Taxes are no easy venture for many people, especially when you’re filing on your own without a tax advisor. And it can be even more confusing when you see people using tax return and tax refund interchangeably — but there’s a big difference. Let me explain.

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The two terms sound similar and are sometimes conflated — someone might mistakenly mention that their “tax return” has been deposited in their bank account. But a tax return and a tax refund actually have different meanings, and it’s an important distinction to know.

Below, I’ll explain the differences of each term, and how to find out whether you’re getting tax money back this year. For more tips, be sure to check out CNET’s taxes cheat sheet.

What’s a tax return?

A tax return is a form you file each year with the IRS that gives your adjusted gross income, or AGI, expenses and other financial information. Most of these details come from your W-2 statement, which your workplace provides you weeks in advance so you can file your taxes, but you might also have a 1099 or other form for recording your income. 

Your tax return will include your gross income (which is different from your AGI), how much you’ve already paid toward taxes (through your company’s withholding or estimated taxes that you prepaid if you’re self-employed) and other important information you’ll need to file your taxes.

However, the tax return will also include things like deductions for your kids, how much you paid in student loan interest, health care coverage, Roth IRA contributions, home office expenses, business expenses and charitable donations. 

You must file a tax return in order to get a refund. However, just because you’ve filed a return doesn’t mean you’ll get a tax refund. 

What’s a tax refund?

A tax refund is what’s issued to you by the US Treasury if, in the previous year, you paid more in state or federal taxes than you needed to. For example, maybe your workplace withheld more money than was actually needed from your paycheck or you’re self-employed and wound up overpaying quarterly estimated taxes. 

The government will reimburse you the difference between what you paid (in your tax return) and what you owed as a lump sum payment. Also, any deductions you claim on your taxes can add to the amount you can expect to receive. Here’s how to track your tax refund with the IRS.

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After you file your taxes, you’ll find out if you’re getting a refund.

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How do I know if I’m getting a tax refund in 2024?

If you use tax filing software or a tax filing service, you’ll see a final estimate of how much you should receive after you file your tax return (including if you self-prepare). Once the IRS receives your return, assuming it finds no errors and accepts your return, it’ll send you an email or a text message letting you know your final refund amount. That means your money is on the way to your bank account or mailbox. You can track your refund from the time you file your taxes until you receive your payment. Note that it can take anywhere from one to three weeks to get your refund back.

For more information about your taxes, here’s how to get your tax refund up to five days sooner and all the states with later tax filing deadlines.

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