Should you apply for a refund advance from your tax preparer?

Big tax preparers offer zero interest or no fee programs on refunds, but watch out for fees on the back end.
Image: Couple doing paperwork with a calculator at home
It’s early in the tax season, but so far the average refund ($1,996) is 9.2 percent less than last year, according to the IRS. Nomad / Getty Images
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By Herb Weisbaum

For many Americans, that tax refund is their biggest cash windfall of the year.

File electronically and choose direct deposit and you should get your refund in about 21 days, the IRS says. Some people can’t wait that long; they have bills to pay — now.

Many low- or moderate-income taxpayers who claim the earned income tax credit or the additional child tax credit, may not see that money until the end of the month or early March.

A refund advance from one of the major tax preparation companies can provide you some of that refund money in a day or two. These short-term loans, ranging from about $200 to $7,000, bridge the gap between filing your return and getting your refund.

Consumer advocates have routinely criticized tax refund loans because of the sky-high interest rates and steep fees. But things are changing.

The big names in storefront tax preparation — H&R Block, Jackson Hewitt, Liberty Tax — all offer tax refund advances with no fees and no interest. (The loan programs at TurboTax and TaxSlayer have now expired.)

“Today’s tax refund advances are much better than earlier products that were offered, but you have to be careful and read the small print,” said Tobie Stanger, senior editor at Consumer Reports, who recently analyzed the various tax refund advance offerings.

With direct deposit from the IRS, your refund goes into your bank account. With a tax advance, a bank that’s working with the tax preparer loans you that money which is typically loaded onto a prepaid card. (Jackson Hewitt does offer direct deposit). That advance is automatically deducted from your refund to pay back the loan, and any remaining balance goes onto your prepaid card.

“That prepaid card can be loaded with fees that drain the value of your refund,” said Scott Astrada, director of federal advocacy with the Center for Responsible Lending. “These are the fees that are not readily apparent when you decide whether you want a refund advance loan.”

For example, with some of these prepaid cards, you’ll pay between $2.50 and $3 for every ATM withdrawal. There may also be a monthly service fee. If you go this route, be sure to ask about the fee structure — and if there’s a way to use the card for free at certain ATMs.

Here’s a look at those no fee/zero interest offers still available.

H&R Block Refund Advance

  • Advance amounts: $500, $750, $1,250 or $3,000
  • Deadline to apply: Feb. 28

Jackson Hewitt No Fee Refund Advance

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  • Advance amounts: $200, $500, $750, $1,000, $1,500 or $3,500
  • Deadline to apply: Feb. 24

Liberty Tax Easy Advance

  • Advance amounts: $500, $800, $1,300
  • For advances between $2,500 and $6,250 there is a finance charge of as high as 35.77 percent.
  • Deadline to apply: Feb. 28

YOU’VE GOTTA PAY TO PLAY

Tax preparation companies offer refund advance loans because they get people in the door.

“It’s something our clients want,” said Susan Waldron, director of communications at H&R Block. “A lot of people live paycheck-to-paycheck and they want to get their money quickly and we can do it for them with this no-interest and no-fee product.”

Keep in mind: In order to “apply” for the refund advance loan, you must have that company do your tax return.

“You have to pay for that tax preparation, even if you have a very simple return that you wouldn’t need to pay someone to prepare,” said Andrea Coombes, tax specialist at the personal finance website NerdWallet. “So the preparation fee for this is really the cost of the tax preparation.”

Except for H&R Block — which launched a transparent pricing program this year — you won’t know how much that tax preparation fee will be until the work is done. Even then, there’s no guarantee you’ll qualify for the loan at the end of the process.

“These are actually loans that are underwritten, and if you don't qualify for a loan under normal circumstances, which a lot of low-income taxpayers don't, then you're not going to qualify for one of these either,” said Mandi Matlock, a tax attorney who does work for the National Consumer Law Center. “But by the time you find that out, you've already agreed to pay whatever tax preparation fee is being charged and you're stuck. If the loan application is denied, you can’t go elsewhere to try to get that loan.”

H&R Block told NBC News BETTER that about 75 percent of those who apply get the refund advance. That means one out of four is denied.

You May Be Eligible to File Your Taxes for Free

Many taxpayers are eligible for free tax preparation and filing:

  • The AARP Tax-Aide program offers individualized tax preparation and e-filing for those 50 and older who have low-to moderate-income.
  • The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program offers free tax help from IRS-certified volunteers to people who earn $55,000 or less and those with disabilities and limited English speakers.
  • Anyone with an adjusted gross income of $66,000 or less for 2018 can use The IRS Free File Program to prepare and file your return electronically for free.

SPEAKING OF REFUNDS — YOU MAY BE IN FOR AN UNPLEASANT SURPRISE

It’s early in the tax season, but so far the average refund ($1,996) is 9.2 percent less than last year, according to the IRS. That’s coming as quite a surprise to many people.

“A smaller tax refund doesn't mean that you paid more in taxes this year,” said Greg McBride, chief financial analyst at Bankrate.com. “The withholding tables were adjusted, so the reality is you got a lot of that refund sprinkled throughout 2018 in all of your paychecks."

Personal finance experts all agree: Withholding too much in order to get a big refund is not smart financial planning.

"Ideally, you don't want to get a big refund because that means you've given an interest-free loan to the government,” McBride told NBC News BETTER. “You'd either like to get a small refund or even pay a small amount and instead get your money throughout the year with each and every pay check."

Some people insist on getting a big refund because they see it as a self-imposed savings program. For those who feel this way, at least be sure to put that refund to good use.

“Use that windfall to pay down debt, to boost your savings or to make a retirement contribution,” McBride said.

A better solution for those who don’t have the discipline to save: Adjust your withholdings to eliminate the big refund and take that extra money from each paycheck and have it automatically deposited into your rainy-day savings account.

MORE TAX TIPS

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