Personal Finance

Here's how long people tend to stretch their tax refunds

Key Points
  • Six months after getting a check from Uncle Sam, households manage to retain nearly 30 percent of their refund, according to an analysis by J.P. Morgan Chase Institute.
  • Tax refunds add up to nearly six weeks of take-home pay for the average family receiving them, the bank’s think tank found.
  • Nearly 80 percent of the 8.3 million households in the analysis received refunds and owed nothing.
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Whether people are investing their tax refunds or using them to pay bills, one thing is clear: They're stretching their cash through the remainder of the year.

Six months after receiving a check from Uncle Sam, families still managed to have an average of 28 percent of their tax refund remaining, according to a data analysis by J.P. Morgan Chase Institute.

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The bank's think-tank studied 8.3 million families — all of whom had a Chase checking account in 2015, 2016 or 2017. The participants either received at least one tax refund via direct deposit or made at least one electronic tax payment from that account during those years.

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"I was surprised that they had this much of their refund six months later," said Fiona Greig, director of consumer research at the institute.

"There is also a 'glass half-empty' perspective," she said. "The refund gives them a boost for the first half to three-quarters of the year, but not the whole year."

Here's what people are doing with the cash they get back.

Spending patterns

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Families receiving a refund took home an average check of $3,602, according to the analysis. The median refund was $2,601.

Expenditures tend to jump the week after the refund arrives, according to the study. Recipients spent an average of $330 the week they got their money back (in comparison, they withdrew an average $125 during a baseline week).

How can I access the funds throughout the year? Through smoother saving and spending.
Fiona Greig
director of consumer research at J.P. Morgan Chase Institute

Taxpayers also used their refunds to cover their credit card bills, making an average payment of $167 the week after getting their money, according to the study.

Finally, consumers also spent their money on durable goods, including home appliances and furniture. Average spending on these items doubles during the week after taxpayers get their refunds, the study found.

Retaining cash

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Taxpayers managed to hold onto at least some of their money throughout the year.

By the time six months have passed since the refund's arrival, average checking account balances are still up by $404, while an average $608 has been transferred to other accounts, the institute found.

In all, that $1,012 saved represents about 28 percent of the average refund, according to the study.

Saving or splurging

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Managing your tax refund and your expenses is a balancing act, and families could use some help doing so.

Getting a large sum of money back from the IRS likely indicates you're withholding too much in taxes during the year. While you won't owe the taxman the following spring, you've also chosen to reduce your take-home pay.

"For families, withholding is a great savings tool in many ways," said Amar Hamoudi, a senior consumer researcher at J.P. Morgan. "You set it, forget it and reduce the risk that you'll end up with a payment at the end of the year because you didn't pay enough taxes."

However, in an ideal world, taxpayers would withhold enough taxes at work that they neither owe a large bill to the IRS nor do they get a huge refund.

Going forward, it might make the best sense to re-evaluate your withholding to save the money you'd otherwise overpay in taxes and then evaluate your spending patterns.

"How can I access the funds throughout the year? Through smoother saving and spending," said Greig. "How do I also make sure that when my tax refund arrives that I use it to the best and highest purpose?"

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