It’s tax time again. While it may not be everyone’s favorite time of the year, for millions of Americans it also means refund time. And, with tax reform now at the top of the national agenda, it’s also worth remembering that the annual tax filing ritual has tremendous potential benefits.
In fact, direct citizen engagement in the tax compliance process is more than just an obligation – it is participation in our government and in the civic life of our country – as is the exercise of the right to vote. It is also an empowering opportunity for all Americans to look in the fiscal mirror and to take stock of – and ultimately improve – their personal and family financial lives.
Preparing our taxes is our own financial checkup and a way to become more informed and empowered to take positive actions to ensure financial wellness. It’s a time to ask the tough questions that can make or break our budget or change the course of our lives. Are there job training or educational opportunities that can help grow my career and income? Am I contributing all I can and should for retirement? Should I open an education savings account for my children?
Indeed, savings at tax time – even setting aside a portion of refunds – could do a great deal to change the trajectory of our long-term financial future as individuals. If carried out on a national scale, it could measurably improve our savings rate and provide a boost to our economy.
Although reviewing the previous year’s spending and savings can be burdensome, placing this power into the hands of the people through the tax filing process guarantees a status check and provides the opportunity for each of us to take charge of our financial condition.
As Congress and the Administration tackle the hard work of writing tax reform legislation, we should also reflect on the good that our American tax system has to offer and the citizen empowerment it embodies. If tax time is a teachable moment for financial literacy, leveraging that for individual and national economic benefit should be part of the policy agenda as we turn to the upcoming debate on tax reform.
For many households, an increase in personal savings means a greater ability to cover personal emergencies, pay for continuing education, start a small business, or prepare for a secure retirement. However, it’s hard enough for families at low-income levels to just make ends meet. Saving even a small portion of a small paycheck is huge challenge. And for those who are able to save a little, unexpected expenses or losses of income often means draining the pot of savings, making the ability to accumulate money very difficult.
Yet there is more that can and should be done to encourage and reward savings at critical income levels.
Like so many of the issues that we face as a country, we believe our national savings challenge requires government and the private sector to pull in the same direction, using multiple means to inspire and incentivize Americans to save more.
For our part, Intuit has supported and participated in a personal savings initiative that was developed in collaboration with researchers at Washington University in St. Louis and Duke University.
The research is called Refund to Savings, or “R2S,” and a big part of its mission is to apply lessons of behavioral economics to encourage tax filers to save a portion of their refunds at tax time.
For many Americans, especially those at low-income levels, tax refunds are often the biggest single payment they receive all year. What the R2S project has taught us is that the “tax time moment” is an opportune time for people to take account of their finances and to help people think about setting aside money for the future. Partnerships like this, and public-private partnerships that promote savings such as those Intuit has with the U.S. Treasury to promote savings bonds and myRA, provide even more opportunities for savings at tax time.
For the government’s part, economists generally agree that the tax code could work more effectively to incentivize savings. Particularly for those at low-income levels, savings could be made simpler and more rewarding.
So, while we recognize that Congress and the Administration already have a tall order in front of them in the tax reform debate, we nevertheless encourage policymakers to think beyond simplifying the code for individuals and making it more competitive for American companies.
Promoting, encouraging and incentivizing Americans to use the “tax time moment” to assess and improve their overall financial health should be on the agenda as well.