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Stop waiting for tax refunds

By Kay Bell · Bankrate.com
Thursday, January 17, 2013
Posted: 4 pm ET

Lots of folks are grumbling about having to wait to file their taxes. Why? They get refunds.

That's no secret. Every tax filing season, the Internal Revenue Service notes that most taxpayers get refunds.

But the American Tax and Financial Center, a new undertaking by tax software giant TurboTax, has taken a closer look at this refund trend.

A federal tax refund is the largest lump sum of money received in a year by the average American household, according to the Center. And based on 2011 and 2012 IRS data, it estimates that around $230 billion in federal tax refunds will be issued this year to American taxpayers.

They'll get this money, their money, eventually -- after the IRS finishes updating forms and its computer system to match the tax law changes Congress didn't approve until Jan. 1.

Because of that Congressional tardiness, the IRS is processing returns, and issuing refunds, a bit later this year. And that could cause a lot of people a lot of problems.

Tax refunds, says the American Tax and Financial Center, are especially vital for U.S. households living paycheck-to-paycheck and who depend on a tax refund to help cover the costs of everyday living.

Forty-two percent of early tax filers plan to use their refund to pay down debt and cover the costs of rent, food and utilities, according to the Center's analysis.

Adjust withholding instead

As long-time readers of Bankrate and this blog know, I am not a fan of tax refunds. I think it's better to have your money in hand throughout the year via proper payroll tax withholding.

But I understand that a refund is an easy forced savings account. And with interest rates on traditional savings accounts and CDs at just fractional percentage points (thanks for nothing, literally, Federal Reserve!), you're not losing any earnings right now by letting Uncle Sam be your banker.

But you are losing access to your refund money because the IRS can't get it to you as quickly as you'd like.

So just think about adjusting your withholding this tax year. That way a bit of your usual refund will show up in each of your 2013 paychecks.

Sure, Congress might finally get its act together and tax filing this time next year may be on schedule. But we are talking about Congress.

If you're afraid you'll just spend that money that you usually get as a refund, there's a way to save yourself from yourself. Open a savings account and have the amount that you're sending to the IRS via payroll withholding directly deposited in your own account instead.

Since it won't be showing up in your pay, you won't be tempted to spend it. And I have faith that you can leave that savings account alone until you really need to tap it.

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