Except for a very select few, almost all federal taxpayers have the necessary materials in their hands to file their federal taxes by the middle of February. Nonetheless, every year, 40 million people in the United States wait until the week of April 15th (the federal deadline) to file their tax returns. This is just about a quarter of all tax returns filed in the United States. Most post offices remain open until midnight on April 15th just for this special class of procrastinators. Many of these procrastinators eventually receive tax refunds, and some refunds are substantial.
Waiting until the last minute can create a risk of missing the deadline. Those filing electronically might have their returns rejected for missing information or other errors. Sometimes communication lines go down in the waning hours of the 15th, overloaded by too many choosing to file at the same time. Those filing by mail often run into very long lines at the post office and risk missing the last opportunity to file. Moreover, putting off preparing taxes until the very last minute can create problems as taxpayers only realize that certain receipts or documents are missing once they have begun to fill out the forms. Ultimately, missing the deadline can result in financial penalties. So why do so many procrastinate until the last minute?
As teenagers and young adults we are bombarded with the advice to “never put off until tomorrow what you can do today.” Nonetheless, procrastination seems to be engrained into human behavior from our earliest opportunities to make decisions. We put off studying until we are forced to cram all night for the big test. We put off cleaning, maintenance, or other work until we are forced into action. Then we must complete tremendous amounts of work in a very short time. Procrastination becomes a problem when we prioritize activities that are not particularly important over those that have real and if not immediate at least long-term consequences. After one has been burned time after time by failing to study early or after a steady stream of financial emergencies that could not be covered by a meager savings, it would seem like time to stop procrastinating. A quotation attributed to Abraham Lincoln is, “Things may come to those who wait, but only the things left by those who hustle.” If that is so, why do we seem so apt to procrastinate? Some economists believe the answer lies in how we value today versus tomorrow versus the day after tomorrow.
Procrastination, like the hot–cold empathy gap described in Chapter 11, can result in time inconsistent preferences. We might see others who went to work right away, look back on our actions, and consider that we have taken the wrong strategy. Firms interested in selling products can use customer procrastination to their own advantage through price discrimination or by charging customers for services or the option to take some action that they will never exercise. In some cases, finding last-minute tax preparation is more costly than early preparation. In others, people might pay in advance for flexible tickets that they never actually find the time to use. This chapter introduces the exponential model of time discounting, the most common in economic models, and the quasi-hyperbolic model of time discounting. The latter has become one of the primary workhorses of behavioral economics. This model is expanded on in Chapter 13, where we discuss the role of people’s understanding and anticipation of their own propensity to procrastinate.