By JANE BRYANT QUINN

If you're due a refund on your income taxes, how fast can you get it? And is it worth taking a quick loan to lay your hands on the money even sooner?

Here are the outside dates for receiving your refund, according to the IRS: about five weeks if you send your tax return by mail; three weeks if you file electronically and get a check back by mail; one to two weeks, for electronic filers who have the refund wired directly to their bank accounts.

You can get money even faster within two to four days if you take what's called a "refund anticipation loan," offered by major tax preparers. But you pay a high price to have your money in hand a few days early.

You're not getting a "rapid refund," as you might believe. You're getting a very short-term loan, equal to your refund, minus fees.

Your tax return is filed electronically. A week or two later, when the IRS clears your actual refund, it's wired to the lender to pay off the loan. Loans range from $200 to a maximum of $4,000.

Nina Cunningham, a marketing specialist for Jackson Hewitt, the nation's No. 2 tax preparer, says that around 5 percent of its clients took the loan last year. At the No. 1 preparer, H & R; Block, it was 18 percent.

H & R; Block's Edward Feinstein, assistant vice president for electronic commerce, says the loan is helpful to people so broke they need instant money to pay their bills, or who simply want their money right away.

But people that short of cash shouldn't be throwing away their money on deals like this. It's cheaper to pay a phone bill late than to borrow for just a few days. It's also cheaper to dip into lines of credit, if you have them.

Take the loans offered through H & R; Block by Beneficial National Bank. The finance charge ranges from $39.95 for a $500 loan up to $89.95 for a $4,000 loan.

Stated as an annual percentage rate (APR), and assuming the loan lasts 14 days, that amounts to 225 percent interest on the smaller loan and 68 percent interest on the larger one.

The effective rate will be much higher if the IRS clears your refund in fewer than 14 days.

And that's only part of the cost. Borrowers pay H & R; Block anywhere from zero to $30 for electronic filing, depending on which office you go to. When that's figured into your APR, the interest rate is higher still.

At some offices of Jackson Hewitt, first-time borrowers pay a flat $51 and can't borrow more than $750. On a $500 loan, that's an APR of almost 377 percent, assuming the loan lasts 11 days.

If you borrow again, you'll pay 4 percent of the loan amount. That's $20 for a $500 loan, up to $86 for a $4,000 loan. There's also a $25 application fee and a $24 bank fee, so the cost mounts up.

Kathleen Keest, an Iowa assistant attorney general, calls the loans "instant gratification for people who don't stop and think about the price tag."

The borrowers certainly don't check the APR, or they'd run screaming from the office. And they may not realize how fast they can actually get their refund, if they have it wired directly to their bank account, Keest says.

Handling everything by wire can also be cheap. When you don't take a loan, electronic filing is free at all Jackson Hewitt offices and at about one-third of H & R; Block's.

The lenders say the interest rate has to be high on these loans, because of the risk.

Some of the borrowers owe back taxes, child-support payments or student loans. The government might seize their refund to help cover these debts. Then the lenders have to try to collect the debt directly.

Until 1994, the IRS told the lenders in advance whether a refund would be made. In that year, Beneficial's loss rate was just 0.23 percent, says spokesman Robert Wade. H & R; Block says the bank charge then was a flat $29.

In 1995, the IRS quit disclosing whether refunds would come, losses jumped to 4.74 percent and bank fees rose. By last year, however, banks were weeding out risky applicants and losses fell to 1.65 percent lower than regular credit card charge-offs.

Bottom line: Don't borrow. Wait a few days and keep the entire refund yourself.

Tax changes

You don't have to turn to an income-tax preparer this year to tussle with the details of last summer's tax cuts. There are plenty of new rules, but most of them won't affect your 1997 returns.

There's one big exception: figuring the tax on capital gains, which is going to be, um, painstaking.

Otherwise, this year's tax return remains pretty cut and dried. Most taxpayers can probably use last year's return as a guide, says IRS Commissioner Charles Rossotti.

Here's what's new:

- The standard deduction. It rises to $6,900 for married couples filing jointly, $6,050 for heads of household and $4,150 for singles. Itemize your deductions only if they exceed these amounts.

Generally speaking, you're a head of household if you pay more than half the household costs of a relative who lives with you, or a parent wherever he or she lives.

- Personal exemptions. You can write off $2,650 this year, for yourself and each dependent. This tax break phases out for couples with adjusted gross incomes higher than $181,800, heads of household over $151,500 and singles over $121,200.

- Spousal individual retirement accounts. These are for spouses who have little or no income of their own. If your mate qualifies for a tax-deductible IRA, he or she can put up to $2,000 in a separate IRA for you. You can also use a non-deductible IRA.

The big beneficiaries: homemakers, most of them female. Also retirees whose spouses still work. You have until April 15 to deposit the money and still deduct it on your '97 return. IRAs are available at banks, mutual fund groups and stock brokerage firms, depending on where you want to invest.

Which workers qualify for a full 1997 IRA? (1) Employees with no company pension plan (and whose spouse doesn't have a plan). (2) Employees who have a plan and earn no more than $25,000 if single and $40,000 if married and filing jointly. Above those ceilings, the IRA deduction phases out.

Don't confuse these traditional, tax-deductible IRAs with the new Roth IRAs that started this year and are open to almost everyone. For 1997, you're entitled only to the old-fashioned kind.

Syndicated columnist Jane Bryant Quinn can be reached in care of the Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St., Washington D.C. 20071-9200.

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