Many people while away these early weeks of spring fantasizing about how they'll spend the windfall they've got coming from the IRS. With the average direct-deposit refund running at $2,771 so far this year, you may be conjuring up some very entertaining daydreams of vacations, fancy televisions, or fatter savings accounts.
For some, however, that pleasant dream gets rudely interrupted when they discover that they actually owe the IRS money -- sometimes lots of money. It gets even worse for those who realize they must come up with much more than the few hundred dollars left in their checking accounts, most of which is already earmarked for groceries, the electric bill, and next weekend's date.
If you've been hit by a surprise tax bill, don't panic. Resist the urge to stick your head in the sand and hope the IRS will just go away. It won't, and avoiding the problem will only make it worse.
To minimize the damage, file your return and send as much money as possible. By sending your paperwork, you'll avoid steep penalties imposed for the failure to file a timely return, which the IRS really frowns upon. Raid your savings account, piggy banks, sofa cushions, and any other source of cash. Cobbling together as much of a payment as possible will reduce the interest and fees imposed for paying your taxes late. If you can pay no more, expect the IRS to send you a bill for the balance due and to impose interest and penalties on the unpaid amount.
Trading debt for debt
Before you decide you cannot pay a dime more, consider your options. You can get the IRS off your back by coming up with the money using your credit card or some other form of consumer loan, like borrowing against your home equity.
Of course, borrowing to pay your tax bill will only transfer your debt from one place to another, but it will keep the tax collectors at bay. If you choose to pay by credit card, you'll pay a service fee to one of the companies that process the transactions for the IRS. Ideally, using a credit card will let you pay the IRS in full while buying you just enough time to pay off your card balance. Otherwise, you'll incur big finance charges along with the service fee.
If you know that paying off your tax debt will take some time, a home equity loan might be a better option. It's possible that the interest rates may be lower than those charged by your credit card. In an odd twist, the interest on your loan may even be tax deductible.
Negotiate at the source
If you'd rather deal with the IRS directly, you can. Virtually anyone who owes less than $25,000 in taxes, penalties, and interest can request an installment agreement. Instead of paying your credit card monthly, you'd pay the tax man himself. To make it easy, you can even apply for the agreement online. You should find out relatively quickly whether you qualify.
You'll be required to pay an application fee, either $105 or $52 if you request that your tax payments be deducted directly from your bank account. This option comes with other downsides, too. The IRS says it also may file a notice of federal tax lien against your property during the time your installment agreement remains in effect. Pay by some other means and you can avoid this ding hitting your credit files.
Making a choice
Which option may be best for you? The IRS maintains that it's less expensive to pay your taxes by credit card or by borrowing against your home, real estate, or other investments. In part, that's because the IRS keeps levying interest and penalties as long as you have some unpaid tax debt left outstanding. If the IRS decides to hit you with a federal tax lien, your credit will probably suffer.
However, the interest rate charged by the IRS may be lower than the interest rate imposed by your credit card. You'll have to do some math, and some soul-searching, to decide which option makes the most financial and emotional sense.
Can you get out of your debt? Sure you can. But don't expect a free ride, and take those late-night commercial promises to settle your debts for pennies on the dollar with a grain of salt. The IRS does have such a program, intended to help people who really have no current or future means to settle their debts. In practice, very few offers get accepted. By taking responsibility for getting your taxes paid, you'll avoid a lot of unpleasantness.