Making "Cents" of Your Federal Income Taxes

Do you know how Uncle Sam spent your tax dollars last year?

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With tax filings due in just a few days, most people are thinking about how much they owe the federal government or, if they're lucky, how they'll spend their refund.

But whether you're writing a check to Uncle Sam or heading to the mall, it's worth taking a look at some other tax-related numbers, namely how the federal government spent Americans' income tax dollars last year.

Once Americans pay their income tax, those funds are designated by the U.S. Treasury as "federal funds," which means Congress and the president pretty much have free rein to use that money to fund just about any government activity.

So where did your 2011 tax dollars go?

The biggest chunk—about 27 cents of every 2011 federal income tax dollar—went to military spending, according to the National Priorities Project, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization that analyzes the federal budget.

The next largest portion—21.4 cents—went to health programs, which includes some funding for Medicare.

"It's remarkable to know how much goes to health programs [even with] the payroll taxes that we have that go toward [programs such as] Medicare," says Mattea Kramer, senior research analyst at the Massachusetts-based National Priorities Project. "It is the writing on the wall that health care programs are costly and they're getting more costly all the time."

"It's a sign for people of all political persuasions that we have to get serious about figuring out how to deal with health care," she adds.

Another standout is the share of income tax dollars that goes toward paying interest on the federal debt—a whopping 14.5 cents. That's almost 6 times what's spent on education and more than three times what we spend to keep our government running.

"It's important to think about when considering long-term deficits," Kramer says.

A slew of other government programs get a lot less in tax dollars than you might think, Kramer adds. For instance, the hot-button social program welfare gets just a fraction of a penny of every income tax dollar—about .59 cents—and foreign aid and diplomacy account for just 1.2 cents.

Curious about how the government allocated the federal taxes you paid? Check out this neat calculator from the National Priorities project for more detail.

Twitter: @mmhandley