Why Do We Procrastinate Doing Our Taxes? Here's 5 Reasons.


While it’s possible to file your taxes months in advance, it’s commonplace to procrastinate and not get to the task until the last minute—increasing the chances of making mistakes and overpaying while you’re at it. According to surveys, tax procrastinators have been known to overpay by hundreds due to mistakes that came as a result of rushing the process and making last minute changes, and they fork over roughly double the amount that early filers pay just to get their taxes done. Understandably, procrastinators are also much less comfortable with their often-frantic filing methods they’re forced to employ as the clock is ticking. 

There are many benefits to filing early, starting with that it would shorten our misery and just get the whole thing over with. Also, many people expect to get a refund, and whether it’s $5 or $5,000, that’s money you’d have sooner in your pocket rather than in the government’s coffers.

To get to the heart of why people put off completing their taxes, we need to understand what causes the more generic, run-of-the-mill procrastination. There are five basic reasons why we procrastinate. Perhaps there are more, but we'll get to that some other time.

1. No obvious penalties. Many people procrastinate for the simple reason that they’ve gotten away with it in the past. The government doesn’t care whether you file early or not, so if you get your return in just before the deadline there’s no harm, no foul. Not officially anyway. But doing your taxes at the last minute is likely to lead to mistakes, and mistakes can lead to an ugly audit, which includes the possibility of very real penalties.

2. Excuses, excuses, excuses. You can always justify procrastination by blaming the circumstances. Excuses tend to be of the self-serving variety, and if other people engaged in the same procrastination as you, you’d be skeptical if not downright convinced that they were fudging the truth. Things are different when it’s you who is making the excuses. Self-serving biases fall into the general category that psychologists call the “fundamental attribution error.” Through this process we’re blinded to our own flaws and forgive ourselves for all sorts of mistakes and imperfections, including tardiness, with any number of excuses conveniently helping the cause.

3. Perfectionism. Though seeking perfection may seem like a desirable quality, it can actually leave people incapable of moving forward on high-stakes tasks, such as doing their taxes. For perfectionists, the fear of making a huge goof—paying too much, or screwing up so badly you’ll wind up in serious legal trouble—can be paralyzing. People with a strong need to have everything just so may have all the work on their taxes done months ahead of the deadline, but put off filing because they want to make sure they haven’t made any errors. They may also wait in hopes that they’ll find a new angle that will save them money. In the meantime, the tax process is torturing them, and the government is holding onto a refund that could already be in the perfectionist’s bank account.

4. Waiting = excitement. Originally developed by DePaul psychologist Joseph Ferrari, the concept of “arousal procrastination” was originally met with skepticism. However, a 2011 study of college students (procrastinators par excellence) revealed that for certain individuals, procrastination produces the “kickstart” needed to put them in high gear. Researchers found that undergraduates high on the quality of extraversion (outgoingness) were more likely to fit into this pattern of procrastination. Extroverts, by definition, seek stimulation from outside of themselves. Waiting until the last possible moment to tend to an important task can actually give these people a powerful emotional high.

5. Grace under pressure? Hardly. Plenty of people operate under the misconception left over from their school days: a totally irrational and unfounded theory that they do their very best work when a deadline is rapidly approaching. The majority of people are actually less effective and more prone to making mistakes if they wait until the last minute, but myths learned in the past are hard to correct. Our faulty memories of the past lead us to remember the times we came through in glory racing through the finish line. We tend to gloss over the times when we embarrassingly tripped or failed to finish the race, though.

And although Oscar Wilde was brilliant and a master of wit, his famous quote; "Never put off till tomorrow what you can do the day after." should be, if at all, taken seriously after April 18th. 2017. Get your stuff together and let's go get these taxes done, team! 

evan wolf