off my money! Get a life.

And, in fact, people’s opinions reflect this:

…when asked if they’d prefer to owe taxes, get a refund or break even, none said “owe,” according to the USA TODAY/Gallup Poll. Fifty percent hope they break even, and 45% hope they get a bigger refund this year than last.

In real life, $600 that you owe to the government would affect your life far more than getting $600 back, meaning it’s better to get money back than to owe it. So if you end up getting a tax refund, don’t feel bad. And don’t just follow what the pundits say. We live in the real world, and there’s a difference between the best decision and the financially smart one.

* * *

Edit:
Q: “What about people taking their tax return and spending it on junk?”
A: Actually, researchers know that people will tend to save lump sums in times of economic hardship. That’s why the Obama administration, which knows about the psychology of consumer behavior, issued a tax refund to happen a few $/month — that way, people just spend it.

Very similar to what people would do if they increased their deductions and got a little more $ each month.

* * *

You can learn about the applied psychology of money in my book.

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49 Comments

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  1. I agree only up to a point. If the refund really is $600, then letting the government hold an extra $50 a month is not a big deal. The bigger problem is people who get back checks of thousands of dollars. Let’s say $3000 (I’ve heard much more than that). That’s $250 a month the government has the use of, not you. I have an ING account as well, and if I put $250 a month into it for a year, I’ll have an extra $49 at the end of the year. Or I can put it into my Roth and have it for retirement. I can do what I want with it, and if I have it over the course of the year, I’m less likely to think of it as an amazing windfall the government gives me out of the kindness of its heart and take a vacation or buy a big screen or whatever.
    I try to get a little back (

  2. Reality is, that it’s difficult to estimate your taxes with 100% accuracy, so yes, if you overpaid and are going to get a refund, you can go ahead and feel happy about it. Certainly not guilty. And I agree that getting a refund beats having to scramble to pay more.

  3. I would have to disagree with you here. The better scenario would be owing money at the end of the year because it means you out-earned your projections from 2006 (in this case we’re filing 2007 now). I would much rather earn more money throughout the year and owe the government money come April.
    As far as people getting refund’s not timing it right, yea they are missing out, but they probably need the money more in April since they had such a crappy year financially (assuming that’s the case since they didn’t make enough to qualify in their tax bracket).

  4. I totally agree with you Ramit! People drive me crazy when they talk about taxes and you only mentioned ONE of the things that bugs me.

    You are dead on when you say that at the end of that year most people do not have that extra money.

    I had a friend that was bad mouthing our company because she got a raise and was going to have to pay more taxes? Yes, but you are paying more taxes because you are making more money! And this wasn’t some issue with changing tax brackets.

    Anyway, I hate/love how people throw logic out the window when it comes to taxes.

  5. It’s not a matter of owe, refund or break-even. It’s a matter of how much. It’s okay to owe a little, or get a little refund. But when you get back a lot of money, it means you’ve been overtaxed during the year. Say $600 is your refund. Over the course of a year, you could have put that $600 into a savings account and make some money. Compound that over the number of years you’ll be working and that’s a lot of money.

  6. I’m always amused when I hear people say stuff like this. What I wonder though is how many of them would have saved that money or wisely invested it and how many would have blown it on stupid crap throughout the year. I got a $5000 refund this year. I personally like the windfall, not because I’m going to blow it, but because it is a convenient savings vehicle. Do I earn interest? No, but I would have gotten about $1.50 a month from ING had I saved the 400/month (which I am not disciplined enough to have done). This way, I got my car paid off one year early and my student loans paid off finally. Do I miss that $18 in interest? No, I probably wouldn’t have gotten all of it anyway? Do I miss the $500 payment each month I am no longer making? Not a bit. Would I have been better off to throw away that money piecemeal throughout the year just to stick it to the man? No, I would not.

