Taxpayers who get all their income from wages and salaries, and whose situation hasn't changed much since the year before, should have little uncertainty about the taxes they'll owe at the end of the year. If they've been getting a $3,000 refund each year, they probably know they could reduce their withholding at little or no risk and deposit the extra amount in savings from each paycheck. So why don't more Americans take such steps?
It's a question that's confounded advisors and economists alike.
"It's a really curious thing, and I don't think we have a really clear answer research-wise," said certified financial planner Brad Klontz, co-founder of the Financial Psychology Institute and a partner in Occidental Asset Management. "It's self-destructive in one sense. On the other hand, if they don't trust themselves to save the money, it probably is one of the smarter things that they can do."
Given the abundance of research showing how little most Americans have saved for both short-term and long-term needs, those concerns may be well-founded. One recent survey found that more than 60 percent of Americans do not have enough rainy day funds set aside to cover even a $500 car repair. And a report out Thursday revealed even among households with incomes of $75,000 or more, roughly a third live paycheck to paycheck at least some of the time, and one-fourth of those with incomes of $100,000 or more do the same.
"I've seen that some people tend to consider overpaying in taxes as a sort of forced savings plan—like the old Christmas savings accounts people would set up every year, make monthly deposits to, and then withdraw the money in time to buy presents," said Bryce Pease, a certified financial planner at Capstone Pacific Investment Strategies in Covina, California. "Perhaps old habits die hard."
Behavioral economists also cite loss aversion as a factor. Essentially, the pain of getting a tax bill for hundreds or thousands of dollars is so great that most people would prefer to overpay throughout the year to make sure they won't end up in the red. For full-time workers, the fact that taxes are taken out before paychecks are sent out or deposited helps to minimize the feeling of loss. The big refund check, on the other hand, can feel like a reward or bonus, reinforcing the cycle.
"It's a brilliant strategy on the part of the IRS," said Klontz.
Read MoreDo you have an above-average tax refund?