What to Do With Your Tax Return Money

If you’re eagerly awaiting your tax refund, you may be ready to start an online shopping spree or earmark the money for a big purchase, like an 85-inch TV. Stop and think for a moment: These are economically challenging times.

In 2022, according to the Internal Revenue Service, the average tax refund was a hearty $3,039. The IRS has warned that the average tax refund may be lower than last year, with the pandemic’s economic impact payments being in the rearview mirror.

Yes, you deserve to treat yourself, but this may also be the time to do something boring and practical with your money.

“There are so many ways you can spend a tax refund. A tax refund is like a savings account that the government has been holding onto for you. It’s essentially forced savings, but with no interest accumulation,” says Dawn-Marie Joseph, founder of Estate Planning & Preservation in Williamston, Michigan.

The main thing is to think about where you want your money to go — and not to spend it all at once. If you’re looking for smart ways to spend your tax refund, consider these ideas.

— Start an emergency fund.

— Pay off debt.

— Shore up your savings.

— Save for an upcoming expense.

— Fund home improvements.

— Donate to charity.

— Boost your retirement fund.

— Seed a 529 plan.

— Save for vacation.

— Treat yourself.

— Create an opportunity fund.

— Improve your career prospects.

[READ: When Will My Tax Refund Arrive?]

Start an Emergency Fund

Your tires could all go flat. Your refrigerator could die. You could wind up paying for hefty hospital bills. You never know what you might be able to use extra money for, and so you can never go wrong with using your tax refund for an emergency fund.

“Aim to have one year’s worth of living expenses set aside in cash. For example, money market accounts, savings accounts, CDs,” says Pam Krueger, CEO and founder of Wealthramp.com, a financial referral service for people looking for fiduciary advisors. Krueger recommends looking for online banks that are FDIC-insured since those tend to offer the highest yields.

Pay Off Debt

It may not be the most fun thing to do with a tax refund, but your future self will thank you. “Start by making bigger payments to the most expensive credit cards you have that have the highest interest rates,” Krueger advises. “The best way to make 12% on your money totally risk-free is to not pay it out in annual interest expenses. Put it back in your pocket.”

That’s assuming you’re lucky enough to have a credit card with 12% interest. Plenty of credit cards offer 20% or more in interest. So if you are carrying revolving debt, sinking your tax refund into it could pay off for you big time.

Shore Up Your Savings

If you have an emergency fund, you should also be putting money into a savings account for anything extra — emergencies, vacations, retirement, a cushion to keep you from going into overdraft and so on.

Interest rates average .30 annual percentage yield for savings accounts these days, according to data from the FDIC. But you should be able to find high yield savings accounts and CDs that are well above the national interest rate average, around the 3% neighborhood. The main thing is that you’re in the habit of putting money away, and a tax refund can help with that.

Save for an Upcoming Expense

“Similar to building an emergency fund, the idea behind this concept is to choose a goal and a dollar amount to save for that goal and then build monthly savings into your budget to fund it. This is often referred to as a savings fund,” says Drew Feutz, a certified financial planner and the founder of Migration Wealth Management, LLC, in Avon, Indiana.

In other words, instead of saving for something you aren’t planning for (an emergency), use your tax refund to save for something you are planning for: summer camp for your child next year or holiday gifts, for example.

Feutz says that you may want to have multiple savings funds. “Some banks allow you to create ‘sub-accounts’ so that the money all remains within one account, but you can see which goal each dollar is earmarked for,” Feutz says.

Fund Home Improvements

If you own a house, it’s probably your most valuable asset, and you want to keep it that way. Besides, you might find that spending money now on your home saves you more in the long run; if something isn’t fixed, like water damage, the repairs will probably get more expensive. So if you want a new roof, your tax refund could literally put a roof over your head. Or maybe with all the time you’ve been spending at home, it’s time to build that deck you’ve always wanted.

If you don’t have a house but you’ve always wanted one, your tax refund could go toward an eventual down payment.

Donate to Charity

If you feel like you’re doing pretty well, you could give your tax refund, or a portion of it, to charity. CharityNavigator.org is an excellent website to research some of the nonprofits and good causes that are out there.

In any case, charities can generally always use all the help they can get.

