What I’m Doing With My Economic Stimulus Check (Hint: It Doesn’t Involve the Word ‘Plasma’)

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Over the last few weeks, several readers have written in asking me what I’m going to do with my economic stimulus check, perhaps in hopes that it would give them some idea as to what to do with it. I thought that walking through my plans for the money might give some people insight into how I make my financial decisions.

Here’s my family’s exact plan for the $1,800 we’ll soon be receiving: every single dime of it is going towards my wife’s student loan.

For some of you, that will seem absurdly boring. For others, it’ll seem completely appropriate. For the rest, here are the answers to a few of the more obvious questions.

Why a student loan? The first place we looked when we found out that we were getting $1,800 effectively tax free was in the area of outstanding debts. The only current debts we have remaining are student loans and our home mortgage – since our financial turnaround, we’ve eliminated all of our credit card debt and our automobile loans, so we’re continuing the debt repayment process.

Why that loan in particular? Out of all of our outstanding loans – my sole remaining student loan, my wife’s loan, and our mortgage, her student loan has by far the highest interest rate – over 8%. It also has no prepayment penalties – something well worth making sure about before you make an extra payment. Thus, it was the obvious target when it came to paying down debt.

Why not save for a future big purchase, like that next car? Your truck is sounding ominous as of late… I already have enough saved for a nice down payment on any car we might buy next. Since I’m quite confident that we could get a loan under 6% on any car we might buy (based on advertised loan deals around here and my current strong credit), it’s more effective to pay ahead on that loan.

Why not build an emergency fund? Our emergency fund is plenty fat – all income could vanish for six months and we’d be okay.

Why not invest it? This was a second possibility that we strongly considered before deciding to pay down the debt. The biggest reason we decided against it is that the debt repayment is largely tax free, where we’d have to pay some tax on the returns from the investment. Another strong factor in favor of the debt repayment is the guaranteed return – with the investment, we’d have to take on some risk to hope to get an 8% return.

So what’s a “good” thing to do with my economic stimulus package? The first thing to look at is your emergency fund. How big is it? I usually argue on behalf of two months’ worth of living expenses in your savings account for each dependent you have. If you don’t have that, just put the cash in a savings account and hold it until an emergency does happen, like a car dying or a job loss.

If you’re covered at least reasonably well on the emergency fund – I recommend at least $1,000 for even thinking about anything else – focus in on the high-interest debts. I classify a high interest debt as anything that has an APR over 8%. Apply your economic stimulus check to these, with the check going to the highest interest rate debt.

If you have no high interest rate debts, then consider parking it somewhere for future expenses – a car, a house down payment, or something like that. If you’re beyond those needs, then look at paying off your remaining debts or investing it – you can’t really go wrong either way.

Shouldn’t I spend this money to buy “stuff”? After all, it’s an economic stimulus package, right? Do not spend the check on rampant consumerism. If you’re concerned that you’re not spending it and thus hurting the economy, consider this – if you’re spending it to repay a debt, you’re propping up a bank and also helping out your own credit situation, making it easier for you to make future significant purchases.

Remember, this economic stimulus package is going out to help the nation through a potential recession. The best thing you could do with it is to use it in just that sense – make sure you can get right through a recession as well so that you can face a bright sunny future on the other side.

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71 thoughts on “What I’m Doing With My Economic Stimulus Check (Hint: It Doesn’t Involve the Word ‘Plasma’)

  1. The stimulus check is the result of the government taking on more debt on our behalf. Therefore, mine is going into a nice safe investment until the government decides they want it back again.

  2. I’m using mine to pay for a bit of necessary dental work. My insurance will probably only pay for half, but this way I don’t really feel it financially. Money I didn’t really plan on being used for something I didn’t really want to pay for.

  3. We’re doing the same thing- the whole of the $1200 is going towards student loans. It’s a tough call, since our student loans have a lower interest rate than our mortgage, and we do have PMI currently, but the student loans are bugging us more. Perhaps it’s a psychological thing.

  4. I would be curious how many people are going to use that money for a plasma TV? You and I assume a lot of readers on the site will use it to save/invest.

  5. I guess we’re a lot alike, we’re using ours to paydown my husband’s student loan too. His is almost 9% since he didn’t qualify for a federal student loan we had to take what we could get so we’re going to pay it down so the interest won’t be quite so bad each month. Thanks for the idea about checking on pre-payment penalties, I’ll do that before we send the check.

