Who doesn't love free money? My day can get much better when I find a quarter on the street or a coupon to save a dollar on premium mint-chocolate chip ice cream.
Now, imagine the mood brightening power of 85 million checks worth an average $2,237 sent this spring to taxpayers across the nation. Free money!
Just one problem. Those tax refunds represented a collective loan to Uncle Sam worth around $190 billion. It's money that the government got to use, interest-free, over the course of a year. That's not free money; it's your money.
Every year, more people get an increasingly large tax refund after filing their returns. Why? Let's admit it -- it's fun to get a check worth a couple hundred or thousand dollars in the mail. It's also easier than putting aside the money and exercising the willpower to leave it in the bank.
But consider the advantages of getting that money throughout the year instead of waiting for the refund check.
The average $2,237 refund is more than half the allowed contribution to an IRA. Used monthly, it could take a bite out of a credit card balance, which would lower interest owed and help pay off that debt faster. It's also enough for an emergency fund to cushion those unexpected brake repairs and basement floods.
If you were making plans to lavishly spend that refund check, you could instead watch your spending power grow by temporarily stashing the money in an interest-earning savings or money market account.
Another reason tax refunds may keep growing? It's kind of a hassle to fix the problem. It requires an IRS form, some tax calculations, and a trip to the human resources department.
To make the taxes withheld from your paycheck match more closely to the taxes owed, you'll need to file a new W-4 form with your employer. That's the Employee's Withholding Allowance Certificate. If that sounds vaguely familiar, it's a form you probably filled out your first day on the job.
It's a simple-looking, half-page form, and it allows you to adjust the number of allowances claimed, which adjusts the amount of tax withheld each paycheck. When the number of allowances goes up, the tax withheld from each paycheck goes down.
To figure out how to fill out the form, you'll need to dig out your most recent paycheck and income tax return. If you asked for an extension to file your tax returns and you're working this week to meet the Oct. 16 deadline, you should have most of that information in front of you.
The Internet is rife with withholding calculators. If you want to go right to the source, the IRS has produced a 19-page booklet on the topic stuffed full of worksheets. If that sounds too daunting, the IRS online calculator might be a better idea.
Fill in the blanks, and the IRS calculator will project the amount of tax owed and compare it with the amount being withheld from your paycheck. It will then tell you how many exemptions to claim on your (and your spouse's) W-4 forms to send more money to your paycheck and less to Uncle Sam.
Adjust again in January to put yourself on the right path for next year's taxes. It's a small chore, but an easy road to a bigger paycheck.
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