Tax Refunds and Why they Seem to Go So Quickly

Many people use their tax refunds to address personal finance issues like paying off debt, fattening a savings account or putting money down on a new home. For others, a check from the IRS means nothing of the sort; it ends up being spent on vacations, new clothes and other extravagances. For decades, public opinion surveys have posed this question to people who are lucky enough to owe Uncle Sam nothing when mid-April comes around. Those folks who over-paid their tax throughout the year, typically via a higher-than-needed withholding percentage, receive checks from the IRS for the balance. Users of TurboTax tax planning software usually know the exact amount of their refund check long before it’s in the mail or on the way to their bank account via direct-deposit.

People who use multi-faceted software like at can actually “see” their tax refunds a couple of years ahead, as long as their income is moderately predictable. The beauty of tax software is the ability to plan ahead and acquire the peace of mind that comes with knowing all the details are taken care of each April at filing time. Some social scientists have made a cottage industry out of studying what people do with this money and why. For some, the amount is nothing more than pocket change, under $50. Others purposely keep withholding amounts very high in order to snag huge refunds, often in the neighborhood of $5,000 or more. In 2019, the average tax refund check, for those who received one, was $2,724.

That’s real money, but what do people do with it? Does it go directly to savings, end up on casino tables or find its way into college funds? In fact, there are dozens of ways people spend their refunds. Here are the top four things taxpayers did with refunds in 2018:


Those who receive smallish refunds tend to use the money to buy gifts for themselves or others. This takes the form of clothing and jewelry when spent on oneself and more creative items when the gifts are for other people.


About half of tax refunds end up in savings accounts or college funds for children. People often plan to give savings accounts a needed “boost” with an annual tax refund. With the average refund amount at more than $2,700, that’s quite a boost.


A time-honored favorite for refund recipients, travel expenses can represent short vacations or luxurious, once-in-a-lifetime trips to exotic destinations. Travel industry experts says there’s usually a bump in vacations right around tax time each year. It’s no doubt the result of all those IRS checks hitting personal bank accounts.

Bills and Debt

The sobering fact about tax refunds is that about one-third of all the money simply goes to pay off short- and long-term bills like mortgages, credit cards, car payments, medical bills and other lackluster, everyday financial realities. Some people do a hybrid of the “savings” and bill-paying strategy by doubling or tripling up on house payments with refund money.