NerdWallet 2019 Tax Study, Part II

Early Filers Surprised by Big Refunds — or Big Tax Bills

By Elizabeth Renter
April 2, 2019

When you’re accustomed to getting a tax refund, finding out you owe can be a gut punch. Nearly one-third of the taxpayers facing a federal tax bill this year received a refund last year, according to a new NerdWallet survey conducted online by The Harris Poll.

The survey finds nearly 1 in 5 (18%) of Americans who have prepared or filed their 2018 federal tax return reported owing additional money to cover their tax bill. Of those, almost one-third (32%) say they received a tax refund on their 2017 federal return when they filed last year.

At that rate, a possible 7.9 million taxpayers who received federal tax refunds last year may get a tax bill this year, according to NerdWallet analysis of the survey data.

“Many people think of their tax refund as a sort of year-end bonus,” says NerdWallet tax specialist Andrea Coombes. “Finding out you actually owe money can be an upsetting surprise.”

At the time of our survey, Feb. 27 through March 1, almost 6 in 10 Americans (59%) had filed or at least prepared their 2018 federal tax return, and many already had their refunds. Of those who had finished their returns, 60% were expecting or had received a refund. Of those anticipating a refund who had filed, 71% had already received their money.

“The 2019 tax season has been marked by more uncertainty than most, both because of the government shutdown and changes from the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act,” Coombes says. “While it’s great to see a majority of Americans have filed their taxes and many have been receiving their refunds quickly, there’s still some uncertainty. Our study shows that taxpayers are facing surprises — both good and bad.”

Earlier in the year, we asked Americans how they were feeling going into tax season. See the first part of our 2019 Tax Study for those results. Now that many have filed and others are in the process, we wanted to see if the reality is living up to expectations.

Many people think of their tax refund as a sort of year-end bonus. Finding out you actually owe money can be an upsetting surprise.

Andrea Coombes, NerdWallet tax specialist

Key findings

  • Many are done long before the deadline. Almost 6 in 10 (59%) Americans had filed or at least prepared their 2018 federal tax return when our survey was conducted. But some of them may be waiting a bit longer — 6% of taxpayers say they’ll file at the last possible moment, due to the new tax law.
  • Those getting refunds may be surprised. Among those who have filed or prepared their 2018 federal tax return, 60% are expecting or have received a refund, averaging $2,697. When we asked earlier in the season how much taxpayers thought they would get, those expecting a refund projected $1,861, on average.
  • More than one-third notice smaller refunds than the prior year. More than one-third (35%) of those receiving a federal refund say it is less than the refund they got for the 2017 tax year. But only slightly fewer (32%) said this year’s was more.
  • Wait-time for refunds. Of those expecting a federal refund who have filed, 41% received their refund in two weeks or less, despite potential concerns that the government shutdown early in the year would slow refund processing. However, parents who filed early waited longer than others.
  • Some who owe received a refund last year. Just 18% of those who have prepared or filed their 2018 federal tax return say they are left with a tax bill. But of those, 32% say they received a refund when they filed their 2017 taxes last year, and nearly one-fourth (23%) say they owe more than last year.
  • Mixed feelings about tax law changes. Nearly equal rates of Americans filing 2018 tax returns are stressed or anxious (22%) about filing as are confident (21%) about it, considering changes with the new tax law. Confidence is highest among baby boomers, while stress or anxiety is highest among millennials and Generation X.
  • Tax law drives changes in filing behavior. Nearly 6 in 10 taxpayers (59%) say they’re doing something differently in their filing this year due to the new tax law. The two most common changes: using tax software (22%) and hiring a tax professional (19%).

Federal refunds are higher than expected…

When the survey was conducted, 59% of Americans had filed or at least prepared their 2018 federal  tax return. Millennial taxpayers, those ages 23-38, were more likely to have filed or at least prepared their taxes early (by March 1). Nearly three-fourths (74%) of this age group had prepared or filed at the time of the survey, compared with 53% of Generation Z, ages 18-22; 57% of Gen X, ages 39-54; and less than half (49%) of baby boomers, ages 55-73.

Three in 5 Americans (60%) who have prepared or filed their 2018 federal income taxes are getting a federal refund, with an average refund amount of $2,697.  When we asked those expecting a refund in December how much they thought they would get, they estimated $1,861 on average.

Millennials are receiving the biggest refunds — $3,013, on average, compared with $2,944 for Gen Xers and $1,943 for baby boomers.

Here’s how this year’s refunds measure up to last year’s:

Those receiving more than they anticipated have an opportunity to boost their savings or get ahead of their debt. When we asked in Part I of our study, 46% of those who expected a refund planned on putting it into some kind of savings, and 31% planned to pay down debt.

Taxpayer tip: “There’s no question our best-laid plans can blow out the window once the money is actually in our hands,” Coombes says. “It can really help to write down your money goals, to plan out how your refund can help you achieve those goals. If you’re already doing well on money-smart moves like paying off debt, then a tax refund can be a great way to build a retirement fund. And you might even qualify for a tax deduction on an IRA contribution.”

» MORE: Find the best IRA accounts here

… and tax bills are larger than last year

Nearly 1 in 5 (18%) of those who have prepared or filed their 2018 federal tax return owe the federal government money. On average, those who owe have a bill of $2,119.

