Tax Day, April 15, is fast approaching. Americans’ general dislike or sometimes outright disgust toward paying taxes is typically cushioned by the widespread receipt of “tax refunds.”
Receiving a refund, however, does not mean that individual or family pays no taxes. Rather, refunds are the result of federal withholding tables that often instruct employers to over-withhold taxes from workers’ paychecks.
The average tax refund, or over-withholding, was $2,755 in 2013. Before getting this money back, however, the average taxpayer had to spend 18 hours and more than $250 documenting and calculating just how much they were supposed to pay. All this time and money, as well as the magnitude of over-withholding, illustrate how complex and burdensome the United States’ federal income tax has become.
Yet, year after year, policymakers and regulators add more and more complexity, rather than simplicity, to the tax code. House Ways and Means Committee chairman Dave Camp (R–MI) recently undertook the laudable task of releasing a comprehensive tax reform proposal, including a dynamic analysis from the Joint Committee on Taxation. Criticism of this plan from across the spectrum, however, illustrates the extreme difficulty of fundamental tax reform when starting from our current convoluted code.
While taxpayers are typically delighted to receive tax refunds, over-withholding can be harmful to individuals, families, and businesses. When too many taxes are withheld, incomes are both lower and less stable. The average refund of $2,755 in 2013 translates into $230 per month. The unnecessary restriction of incomes by $230 per month is a significant amount for the average household. Having that money each month, rather than in one lump sum each spring, could help individuals and small businesses increase savings, reduce debts, better manage budgets, and make more prudent financial decisions.
Although detrimental to taxpayers, over-withholding is a boon to the federal government. In 2013, individuals gave the federal government an effective $300 billion interest-free loan through over-withheld taxes. Even with exceptionally low borrowing costs, this over-withholding translated into a nearly half-billion dollar windfall for the federal government.
Whether you receive a refund this year or not, let the check you receive from or send to the federal government be a reminder of the unnecessary complexity of the U.S. tax code. And for those receiving refunds, imagine what you could have done with that money had it been available to you throughout the year rather than it serving as an interest-free loan to the federal government.