Recession-weary taxpayers awaiting a tax refund check from Uncle Sam will not indulge in unbridled consumer spending this year.
Instead, 84 percent of Americans receiving refunds intend to pay down debt, save or invest their windfall or use it for everyday necessities, according to a new Bankrate.com poll.
Only 7 percent plan to fritter the money away on a shopping spree or vacation.
On the other hand, 40 percent of those who believe they owe taxes say they are not prepared to pay up. Nevertheless, only 6 percent plan to borrow money, though 17 percent say they intend to set up an installment plan with the IRS.
And six in 10 people (63 percent) will pay their taxes with funds straight from their bank accounts.
Bankrate commissioned Princeton Survey Research Associates International to gauge Americans' feelings about the looming tax deadline and whether or not they're prepared to pay the taxman.
Overall, 30 percent of Americans intend to pay down debt with their tax refund, 28 percent say they will save or invest it, and 26 percent have earmarked those funds for necessities such as food or utility bills.
"I think it is a sign about how people feel about the economy and where we are going. There is still a lot of uncertainty out there," says Bryan Pukoff, CPA and principal at Rehmann, one of the largest financial services, accounting and consulting firms in the Midwest.
"That is different than what we have seen in the past. People generally take a portion of their refund and spend it on something for themselves — a vacation or a new car. The percentages actually surprise me," he says.
Greg McBride, Bankrate.com's senior financial analyst, points out that regardless of economic conditions, putting the money directly into an IRA would be a smart move from a financial planning point of view.
How citizens will receive the refund
The vast majority of Americans, 88 percent, will receive their refunds via check or direct deposit from the U.S. Treasury.
The survey showed that 3 percent of respondents plan to have their refund deposited into multiple accounts, including an IRA.
"I find that troubling, considering how woefully under-saved for retirement our society is," McBride says. "The recent survey from the Employee Benefit Research Institute showed that 54 percent of Americans have less than $25,000 saved for retirement. The tax refund is the biggest windfall people are going to get all year," he says.
Three percent of those getting a refund took a refund anticipation loan. For people with incomes under $30,000, that number jumps to 6 percent.
"Here is what that really means: You gave your money to the government for free all year and now you need it back so quickly that you're going to pay a high interest rate just to get your own money back that you could have had all year," says McBride.
Of those who owe the government money, four out of 10 say they are not prepared for the added expense.
Despite that, six out of 10 Americans (63 percent) who owe additional taxes plan to write a check straight from their bank accounts. Only 6 percent say they will need to borrow money. Another 17 percent plan to set up an installment plan with the IRS.
"That comes at a cost. You have to pay interest, plus there is a late payment fee every month and a user fee just to set up the installment plan," McBride says.
Not everyone relishes the idea of giving the government an interest-free loan all year long. In fact, one-fifth (19 percent) of those who expect or who received a refund say they adjusted or plan to adjust their withholding to get a smaller refund next year.
"It's good to see people adjust their withholdings, but it is probably because they need the money now to meet their day-to-day living needs," says Bell.
"Hopefully when the economy picks up, they will still be able to do that and take the little bit extra and put it into savings throughout the year," she says.
Though withholding too much money makes little sense financially, many people enjoy getting a large refund check, viewing it as a kind of forced savings account.
But that practice isn't viewed as a smart move by experts.
"Most are not going to adjust their withholding," says McBride. "Seventy-five percent of those who are employed are likely to give the government another interest-free loan this year," he says.
Though the "bonus" may seem nice, Americans don't need to wait until tax time to pay down debt or save. By giving the government only what is owed and exercising financial discipline, taxpayers can have free use of their money all year long.
Results are based on telephone interviews with a nationally representative sample of 1,002 adults, age 18 and over. The interviews were conducted from March 18-21, 2010, under the direction of Princeton Survey Research Associates International. Interviews were conducted on both landline and cell phones using random digit dial (RDD) sample. Sample demographics were weighted to match population parameters derived from the Census Bureaus' 2009 Annual Social and Economic Supplement data. The overall margin of sampling error is plus or minus 4 percentage points for results based on the total sample. Results based on smaller subgroups are subject to larger margins of sampling error. In addition to sampling error, the practical difficulties of conducting surveys can also introduce error or bias to poll results. For full results and methodology, download this PDF.