Financial Planning for Geeks

What Should I Do with My Tax Refund or Other Windfall?

- Financial Planning

We just passed another Tax Day in the US, which brought up the question of what to do with a tax refund.

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Perhaps one of those newfangled penny farthings?

But the question applies to any windfall or unexpected dose of cash, so even if you broke even or owed money on your taxes please read on.

Here are a few recommendations for what you might do with surplus cash, in no particular order. Your choices will vary depending on who you are and what you already have in place in your financial life plan, so please prioritize these suggestions for yourself. Check out my post about the Hierarchy of Savings for some purely financial considerations to help you prioritize. You might even decide to split up the funds and do more than one of these. Have at it!

1.       Pay off credit card debt: this is a great way to spend a tax refund, since every dollar you pay off will reduce the cost of the interest you’re paying.

2.       Pay off other debt: if you have other debt, you might choose to make extra payments toward it. If you have zero-interest debt, though, that’s a lower priority than other debt since the interest savings don’t figure into your decision.

3.       Make an extra mortgage payment: make sure this extra payment is directed toward paying off your principal. You can shorten your mortgage term significantly just by making an extra payment or two a year, especially early in the mortgage. If you’re itemizing deductions and taking advantage of the mortgage interest deduction, just make sure you know how much of a deduction you’re giving up in relation to the interest you will save.

4.       Save toward a big goal: whether you want to buy a house, do a remodel, or take a once-in-a-lifetime vacation, now may be the time to start setting aside funds.

5.       Apply it to next year’s (or previous years’) taxes: OK, stop throwing things at your screen. I don’t mean to kill your refund joy here, but if you have an outstanding tax bill, please take care of it. Even if you don’t, you might want to make a payment toward this year’s taxes if you expect a significant bill. For those of you who are getting a huge refund every year, you might want to lower your tax withholding at work or reduce your estimated tax payments. Every time you get a large refund, you’ve fundamentally given the government an interest-free loan all year…and every dollar you lent them is a dollar which could have been working for YOU instead.

6.       Donate to charity: what a fantastic time to help someone else with your windfall! It feels so good.  

7.       Top up your emergency reserve: some experts recommend setting aside cash (or other liquid assets) to cover three to six months of your essential expenses. That way, you don’t have to go into debt or dip into retirement accounts if something unexpected happens. You do what’s right for you: save more if your job situation is unstable or save less if your employment is more secure.  

8.       Increase your 401(k) percentage or contribute to your relevant retirement account: if your employer matches 401(k) contributions, at least make sure you’re getting that match. But note that you can’t make ad hoc contributions to a 401(k) or certain other retirement accounts; you’ll have to do a payroll deduction to “spend” your refund. Check on that first.

9.       Invest in a broad range of stocks in your brokerage account: see what I have to say here about investing in stocks, and why volatility isn’t the same thing as risk. If you have some extra cash and have met other financial goals, maybe it’s time to do some investing.

10.       Do a home repair or improvement: this can be especially beneficial if it’s one of those projects which will increase the value of your home.

11.       Finish your estate planning: this is one of the key elements of your financial life plan and one of the last actions people tend to take. If you haven’t done it yet, take the opportunity to make a will and finish up the rest of your estate planning documents.

12.       Invest in your kid’s 529 or other college savings vehicle: there are tax-free ways to save for your children’s education, and you might even be able to deduct the contributions from your state income tax. Even if you don’t get the deduction, it’s still a great idea to save for junior’s education in advance, since you can invest now and let it grow over time. That’s a lot less painful than coming up with all the cash when the time comes.

13.       Get long-term disability insurance: in my experience, this is one of the most neglected areas of financial life planning. Most people don’t realize they have very little or no long-term disability coverage to help them get by if they can’t work. If you’ve had a windfall, this is a great place to spend it.

14.       Get long-term care coverage: this is another financial life planning topic many people have never heard of or don't understand. It’s NOT the same as long-term disability insurance, so educate yourself and make sure you address the risk.

15.       Get life insurance: or if you already have life insurance, make sure you have enough. The amount will depend on a variety of factors, but now is the time to think about it.  

16.       Do something fun: this suggestion shows up last, but it’s certainly not least. I’m not saying to blow your whole wad on a 242-day cruise around the world if you have crippling debt but treat yourself in an appropriate way. You made it through tax season unscathed and that’s worth celebrating!

One last reminder: however you choose to utilize your windfall, there may be an opportunity cost associated with that choice. The funds you use won’t necessarily be available for something else, so choose wisely.

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Penny Farthing

I, Penny Farthing (non-wizarding name Kerry Read ), actually have a day job in the world of finance. This blog came into being because of my deep and abiding love for geeks and Personal Finance.