LOUISVILLE, Ky. — It’s a question a lot of folks are asking lately as they open up their mail or their bank account: “WHAS up with my tax return?!” (Ok, I’m paraphrasing to include our branding, but you know, roll with it).

Many people are complaining online that their refunds this year are smaller than they were expecting. Some have even been shocked to find out they owe Uncle Sam money. IRS data from the first couple weeks of returns tells us they’re not fibbing.

So, what’s going on here?

Did your mom ever tell you the story about frogs in boiling pots of water? One little frog jumps into the pot while the water is still cold, and doesn’t notice as the temperature gradually gets warmer; but a second little frog jumps in after the water is already hot, and immediately jumps back out. 

Well, those frogs with water temperature are kind of like us with money.

See, in previous tax filing years, we were probably like the second frog. We were paying more in taxes each month, but then getting a big refund all at once at the end of it all. It was noticeable. 

This year, we’re more likely the first frog. We’re keeping more of our paychecks each month, but because of that, the government owes us a lot less during return season. Since we’re not getting that sudden influx of cash, it’s less noticeable.

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Apparently, it’s more psychologically satisfying to overpay the government over the course of the year, so that we can get more back at the end. We like giving Uncle Sam an interest-free loan, it would seem.

We’re talking taxes here, so there are absolutely going to be exceptions, but by and large, most people are going to come out ahead under the new tax law (at least for this year). 

The Tax Policy Center crunched some numbers during the law’s passage, and experts there estimate that only about 6% of households in America are paying more in taxes. 65% are paying less.

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Howard Gleckman, a senior fellow at the Tax Policy Center, points out that we need to be looking at our “tax liability” (i.e. how much we’re paying the government overall) and not the size of our refund when we decide how much of a hit we took.

“All a refund means is that you gave the IRS too much money in tax withholding last year, and you’re getting some of it back,” Gleckman said. 

“So what you’ve really got to do is you’ve got to check and see what happened with your take-home pay during the past year. And if it went up, then you’re going to see a smaller refund. If it didn’t go up, then you might get a bigger refund.”

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