Each year, most working Americans wind up getting a refund after submitting their tax returns. For many, that refund is not only sizable but very much needed to cover life's expenses.

If you're counting on a tax refund this year, the last thing you want is to have it delayed. However, given the unfortunate government shutdown situation, many filers fear that a short-staffed IRS will result in refunds going out later than usual.

The good news here is that the IRS claims that refunds will indeed go out on time this year despite the shutdown. But if you really want to increase your chances of getting your money on time, there's one critical move you can make: File an electronic return devoid of errors.

Woman filling out tax form by hand

Image source: Getty Images.

Will you be the cause of your delayed refund?

It's natural to worry that fewer IRS employees will translate into fewer refunds going out on time. Most tax returns, however, are never actually reviewed by a live person at the IRS. Rather, there's software that reads returns and flags them for problems or inconsistencies. If your return makes it through that automated process, and you file it electronically, chances are you'll get your refund within three weeks. But if your return contains an error that triggers a review, you can bet on a significant delay -- especially if the issue is one that causes you to need to interact with an IRS agent.

What sort of error might your tax return contain? Common mistakes include, but aren't limited to:

  • Putting the wrong name on your tax return (yes, it happens)
  • Choosing the wrong filing status
  • Failing to list income
  • Copying the wrong numbers over from your W-2 or 1099 forms
  • Getting your math wrong

Filing electronically doesn't guarantee that you won't make a mistake on your taxes, but it'll lower your odds substantially. The IRS reports that the error rate for paper returns is 21%, whereas it's less than 1% for returns filed electronically. Therefore, if you want to reduce your chances of delaying your refund, submit an electronic return -- which you can do for free if your income falls below $66,000.

Enlist the help of a professional if you need it

Generally speaking, IRS agents are available by phone to assist you during tax season if you have questions about your return. And seeing as how this is the first filing season in which the 2018 tax overhaul comes into play, there's a good chance many filers will, indeed, have questions. If you're one of them, and you really need answers, you unfortunately might have to pay for them this year.

Though the IRS is famous for obnoxiously long waits to speak to agents during tax season, this year, you might really struggle to get someone on the phone, since the agency is dealing with a limited staff as the result of the ongoing shutdown. If you have trouble getting help from the IRS itself, you might have no choice but to hire a professional to assist you. And if that's the case, aim to get moving sooner rather than later -- most tax preparers are swamped as it is during tax season, and this year, thanks to the aforementioned tax code changes, they're likely to be even more bogged down.

Don't wait to file your taxes

Another good way to avoid having your refund delayed this year is to file your taxes as early as possible. The IRS will begin accepting returns on January 28, so as soon as you have all your paperwork in order, sit down and get your taxes done with. Assuming you file electronically and don't make mistakes, you could find yourself with refund in hand well before February comes to a close.

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