Every month further removed from tax season means next year's deadline is creeping up around the corner. And as manual and electronic tax preparation services alike start to craft their ad campaigns for next winter - whether they want Americans to "get their billions back," or they're lining up 2017 Nobel Laureates to help customers "do taxes smarter" - they may be interested in the filing behavior of the country's most coveted demographic: Millennials.
A recent study by NerdWallet tried to nail down the tax filing behaviors of Millennials, and what they found was fascinating. According to the report, 80 percent of Millennials - typically typecast as worry-free and careless - are concerned about making a mistake on their taxes, not getting a full refund, or paying too much. That's far more than the 60 percent of adults ages 55 and up with the same trepidations.
Liz Weston is an award-winning personal finance columnist and author of several books about money, including the best-seller Your Credit Score. At NerdWallet, she helps provide clarity for all of life's financial decisions. Her weekly syndicated Q&A column, which appears in the Los Angeles Times and other papers, gives straight, clear answers to the money problems Americans face. I had a chance to talk to her about this study and ask her what she thinks is fueling this generational fear.
"Millennials just haven't filed many tax returns yet, and it's natural to be fearful of something you don't have a lot of experience with," Weston explained. "We also may have some sort of legacy fear, because in the '80s, the IRS would come to you and do random audits and your life would be torn apart, so it might be residual fear. However, Millennials don't realize the IRS has had its budget gutted and left by the side of the road to die."
But even stranger is how Millennials channel this fear. Roughly a third (34 percent) of millennial taxpayers turn to friends or family with questions rather than tax professionals (27 percent). That's compared to 38 percent of all other taxpayers who seek a professional's advice. They're even less likely to actually hire a tax preparer: 17 percent compared to the national average of 29 percent. Why is a generation that can teach themselves CSS coding in a day and has a PhD in hunting down information via Google so scared to go looking for information?
"They're viewing their parents as a strong support system, but I'm not sure they are," Weston said. "Tax law changes all the time, so I wouldn't even try to do my own taxes. But lack of resources plays a factor here, too. It takes a couple hundred bucks to have someone do you taxes, and some young people just don't feel they can afford it."
Maybe the strangest statistic comes from the method Millennials use to file their taxes. Despite the fact that this group grew up on the Internet, they have a higher rate of mailing in paper returns (17 percent) compared to taxpayers 35 years of age and older (8 percent).
"I really don't know why Millennials are paper filing," Weston admitted. "I think it could have something to do with the fact that Millennials are filing very easy returns. We picture Millennials as being very tech savvy, but maybe they're not. Maybe they're just not as comfortable filing like their parents are more apt to do."
One thing Millennials say they are doing is saving. Roughly four in 10 Millennial taxpayers who received a refund last year say they saved or invested the cash, while over half (54 percent) who anticipated getting a refund in 2016 think they should invest or save it. Weston thinks we shouldn't take them all at their word, but is encouraged by their goals.
"We all have great intentions until the money is in our checking account, so maybe we should approach that with a little bit of skepticism, but there have been so many studies about how many people can't even come up with $500 in case of an emergency that maybe it's hitting home," Weston speculated. "But even if we remain skeptical, that optimism survived the Great Recession. It really bodes well for us as a country, and it's one of the many reasons I believe we're in good hands for the future."