Tax refund delays: Why are millions still waiting for their money in July?

Almost two months ago, taxpayers hustled to avoid late penalties by filing their taxes in time for this year's delayed May 17 deadline.

But — as it's been forced to process a greater number of returns by hand and deal with broken office equipment and staffing shortages — the IRS has had a hard time meeting its own deadlines this year.

Previously, taxpayers owed refunds could count on getting their money within three weeks of submitting their returns. But not this time: As of the end of June, the tax agency reported it had a backlog of over 35 million individual and business income tax returns still awaiting processing.

That means if you're waiting for a refund you've needed to cover urgent expenses and pay down debt, it could be a while longer before you get the money.

Reasons behind the holdupJuan Aunion / Shutterstock

The IRS says its logjam is mostly the result of a "pandemic-related evacuation order" that kept employees out of the agency's facilities.

Most of the IRS workforce has been working from their homes, but certain tasks can't be done remotely — requiring employees to be on-site to receive, sort and distribute mail, and process paper tax returns.

The IRS says its backlog includes: about 16.8 million paper returns that haven't been dealt with; about 15.8 million returns that require extra attention; and some 2.7 million amended returns needing processing.

The agency also has been struggling with a serious manpower shortage — in early March, more than 4,400 processing positions were vacant, according to an inspector general's report.

Aging office equipment has been another problem. As of March 30, IRS management estimated that 42% of the machines used for processing tasks were unusable, while others were broken but still functional. Printers and copiers were out of ink, or their service contracts had expired.

The advice for taxpayersRob Crandall / Shutterstock

Unfortunately, there’s not much consumers can do to speed things up.

"For taxpayers who can afford to wait, the best advice is to be patient and give the IRS time to work through its processing backlog," says national taxpayer advocate Erin M. Collins, in a recent report to Congress.

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The best thing you could have done was make sure there were no errors or incomplete details when you filed your tax return. Mistakes and missing information can get returns flagged for review by human beings.

Don't get so frustrated that you file your taxes a second time, because that can cause an even longer delay. And calling the IRS may not help much, as the agency says its phone lines have been providing "the poorest service ever." As few as 3% of callers have been able to reach a live person during the 2021 filing season.

What you're left to do is monitor the IRS Where’s My Refund tool in hopes it'll give you an update on your super slow refund.

What to do if you needed your refund yesterdayMargJohnsonVA / Twenty20

"Particularly for low-income taxpayers and small businesses operating on the margin, refund delays can impose significant financial hardships, says Collins in her report.

According to the IRS, this year's average tax refund amount is $2,850, which is a significant amount of money to be waiting for. If you've needed that cash to pay bills or deal with credit card debt that has piled up during the pandemic, here are a few options to free up a little more cash in your budget.

  • Slash your insurance bills. With so many drivers using their cars less frequently because of COVID, some auto insurance companies are offering discounts. Not yours? Sounds like it's time to find a policy at a better price. While you’re at it, you also could save hundreds on homeowners insurance by shopping around for a lower rate.

  • Refinance at a better rate. Have you looked into refinancing your home loan in the last year? You could be missing out on some truly game-changing savings. An estimated 14 million homeowners have the potential to save an average $287 a month with a refi, according to mortgage and data technology provider Black Knight.

  • Take small steps that can add up to big savings. Drop any unused streaming subscriptions you're not using, always go to the grocery store with a list you'll stick to, and use a free browser add-on that automatically hunts for better prices and coupons whenever you buy online.

  • Get your coins working for you. Generating extra income in the stock market can be affordable and beginner-friendly. One popular app helps you invest your "spare change” and grow a diversified portfolio.