Tax season is finally over, and millions of Americans will receive checks in the mail in the coming weeks from the IRS. Although I do some consulting and other independent work (which means that I don’t typically receive a tax return at all), my parents often received a very nice return (having a low income and a lot of dependents does that for you).
In short, I learned from my parents five things not to do with your tax refund:
1. Buy lots of little frivolous things. Quite often, after getting a return, my parents would take the entire family out to dinner a few times. One year, they bought a Nintendo; another year, we got a giant new television when the old one was fine.
2. Get a new car. Income tax returns often meant automobile upgrades, even if the old one was still running fine.
3. Put the check directly into a checking account “for safekeeping.” This idea was heading in the right direction, except by putting it in the checking account, it didn’t earn anything, and over time it slowly was spent on all kinds of unnecessary things until it was gone.
4. Loan it to family members. Twice, the entire return was “loaned” to a family member who just simply never repaid the “loan.”
5. Have a giant party. At least one year, my parents had a giant spring party with tons of food and drink that ate almost all of their tax refund.
Even as a child, I knew that this probably wasn’t the best way to handle your tax return, and now as an adult, I can see even more clearly what you should be doing with a tax return. Here are ten much better options for you to use your tax return on.
1. Start (or supplement) an emergency fund. Very few Americans have an adequate emergency fund – that is, a savings account somewhere that contains money that could be used for living expenses for several months in the event of a major crisis, like job loss. Sock the return away in a high interest savings account (like the one from ING Direct) and let it just sit there until disaster strikes. This way, the disaster won’t wreck your finances – you can just go withdraw the money and it’s taken care of.
2. Invest it in a mutual fund. We have a mutual fund going so we can have our dream house at some point in the future. This is a big part of our current reasoning in our house hunt – if we buy a less expensive home now, one we can easily make the 20% down payment on, we can continue to build this fund and eventually buy a much nicer home. This is a perfect option if you have a big long term goal, like a home, that’s far down the road.
3. Start (or supplement) a Roth IRA. If you need to kick retirement saving into high gear, look into starting a Roth IRA. It’s a great way to save money for retirement without any tax issues at all.
4. Seed your own business. Roll the money into things you could use to start a side business. Not only will you be able to deduct that money next year, but you’ll also lay the foundation for another income stream.
5. Put it in a 529 for your children. Use that money to lay the financial groundwork for your child’s college education. A 529 plan allows you to easily invest money with tax-free growth for educational expenses down the road.
6. Start (or supplement) a car fund. This doesn’t mean that you should go replace your car, but merely that you’re respecting the inevitable need to replace your current automobile.
7. Do a home improvement project. Roll that money right into new kitchen cabinets, a freshened-up bathroom, repainting some rooms, or a new carpet. Home improvement projects can increase the value of your home, which is especially important if you foresee a move in the coming years.
8. Make your living space more energy efficient. Replace all of your lightbulbs with CFLs, put in programmable thermostats, air seal your home, get a blanket for your water heater (if it needs one), and so forth. Doing these things all together can significantly reduce your monthly energy bill, meaning that in the long run the money you spent will become a tremendous investment with monthly dividends on your electric bill.
9. Buy an appliance that encourages eating at home. Similar to the energy efficiency idea, purchasing an appliance (like a deep freezer or a stand mixer) that can encourage you to eat at home more often will gradually reap rewards over time, as you begin to prepare food at home. A deep freezer is one of the first investments we plan on making when we have our own home, because we can prepare many meals well in advance and merely pull them out and toss them in the oven in the evening.
10. Buy individual stocks. You could even take the money and start an individual stock investment account. This is a good way to get very familiar with the stock market and individual stock investing, though it is not something I actively pursue at this point. Remember, though, that individual stock investing carries substantial risk – but has the potential for substantial reward.
The moral of the story? There are a lot of things you can do with your tax return that can set you on a strong financial path. Don’t let this little financial boon convince you to do something unwise with your hard-earned money.