Smaller Tax Refund? Here's What To Do

Smaller Tax Refund? Here's What To Do
Tetra Images / Getty Images

By Vera Wilson

It's the first tax-filing season with the new tax laws in effect. The news outlets are reporting many people who have prepared their 2018 return are shocked to find their refund is smaller than in years past, or they might even owe taxes this year. So why is this happening?

[Related: 2018 Tax Reform and What It Means for You]

The 2018 withholding tax tables reflect the new lower tax rates, which means less would be taken out of each paycheck, translating into more money in your pocket. But that could impact how much money you would be refunded, which isn't necessarily a bad thing.

A tax refund simply means you overpaid your taxes throughout the year. It's not due to some tax break or deduction; it just means you didn't do a very good job of estimating what should be taken out in taxes each pay period. For those who think they were duped out of a refund this year, take the time to look at what your total tax liability on your 1040 is. All other things being equal, it's likely lower than the year before. So you didn't pay more in taxes, you just paid them more evenly throughout the year.

But what if you owe this year? That's more than likely due to the fact you have a large family or live in a state with high property taxes, both of which are no longer fully deductible as in years past.

[RELATED: MOAA's Financial Calculators]

Here are two important takeaways:

Remember to adjust your withholding. A W-4 is the form that tells your employer how much tax to withhold from your paycheck. The IRS has a withholding calculator that walks you through numerous questions about your entire family's financial status, and the results will help you fill out the W-4 more accurately. These “paycheck checkups” can be done anytime but especially when tax laws are revised or your family's situation has changed (due to a move to another state or a baby, for example). Just submit an updated W-4 form to your employer.

A tax refund does not a savings plan make. If you count on your refund to pay for that summer vacation every year, it's time to change your plan. Instead, have part of each paycheck go into a savings account. That way, your vacation won't turn into a staycation due to lack of funds.