Last-minute filers are scrambling to ship their returns to the Internal Revenue Service by the 2021 tax year deadline of Monday, April 18, and are likely anxiously awaiting a big check via their refund of tax.
Some tax firms or other lenders may offer the option of accessing these funds sooner, in the form of a tax refund loan, also known as a refund anticipation loan.
Regulators and advocacy groups have warned of the potential downsides of loans, especially those that come with high fees or high interest rates. Personal finance experts generally do not recommend them.
Here’s what you need to know about loans this tax season.
What is a tax-free loan?
A tax refund is, quite simply, an advance on your tax refund, said Matt Schulz, chief credit analyst at LendingTree.
It’s a way to borrow against your tax refund to access funds immediately: borrow the amount from a lender and give them the refund when you get it from the IRS.
“Unlike a lot of loans, it’s not necessarily something you’re looking for,” Schulz said.
Tax refund loans are usually offered by a tax preparation company, Schulz said. You will not find them in your bank.
What are the advantages and disadvantages?
The benefit of a repayment anticipation loan is quite simple: you have immediate access to your repayment amount, instead of waiting the days or weeks it takes to get the funds from the IRS.
The wrong side? “It can end up costing you money,” Schulz said, in the form of interest or fees.
Some tax firms will offer you a tax refund loan at no cost, Schulz said. But, you will have to pay the company to do your taxes for you.
“Even with a 0% loan, there will always be a minimum that you will pay to prepare your taxes,” he said. “So if you’re someone who’s already planning to do your taxes, maybe it’s not that bad.”
Teresa Murray, director of the US Public Interest Research Group’s consumer watchdog office, says the cost may outweigh the benefits.
“We really urge people to avoid any type of prepayment anticipation loan,” she said. “Anything you borrow against a refund you haven’t gotten yet…it’s just bad news written all over the place.”
The North Carolina Consumer Council is warning anyone considering a loan against their tax refund to “think again.”
“While getting a tax refund advance may seem tempting, these loans are actually payday loans for tax returns, and you should avoid them as much as possible,” according to advice from the council on its website. . “The full amount must be repaid, as with any other loan, even if your repayment is less than expected or ends up not being repaid at all.”
When can I expect to get my refund?
The IRS issues more than nine out of 10 refunds in less than three weeks, according to its website. Taxpayers who filed their returns electronically will get their refund faster than those who mailed their tax forms.
And the department is handing out refunds faster and faster, Murray said. Now, some e-filers can expect to see the funds in their bank account within days.
“If you file electronically, you can get your money typically in four to six days,” she said.
North Carolina taxpayers may get their state tax refunds slower, but the upside is that a delay in accepting returns this year was due to a legislative reduction in the personal tax rate. .
Should I consider a tax-free loan?
Schulz said if you really need the money — and read the terms carefully — a tax refund loan can be an alternative to riskier ways to fill your bank account.
“Emergencies happen: job loss, medical emergencies, whatever the case,” he said. “(In that case), there are worse things you could do than a tax refund.”
And assuming you’ve done your taxes correctly, he said, a tax refund loan is a secured loan, with your actual refund serving as collateral. This makes it much less risky than, say, an unsecured payday loan with an exorbitant interest rate.
Murray, on the other hand, cautions against lending under any circumstances. She suggests holding on until you get your refund, especially since it might not take very long if you filed electronically and set up direct deposit.
“If you’re short on money…find a friend or relative to borrow money from for a few days,” she said. “Don’t go the prepayment loan route because they’re just ridiculously expensive…you’re paying for your own money.”
As this year’s tax filing season ends without the threat of a government shutdown going forward, that could make these loans even riskier, according to the North Carolina Consumers Council.
“Frequent federal government shutdowns could make these types of loans more attractive if you want to get your money back quickly, which can complicate things. Remember that a delay in getting your repayment will not be considered by the lender and will not release you from any obligation to repay the loan on time,” its website states.
Schulz added that major tax firms — like H&R Block or Jackson Hewitt — only accept applications for tax refund loans during a certain period, often between December and February. So, for these filers, the loan application window may already be closed.
And Murray had another piece of advice for any registrants who haven’t signed up yet: start early next year.
“When you’re in a rush, you’re more likely to not pay attention,” she said. “Anytime you have the words ‘not careful’ and ‘IRS’ in the same sentence, that’s not a good thing.”