With tax season here, millions of Americans are filing their tax returns and receiving sizable tax refunds shortly thereafter. To a lot of people, that extra money in March or April is like winning the lottery. But, in reality, it's just a sign that you're getting ripped off with your own money.
To understand why tax refunds are evil and what you can do about it, you really need to understand how the whole withholding and refund tax thing works. As I'm sure you're well aware, an amount of money is withheld from each paycheck to pay your federal taxes (and state, local, FICA, etc., but I'll only deal with federal for simplicity). The amount withheld for your taxes is dependent on how much money you earn, how many exemptions you claim, and how much additional withholding you allow.
"Exemptions? I think I remember seeing that on a form when I first started my job. Isn't that the thing where the HR lady just told me to put a zero or a one?"
Pretty much. Basically, that form you filled out is a W4. It helps to tell your employer how much money they should withhold from your paycheck to pre-pay your taxes for the year. That way, when tax day rolls around on April 15th, or April 16th this year, your taxes are already pre-paid (deducted from each paycheck) and the government doesn't have to worry about trying to squeeze you for the entire bill at once. When you receive a refund, you've essentially pre-paid too much money, and they're giving you the amount you overpaid back. The reason the smiling HR lady suggested that you only claim zero or one exemption is that it helps to ensure that the ignorant masses don't underpay their taxes for the year and aren't stuck with a tax bill in April.
“I’m still confused. I thought a refund was the government paying me?"
Think of it this way: Assume your electric bill only comes once a year. But, in order to make sure they get their money, the electric company makes you pay each month. Since they don't know exactly how much your bill will be for the year, they make a guess: say $110 a month. So, at the end of the year you've paid a total of $1320. But, what if your yearly bill only comes out to $1200? Well, you'd be refunded the $120 you've over-paid for the year. They're just giving the extra money back that you've paid them unnecessarily all year long.
So what can you do to keep from overpaying throughout the year? You adjust your exemptions. Basically, the more exemptions you claim, the less they'll withhold each paycheck, and the more money will end up in your pocket each month. But, if you claim too many exemptions, or withhold too much additional money, and they don't withhold enough, you'll end up owing money at the end of the year.
"Okay, so how come getting a nice big check for a refund is so evil?"
A couple reasons:
1) You're giving the government an interest-free loan. Basically, you're saying "Here's some extra money. I won't need it until April, so go ahead a use it until then."
2) You're cheating yourself out of additional interest money. When you don't pre-pay extra money, you have more money available to invest or pay off debts. That's pretty valuable time money-wise, since when it comes to interest, either on your mortgage, credit cards, or a savings account, time is money.
3) You're depriving yourself out of additional monthly cash-flow. Every extra dime you pre-pay the government is one less dime in your pocket each month. Those dimes could be used for groceries, the electric bill, or insurance.
Basically, loaning someone (the government in this case) money interest-free, while you could use the money is a very poor financial decision. From a purely financial, numbers-only standpoint, it's a no-brainer to try to eliminate your refund.
All that said, MLB and I are will be receiving a rather large tax refund in the next week or so, and we did it completely on purpose.
"What? After that long dissertation on why refunds are evil, you STILL get one?"
Yep, we sure do. More on why we intentionally make such a poor financial decision tomorrow.