A few years ago, Whitwell resident Jason Freeman brought home an $8,000 federal tax refund and promptly treated his wife to a vacation in Cancun, Mexico.
But this year, he's only planning to put new tires on his truck and pay some bills with the $1,400 refund he collected.
"It's not as good as last year's refund," he said with a wry grin.
The payroll tax changes that cut into most Americans' paychecks and an uncertain economy have created a sea of tentative consumers this tax season, according to the National Retail Federation.
The top three ways consumers plan to spend their tax refunds are to put the money in savings, to pay down debt and to pay everyday expenses, according to a National Retail Federation survey.
Only 10 percent of consumers will spend their refunds on vacations, and about 13 percent will use the extra cash to make a major purchase like a car or television.
Chattanooga resident Valencia Cameron said she'll use her $1,400 refund to pay bills, loans and a tithe to her church.
"I may splurge and buy something for myself, but I don't have any specific plans," she said. "You get $1,000 and think you're rich, until two hours later when you pay the bills."
The average American snagged a $2,803 refund on returns filed in 2012, according to the Internal Revenue Service, which was about $100 less than the average refund for returns filed in 2011.
Last year, the IRS dished out more than $309 billion in tax refunds to over 110 million taxpayers. And despite the slower spending this year, some area retailers still are seeing a boost in February sales.
"February is always a big time for used cars sales," said Jerry Durham, manager at Valley Auto Sales in LaFayette, Ga. "For a used car dealer, the month of February is like the month of December for a retailer at the mall."
He started buying cars in June to sell this month, and has about 300 cars stockpiled.
"It's all tax-refund driven," he said. "We were worried this year, since the IRS didn't start taking refunds until the end of January. Initially they said it'd be Feb. 20 before people started getting checks, but we actually started seeing returns around Feb. 5 or 6."
At Morgan Furniture and Rent-to-Own in Dayton, Tenn., Phyllis Payne said business is about 50 percent busier this month than normal.
"February and especially the last week or so has been quite busy," she said. "People are buying new living-room furniture, bedding and recliners. We are seeing the effects of the refund, thank goodness."
But Andy Smith, who owns River City Electronics, said the number of people spending their tax returns in his shop is way down.
"Normally by this time of year, especially on Friday and Saturday, I should have people coming in the door, and they're not," he said. "I was assuming the problem was that everyone has to file later. But now I'm beginning to think they're spending it somewhere else."
But he said the slower sales won't have a major impact on him, because he never counts on a boost during tax season.
"You can't depend on that," he said, "because you never know what people are going to do."
Shelly Bradbury covers police and crime in Chattanooga and Hamilton County for the Times Free Press. She's been with the paper since 2012, working first as an intern and then as a business reporter. She is from Houghton, New York, and graduated from Huntington University in Huntington, Indiana, with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and minor in management. Before moving to Tennessee, Shelly previously interned with The Goshen News, The Sandusky Register and The Mint ...