The biggest tax question on most people’s minds as filing season gets underway is whether they’ll get a refund or owe the IRS money.

The average tax refund last filing season

The average tax return for the 2021 tax year (taxes filed in 2022) was $3,039, a 7.5 percent increase from the previous year. As of April 22, 2022, nearly 88 million refunds were filed, amounting to more than $267 billion.

The average tax refund by year

Each year, taxes come out a little different. This is a result of many factors: tax requirements set by the government, unemployment rates and more. This is what the average tax refunds have looked like since 2015:

Tax filing season Average tax refund (as of the week of April 15 that year)
2015 $2,711
2016 $2,757
2017 $2,763
2018 $2,780
2019 $2,725
2020 $2,748 (as of the week of July 15, 2020)
2021 $2,827 (as of the week of May 17, 2021)
2022 $3,012 (as of the week of April 18, 2022)

Source: IRS

How tax refunds work

As a U.S. resident, you must pay a portion of all your earnings to the federal government to meet your tax obligation. Your employer is responsible for collecting taxes from every paycheck and paying the IRS on your behalf.

How much you pay in federal withholding depends on your earnings and how you fill out IRS Form W-4, which goes to your employer and includes your filing status and number of dependents. The more dependents you claim, the more money you get to keep each pay period.

In addition, taxes for Social Security and Medicare are withheld from your check. These are called FICA (Federal Insurance Contributions Act) taxes. For 2022 taxes, the FICA tax rate is the same as the past year at 7.65 percent: 6.2 percent for Social Security (listed as OASDI on your pay stub) and 1.45 percent for Medicare.

There is a wage ceiling for Social Security taxes. For 2022, it’s $147,000, more than last year’s limit of $142,800. Gross income above that threshold is exempt.

When it’s time to file your taxes, you tally all your earnings, deductions and any tax credits you might have to see what your true tax obligation is for the year. If you had too much money withheld from your pay, the IRS owes you a refund. If too little was deducted from your pay, you will owe the IRS the difference.

Lower tax refunds can be a good thing

It’s nice to see a tax refund show up in your bank account, especially if it’s a sizable one. But a big refund means you are giving the IRS more money during the year than you have to. And when the IRS sends you a refund, it doesn’t come with interest.

On the other hand, if you owe the IRS at tax time, it means you’re not having enough taxes withheld from your pay throughout the year. While it may be nice to have the extra money every pay period, you’ll have to write a check to the IRS after paying employment taxes all year.

Ideally, you want your tax bill to come out to $0, or very close to it. If you’re paying the IRS too little or too much throughout the year, adjust your W-4. Use the IRS tax withholding estimator to figure out how many exemptions to claim.

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