Susan Tompor, USA TODAY
For many people living paycheck to paycheck, a big fat federal income tax refund just cannot arrive soon enough.
This season's tax refunds, though, are going to be one week late because the Internal Revenue Service couldn't begin processing the vast majority of returns until Jan. 30. Blame Washington for dragging out the fiscal cliff debate and tinkering too long with the tax code.
A week might not mean much to some. But many lower-income households could be more tempted to jump at fast-cash products offered through a tax preparer.
Consumer advocates are pleased to report this is the first year in decades that overpriced refund-anticipation loans will no longer be available from banks on a large-scale basis.
Even so, some high-cost products remain for getting cash quicker.
Liberty Tax Service, for example, has a refund transfer product called its Instant Cash Advance. A taxpayer could apply if he or she has at least a $1,500 federal tax refund.
In Michigan, the taxpayer would pay about $101 in fees and interest for a $1,700 loan via Liberty's Instant Cash Advance. The cash would be in the customer's hands 24 hours to 48 hours upon approval. That's one Benjamin out the door just to get some cash about two weeks or three weeks earlier than with typical electronic filing of a tax return.
Liberty notes that no credit check is needed. Several other states with Liberty offices, including Florida, Virginia and Texas, also can offer the cash-advance products.
H&R Block no longer offers a refund-anticipation loan.
But H&R Block does have refund-anticipation checks, which allow you to deduct your tax-prep fees from the refund. There's an extra charge of $24.95 for a refund-anticipation check to have your federal income tax refund deposited onto H&R Block's debit card called the Emerald Card. Or there's an extra charge of $34.95 if you have your own bank account for direct deposit and use a refund-anticipation check to cover the cost of tax preparation. Or there's an extra charge of $54.95 to have a paper check mailed to you as part of the refund-anticipation check program.
The refund-anticipation check program is typically used when people do not have a bank account and want to receive a refund faster than regular mail - or when they don't want to pay immediately for tax-preparation fees and would rather have those fees deducted from a refund, said Gene King, an H&R Block spokesman in Kansas City, Mo.
Jackson Hewitt is not offering refund-anticipation loans, but it has a refund-anticipation check product called "Assisted Refund," where fees are charged but a customer can avoid out-of-pocket costs at the time the tax return is filled out.
Consumer advocates question the notion of paying extra fees when lower-income people could qualify for free tax assistance and have refunds directly deposited into a bank account. Some free tax-help programs offer prepaid debit cards for tax refunds for those who don't have bank accounts, too.
"We're always concerned when consumers don't receive the entire balance of their tax refund," said Tom Feltner, director of financial services for the Consumer Federation of America.
"The desire to get a refund sooner is being used to get consumers to pay for tax preparation."
Millions of struggling Americans qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit - which can create extra-large refunds for working households. The federal Earned Income Tax Credit can generate up to $5,891 for working families.
But again, why waste any of that precious refund on tax-preparation services if one qualifies for free tax help?
Volunteer tax sites across the country are open now or will open in early February and will process returns for free if the family has an income of up to about $50,000 or the individual has an annual income up to $35,000 in many cases.
If your adjusted gross income was $57,000 or less in 2012, you can use the Free File program at www.irs.gov and select your choice of tax software for free.
Some consumers might not understand that refund-anticipation checks do not deliver refunds faster than the IRS can via direct deposit. Taxpayers who have a bank account should be able to get a refund in 21 days or less if they use e-filing and have money directly deposited. So why pay extra fees?
Some people could get talked into taking a tax-related loan that's made by a payday lender, instead of a major bank. And those loans could be even costlier and have more risk, said Chi Chi Wu, staff attorney for the National Consumer Law Center. Several states do not permit payday loans, but others, including Michigan, permit such loans with some restrictions.
Consumer advocates are concerned that unscrupulous tax preparers could engage in a "bait-and-switch" kind of a deal to just get customers in the door to pay for tax-preparation services. A consumer could pay $400 or $500 in tax-prep fees in hopes of qualifying for a refund-anticipation loan but then be denied that loan because of limited dollars available for such loans.
"They could be offering nothing at all," Feltner said.
Avoiding high costs for tax preparation, fast refunds
Low-income taxpayers can get free income-tax preparation through Volunteer Income Tax Assistance or call 800-906-9887. Or see AARP Foundation Tax-Aide sites.
Some groups and companies offer special tax days for free help for low- and moderate-income households. Cleveland-based KeyBank, for example, is partnering with non-profits in several cities, including Toledo, for a Super Refund Saturday service on Feb. 9. Visit www.key.com for more information.