While it might be a bit early in the year to be thinking about taxes, the April 15 deadline will be here before you know it. And if you're expecting a refund from the IRS this year, you might be motivated to submit your returns even sooner. Since refunds are typically issued within three weeks of filing (provided you do so electronically), the sooner you get your taxes completed, the sooner you stand to collect your money.

Or maybe not. Changes to the tax code, which first took effect for the 2018 tax year, have increased the risk of a delayed start to the 2019 tax filing season, according to a report by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration released late last year.

In a nutshell, several business units within the IRS missed key time frames for submitting work requests for information technology adjustments to accommodate the new rules. In addition, the IRS, as of late last year, still had a number of vacancies in key positions, thereby compounding the problem.

Man counting hundred-dollar bills.

IMAGE SOURCE: GETTY IMAGES.

But there's another reason you might experience a lag with your refund. The U.S. government shutdown has already whittled the IRS's staff down to a skeleton crew of employees -- employees working without pay, mind you. That's only going to exacerbate an already-complicated tax season.

In fact, as of this writing, the IRS has yet to announce the first day it will begin receiving electronically filed returns, something taxpayers are typically made aware of by this point in the year. Therefore, if you're banking on a tax refund to pay some important bills, you might want to come up with a backup plan -- pronto.

Don't count on that refund

Folks who receive tax refunds have a tendency to rely heavily on that money in the absence of immediate savings. And that's a mistake.

For one thing, refunds aren't guaranteed -- just because you get money back from the IRS one year doesn't mean it's bound to happen the following year. Additionally, changes to the tax code, which took effect in 2018, resulted in a whole new set of withholding tables that may have boosted workers' income on a paycheck-by-paycheck basis over the past year. In other words, if you saw your paychecks go up at all, the money you might have otherwise gotten in a refund could have, in fact, been paid to you already. Throw in the fact that refunds might be delayed across the board, and it's a recipe for financial disaster.

The solution? First, don't take on any expenses in the next few months that your regular paychecks can't cover, thinking you'll just use your refund money to pay them off. If your refund gets delayed or doesn't come in at all, you could wind up in debt. At the same time, start building yourself an emergency fund so that you have accessible cash reserves to fall back on in times of financial distress. It's a far safer bet than waiting for a refund that may or may not come.

Finally, remember that while tax refunds might seem like a good thing in theory, they're actually nothing more than an interest-free loan to the government. And rather than fall back on yours year after year, you should instead adjust your withholding to get more of your hard-earned money up front. That extra money can then be stored in a savings account so that it's available to you when you want it, as opposed to having to wait for the IRS to send it.

If you're counting on a tax refund this year to cover a major expense, prepare for the possibility that your money might arrive later than you'd like. At the same time, adjust the way you manage your finances so that you're not overly reliant on IRS refunds in the future.

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