Uncle Sam: Loan Denied!

You wait breathlessly for some word from him – these days, it’s mainly over the Internet, but sometimes, he’s old-fashioned and sends it snail mail.  Yeah, he has a beard and you’d prefer he wore a baseball cap to the elaborate headgear he insists on.  But no guy’s perfect, and, hey, he’s got a nice couple of Ks he’s gonna drop on you in this next interaction.

Sure, his hands are like glue in your paycheck every month, but he’s so generous this time of year, all that’s easy to forget.

Yes, Sam and his refund (you refuse to call him Uncle!) are hard to resist.  But that IRS refund is just not a good thing.

I’m no Dr. Phil, but I’m here to give you some tough love: you don’t want that refund, don’t need it, and in fact, it’s not good for you. Don’t worry. Don’t be embarrassed. You’re not alone in your obsession.  After all, two of three taxpayers last year got a refund that was no small chunk of change -- on average, about $3,000.

Hard to argue about a nice, juicy check like that -- it probably comes in very handy these days, especially when you are struggling to pay off debt and just get by.

So what’s the problem? You hand over enough to Uncle Sam and the federal government each year. Why also offer an interest-free loan?  That is, in essence, what you are doing when you accept a refund. The average $3,000 could be instead about $250 more in your own wallet each month to spend as you like -- as you earn it, instead of months later when you file your taxes and receive your refund.

So once you understand that instead of Uncle Sam “giving” you something; you are, instead, giving him your money as a loan with no interest, you’ve done the hard part.  Realizing this is no gift; it’s your gift to the government.

If you’re having too much withheld from your paycheck, what can you do?  Adjust your withholding; essentially, add cash to your checks throughout the year by changing the number of allowances you claim on your W-4 form.

Chances are you don’t remember that form. But you fill it out whenever you start a job. Withholding is made up of three basic pieces of information: if you use a married or single rate when filing, what allowances you usually take, and whether you want to withhold extra cash from your paycheck.

There are a few events that are no-brainers for changing your withholding: a marriage, a divorce, birth of a new baby, and purchase of a home. The first is the biggest challenge in terms of figuring changes -- depending on whether your new spouse has a significant income or doesn’t work at all, you could end up owing a lot of money at tax time or lending the government plenty for a hefty refund come April.

You may want to investigate more about filing separately or married to see which makes most sense (really cents, as in dollars).

But, back to basics. Go to your employer and ask to file a new W-4, especially if you face any of these life-changing events. The IRS offers a calculator that can help you figure out how much you should change your withholding. There are also worksheets as part of the W-4.  Check out www.irs.gov for a number of helpful tools.

Of course, if you don’t get a refund and owe a lot of money at tax time, the same is true for you. You may want to pay more from each paycheck so you don’t get a big hit when you file.

But the bottom line is, Uncle Sam just isn’t worth it. He may unfortunately be a bigger part of your family as Washington wants to pay more and more with your earnings, but for that one time in spring, don’t find yourself waiting longingly for word from him. As anyone who’s made decisions about someone for the wrong reasons knows, he (and even his check!) are not what’s best for you.