You’ve probably seen some of the articles talking about people screaming and stomping their feet because their tax refunds are smaller this year. There have been plenty of them. Unfortunately, a lot of people simply don’t understand how the federal tax system works and the mainstream media, which makes its money by fanning up any potential controversy into a firestorm, is all too happy to spread the ignorance around as usual rather than doing the responsible thing and explaining the reality of the situation. So I guess it falls on my shoulders to put out their fire by spraying it with facts. This is not a political post. My goal is not to change anyone’s opinion about the tax reform package that took effect in 2018. I just want to do my part to combat the apparently widespread ignorance.
Let’s say you go to the store and buy a candy bar for $.75. You pay with a $1 bill and the cashier hands you a quarter. Did you just gain 25 cents? No, you simply overpaid and got the change you had coming to you. That is exactly what happens when you file your tax return. In the case of most people, your employer has been withholding a portion of your pay all year. The tax return is a reconciliation. It determines how much you were legally obligated to pay, compares that to the amount you actually did pay, and either gives you your “change” in the form of a refund if you paid too much, or demands that you pay more if you paid too little. You are not gaining or losing anything except cash flow. And if you’re getting a refund, it’s technically bad news since it means you gave the government an interest free loan for an entire year. If you don’t know why that is a bad thing, google “time value of money” and get ready for the most important lesson you’ve learned in a while. Simply put, it’s how people like me use our money to create more money. It is also how people who don’t understand the principle fall further and further behind. Ignorance does not exempt anyone.
In 2018, most people actually paid less in taxes than in previous years, assuming important factors like income, dependents, etc didn’t change. The main category of people who paid more are people who itemized previously. Roughly 30% did so for the 2017 tax year and that number is expected to drop by about half for 2018. This is because the standard deduction, the alternative mechanism to itemizing, was increased at the same time as certain deductions were limited. But the important point here is that most people paid less.
However, most payroll software (and most employers use the same handful of payroll vendors) updated to account for the changes in 2018. Almost everyone who was getting a tax cut got it spread out over every paycheck – just as they would have if they had gotten a pay raise. It wasn’t a lot; for most people, it was $500 or less over the course of the year. If you’re high income, then it was probably more but also a proportionally small amount. A lot of people probably didn’t even notice their paychecks were $10 or $20 higher. Unfortunately, some of the payroll software was a little more optimistic than it had been in previous years and as a result, many people’s 2018 refunds got smaller. However, this simply means that instead of getting their interest free loans back a few months into the following year, they simply never made them in the first place or made smaller ones. In actual financial terms, that’s a gain.
So why all the howling if the majority of people are paying less in taxes? First off, as I already mentioned, there are a lot of people who don’t understand the situation. And it doesn’t help when the media has no interest in doing anything but amplifying that effect. But aside from ignorance, most people are negligent with their finances. They save little or nothing throughout the year and as a result, their tax refunds are found money in their eyes – and usually found money they’re mentally counting on. This is why car dealerships, furniture stores, and tons of other businesses tend to have tax refund themed sales around this time of year; it is the only time a lot of people will have any money in hand. If you’re in this group, it’s time for some tough love. You’re put yourself in a difficult position and I encourage you to take a good, honest look at what you’re doing with your money. If you don’t know how to do that, ask a wealthy person you know to do it for you and give you some tips. Or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Everyone has to start somewhere and I will be happy to help anyone who is serious about improving.
There are people who legitimately paid higher taxes in 2018 but a lot of the people who are complaining about their refunds are not in this camp. For anyone a tax refund is a big deal to, I encourage you to use this as a wake up call. Keep reading this blog and others like it. Evaluate the way you handle your money and make changes. Even little ones will make a big difference if you’re in rough shape, just like how people who don’t exercise regularly will typically get huge results from just getting started in the gym. Turn a negative into a positive. I’m here willing to help and there are a lot of others like me. But at the end of the day, all the information and advice in the world won’t do an ounce of good if you aren’t honest with yourself and/or don’t make the necessary changes. But regardless of what you do, please stop complaining, particularly when the thing you’re complaining about actually benefited you. It’s not a good look.