  7. I usually get a good (as in big) refund because I don’t bother correcting the number of allowances and withholdings.

    In the end, I’m pretty sure it’s better for me since when I finally get the check, I’m more likely to just put it on my savings account at once. If the money were given to me on my paycheck, I might just spend it…

    If you’re not convinced, just tell yourself you want the government to save the interest! Feel patriotic about it! … not convincing I know…

  8. I’m glad you made this point, even if it’s just a devil’s advocate point of view. Even though I intellectually understand that it’s better to owe a little than get a lot back, I would still rather get some back :0

  9. That last paragraph made me laugh:
    In real life, $600 that you owe to the government would affect your life far more than getting $600 back, meaning it’s better to get money back than to owe it. So if you end up getting a tax refund, don’t feel bad.

    Clearly you’ve never done any work for the government (or you hope your readers haven’t) – that $600 is not going to affect your life at all.

  10. I am glad you at least admit that the statement “If you get a tax refund, it means you’ve given the government too much money.” is correct. If you are not smart enough to manage your own money and need the government to act as a piggy bank for you, then by all means that is your choice, although it is a poor one.

    The money you save each month does not necessarily have to go into a savings account, but could be used to pay off high interest debt each month instead of waiting until you get a refund to do it. In the past I have used the money I have not loaned to the government to acquire rental property which further lowers my tax burden compounding the gain.

    Big or small, no return on your money should be discounted. Getting rich is a slow process where every opportunity must be tapped to it’s full potential no matter how ‘unpractical’ it may seem. Ignore the little things at your peril.

  11. Smart people owe or get a little back (few hundreds max).

    Dumb people get $1,000+ back and still feel they’re smart or lucky.

    What about the USA Today poll? That indeed reflects most Americans are financial dummies.

  12. So spending a few minutes to call and get a $20 finance charge waived is highly recommended by you, but spending a few minutes to get your tax withholdings closer to being correct and adjusting the direct deposit to your savings account to earn an extra $18 is stupid? Where’s the sense in that?

  13. Some of the comments here are ridiculous. Do you really think people are rational robots and will invest their extra money each month? The truth is, most people won’t. In fact, they already spend more than they make each month! And when it comes time to pay the government at tax time, they don’t have the money.

    I’m arguing that the technically smart choice (to not get a large refund) is not the correct one for most people, because they won’t save/invest that money if they get it each month. The pain of having to pay a large amount is disproportionately higher.

  14. If you owe over $1,000 two years in a row you have to file quarterly. That is enough incentive for me to get money back, as little as it is. I usually get back less than $2,000 and usually less than $500 each year. This year I did owe over $1,000 so I purchased an IRA to get the amount owed down to $950. Yes, I had a good year in 2007

  15. Ramit,

    I think the “most people” you are talking about refers to a different type of audience: students? people who don’t know basic tax stuff?

    What kind of AGIs we are talking about here? 600$ doesn’t seem much. But for people getting a fat 2000$-3000$ refund it definitely makes a difference! I mean, that extra few hundred dollars goes a long way in paying for you gas bills, auto insurance, utilities, DVD subscriptions etc. Take your pick!

    In 2006 I got a fat refund and I was pissed off. This year I sat down and calculated how much I was paying excessively and made sure that I “owed” money to the IRS. And yes, the plan was successful and I just send a check for the amount. It felt good! I used the money to pay credit cards, add money to my Zecco account and gas bills.

    Maybe a link to an intelligent “what-if” calculator would help people assess their refund situation. Even some approximation would go a long way….

  16. Interesting “take” on the refund.

  17. I understand that “most people” wouldn’t be responsible with the extra money each month, but does that mean that they shouldn’t? People should just give in to their irrationality and laziness? This doesn’t seem like something that would be espoused from a site titled, I Will Teach You To Be Rich.

    I thought you wanted to teach sound financial principles, not tell everyone that it’s OK to be financially irresponsible just because most people are.

