Last year the IRS doled out over 110 million income tax refunds averaging $2,803. Another way to look at it is that collectively, Americans overpaid their taxes by nearly $310 billion in 2012.
Part of that is understandable: If you don't have enough tax withheld throughout the year through payroll deductions or quarterly estimated tax payments, you'll be hit with an underpayment penalty come April 15. But the flip side is that by over-withholding, you're essentially giving the government an interest-free loan throughout the year.
If you ordinarily receive large tax refunds, consider withholding less and instead putting the money to work for you, by either saving or investing a comparable amount throughout the year, or using it to pay down debt. Your goal should be to receive little or no refund.
Ask your employer for a new W-4 form and recalculate your withholding allowance using the IRS' Withholding Calculator on the IRS website. This is also a good idea whenever your pay or family situation changes significantly (e.g., pay increase, marriage, divorce, new child, etc.) IRS Publication 919 can guide you through the decision-making process.
Meanwhile, if you do get a hefty refund this year, before blowing it all on something you really don't need, consider these options:
Pay down debt. Beefing up credit card and loan payments can significantly lower your long-term interest payments. Suppose you currently pay $120 a month toward a $3,000 credit card balance at 18 percent interest. At that pace it'll take 32 months and $788 in interest to pay it off, assuming no new purchases. By doubling your payment to $240 you'll shave off 18 months and $441 in interest.
Note: If you carry balances on multiple cards, always make at least the minimum payments to avoid penalties.
The same strategy will work when paying down loans (mortgage, auto, personal, etc.) Ask the lender to apply your extra payment to the loan principal amount, which will shorten the payoff time and reduce the amount of overall interest paid. Just make sure to ask whether there's a prepayment penalty before trying this strategy.
Boost your emergency fund. As protection against a job loss, medical emergency or other financial crisis, try to set aside enough cash to cover six to nine months of living expenses. Seed the account with part of your refund and then set up monthly automatic deductions from your paycheck or checking account going forward.
Increase retirement savings. If your debt and emergency savings are under control, add to your IRA or 401(k) accounts, especially if your employer matches contributions; remember, a 50 percent match corresponds to a 50 percent rate of return – something you're not likely to find anywhere else.
Finance education. Enroll in college courses or vocational training to gain additional skills in case you lose your job or want to change careers. And ask whether your employer will help pay for job-related education.
You can also set money aside for your children's or grandchildren's education by contributing to a 529 Qualified State Tuition Plan. As an incentive, the government allows your contributions to grow tax-free until they're withdrawn.
And finally, to check on the status of your refund, go to the IRS's Where's My Refund site. You can usually get information about your refund 24 hours after the IRS acknowledges receipt of your e-filed return or about four weeks after filing a paper return.
Jason Alderman directs Visa's financial education programs. For details on Practical Money Skills, go to www.practicalmoneyskills.com.