Tax season is just around the corner, which means it’s that time to ask yourself a familiar question: will I owe money, or will I get a refund? It’s one of the most commonly asked tax questions, so it’s a good idea to fully understand how the IRS determines whether you owe it or it owes you.
First, it’s crucial to understand that when you file tax returns this year—2023—you are filing tax returns based on income earned from Jan. 1, 2022, to Dec. 31, 2022. Then, based on the amount of taxable income your household had, your household pays a certain percentage of that income to the federal and state governments (note* that some states do not have income tax).
Second, most people choose to have these taxes taken from their paychecks incrementally over the course of 2022 in the form of tax withholdings. This ensures they don’t owe a large sum come April of 2023. This is standard practice for working Americans.
Now, there are two crucial points to understand. One, the amount of taxes you are obligated to pay does not change if you choose to withhold taxes throughout the year or you choose to pay all your taxes the following April; only the timing of your tax payment changes. Two, even if you choose to withhold taxes throughout the year—done by filling out form W4 with your employer—the amount of taxes being withheld is seldom an exact figure. In other words, you might have withheld too much or too little over the year.
This is where the refund part comes into play. What, exactly, is a refund in everyday life? It’s the return of a payment you were not required to pay in the first place. A tax refund is no different. If you owed the IRS $10,000 for 2022 taxes but gave it $11,000 over the year, you will receive a $1,000 refund in the spring of 2023 after you file your return.
Conversely, if you owed the IRS $10,000 for 2022 taxes but only gave it $9,000, you will owe the IRS an extra $1,000 when after you file your return. The $10,000 amount owed does not change. This is the common misconception of a tax refund: if you receive money back from the IRS, it is not extra money, but, instead, it has been your money all along, the IRS is simply returning it to you several months after you gave it to them.
In essence, receiving a tax refund is simply getting the money back that you temporarily lent to the IRS or your state government. It’s more of an emotional gain than a financial gain since you didn’t receive extra money, but, understandably, people would much rather receive money than owe it each April 15. To avoid an unpleasant tax surprise in April of 2024, make sure you withhold a sufficient amount of federal and state income taxes from your paycheck in 2023.
A handy IRS link will help you get your withholdings correct.
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