It’s tax season again and that means people are interested in when they’re going to receive their tax refunds. Thankfully, this tax season should be much more typical than last year’s coronavirus-impacted season. A slight return to normalcy (at least in the tax world) should make refund timing a bit more predictable.
Even so, tax refund timing estimates are never perfect. Several factors impact when you receive any tax refund you claim on your tax return. Here’s what you need to know.
When to expect your tax refund
In general, the timeline for receiving tax refunds are relatively predictable. Once the IRS receives your return, they must process it before they can send out your refund. After your return is processed, it’s just a matter of going through the steps. The IRS states most refunds get issued in less than 21 calendar days.
Based on this, here’s an estimate of when you may receive your tax refund based on when and how you file your return. Make sure to use the date the IRS accepts your return for the most accurate estimate.
|IRS tax return acceptance date on (or before)||Direct deposit refunds may be sent by||Paper check refunds may be sent by|
Things that can impact your tax refund timing in 2021
The fastest way to receive a tax refund is by e-filing your return and choosing direct deposit as your refund option. This is the most automated way you can claim your refund which lowers the processing time. If you paper file your return or request a refund check, this may extend the time it takes you to get your refund.
Every tax season works in unique ways. The 2021 tax season for 2020 tax returns doesn’t officially kick off until February 12, 2021. While tax software may allow you to click the submit button to e-file your return before this time, the IRS isn’t accepting the vast majority of returns before February 12.
Once the IRS starts receiving returns, other factors could impact when you receive your refund. Most notably, people taking the earned income tax credit or additional child tax credit may have their refunds delayed until at least the first week of March.
This is the earliest estimate and only applies if you e-file your return, choose direct deposit, and your tax return has no issues. The delay in issuing refunds for these tax items is due to the current tax law. The IRS legally cannot issue these refunds before February 15th.
The IRS notes the following issues could also delay your refund:
- Filing a return that includes errors.
- Filing an incomplete return.
- Being impacted by identity theft or fraud.
- Including Form 8379, Injured Spouse Allocation.
- Filing a return that needs further review by the IRS.
Already filed your return? Check your refund status
If you’ve already filed your return, you can check your tax return and refund status using the IRS’s Refund Status tool. The tool should be available 24 hours after you e-file your return. Paper returns may take much longer to show up in the tool.
You have to input your Social Security Number or Taxpayer Identification Number, filing status, and refund amount. The IRS will display one of three statuses:
- Return received.
- Refund approved.
- Refund sent.
You can recheck your status as often as you’d like, but the IRS only updates the information once per day. This normally occurs overnight.
What to do with your refund once you receive it
Once you finally receive your tax refund, you have a decision to make. What do you do with this financial windfall? You could use it to better your family’s financial picture or to have a bit of fun. Here are some ideas to help you find the best use for your family’s current needs.
Pay off debt
Paying off debt is one of the quickest wins you can get for your tax refund, especially if your debt is at a high-interest rate. People that can pay down loans with interest rates of 8% or higher could save a ton of money on interest payments. While I personally wouldn’t use a tax refund to pay off low-interest-rate debt, such as a 0% car loan or a 3.25% mortgage, it may help you sleep better at night.
To get the biggest bang for your buck, you’d ideally pay off the debt with the highest interest rate. However, others would rather get a sense of accomplishment of paying off some of their debts in full. Some people may want to lower their overall monthly payments. If this is you, pay off your loans from the smallest balance owed to the largest balance owed.
Start or add to an emergency fund
After 2020, it’s clear that an emergency fund can help virtually every family. If you don’t have an emergency fund yet, you can start one with your tax refund. If you already have an emergency fund, you can use your tax refund to add to it.
I personally like keeping my emergency fund at an online bank in a separate bank account from my regular spending money. This helps me keep it separate so I don’t accidentally spend it on things I don’t need.
