The IRS plans to start processing tax refunds Jan. 20, 2015. If you're expecting a tax refund, every day you wait to file is another day you have to wait to get back money that's rightfully yours.

Tax refund schedule basics
There are two main factors that affect how long it takes to receive your tax refund:

  1. How you filed your taxes
  2. How you elected to receive your tax refund

The IRS will send you your tax refund after you submit your taxes and they are processed.

If you mail your taxes, it can take three to four weeks for the IRS to process them and send you your tax refund. If you submit your taxes online, it only takes the IRS a few days to process them and send you your tax refund.

Meanwhile, a direct deposit to your bank account is processed a day more quickly than a check that has to be mailed to you. Further, a direct deposit only takes a day or so for your bank to process, while a check needs to go through the mail and then be deposited by you and processed by your bank, which makes for a significant delay.

For those who want their cash as soon as possible, many tax preparers also offer loans on your tax refund, but these refund anticipation loans are not worth the $35 or more that tax preparers charge. Just wait a few more days and use that money to buy yourself something.

2015 tax refund schedule
The IRS doesn't begin processing tax returns until Jan. 20, so there's no advantage to filing on paper before the opening date. Below is an estimated tax refund schedule showing when you should expect to see your return based on when your return is processed:

IRS Return Processed

Direct Deposit Sent Before

Paper Check Mailed

Jan. 21-Jan. 27

Feb. 3

Feb. 4

Jan. 28-Feb. 3

Feb. 10

Feb. 11

Feb. 4-Feb. 10

Feb. 17

Feb. 18

Feb. 11-Feb. 17

Feb. 24

Feb. 25

Feb. 18-Feb. 24

March 3

March 4

Feb. 25-March 3

March 10

March 11

March 4-March 10

March 17

March 18

March 11-March 17

March 24

March 25

March 18-March 24

March 31

April 1

March 25-March 31

April 7

April 8

April 1-April 7

April 15

April 16

April 8-April 15

April 22

April 23

April 16-April 22

April 30

May 1

Source: IRS, author estimates.

The IRS provides a free online tool for checking your tax refund status. You just need to provide:

  1. Your Social Security number.
  2. Your filing status (single, married, etc.)
  3. The exact refund amount on your tax return.

The tool shows the benefit of filing electronically, as the IRS says people who do so can check it 24 hours after submitting their taxes to see the status of their refund. Taxpayers who file by mail are asked to wait 28 days to check the status of their refund on the site. You must wait even longer to call in or walk into an IRS office. If you filed electronically, you must wait 21 days to call to check the status of your return. If you filed by mail, you must wait six weeks to check by phone.

Be smart about your tax refund
A little bit of education goes a long way. The best way to get your tax refund is to file electronically and get the money direct-deposited into your bank account. That way you get your money quicker.

Lastly, when we receive a windfall of cash, we're naturally tempted to spend it, as it feels like a bonus. Don't fall into this trap. Whether you invest it or put it in your savings, make sure you put your tax refund to good use.