[READ: What to Do With Cash Right Now]

Boost Your Retirement Fund

You can never go wrong using your tax refund to recharge your retirement fund. “Get the power of compound interest working for you. The earlier you start, the more your savings will snowball into real wealth,” Krueger says.

In fact, she maintains that one fat tax refund could really pay off if you invested it in your retirement fund.

“An additional $1,200 a year invested in the stock market that grows 6% a year can become $60,000 more in your nest egg in 25 years,” Krueger says.

Seed a 529 Plan

Do you have kids? Have you been putting money away for their college education? That would be a good place to put a tax refund, says Ryan Decker, assistant professor of economics and finance at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois, and founding director of the college’s Center for Financial Literacy.

Being responsible is never a bad idea with a tax refund. As Decker says, “Remember, your tax refund is money you overpaid the federal government. It is money that you could have kept in your paycheck throughout the year. Don’t treat it as a bonus — treat it as regular income.”

So if you intended to put more money in your kids’ college account, this is a perfectly reasonable place for your tax refund to go.

Save for Vacation

If you aren’t going on a vacation this year, and plenty of Americans aren’t, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to put your money toward a trip you’re planning to take. It’s hard to find a consensus on exactly how much the average American vacation costs these days, but a lot of sources suggest around $1,000 — per family member.

Whatever you spend, it probably feels like a crazy amount.

So if summer vacations often tax you financially, this year’s tax refund may be what you need to be fully prepared for next year to have an amazing vacation without draining your bank account.

Treat Yourself

If the idea of being responsible with your money is killing you, and you don’t have a bunch of debt collectors circling you, and there isn’t a gaping hole in your roof that needs repaired — well, maybe it is time to buy that 85-inch TV or start your backyard koi pond or whatever it is that you’ve been dreaming of doing. Keep in mind that you can always be responsible and have a blast with the money. Many experts suggest taking 10% to 25% of the refund and using it for fun, such as a vacation or shopping spree.

Joseph suggests that you could go even higher than that if you’re torn on how to spend your tax refund. “One-third for your splurge, one-third for your bills and one-third for savings,” she says.

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Create an Opportunity Fund

In investment speak, an opportunity fund is a type of real estate investment. When you invest in an opportunity fund, you’re investing in an area of the country that’s economically distressed. If investing is your thing, you could do that.

In consumer speak, an opportunity fund is the concept of saving money for some opportunity that may pop up later. An opportunity fund assures you that when opportunity knocks, you can actually unlock and open the door.

Perhaps some friends invite you on an expensive ski trip a year or two from now. You’ll be ready for fun, lasting memories and exercise by tapping into your opportunity fund. Are you hoping to go back to college someday and get that degree you’ve always wanted? When the time is right, you could take the money from your opportunity fund.

Improve Your Career Prospects

“A great way to spend a tax refund is on improving your career prospects through taking a professional course, hiring a coach or paying for another form of self-improvement,” Feutz says. “The greatest asset that most people possess is their ability to earn income.”

Investing in yourself by spending money on a class or getting certified in your industry is a perfectly reasonable plan.

“Using your tax refund to invest in yourself and, in turn, your career prospects and earning potential could pay off generously in the long run. Investing in one’s earning potential is often an underappreciated and undervalued use of time and money,” Feutz says.

Brandon Ashton, director of retirement security at Cornerstone Financial Services in Southfield, Michigan, also likes the idea of investing in yourself.

“If you have an entrepreneurial hobby or extracurricular occupation, your tax refund could be used to jump start that endeavor to the next level. With the new year brings new goals and starting with an investment in yourself is a great way to kick off the new year,” he says.

If you’re part of a household, “you can always invest in your family,” Ashton says.

“Taking time from the daily grind to spend with loved ones is often overlooked and can be the best investment you will make in the long run. Using your refund on a family vacation, outing or activities fund can be one of the best ways to invest your tax refund,” he says.

Of course, if it’s a really big tax refund, you could talk to your employer and adjust your federal income tax withholding on a Form W-4, so next year you don’t have the same windfall occur. A tax refund means you paid too much taxes throughout the year. Ideally, what you want is to neither owe the IRS anything or have the IRS owe you.

Whatever you do with your tax refund money, assuming you get one, “think long and hard how you want to use it,” Joseph advises.

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What to Do With Your Tax Return Money originally appeared on usnews.com

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