Lee Mullins' tax refund totaled nearly $8,000 this year. But he never saw a penny of it.
It went straight to paying off a federally subsidized student loan, a debt the Gainesville man has been struggling to pay off during the recession.
Thirty percent of Americans will use their tax returns to pay off debts this year, according to credit and information management company TransUnion.
Of the 216 people who received free tax return services through the Gainesville Community Service Center this year, many fit the national trend.
"We asked people were they going to buy furniture? Were they going to do home improvement? Were they going to buy a computer or laptop or a mobile home or house or a motorcycle or any luxury items," said center director Phillippa Lewis Moss.
"And for the most part, people are like ‘No, we're paying down our debt.'"
Moss said the clients were asked how much money they had in their savings and checking accounts. Of those who answered, she said, the highest figure was about $120.
"People are living paycheck to paycheck," she said. "That's frightening."
Americans living with uncomfortably tight budgets are trying to reduce their liability and the threat of losing their homes by using returns to dig out of debt, Moss said.
The TransUnion study also showed 20 percent of Americans will put their refund in savings.
Charles Hinson of Lula doesn't have any bills he needs to pay off with his return. But he plans to hold onto the money and use it as a buffer zone for medical bills.
"There's just less money to go around," Hinson said.
Angela Hayes of Gainesville, too, said she used her tax return to pay off bills, as she does every year.
But this year, feeling more confident about the economy, Hayes decided to have a little fun with some of her refund.
"I took my grandkids on a trip (to Florida)," she said. "We haven't been able to take a trip in a while."
Thirty-four percent of Americans, including Mike Welborn of Sautee Valley, won't receive a tax return this year.
"I don't count on it," Wellborn, 66, said. "It's a bonus if I get one."
Today is the deadline for filing tax returns.
According to the IRS, the average return so far has been $2,895.