Isadora Bielsky's tax bill this year brought her to tears. Last year, her family of four's refund topped $3,600. This year, the Colorado family owed in the thousands.
"I plugged it all in and at first I thought oh my goodness we're getting $8,000 back and then I realized it was the wrong color … so I went back in and checked everything and then I started to cry," Bielsky said.
Many Americans are learning their tax refund is not as much as they expected, or they are receiving a big tax bill. The average refund compared to last year has dropped nearly nine percent, according to the IRS. This is the first tax season since the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act went into effect.
Owing just over $8,000 was bad enough but Bielsky said it felt even worse because last year, she went on the IRS website to make sure the government withheld enough taxes from her and her husband's paychecks.
"I have a PhD in neuroscience, my husband had an MD. If we can't figure this out, and we can't rely on the IRS and their calculators to give us the right information, what are we supposed to do?" Bielsky said.
William Gale, the co-director of the Tax Policy Center, said many Americans did get a tax cut but unless they made the correct changes to their withholding, the money may have wound up in their paychecks last year in smaller amounts.
"A lot of households live paycheck to paycheck and the refund is the single largest payment they get all year," Gale said. "The IRS had to tell people what to withhold and it's a difficult problem for tax payers, but it's even difficult for tax experts at the IRS." The IRS said last year, refunds averaged around $2,100, but this year so far, it's averaging about $1,900. "It is important to go check your withholding and update your W-4 if you are surprised this year because it is really critical to get your tax situation and your withholding amount to the proper amount so you don't have a surprise again in 2019," said Matt Leas, who is with the IRS. Bielsky said she believes in paying taxes but doesn't think it's fair to expect average Americans to save money they don't know they're going to need.
Most people haven't filed yet and the IRS doesn't know how many others may be in the same boat.
One word of advice though: if you can't afford to pay what you owe in a lump sum, reach out to the IRS. It offers payment plans, and while painful, that will be a lot better than the alternative: facing some stiff penalties that would cost you even more money.