  18. Ramit – I applaud your critical thinking here – and agree with you and some of your readers to a certain extent. The widespread view in society is the “government gets an interest-free loan” viewpoint. It’s valid – but it’s a nice breath of fresh air to see that you actually thought about this before biting into it. The majority of Americans (not necessarily your or my readers) are less likely to set up automatic investing plans. They’re likely to spend the extra cash. But that’s not everyone for sure. Bottom line – don’t sweat about getting an extra couple hundred back. And have a cushion built to pay an extra few hundred if that be the case one year. If you’re investment-savvy – increase you deductions and invest the saved amount. If not – just do what people typically do and wait until April to splurge/invest.

    Naveed

  19. First of all the IRS IS NOT THE GOVERNMENT it is a PRIVATE company that is contracted/friends with the government thus its a private company making some money off of you to (pay their workers?)
    getting a tax return of I dunno… XXXX$ or whatever random number you can think of is a reward and not some kind of a loss.

    most people suck at taxes thus they get less back, and lets say you are good at taxes… you get more on average, thus putting you on top of the food chain, feeling better?

  20. I’m surprised it was really only mentioned a few times above, but this issue is about volume. I usually do a quick estimate at the beginning of the year and go for a $200 refund or so. It takes very little time, and gives me some breathing room should I have made some mistake. At worst, I’ll end up owing a slight amount, which is not a problem. Either way, I can round to breaking even at the end of the year.

    What I don’t understand are those who knowing pay hundreds extra every month and get back a $4000-5000 refund. Why not just setup a second account to have the extra money direct deposited there every month? I understand, you don’t want to spend the money and use this as a “safeguard” against that…there just seems to be an easier way, and the advantages of you possessing the money are endless.

    There is also the “what if something goes wrong?” question that I think about. It’s the same reason I don’t use a debit card…if something happened, would I rather know that I have direct access to my $4000 or would I want to count on waiting for a check from the IRS sometime in the spring? I’m going to want the money every day of the week.

  21. I would have to disagree here slightly. My reason is that the people who are “tax-savvy” enough to take additional allowances on his/her paychecks in order to break-even or even owe the tax man money are the types of people who do save/invest money regularly and understand that owing money isn’t a bad thing if it’s done this way. So, if you are that type of person doing this, then you would have money to pay if you needed to. That is an assumption, but one i feel comfortable making. The people who don’t know to do this are the people who LOVE getting huge refunds and that’s fine for them, and maybe even better if they aren’t good at saving money. Also, you are talking about a minimal amount of money for $600, but I know a lot of people who get $5k-$10k refunds…that’s just dumb.

    Check out my blog!!
    http://thefinanciallysecurecommunity.blogspot.com/

    -Baumsie

  22. Your advice does not for the rational people who do save their extra money rather than spend it. It always makes sense for them to owe money at the end of the year. The $1.50/month may not be a lot, but why not take it? There is no reason not to.

    Your advice also fails for those at the opposite end of the spectum: the irrational people with very poor spending/saving habits (many US citizens). The focus should be not on the interest the govt. is making off your tax money, but rather on the interest you are paying in not having the tax money earlier in the year. For example: suppose I am totally broke; had I not paid an extra $600 to the govt. during the tax year, I would have had to borrow $600 less from my credit card company, which charges me a ridiculous amount of interest. We’re not talking about $1.50 in interest here…we’re talking maybe a couple of hundred.

  23. Rammit, instead of “arguing that the technically smart choice (to not get a large refund) is not the correct one for most people, because they won’t save/invest that money if they get it each month”, why don’t you argue for people to be smart and save their money for taxes! With an envelope system like you’re very recently described in your post, one can effectively do the exact same thing as paying taxes, but make a lot more money from interest. If there were no penalties for significantly underpaying taxes, here is what I would do:
    Have 0 taxes withdrawn from my paycheck each month. Instead, I would estimate my yearly tax liability (and yes, I would make a generous overestimate to ensure that I don’t have a big payoff due), and have it _AUTOMATICALLY_ withdrawn from my checking to _at least_ a high-interest saving account like ING, specificially created for this purpose. Then I would simply take the balance at the end of the year and use it to pay my taxes. Don’t you advocate automatic withdrawals all the time? This is an easy and effective way to pay your taxes and still enjoy generous interest!

