Last-minute filers are working to ship their returns off to the Internal Revenue Service by the 2021 tax year deadline on Monday, April 18 — and likely are looking forward to a hefty check via their tax refund.

Some tax firms or other lenders might offer the option to get access to those funds sooner, in the form of a tax refund loan, also known as a refund anticipation loan.

Regulatory agencies and advocacy groups have warned of the potential downsides of the loans, especially those that come with hefty fees or high interest rates. Personal finance experts generally don’t recommend them.

Here’s what you need to know about the loans this tax season.

What is a tax refund loan?

A tax refund is, simply put, an advance on your tax refund, said Matt Schulz, chief credit analyst at LendingTree.

It’s a way to borrow against your tax refund to get access to the funds immediately: borrowing the amount from a lender and giving them the refund when you get it from the IRS.

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“Unlike a lot of loans, it’s not necessarily something that you shop around for,” Schulz said.

Tax refund loans are typically offered by a tax preparing firm, Schulz said. You won’t find them at your bank.

What are the pros and cons?

The upside of a refund anticipation loan is pretty straightforward: you get access to the amount of your refund right away, instead of waiting the days or weeks it might take to get the funds from the IRS.

The downside? “It may end up costing you,” Schulz said, in the form of interest or fees.

Some tax firms will offer you a tax refund loan with no fee, Schulz said. But, you’ll need to pay the firm to do your taxes for you.

“Even with a 0% loan there will still likely be a minimum which you pay to have your taxes prepared,” he said. “So if you’re somebody who’s already planning on getting your taxes done, that may not be that big of a deal.”

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Teresa Murray, director of the consumer watchdog office at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, says the cost can outweigh the benefit.

“We really urge people to avoid any kind of refund anticipation loan,” she said. “Anything where you’re borrowing against a refund that you haven’t gotten yet … it’s just got bad news written all over it.”

The North Carolina Consumers Council warns “think again” to anyone considering a loan against their tax refund.

“While getting a tax refund advance may sound tempting, these loans are really payday loans for tax returns, and you should avoid them whenever possible,” according to the council’s advice on its website. “The full amount has to be repaid, just like with any other loan, even if your refund is less than anticipated or ends up being no refund at all.”

When can I expect to get my refund?

The IRS issues more than nine out of 10 refunds in less than three weeks, according to its website. Taxpayers who filed electronically will get their rebate quicker than those who mailed in their tax forms.

And the department is getting quicker and quicker at passing out refunds, Murray said. Now, some electronic filers can expect to see the funds in their bank account in just days.

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“If you file a return electronically, you can get your money in, generally, four to six days,” she said.

North Carolina taxpayers may get their state tax refund more slowly but the upside is that a delay in accepting returns this year was due to a legislative reduction of the individual tax rate.

Should I consider a tax refund loan?

Schulz said if you really need the cash — and read the terms carefully — a tax refund loan can be an alternative to riskier ways of padding your bank account.

“Emergencies happen: job loss, medical emergencies, whatever the case might be,” he said. “(In that case), there are worse things that you could do than a tax refund.”

And assuming you did your taxes correctly, he said, a tax refund loan is a secured loan, with your actual refund serving as collateral. That makes it significantly less risky than, say, an unsecured payday loan with a sky-high interest rate.

Murray, on the other hand, warns against the loans in any circumstances. She suggests sticking it out until you get your rebate, especially since it might not take very long if you’ve e-filed and set up direct deposit.

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“If you’re that tight for money… find a friend or a relative to borrow money from for a few days,” she said. “Don’t go the refund anticipation loan route, because they’re just ridiculously expensive… you’re paying for your own money.”

While this year’s tax filing season winds down without the threat of a government shutdown, in the future that could make these loans even risky, according to the North Carolina Consumers Council.

“The frequent federal government shutdowns might make these types of loans more attractive if you want your refund quickly, which can complicate matters. Remember that a delay in getting your refund issued won’t be considered by the lender and won’t release you from any obligations to repay the loan on-time,” its website says.

Schulz added that large tax firms — like H&R Block or Jackson Hewitt — only accept applications for tax refund loans for a certain period, often between December and February. So for those filers, the window to apply for a loan may have already closed.

And Murray had one more piece of advice for any yet-to-be-filers: start earlier next year.

“When you’re rushed, you’re more likely to not be careful,” she said. “Anytime you have the words ‘not careful’ and ‘IRS’ in the same sentence, it’s not a good thing.”