Taxes | March 1, 2021

Making Sense of Your Tax Refund

Many people were surprised that their refund was smaller after the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) of 2017 than before the law was passed, or worsethat they needed to cut a check to the US Treasury.

Let’s take a deeper look to see what’s really going on with your taxes.

Tax refunds (or bills) depend on paycheck withholding

Each paycheck has a portion of your earnings taken out and sent to Uncle Sam—a process known as tax withholding. In a perfect world, your total taxes withheld for the year would equal the total tax bill reported on your personal tax return. If that were the case, you wouldn’t get a refund, nor would you owe any tax when you file your return.

Unfortunately, changes in income or deductions can make estimating your tax bill difficult. That’s why most people either receive a refund or have to pay a bit extra when they file their tax returns.

Don’t get too excited about getting a refund (or feel bad if you have to pay)

The truth is, both options are neither good nor bad. A refund just means that you over-withheld taxes from your paycheck, and paying additional taxes means you under-withheld from your paycheck. 

As exciting as a refund might be, it’s really just the federal government returning the money you overpaid. Think of it as giving the government an interest-free loan: The government gets to use your money, and then they return it to you without any compensation—not a great investment.

We generally recommend trying to withhold just enough to cover your tax bill or even pay a little bit extra when you file your return. That way you have more money in your pocket throughout the year potentially earning some additional income.

Ultimately, it’s your total tax bill that matters, not whether you owe or get a refund

While there’s a lot of information on the 2020 Form 1040, the following information will help you determine your tax liability—and whether you’ll get a refund or owe a bit more on Tax Day:

  • The total tax due (line 24): what you actually owe in taxes for the year
  • Income tax withheld (line 25d): total amount of taxes taken out of your income that year
  • The refund you’ll receive (line 34): the amount you “overpaid” (i.e., the amount you over-withheld that year); or the amount you owe (line 37): what you under-withheld in taxes for the year

The amount withheld from your paycheck is the key to understanding why your refund may be lower or why additional taxes may have been due. To know if you get a refund or owe additional taxes, simply compare your total tax (line 24) to the total amount of tax withheld (line 25d).

If the amount withheld is larger, you overpaid (line 34) and will be eligible for a refund. If the total tax is larger, you under-withheld, so you will have an amount you owe (line 37) and will have to cut a check for the difference.

Image of Form 1040 for 2020

Image of Form 1040 for 2020 with lines 24, 25, 34 and 37 highlighted

Source: IRS Form 1040 for 2020.


Why did my refund (or tax due) change so much this year compared to prior years?

In 2018, the IRS changed the withholding tables in an attempt to account for the lower taxes that many people would pay under the TCJA of 2017. These tables are used by employers to determine how much should be withheld from your paycheck.

The withholding tables reduced the amount withheld from each paycheck so that on Tax Day, the IRS wouldn’t have to issue an enormous number of refunds.

Unfortunately, changing the withholding tables is not an exact science. The unintended consequence of those changes resulted in some people withholding less than expected, which caused their refunds to be lower or in some situations caused them to owe on Tax Day.

How to prepare for next year

If you want a larger refund next year (not recommended, in our opinion), you can update your Form W-4 to change how much is withheld from your paychecks. We recommend checking how much is being withheld from your paycheck at least once or twice a year, to stay on track to a targeted withholding amount and to ensure you don’t end up under-withholding too much (which could result in penalties). For help determining the amount that should be withheld, use the IRS’s calculator or meet with a tax professional.

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