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Tax-Time Procrastination, An American Tradition

People wait in line inside the Farley Post Office building on Tax Day 2009 in New York City.
People wait in line inside the Farley Post Office building on Tax Day 2009 in New York City.

The April deadline comes around at about the same time every year. Still, with just a few days left before taxes are due, many people continue to put off filing.

The boxes of receipts, stacks of W-2s and 1099s are daunting enough. Add in row after row of fill-in boxes on the 1040, and it's no wonder so many people procrastinate.

NPR's Neal Conan talks with Joe Ferrari, a psychology professor at DePaul University, and Liz Weston, a columnist at MSN Money, about why so many people wait until the last minute to do their taxes, and the lessons they've learned over years of filing.

First, Ferrari puts procrastination in context. "What we have shown in the research here at DePaul University," he says, "is that 20 percent of adult men and women — there's no significant sex difference — are chronic procrastinators." That group procrastinates on everything, from responding to invitations to filling the gas tank, and, almost certainly, filing taxes.

But what about people who don't procrastinate that much but still put off filing? "I think part of the problem is there's no incentive to file early," says Ferrari, especially if you owe money. The solution, he suggests, is not to penalize late filers, but reward those who get theirs turned in early.

Weston says the biggest worry for taxpayers is that ignorance can lead to missed deductions. "You could be making mistakes and not knowing it because there was some obscure court decision that came down that changes everything," she says. "That's why a lot of us turn to professionals."

Even tax pros need some time to get it right. "f you give it to your tax pro at the last minute," Weston warns, "that increases the chances that he or she will make a mistake. So, you know, a little bit of lead time is a really good thing."

Tell us: What do you dread most, and what you have you learned about doing your taxes?

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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