More Americans are counting on their tax refunds to help them stay afloat this year as inflation lingers

That’s despite smaller refunds expected this year as pandemic-era stimulus programs expire.

By Rob Wile

Even as experts say tax refunds are likely to be smaller this year compared with other pandemic years, nearly half of all Americans now say their tax refund will be critical to their household finances.

A new survey from Bankrate found that 43% of Americans say this year’s refund is “very important” to their financial health, with another 32% saying it is “somewhat important.”

That 75% total compares with last year’s 67% who said the refund was important.

The higher measure comes as the expiration of emergency stimulus programs like the expanded child tax credit are expected to shrink the size of refunds that filers can expect this year. Indeed, through the week ending Feb. 17, tax refunds have averaged $3,140, compared with $3,536 last year.

But with inflation at multidecade highs and debt levels steadily climbing, Bankrate found high levels of anxiety associated with how far those tax refunds will ultimately go. Thirty-four percent of those surveyed said they are worried the money won’t make as big of an impact “due to inflation/rising costs,” while another 19% expressed concerns about covering rising interest payments with them.

Compared to last year, more survey respondents, 28%, said they would use their refund to pay down debt. It was 23% last year. Another 26% said this year they would use their refund money to boost their savings, down from 32% last year.  

Despite the relative dependence on a tax refund, Bankrate senior industry analyst Ted Rossman said counting on that money as a key financial planning tool is generally unwise, even though that’s the reality for many households.

“You’re getting your money back, which you have lent to the government at 0 percent interest, throughout the past year,” Rossman said in a Bankrate news release.

“Remember that a tax refund isn’t free money,” Rossman said. “While some people prefer to receive a lump sum because they fear they would fritter away the bits and pieces throughout the year, it’s generally better to adjust your withholding, so you get more money from each paycheck and essentially break even at tax time.”