NC State Extension Publications


Each year around tax time, many of us anticipate an income tax refund. The decisions you make at tax time determine how much of the refund money will reach your wallet. These suggestions can help you get the maximum benefit from your refund.

Filing an annual income tax return allows you and the government to determine whether you have paid the amount of taxes owed. This process considers your income and allowed credits and deductions. We know what happens when we have not paid enough—we must send payment with our tax return. Taxpayers who have overpaid their taxes are due a refund from the government. This is the income tax refund that many Americans look forward to each year.

A Refund Is Not "Free Money"

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A tax refund is not free money or a gift from the government. It is the return of earned income to you. You and your family may benefit from having the use of this money throughout the year instead of waiting for the tax return. Consider reviewing your annual withholding amount. If you decide to change your withholding rate, submit a new Form W-4, Employee’s Withholding Allowance Certificate to your employer. Be sure to discuss changing the withholding rate with your spouse if you are married. Coordinate your withholding rates so you do not accidentally under-pay your taxes, which would cause your household to owe money the following year.

Use the IRS Tax Withholding Estimator

For households with multiple sources of income, it may be important to use the IRS’s Tax Withholding Estimator. It was updated in 2019 to simplify tax withholdings for people who have employment income but also receive other types of income. For example; you can perform a Paycheck Checkup by including income from side gigs, retirement pensions, or the sharing economy.

Here is what you’ll need to use the Tax Withholding Estimator:

  1. Your most recent pay stubs
  2. Your most recent completed income tax return (Form 1040)
  3. An estimate of income for the current year, the number of children you will claim for the Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit, and other items that will affect your taxes

The IRS indicates the process will take just a few minutes. You may want to plan to have at least 30 minutes available to engage with the Estimator. At present, the best way to local the Tax Withholding Estimator is to go directly to its webpage. Another way to reach it is to go to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) website, select “File” from the menu across the top, select “Individuals” and then you will see the Tax Withholding Estimator listed.

If your tax situation is more complex, you will want to see Publication 505, Tax Withholding and Estimated Tax. If you identify a need to update your tax withholding, you can enter the results from the Tax Withholding Estimator in a new Form W-4, Employee’s Withholding Allowance Certificate and submit this to your employer. In this way you avoid under or over withholding income taxes

Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA)

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The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program offers free income tax preparation for individuals and families with incomes up to about $56,000. VITA Tax returns are prepared by IRS-trained volunteers. Unless your return is particularly complex, the VITA program can prepare your return and electronically file (e-file) it for you at no cost. Of course, paper returns are still available. Look in your community to find a free VITA tax preparation site. To locate the nearest VITA site, use the VITA Locator Tool or call 800-906-9887.

Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE)

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Most of the Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE) sites are operated by the AARP Foundation’s Tax Aide program. To locate the nearest AARP TCE Tax-Aide site between January and April use the AARP Site Locator Tool or call 888-227-7669.

Tax Counseling for Military Personnel

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The Armed Forces Tax Council (AFTC) is the military volunteer tax assistance program. Program coordinators for the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard oversee the operation of military tax programs worldwide, and serve as the main conduit for outreach by the IRS to military personnel and their families. These VITA sites are trained and equipped to address military-specific tax issues, such as combat zone tax benefits and the effect of the new Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) guidelines. For more information, contact the Family Support Center at the nearest military installation. U.S. Navy personnel can contact the Command Financial Specialist.

Direct Deposit Money

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The recently introduced IRS Form 8888, Allocation of Refund (Including Savings Bond Purchases) allows taxpayers to direct their refund into as many as three different accounts. The accounts must be open before you file your tax return and can be at one or more financial institutions. You can direct money into your savings, checking, mutual fund, or retirement account, or a combination of three of these accounts. All you need is your account number and the institution’s routing number. Make sure you have the correct numbers. Look on your account documents or call each financial institution to verify its routing number.

Avoid Refund Anticipation Loans (RALS)

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Refund anticipation loans (RAL) provide early access to part of the refund amount you are expecting. The company offering the RAL will charge a fee for lending you part of your tax refund until the actual refund is received. You can keep more money in your pocket by avoiding rapid refund offers and choosing to electronically file (e-file) your taxes. A tax refund can be received in 10 days or less with electronic filing. This is true whether you e-file through a VITA site, a paid tax preparer, or on your own through the IRS website. Why give away some of your tax refund when you can have it all to use and enjoy?

Smart Uses for Your Refund

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Now that you’ve decided to maximize the refund amount in your pocket, take a look at another Extension publication, Smart Uses for Your Tax Refund, to learn how your tax refund can improve your finances throughout the coming year.


Extension Resource Management Specialist & Associate Professor
Agricultural & Human Sciences

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Publication date: Jan. 16, 2020

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