Nearly one-third (32%) of those who have discovered they owe say they received a federal refund last year. NerdWallet estimates a possible 7.9 million taxpayers could be caught with a bill this year after having gotten a check from Uncle Sam in 2018.

Here’s how this year’s tax bills measure up to last year’s:

Taxpayer tip: Those facing a tax bill will want to pay their balance as soon as possible. The IRS charges hefty interest rates on that debt. If you can’t pay it in full, apply for a payment plan on the IRS website.

Parents waiting longest for refund checks

Of those who have filed and received a federal tax refund, 41% got payment in two weeks or less. Less than one-third (30%) waited more than two weeks.

Parents are among those who waited the longest for refunds — 43% of those with children under age 18 waited more than two weeks, compared with 18% without children under 18. Parents who filed early may have experienced a hold on their refund, according to the IRS. The agency didn’t start processing refunds for those claiming the Earned Income Tax Credit or Additional Child Tax Credit this year until Feb. 27.

Older taxpayers confident; younger ones stressed/anxious

We asked 2018 federal filers which emotion best described how they feel about filing this year “considering changes with the new tax law.” Baby boomers were most likely to say they feel confident (24%) versus 18% of millennials and 17% of Gen X. Millennials (23%) and those in Generation X (28%) were most likely to cite feeling stressed or anxious versus 18% of baby boomers.


Many worried about making errors

Nearly 4 in 5 Americans (78%) say they’d be worried if they found out they had filed their income taxes incorrectly. The most common concern: finding out they owe more in taxes than they paid. This ranking of worries has changed slightly since our 2018 Tax Study, when getting audited was the top concern.


Taxpayer tip: Most tax software programs have error detection built in, but even they’re not fail-proof. Take your time when doing your taxes and ask questions through your software company or the IRS itself. Above all, remain calm. The likelihood you’ll be audited is pretty slim, and the chances you’ll be fined or go to jail for a truly honest mistake are negligible.

For anyone short on cash, these refund anticipation loans can be appealing because they promise quick access to your refund…but you may end up paying for tax-preparation services that you don’t really need.

Andrea Coombes, NerdWallet tax specialist

Tax law spurred behavior changes

When we asked if taxpayers were doing anything differently with their 2018 federal tax return “due to the new tax law,” nearly 6 in 10 (59%) said their filing behavior had changed. Millennials filing 2018 federal taxes were most likely to do something differently due to the tax law — 68% compared with 56% of Generation X and 50% of baby boomers.

Using a tax software program was the most frequently cited change (22%). Nearly 1 in 5 filers (19%) say they hired or will hire a tax professional, 10% say they filed earlier than usual, 6% say they plan on filing at the last possible moment and 3% say they filed an extension.

Another 3% say they took out a tax refund advance or refund anticipation loan for the first time. These taxpayers may have jumped the gun, thinking refunds would be delayed due to complications with tax changes or the government shutdown earlier this year. But with many refunds processed in less than two weeks, according to the survey, these filers may have paid unnecessary fees and interest.

Taxpayer tip: “For anyone short on cash, these refund anticipation loans can be appealing because they promise quick access to your refund,” Coombes says. “Many of these loan products promise zero interest and low or no fees, but you may end up paying for tax-preparation services that you don’t really need. Plus the IRS is actually really fast in getting refunds sent out — most people should get their refund in three weeks or less.”

Too few plan on changing their withholding

One way to avoid an unexpected tax bill (or to prevent overpaying throughout the year) is to update your tax withholding, or the amount of money held out of every paycheck. When we asked in December whether people had done so within the past year in response to tax law changes, just 16% said they had.

We asked again about future plans to update tax withholdings — something the IRS recommends you do every year — and found just 17% plan to do so based on how their 2018 income tax return panned out.

Taxpayer tip: “Your Form W-4 is like the North Star for your finances,” Coombes says. “By taking the time to check up on your withholding now, you’re setting a course so that enough of your money shows up in each paycheck. That way, you can pay your bills on time and save for the future even as you’re making sure you don’t end up with a big bill at tax time.”


This survey was conducted online within the United States by The Harris Poll on behalf of NerdWallet from Feb. 27 – March 1, 2019 among 2,031 U.S. adults ages 18 and older, among whom 1,789 are filing 2018 federal income taxes. This online survey is not based on a probability sample and therefore no estimate of theoretical sampling error can be calculated. For complete survey methodology, including weighting variables and subgroup sample sizes, please contact Megan Katz at [email protected].

NerdWallet defines generations in the following manner: Generation Z, ages 18-22; millennials, ages 23-38; Generation X, ages 39-54; baby boomers, ages 55-73; and Silent Generation, ages 74-91. If a generation is not named in a specific result, it’s due to a small reporting base and cannot be considered a representative sample.

Estimates of 2018 tax year filers who received a federal refund last year and a federal bill this year are based on total filings of 2017 federal income tax returns as of April 20, 2018, assuming total filing numbers will be comparable this year and the rate of those surveyed receiving federal tax bills (18%) after refunds (32%) will continue throughout this tax season.

“Filers” refers to people who have filed or are planning to file a 2018 federal income tax return.

All survey questions were specific to federal income tax returns.