I first became aware of the issue as I was stepping toward the bar while waiting for a table at an authentic Wisconsin supper club after a fun but exhausting afternoon getting my nine-year-old some ski time at Wilmot ski area in Southeast Wisconsin.
A friend of mine, a Wisconsinite by birth, had been claiming a proper Old Fashioned cocktail could only be truly experienced at a real Wisconsin supper club. Old Fashioneds are my before-dinner cocktail favorite, and this was to be my first supper club meal ever, I was excited to be educated.
So, when the phone started buzzing, I was a bit annoyed. It was my oldest daughter calling from Indy. It was rare she would call on a Saturday night; I thought I’d better answer.
Her voice was anxious on the line, “Dad, something is wrong with TurboTax. We just finished our taxes and it says we owe.” I could literally taste the subtle orange peel and cherry muddle on my lips, and she was talking about TurboTax.
“Well,” I responded dismissively, “you guys (she’s married) both switched jobs and got raises last year and sometimes that happens. It can’t be that much, just pay it.”
“No Dad, it's like A LOT, and it says we have penalty!”
A penalty! At this point the warm glow of the cocktail bar seemed to fade into the distance. I could spend a couple minutes on this issue, and I stepped outside into the quiet cold. I was confident they would not run out of brandy.
As it turns out TurboTax was not wrong. She and her husband were underpaid and owed money on their 1040. Now, a month later, social media is ablaze with this topic as Millennials and others not used to actually sending checks to the government are now having to do so.
I felt like I had a good understanding of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. I thought the bill was well thought out, and that most middle-income taxpayers would get some tax relief. Was I wrong? I’m not a tax accountant, but I am married to one, so together we set out to do some investigation.
First, let’s get it out there. Whether or not one owes money or gets a refund when filing their form 1040 (aka tax return), is only nominally correlated with how much federal taxes they actually paid. In my opinion the best result when filing a return is to owe a tiny bit. This means your tax withholding or payments were accurate, and you didn’t give the government an interest-free loan to hold your money for a few months. Big tax refunds may be fun, but they’re not all that smart.
Second, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act was a material overhaul to how individual taxes are calculated. It changed the exemption and deduction process, it reduced marginal rates and income levels and it expanded some tax credits. In truth, the changes were so material, it's kind of difficult to compare many parts of a 2018 1040 return to prior years. So, I asked my wife to review some sample returns to look at total taxes paid from 2017 to 2018.
We looked at four returns. A married couple with $111,000 in income and two kids paid $2,785 less in total tax last year, a retired couple with $54,000 in income and no kids paid $1,593 less and a single person with $68,000 income paid $900 less. Only a married couple with $157,000 in income and two kids paid $1,078 more.
This about lines up with my initial understanding of the new tax rules. I think the most important thing to note when hearing the online angst about tax returns is the government did change the employment withholding tables in February 2018 in an effort to promote immediate effects from the tax cuts. It looks like these tables may have been out of alignment for some workers, and it might not be a bad idea for those who like refunds to visit their HR department to revisit their withholding.