Smart Ways to Spend Your Tax Refund

Now that the main tax-filing deadline has passed, millions of Americans are focused on the other national ritual: waiting for a tax refund.

Last year 120 million tax refunds were doled out to households, and the Where’s My Refund page at was the most trafficked of all its pages, with almost 300 million hits in the 2016 fiscal year.

If you’re in line to receive a refund, one of the smartest financial moves you can make right now is to have a clear strategy for how you can use that money to advance your financial security. With the average federal refund near $3,000, frittering it away would probably be a missed opportunity.

Job one, job two, and job three are to pay off high-rate credit card debt, says Michael Keeler, a certified financial planner at Peak Financial Solutions, based in Las Vegas. That’s ever more important as the Federal Reserve is now marching at a steadier step in raising its core interest rate, which in turn sends credit card rates higher. If you don’t have outstanding credit card debt, the next most important step you can take is to put the refund toward ensuring that you have enough saved in an emergency fund.

If you have taken care of both of these, consider dividing your refund into two pots. The majority of the money should go toward a financial goal or address a financial anxiety. The rest you can spend on something you’ve wanted.

“I am always telling my clients who have a windfall or a refund, and have the basics covered, that it’s important to spend money in a way that brings you joy,” says certified financial planner Hans Scheil, author of "The Complete Cardinal Guide to Planning and Living in Retirement" (LeapFolio, 2016). “It’s important to enjoy it while we can.” As a general guideline, he says to earmark 20 percent of a tax refund for joy and the rest for your financial goals.

Here’s a short list of smart ways to use your tax refund:

Fund a Roth IRA. Individuals with income below $118,000 and married couples filing a joint tax return with income below $186,000 can contribute the maximum $5,500 per person limit this year to a Roth IRA. (The maximum is $6,500 if you are at least 50 years old.) The big payoff is tax-free withdrawals in retirement. Or if you don’t need the money, there are no required minimum distributions for Roth accounts. “It just amazes me the number of people who are eligible for a Roth IRA and don’t have one,” Scheil says.

Focus on a midterm goal. Most of us have a barbelled financial focus. On one end is our immediate need to pay bills and have a robust emergency cash fund. On the other end are our long-term concerns, such as saving for retirement. “We tend to forget about medium-term goals and needs,” Keeler says. For example, if you think you’ll be buying a car in a few years, saving up now can help you make a smart purchase. “Ideally you want to pay cash for a car, given it’s a depreciating asset,” Keller says. “Or at least be able to make a very big down payment that makes it possible to afford a loan you can pay off in just two or so years.

Take care of your family. Fewer than half of Americans have a will, let alone other essential estate planning documents, such as an advance directive and a power of attorney. “Using a refund to get this done is a really nice gift to you and your family,” Scheil says. A full-blown estate plan might cost $2,000 or more, but that’s buying you and your loved ones plenty of peace of mind.

Extend your career by taking a vacation. According to a national survey, more than half of American workers don’t take all their allotted vacation time. In 2015 that added up to an estimated 658 million unused vacation days. A Harvard Business Review article makes the case that taking more vacation is actually good for your career because folks who used more days have a higher propensity for landing a raise or bonus. In addition, if working longer is part of your retirement plan, slaying the burnout demons is going to be essential.

Share it. If tax reform talks in Washington progress, individual tax rates could be reduced, and the charitable deduction might be reined in. That increases the value of giving this year, under current tax law. Or give some to your family. “If you can’t imagine spending money on yourself, give it to your kids and grandkids. That will bring some joy into their life.” Especially if they use it to build financial security.

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