One savings account you may want to check out is the CIT Bank Savings Builder account. It rewards you with a higher interest rate if you hold a minimum balance of $25,000 in the account or make regular monthly $100 or more contributions to your account. If you’re building an emergency fund, that higher interest rate could be the incentive you need to remember to add $100 per month to your growing emergency fund.
Invest in stocks, ETFs, or other assets
People that already have their debt under control and a fully stocked emergency fund may want to invest their tax refund. Investing your tax refund could help it grow your wealth over the long term as investment prices as a whole generally rise over long periods.
E*TRADE has been around for decades and is one of the larger brokerage firms that exist today; they’re reliable and offer many options.
E*TRADE doesn’t restrict you to an individual brokerage account. In fact, they offer a wide variety of brokerage account options including many retirement account types. Unfortunately, E*TRADE doesn’t provide the ability to invest in cryptocurrency directly, but they allow you to trade bitcoin futures. This shouldn’t be a problem for most investors as E*TRADE offers a wide selection of the traditional investment types, including stocks, ETFs, and mutual funds.
Start a side hustle
If you want to start making extra money in 2021, you might want to use your tax refund to start a side hustle. Many side hustles don’t have any upfront costs. For example, you can start driving for Uber as long as you have an eligible car and meet the requirements.
Other side hustles may require a small investment to get started. People that want to start a blog might want to pay for hosting or design services. Small businesses that require tools, equipment, or inventory need funds to cover those initial costs. If you’ve always wanted to turn your woodworking or other hobbies into a business, your tax refund may help cover those upfront costs.
Donate to those in need
Coronavirus upended the lives of millions of Americans. Those in the foodservice and hospitality industries likely lost a lot of income during the coronavirus pandemic. People that didn’t lose jobs may have had their hours cut or their salaries reduced.
Even as the economy has slowly begun recovering from the pandemic’s initial impacts, life isn’t back to normal by any means. If your family is in good financial shape or you just want to help others, consider donating some of your tax refund to an organization that can help.
Alternatively, you may personally know a family struggling. You could anonymously give them something to help them get back on their feet financially.
Splurge on an experience or purchase for your family
Most people have retreated to their homes to try to minimize the chances of catching the coronavirus. Chances are your family may be going slightly stir crazy by now. I know mine is. Your tax refund could provide an excellent opportunity to help your family have a bit of fun during this trying time.
Find an experience or a purchase that could bring joy to your family. That may be a socially isolated trip to a cabin in the woods or some new board games to help pass the time. Think of ways to have the money provide as much value as possible to help your family have fun while staying safe during these trying times.
Improve your home
After the last year, most people are much more intimately familiar with their homes than they were in the past. If you found your house has some areas requiring maintenance or you simply want to update them, consider using your tax refund to pay for those projects.
Your tax refund may not be enough to pay for the whole project. If the project doesn’t need to be done immediately, you can start saving for it with your tax refund.
Go back to school
Your tax refund could be the perfect opportunity to learn new skills or bolster your skills in your current career field. You could choose to take a certification program that could help boost your pay or even start attending college to earn a degree.
However, skills are often what pays off the most. Good online courses can help you learn skills that can start making you extra money very quickly. You’ll have to do your research to understand which courses sell you a dream versus those that teach you how to improve your earning potential. Even so, taking the right courses can dramatically increase your income. I know they’ve helped me immensely in the past.
If you’re wondering when your tax refund might show up in your bank account or mailbox, consult the table above. Remember, certain circumstances can delay your refund check, including the earned income tax credit and the additional child tax credit. If you want to check your specific refund status, you can use the IRS Where’s My Refund tool.
Once you get your refund, make sure you put it to good use. That could include paying off debt, opening a savings account to start an emergency fund, opening an investment account to start investing, or spending the money on a fun splurge to raise your family’s spirits.
No matter what you do with your tax refund, make sure you have a plan for it so it doesn’t accidentally get spent on little things here and there that you don’t appreciate.