Walk in with your W-2 and walk out minutes later with your tax refund. This service is available from many tax preparation companies. It may sound too good to be true. That’s because it is.
That speedy refund is costing you big time. You see, it’s not really your tax refund. You are actually borrowing your own money and paying interest on it. It’s called the refund anticipation loan (RAL).
RALs are trotted out every year by tax preparers like H&R Block and Jackson Hewitt. These companies front you the money you expect to get back from the IRS. Then you don’t have to suffer through the one- or two-week wait if you file online directly with the IRS.
In exchange for your rapid refund, you pay significant up-front interest charges. Those charges can eat away as much 10 percent of your total refund, according to a Georgetown University study. On top of that, you pay fees for the privilege of having a temp fill out your tax return and file it with the IRS. If you choose to have your loan deposited directly in your back account, that’s another fee. Put the loan on a debit card? Another fee, plus usage fees.
RALs are perfect for the impatient and the broke. Low-income earners make up the biggest part of this market. And it’s no surprise that college students are targeted heavily in ads for this “service.” People turn to tax prep companies when they don’t understand IRS forms. They often don’t realize they are signing up for a loan, let alone that they are paying huge fees.
If you have a complicated financial situation, you should probably contact a CPA. Otherwise, there are plenty of helpful free resources available in your community and online. Then you can file your own return, at no charge, with the IRS at IRS.gov, with either eFile or Free File. You’ll have your refund in your bank account in as little as a week.
Two tax prep resources to look into are:
- Volunteer Income Tax Assistance: Call 1-800-TAX-1040 or go to tax-coalition.org to find trained volunteers in your area.
- AARP’s Tax-Aide program for seniors: Go to aarp.org/money/taxaide/.