    I agree that a $500 refund is not a big deal in terms of interest lost, but people that are getting back $4000+ are giving up a lot in the long run.

  24. I really get frustrated how the government has manipulated the tax system and created the “refund” so we ignore the fact that we are truly being over-taxed. They even have a term for the money we don’t pay in taxes, “tax expenditure” meaning the money you earn is an expense to the government. Hard to believe there once was a time when the Supreme Court ruled a Federal Income tax unconstitutional.

  25. I love the comments on here. How many of the people who argue that they’re throwing away money to the government wait until 1 day too late to return their movies and cost themselves 10 bucks, effectively all of the interest from that 600 in the bank for the year…

  26. I bought this ebook much earlier than this…don’t you think I more than qualify?

  27. If you have passive income that you are required to withold income and send it in quarterly, underpaying can be quite bad..

    From your perspective I guess you would say that if I am getting back $600 in one lump sum the government helped me save a sum of money?

    I can see how that makes sense. I am having my money direct deposited into my investment account.. If I was making more each paycheck I might have just subconciously raised my expenditures..

  28. Don’t forget that the IRS can charge you interest if you don’t pay the correct amount of estimated taxes. This is especially important for those of us that are self-employed.

  29. Consider this:

    I have a friend who purposefully doesn’t claim anything on her W2 (not even herself). And come April is excited about her $5000 refund. What do you call that.

    Apparently she shares the same values as Daniel above who finds the IRS as a “convenient savings vehicle”.

    I’m sorry, that’s just retarded. Let’s call it what it is.

    Hey, I’m not saying that I’d want to owe. I’d rather break even actually. I don’t know the first thing about taxes, but we’re talking about filling out a W2.

    I totally understand your point, but the reality is it’s not a good one. With the same effort it takes to purposefully foul up your W2, you could just as easily set up an automatic savings plan.

    But I guess some folks are just bad at money. Didn’t expect so many of them to be reading a PF blog though, kinda ironic.

  30. Ok, so I have to play devil’s advocate, but I actually believe this.

    So let’s say you take that $600 dollars and instead of putting it into a savings account you invest it in the stock market. I’d rather have that money going into the stock market throughout the year other than waiting until my tax return to do so.

    Idealistic, sure. Most probably wouldn’t do it, but its a justification to not want to have the government sitting on your money.

  31. I totally disagree here. Too many folks I know use the tax refund as a savings vehicle. Rather than the meager $600 refund, they get $3,000 or more. Then they take a vacation and/or pay down debt, usually high interest credit card debt.

    When I say something to folks about this, they say that if they received the money during the year they would spend it. What a lame excuse. You can set up an auto bank draft to your credit card or to a retirement plan – even another bank account. Think of the savings if you pay off a credit card with double digit interest rates as opposed to the interest free loan to the gov.

    Finally, just because most people want to get a refund doesn’t justify the practice. These are the same financially ignorant folks who have zero savings or are stuck in a subprime loan. If you want to become financially free, you need to follow the practices of those who are successful.

    Successful people don’t get huge refunds.

  32. I’m siding with Ramit on this one. There are emotional/psychological factors that offset a purely rational approach to this dilemma.

    For those who want to scrutinize the return on investment, consider these points:

    1) If you get a $600 refund at the end of the year, you wouldn’t calculate interest you lost on that $600 for one year because that money accumulated after being withheld in smaller increments throughout the year (for simplicity, just assume $50/month).

    2) If you rationalize that your money would be better used to pay off credit card debt or student loans, how can you be critical of those who have too much withheld for income tax? How rational is it to have a loan or a credit card balance in the first place? Why didn’t you just save up for your purchases before getting a car or a house or a college education? (I know, there’s sometimes a trade-off, and it’s not always feasible to save rationally, which is exactly my point.)

    3) If you spend a couple of hours calculating how much you should have withheld each tax year, couldn’t you use your time more productively by working for those 2-3 extra hours and earning more money than you would gain in interest by making those time-consuming calculations? (Again, I’m not criticizing those who choose to spend time doing such calculations, I’m just making the point that not everyone wants to spend their time on such pursuits.)

