What Is a Tax Refund?

Tax Refunds Explained in Less Than 5 Minutes

Definition
A tax refund is a reimbursement issued by the government when a taxpayer has overpaid their taxes.
Person uses a smartphone to remotely deposit a tax-refund check.
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A tax refund is a reimbursement issued by the government when a taxpayer has overpaid their taxes. Tax overpayment commonly occurs when an employer withholds too much from their employee’s paychecks. Taxpayers receive the excess overpayment in the form of refunds after filing their tax returns.

Learn how tax refunds work and the advantages and disadvantages (believe it or not) of being reimbursed come tax season.

Definition and Examples of a Tax Refund

A tax refund is a reimbursement a taxpayer receives after overpaying taxes to the government in a tax year—usually due to an employer withholding too much in taxes from the employee’s paychecks. The taxpayer often receives the overpayment via direct deposit or a paper check.

For example, Jasmine works a salaried position as a digital marketer. Her employer withholds a portion of her paycheck for tax purposes. After Jasmine files her tax return in April, she learns that she has overpaid $1,000 in taxes. Jasmine is reimbursed via a tax refund in the form of a check for $1,000.

How Tax Refunds Work

When an employer pays an employee, they withhold a portion of the employee’s gross salary for income taxes. The amount withheld depends on withholding tables established by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and information the employee provides when completing their W-4 (e.g., filing status and tax deductions).

After filing a tax return, three possible scenarios can occur:

  1. The amount withheld is accurate and the taxpayer neither owes nor is owed money.
  2. The amount withheld is below the taxpayer’s tax liability and the taxpayer owes the government the remaining balance.
  3. The amount withheld exceeds the taxpayer’s liability and the government owes the taxpayer the excess amount, issued via a tax refund.

If the taxpayer is entitled to a tax refund, there are various forms the refund can take. Many taxpayers choose direct deposit since it is the fastest way to access a refund, but taxpayers can opt to receive a paper check in the mail. There are other types of tax refunds, as well (more on that later).

Note

You can check the status of your refund within 24 hours after e-filing their tax return (or four weeks are you mailed your return). The IRS typically issues a tax refund within 21 days after processing the tax return, absent any delays.

If you received a tax refund via check and the amount is less than you expected, the IRS will provide a note explaining the reason and further steps, if needed. If it’s confirmed that you should have received more, you may cash the check already received, and you will receive another check for the remaining amount.

Types of Tax Refunds

Beyond the usual direct deposit into a checking account or paper check, taxpayers can also have their tax refunds issued in the following ways:

  • TreasuryDirect: Deposit your tax refund into a TreasuryDirect account to be used to purchase U.S. Treasury securities.
  • Direct deposit into a retirement account: Deposit all or a portion of the refund into a traditional IRA, Roth IRA, or SEP-IRA.
  • Savings bonds: Use your tax refund to purchase a U.S. Series I Savings Bond up to $5,000.
  • Savings account: Deposit your tax refund into an approved savings account, such as a health savings account (HSA), Archer medical savings account (MSA), or Coverdell education savings account (ESA).

Note

Taxpayers who opt for a tax refund via direct deposit can file Form 8888, "Allocation of Refund," to instruct the IRS to send your refund to a checking, savings, and retirement account. In most cases, you can split your refund and send the money to up to three different accounts.

Advantages and Disadvantages of a Tax Refund

Receiving a small lump sum of cash via a tax refund is something many taxpayers look forward to. With proper financial planning, the tax refund can help them replenish their savings or prepare for a large purchase, such as a down payment on a home. For some, having the extra cash on standby is useful for covering unexpected costs, such as an emergency medical procedure.

Some critics, however, argue that a tax refund is essentially a repayment after giving an interest-free loan to the government. Instead of overpaying in taxes, consider adjusting your withholdings to align with the taxes you actually owe. The amount that you would have otherwise received via a tax refund could then be invested or stored in a retirement account such as a 401(k).

How To Get Your Federal Tax Refund

Some taxpayers choose to file their own taxes and can download the proper tax filing forms from the IRS. Often, taxpayers use tax preparation software to simplify the tax filing process. Other taxpayers pay an accountant to file their taxes, preferring the convenience and expertise of a professional to do it for them.

The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) offers tax services, including virtual tax preparation and drop-off services. This program is available to taxpayers with incomes of $58,000 or less, aged 60 years or older, who have a disability, or speak limited English.

Key Takeaways

  • A tax refund is a reimbursement from the government when a taxpayer has overpaid in taxes throughout the tax year—usually the result of an employer withholding too much from their employee’s paycheck.
  • Taxpayers can choose to receive their tax refunds via multiple methods, including direct deposit into a checking account or retirement savings account, paper check, or invested into the U.S. Treasury securities market.
  • Many taxpayers enjoy tax refunds because the lump-sum refund can be useful as a type of forced savings vehicle.
  • Some argue that overpaying in taxes is giving the government an interest-free loan; some argue that it is more financially productive to withhold the accurate amount and use the excess that would have otherwise been refunded and invest it into interest-generating accounts.
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Sources
The Balance uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Internal Revenue Service. “Publication 15-T: Federal Income Tax Withholding Methods,” Pages 11-25. Accessed Jan. 26, 2022.

  2. Internal Revenue Service. “Topic No. 152 Refund Information.” Accessed Jan. 26, 2022.

  3. Internal Revenue Service. “Form 8888: Allocation of Refund (Including Savings Bond Purchases),” Page 2. Accessed Jan. 26, 2022.

  4. IRS. "Free Tax Return Preparation for Qualifying Taxpayers." Accessed Jan. 26, 2022.

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