Forget to claim your tax refund?

There’s so much anxiety this time of year. And it’s not just because of college basketball’s March Madness. No, right about now is the beginning of “April Madness,” better known as tax time.

Some of you might be cursing at how much you owe the government. Or you’re happily awaiting a refund. And yet, speaking of the latter group of folks, the Internal Revenue Service estimates that there are about 1 million people who have yet to collect their federal refund from tax year 2012. You heard that right.

The IRS says nearly $1 billion is on the table. The government gives you up to three years to file a return and get any refund you’re owed. The window for tax year 2012 closes April 18. (Taxpayers in Maine and Massachusetts have until April 19.) By the way, refunds will not be sent to those who also haven’t filed returns for 2013 and 2014.

If you owe taxes, it’s important to file your return on time in order to avoid having to pay a penalty. But there’s no fee for filing late if you are due some money back.

Maybe you didn’t file a return because you thought you made too little money to be required to. But that’s a mistake for low- to moderate-income folks who might have qualified for the earned income tax credit. For 2012, the credit for working people was worth up to $5,891. To qualify, you had to have met the income requirements. Here are the thresholds for 2012, according to the IRS:

$45,060 ($50,270 if married filing jointly) if you had three or more qualifying children. Note that you can’t claim the credit if your filing status is married filing separately.

$41,952 ($47,162 if married filing jointly) if you had two children.

$36,920 ($42,130 if married filing jointly) if you had one child.

$13,980 ($19,190 if married filing jointly) if you didn’t have any qualifying children.

The maximum amount of credit for the 2012 tax year, depending on whether you have a qualifying child, was:

$5,891 with three or more children.

$5,236 with two children.

$3,169 with one child.

$475 with no children.

The median uncollected refund for 2012 is $718, the IRS estimates.

So what could you do with about $700 bucks?

It could be the start of an emergency fund. A survey released earlier this year by Bankrate.com found that 63 percent of people haven’t been able to set aside at least $1,000 to handle a financial crisis.

A newer survey by Bankrate.com found that 28 percent of people receiving a refund this tax season say they’ll use it to pay off some debt. Another 27 percent said they need the money for necessities, such as food or utility bills.

Know someone in college?

Sixty-four percent of college students in a recent Edvisors’ survey said they had run out of money in the middle of a semester. Some had received less financial aid than they expected. Others went broke from paying a steep price for textbooks. In other cases, the financial situation of their parents had changed for the worse.

Speaking of college, if you’ve been waiting for some money to open a college-savings plan, a nice big refund can give you that jump-start. Go to savingforcollege.com to learn about the tax advantages of such a fund.

You could also take some of the refund and stash it away in a “life happens fund” for the unexpected things that tomorrow might bring, such as a car repair. And here’s an idea: Designate $500 of that new fund as extra money you may need to pay a higher deductible for your car insurance in case of an accident. Then contact your insurer and increase your deductible, which can save you money on your premium.

A report released this year from InsuranceQuotes.com found that consumers could save money on their premiums by increasing their deductible from $500 to $1,000. On average, the savings was 9 percent but could be much higher depending on where you live. Keep saving to build up your fund so you don’t have to touch your deductible money.

The bottom line: Make sure you’re getting all the money you are owed. And, as I try to remind people every year, if you routinely get a large refund without some major change to your tax situation, alter your withholdings so you get that money during the year. But if you are going to get a refund, do put it to good use.

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