    4) If a person uses the “tax withholding savings plan” to save up for a major purchase that they can make when they get their tax return (instead of making the purchase today and putting it on a high-interest credit card that they’ll be paying off way beyond the next tax year), isn’t that a laudable approach?

    My point is that people have different strategies, risk tolerances, and mental games that they use for determining how to save money. I wouldn’t count the tax refund issue as stupid or disastrous, as it’s often portrayed. The next step, in over-rationalization, would be to scrutinize the type of groceries each person purchases, or question why anyone should be buying a car with extravagant features, or criticize anyone who buys a house that has extra space or rooms that are not used on a daily basis (and does anyone REALLY need more than 5 or 6 changes of clothing?).

    The fact is, we’re not rational robots. So you have to allow for personal preferences. Using a tax refund for a major purchase is not any different than putting something on layaway. I could think of hundreds of worse financial blunders than having too much income tax withheld. At least these people are thinking beyond their next paycheck and are not spending what they don’t have.

  33. What you are really saying is “I am an idiot about money” when you brag that you are getting lots of money back from taxes. When was being an idiot something of which to be proud? If you are unconscious about your money, how else are you unconscious and just letting things you can be in control of bull-doze over you unchecked?

  34. This is why you’re blog is so popular and why I keep coming back: you take everything everyone out in the blogosphere assumes and that is written to death and come up with something completely original. Keep up the great work Ramit! And by the way, do you have any association with WikiInvesting??

  35. I owe every year. I try very hard to break even, but I am self employed and my wages are not set in stone. I don’t mind paying, as I keep a seperate savings account for my quarterly and year end taxes. Before that I used the envelope system. It isn’t hard to save for either. Basic math allows you to figure out what you might end up paying and you can plan for it.
    I have a dear friend who got back 6k this year and is excited about it and adjusted her and her future husbands withholdings to get even more next year. Why? So they can pay for their wedding. But they are so strapped for cash throughout the year, they end up using credit cards. This makes no sense to me.
    I don’t mind getting a small refund back, but 6k is a lot of money. And in their case something they desperately need through out the year.

  36. Well, I usually alternate between owing and receiving a small amount every tax season. This year due to a job change, we were over taxed for social security resulting in a large refund (3500). It wasn’t something I would normally be happy about. Ramit may be on to something though. It depends on what you are going to do with that return.

    After moving for my new job I continued to pay my mortgage back in Detroit. While suffering through one of the worst housing markets in the county, I finally sold my 150K condo for a loss of 45K. Guess what…my 6 month emergency fund has evaporated during the 6 months of extra mortgage payments. Well that 3500 is going to start a new emergency fund in a time of relative crisis

  37. The thing that makes me laugh is when people say “Oh I only paid $600.00 in taxes this year!” Wrong! You paid what you withheld, plus that 600 dollars.

    When I was young I loved the larger returns, seems I could never save that much month to month through the year. That nice check was my way of saving. Now that I have an established savings and have little debt (my home and 2 cars), I favor not getting a return but trying to lower my overall income tax paid year to year.

  38. [...] that my taxes were essentially balanced at the year’s end. I know, I realize it’s the equivalent of pinching pennies — but my crazy libertarian stripes come out every now and [...]

  39. [...] written about Iwillteachyoutoberich.com before, but last week I read another one of those posts where I’m just like, “Ramit, this is why you are the [...]

  40. OK… Let’s be realistic here. I save money, as I am sure that a lot of people here do.

    But, no one’s perfect, no one saves as much as they should. If I wasn’t paying as much into taxes, that money would be in my check, and I would put my allotted payments into savings, but the extra money from paying fewer taxes would go into my main checking account, and would be spent. As I am sure is the case with most people here.

    However, I AT LEAST two thirds of my tax return into my savings or IRA when I get it. The other third went to a new pair of glasses, so even though it was spent, it was spent on a necessity.

    Psychologically, it’s a lot easier for people to put a large sum of money into savings, rather than spending that extra $50 a month.

