What to Do If Your Refund Is Delayed and Your Bills Aren’t

Laura McMullen
By Laura McMullen 
Edited by Courtney Neidel

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The IRS is behind on processing tax returns, due to staff shortages and other complications. This delay could be holding up the money you were counting on to cover your bills.

Many people were looking to their tax refunds to do some major lifting, according to a NerdWallet survey published in February. Among filers expecting a refund, 32% say they planned to use it to pay down debt and 30% planned to catch up on bills.

If you were expecting — and needing — to have a check in hand by now, here’s how to keep your finances together until Uncle Sam pays up.

Prioritize necessities

If you’re really strapped, limit discretionary spending and focus on paying for essentials like housing (mortgage or rent), groceries and utilities. Prioritize expenses that enable you to work and earn money, such as transportation and child care.

Consider essential expenses you have to pay now, but look ahead to June and July, too, says Brent Weiss, a St. Petersburg, Florida-based certified financial planner and co-founder of Facet Wealth.

Check for large upcoming bills so you can plan for them now and aren’t scrambling all over again in a few weeks. For example, if you have an annual bill due in June, Weiss recommends calling customer service to see if you can pay it in a monthly cadence instead. If so, you’ll be on the hook for a much lower payment next month.

Call lenders and service providers

Prioritizing bills is one thing, but having the means to pay them is another. If you can’t pay the rent or mortgage and other bills in full, pick up the phone.

A call to customer service can be an effective way to get a bill lowered or deferred, and all it costs is a bit of time. Missing payments, on the other hand, can lead to late fees, dinged credit and worse.

On the phone, be calm and explain the situation. The person on the other end is often willing to help, Weiss says, particularly in situations like this, when you’re facing something outside your control.

In fact, if your income has been affected by COVID-19, you may be eligible for payment help from your credit card issuer or personal loan lender.

As for your mortgage, look into forbearance, which allows you to pay lower monthly payments, or delay payments, for a certain period of time. Some lenders offer forbearance programs specifically for borrowers affected by COVID-19.

Get free advice

Your lenders and service providers are far from the only organizations that can help. The Association for Financial Counseling & Planning Education, or AFCPE, currently offers a free virtual session with a financial counselor or coach.

These professionals can help you with the basics of personal finance, like which expenses to prioritize when you’re tight on cash, says Justin Nichols, a certified financial planner and co-founder of Garrett Investment Advisors in Manhattan, Kansas.

To register for a session, visit the AFCPE's website.

For help to cover basic needs, visit or call 211. You’ll be connected with resources and programs that may help you pay bills and rent, secure food, access internet services and more.

Prepare for next year’s taxes

If you’re waiting on a massive refund, it’s likely because you took advantage of a large amount of refundable tax credits or you’re withholding too much on the W-4 form you gave your employer, says Nicola Cyr, an enrolled agent (a federally authorized tax practitioner) and manager of advisor services and investments at Garrett Investment Advisors.

If it’s the latter, you’re basically giving the government an interest-free loan that is repaid in the spring. Reduce the withholding amount, and you’ll take home more money each paycheck and receive a smaller refund.

In other words, if you expect a $3,000 refund later, wouldn’t you prefer to get $250 per month now? As Weiss puts it: “At least it’s available to you and not sitting in the ether somewhere with the IRS.”

Weiss recommends scheduling a time at least twice a year to review withholdings to prevent a giant refund or nasty tax bill.

As for preventing delayed refunds, Weiss suggests filing early and electronically, rather than mailing a paper tax return. And opt to get your refund by direct deposit, instead of a paper check. Weiss says the filers who followed those steps likely already received their refund this year.

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