Smart TaxesSmart Taxes

Tax refund may be bad for your finances

Many people have the urge to splurge with their once-a-year windfall. But how you use the money makes all the difference.

By MSN Money Partner Apr 16, 2013 1:39PM

This post is by Richard Satran of U.S. News & World Report.


© Barry Yee, PhotographerWhat could be wrong about getting a $3,000 check in the mail?


It's great news if you're like most Americans who have been strapped for cash. The average refund is just under that amount, surveys say. But millions of people use their refund in a way that virtually assures they'll have less cash in the future than they might have had — and for some, the money can be misspent and become a negative.


Studies of consumer behavior show that people spend money very differently depending on how it is acquired. In a well-known "windfall" study from 1994 at University of Michigan, students who earned money the hard way, pouring tar for a summer job, spent it at the same rate as suntanned lifeguards who spent their days toiling at the beach. But cash from "windfalls" like tax refunds or other kinds of "found" money were sometimes spent twice as fast as earned money.


For many Americans, the tax refund is the year's biggest money event, and they often use it to pay for vacations and big-ticket items because it is outside the salary pool. It's fine to live a little, but people are living a lot longer and it's good to think about the value of money over time.

"Some people think of it as a lottery win," says tax lawyer Genilde Guerra, managing partner at Kravitz & Guerra in Hallandale Beach, Fla., who gives tax advice to many non-residents who come to this country to work. "People who move here from abroad are not used to the tax-refund system. I tell them to spend it on something good, toward a house, paying down debt, retirement. Not like everyday salary."


"It can be a negative," she adds. Some people awaiting their tax refunds actually go deeper in debt as they anticipate the check in the mail and then spend the money and forget about repaying it later.


Then there is the "lost opportunity" cost to consider. For example, if you took that $3,000 and spent it all on a trip to Jamaica, you would have a lovely week of palm trees and beaches, and a week later, it will be over except for the sunburn.


Putting that amount aside in an Individual Retirement Account (IRA) would give you an immediate deduction that could reclaim as much as $1,000 in tax savings — and you still would have your original $3,000. If you put it into a dividend fund or other IRA investment that pays just 5%, you will have a total of $6,000 in 14 years and $12,000 in just under 30 years.


You've just treated yourself to an extra $9,000, not to mention the fact that your original $3,000 is still there to help cover tax on withdrawals — and you've already gotten a tax break of perhaps another $1,000, depending on your tax rate at the outset. You can go out and spend that.


Despite the fact that most people are not even close to funding their retirements, many pass up on the chance to do so when those big checks arrive. Nearly one-third of the people who get a refund will spend it on vacations and purchases, according to an American Express survey. Cars are a big item, says eBay, which found in a poll that one-third of consumers will use at least a portion of their refund on cars or car fix-ups.


What should you do?

Tax refunds represent "one of the best chances a lot of people will get all year" to repair their finances, says David Batchelder, chief investment officer at Measured Wealth Private Client Group LLC in New Hampshire.


Tax-refund recipients would be wise to avoid the siren call of the mall or costly vacation destinations and keep working to get their finances in order. Batchelder has his own "shopping list" of the three smartest things to do with that annual refund check. None involve strolls to the mall. They include:

  • Pay down high-interest rate debt. "That's No. 1 on my list for anyone who is getting a refund," says Batchelder. It could be like gaining a double-digit return on your investment. That's hard to beat in this low-rate environment.
  • Fund your retirement account. Even if you get a refund after April 15, Batchelder says, you can still take advantage of tax-deferred savings on your IRA for the entire year, and the allowance rises $500 for 2013. The tax deduction of up to $5,500 for 2013 (or $6,500 if you are over the age of 50) can be taken in the following tax year.
  • Fund an emergency savings account. Putting aside your tax refund in an emergency account can help tide you over should a job loss or unexpected expense occur. The Employee Benefit Research Institute reports that only half of workers say they could definitely come up with $2,000 if an unexpected need arose within the next month. Financial planners say a rule of thumb is to have six months of expenses covered by an emergency fund.

Many people are refraining from splurges, according to the American Express survey that showed more than half of people are still saving and paying down debt in a "recession mentality," said Melanie Backs, spokesperson for Amex. Backs sees a silver lining in this year's defense-minded personal finance playbook. As things get better, "people are feeling more confident," she said. But even as the recession fades to memory, they are resisting the urge to overspend at the expense of financial security. "They learned some valuable lessons," Backs said.


Still, nearly everyone has the urge to splurge, says Batchelder. If you do want to stroll the mall, avoid the travel agent and big-ticket purchases. His sage advice at that point: "Go get an ice cream cone. That won't mess up your future."


More from U.S. News & World Report and MSN Money:


Apr 16, 2013 7:16PM

Maybe people should change their deductions to accurately portray their situation and therefore not get a refund.


Why doesn't this article point out that what ever amount you receive as a refund is an interest free loan that you gave to the government? Every dime they give back is yours and something they should have never had in the first place.

Apr 16, 2013 3:53PM
Something always comes along to take my tax refund away. I had hoped to get a new 300 dollar shed to replace the rusty monstrosity I have now.  Today I went out and found one of my car windows was shattered somehow.  $275 for a very small window.  Bye bye shed.
Apr 16, 2013 3:45PM
i always have to pay more.   NEVER have I gotten a refund.  
Apr 16, 2013 7:21PM

This whole system needs to end. Bring in a flat tax, zero deductions with an exemption for below the poverty level. Then you simplify the self employment, business and corporate taxes and cut out loopholes. If you are going to use medicare and Social Security in the general fund anyway, then it is covered in the flat tax. And finally you make the capital gains tax the same level as the flat tax.


End Result: Everyone paying fair share, many CPAs, tax software companies and IRS agents will need to find something other than taxes to do, a large percentage of people paying less in taxes and there being no more tax refunds because people will actually be able to guess how much money they are going to owe without needing to go to a specialist.

Apr 16, 2013 4:32PM
I wish  I was receiving a tax refund. This is the first year to pay extra taxes no refund. A EXTRA GOOD YEAR. Taxes out every month. Still had to pay a extra 15,000 dollars. This is not good for anybody.
Apr 26, 2013 10:39AM
Most of the so called refunds are not actual refunds but are the result of the "Free Money" given in the form of EIC (Earned Income Credit) and Additional Child Tax Credit. This is the politically correct way to use the tax code to increase welfare. What happens when these people, who paid zero income tax, suddenly receive $5,000 plus? Most is spend within days and through many rip off means, i.e. used cars, high loans and etc. IRS know that EIC is one of the most abused parts of the tax code; however, any time they attempt to take action to correct the situation there is a public out cry "Picking on the Poor". IMHO one way to help the irresponsible to better utilize the money is to issue all refundable credits over a 12 month period rather than one single payment. 
Apr 24, 2013 1:25PM
If you want to know why governments all over the world are deep in debt, just read this article.  They get a windfall of tax money every year guaranteed.  They didn't have to drop a single bead of sweat or blood for it and the way they spend it ..... shows that.
Apr 16, 2013 6:26PM
Tax refunds are getting smaller each year under Obama, while taxes keep going up.  Bravo Mr. President, Bravo.
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