    And, as Ramit said, $600 in an ING account would be $1.50 a month, that’s $18 a year. Waiting a year to put it in savings is not going to make that big of a difference.

    Finally, I’ve been on the other side of the coin, I’ve had to pay, and it too me a couple months to recover from that. So I’d rather let the Government earn a little cash to be on the safe side.

  41. I agree that it’s too hard to estimate your taxes to the final dollar, because you never know what credits and deductions you’ll qualify for until the end of the year.

    However, I think the bigger problem with receiving a big refund from your taxes isn’t the interest that you give away to the government, but the fact that many people could have used the extra money throughout the year rather than getting it in a lump sum in April.

    I think people would be more tempted to use that lump sum on something they don’t need rather than if they received the extra $50 to $200 per month in their paycheck.

  42. We shouldn’t certainly feel guilty to get the tax refund. Finally it is our money that we are getting back. I agree to the point of paying the minimum amount to the government but not more than that.

  43. [...] Getting a tax refund is better than having to pay. It’s a greater hardship for most of us to have to pay something we weren’t expecting, than to give a small interest-free loan to the government. (Why you should be happy to get a tax refund, not guilty) [...]

  44. I agree that Daniel, on April 10, is financially ignorant. He (along with many others) makes an argument that the interest earned on the extra money each month – in his case, over $400/month – is insignificant in the long run and that his “IRS savings account” allows him to get a big check at the end of the year to pay off his car early or pay down his student loans.

    Daniel, if you had an extra $400 per month, you could pay it towards your car or you student loans! In fact, because you’d be paying down the principal each month more than you would with your regular payment, you even wipe out some of the capitalized interest you otherwise paid with your large payment using your refund! That actually pays your car off EARLIER, and with a lower total principal+interest than you ended up paying.

    Daniel’s attitude also is indicative of the nanny-state mentality, which I abhor, that says, “Please, Almighty Government, save my money for me because I am so weak and helpless that I cannot save it myself.” Daniel, you’re smart enough to get on a blog like this and comment, so why can’t you do a little better for yourself>

    Generally, I think it is over-argued that you could save the extra monthly gross income. People counter, “but I would spend that all anyway.” I say congratulations! Spend it! Spend that extra $400 a month to buy your expensive gas, your vacation, your shopping spree, etc. instead of borrow money on credit cards to do it! Spend the money you have NOW instead of spending someone else’s money (Visa/MC) and then paying them back at the end of the tax year.

  45. I wrote an article pertaining to this subject on my blog (http://www.stewardsofwealth.com/?p=10). I agree that it’s better to have a tax bill than a tax refund. And the author even states that this is “technically correct.” But, he goes on to say that people would rather have a refund because they’re poor money managers and wouldn’t have the dough when the time came. Therein lies the problem.

    The reason why I like paying later is because i have control over the money. I can invest it, keep it safe, and keep it liquid to me if I ever needed to use it. By letting Uncle Sam have it first, who’s being a better steward of your money?

    We’ve all heard the saying that a dollar today is better than a dollar tomorrow. Use that discipline that you use when you pay taxes early to Uncle Sam. Instead of paying it to him, put it into a interest earning account that’s safe and liquid. Then pay him at the end.

  46. [...] there’s an ongoing debate in the personal-finance world between people that think you shouldn’t get a refund and those [...]

  47. I don’t agree with you at all! Even at $600, if you have a 401K at work where your job matches you could have had $100 extra a month put into your 401K ($50 from your contribution and $50 from your company’s match). That is an extra $1,200 at the end of the year. Much more than $600. And I who personally do taxes for a living see people getting $5K+ back. Just not smart in my opinion.

  48. [...] easy to be precise so wouldn’t you rather get a tax refund than owe the government money. Even Ramit Sethi, now a New York Times bestselling author, agrees: First of all, if you end up owing the government [...]

  49. [...] We tend to call a decision “rational” when it is farther down the logic chain, and we care about it only indirectly. For instance, Ramit Sethi asks in comment 13 of his post on tax refunds: [...]