By Melanie Hicken
NEW YORK (CNNMoney) — Fewer Americans are expecting the financial boost of a tax refund this year.
In an American Express survey of roughly 1,500 adults, 59% of respondents said they expect a refund check this year, down from 64% last year.
At the same time, 19% expect to owe money come tax time, compared to just 13% in 2012. And nearly 30% of respondents with a household income greater than $100,000 said they expect to owe the IRS this year.
The growing number of people who owe taxes is likely a sign that the economy is improving, said Will McBride, chief economist at the Tax Foundation, a nonprofit research group.
“They are earning more and that means they get less from the IRS,” he said.
Of those who will owe money, most said they would pay with cash from their checking or savings account. But nearly 15% said they would pay with a credit card, up from 7% last year.
Of those expecting a refund, 37% plan to use it to pay down debt or bills, while 26% plan to save the money. Only 28% said they expect to spend their refund check on themselves or family, travel, home improvements or a big-ticket item.
“The mentality from the recession is still there,” said Melanie Backs, an American Express spokeswoman. “While people are feeling more confident, they learned some valuable lessons.”
The coveted refund checks, which averaged about $2,700 last year, should come in handy as consumers deal with smaller paychecks after a two-year payroll tax “holiday” expired this year.
Pennsylvania resident Kelly Benedetti said she and her husband would love to spend their expected tax refund on travel abroad. But instead, Benedetti, 32, and a research scientist with a PhD in educational research from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, said she will put the extra cash, which she estimated will be less than $1,000, towards her student loan debt from graduate school.
“Nine years in higher education really gets you,” she said.
A newlywed and new homeowner, Benedetti said she was surprised to be receiving a refund at all because she aims to pay the exact amount of taxes she owes throughout the year to avoid giving “an interest-free loan to the government.”
“I just don’t understand how people want these huge giant refunds,” she said. “It means they’ve overpaid all year.”