    Like another reader, I’m also worried about the government taking on this much debt. What do you think about the deficit? Is it something to be concerned about? It seems like a large number already.

  6. Hard to argue with the strategy of paying down debt! Our emergency fund is still a little skinny, so we’re using the stimulus check to beef up the emergency fund by $1,000, while the remaining $800 will nearly pay off our smallest credit card.

  7. Ours is going into our “Home Improvement” fund. We have a lot of house projects we want to work on and we already have a nice emergency fund and no debt (except mortgage).

  8. Just a hypothetical question related to yesterday’s post… would the following make you feel better or worse?

    Put $1,750 toward paying off the student loan and use $50 of it toward “paying off” the $50 video game.

  9. Well I’m not buying anymore stuff then I would normally buy. I don’t plan on using mine for anything special. It’ll go into my husband’s Roth as mine has been funded this year. Now we’re working on his. I guess if my TV breaks I would go buy a nice new one, but like so many paid for things in my house – if it works I’m not going to replace it.

  10. I wouldn’t pay off that student debt. The student loan interest can be written off on your taxes. A car loan cannot so even though student debt might be at 8% and a car loan at 6%, the fact you don’t get to write off the taxes on the student loans is a wash. You can always refinance student loans to a lower rate, you can’t do that with a car (usually).

    Of course, everyone’s situation is different.

  11. I guess I’m just not wired like most people.

    I can’t imagine spending on a new TV if I had *any* non-mortgage debt.

    Shoot, CRT TVs are practically free on craigslist – if my 27″ died tomorrow, that’s where I’d look.

    And once you pay off a student loan, keep whatever final document you get *forever* in you safe deposit box.

  12. I’m not getting an economic stimulus check at all so I won’t be participating in the process, but if I did, I’d likely have saved it anyway.

  13. Since my newborn daughter is going to “reap the rewards” of this ludicrous refund (i.e., she’s going to be paying for it), ‘my’ check is going into an investment for her.

  14. Provided I end up getting mine (IRS website said 600) I am putting most (~450) of it onto my car loan, which has around 7.9k left. The rest I’ll use to take my SO out to dinner, and help pay for the cost of a hotel when I go to a friends’ wedding.

    So it’s at least 75% responsible usage I figure :)

  15. Yes, do NOT spend the stimulus check on crap that you don’t need just because you can! Definitely pay down loans first and otherwise save it or spend it on something you already were going to buy (say a major appliance that really needs to be replaced). I think it’s ridiculous that the government is using this very short-sighted solution to solve our problems. Going deeper in debt is not a good plan for the long run.

  16. I hope you won’t take a car loan when the time comes. I hope you’ll pay cash out of your “car” fund — for a gently used car rather than for the premium they demand for a new car off the lot. Why pay 6% more than the people who pay cash? That doesn’t strike me as the practice of a guy who’s on top of his finances. Come on, don’t let us down now!

  17. Great plan. Personally I used some of the money for a PS3 and the rest will go into home repair.

  18. You mentioned you have enough to make a down payment on a vehicle. I would think you would want to have enough to buy a vehicle outright. I’m not sure how anyone can go back to having a car payment after being rid of it for so long. And financing a depreciating asset just doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense.

  19. Mine will be purchasing a small chest freezer for my apartment (which at what I’m pricing them at shouldn’t cost me more than $250) and the rest will be going towards debt reduction.

  20. I wish I was getting one… Unfortunately I was young enough this year still to be claimed as a dependent since I’m in school full time, so no rebate for me :(

    But, if I hadn’t been claimed as a dependent, it would have probably been about $350. I would have put $300 into my Roth IRA, and the other $50 I would have taken to Vegas this summer and spent it on an autograph ticket at the Star Trek convention (hey, that autograph could be worth something someday!).

    There’s no guarantee I’m gonna live to retirement (could walk outside and get hit by a car, or the way people drive around here one could come crashing through my front window!), so I do take some (less than 25%) of any unexpected income and get myself a treat in the short term, and then save the rest. And like I said, that autograph could be worth something someday!

  21. We are using our $600 as a bonus to help pay for our elopement/honeymoon completely with cash!

    I agree with some other posters, to put the rebate toward the “newer” car fund. What a great feeling to pay for a car outright! My $.02.

  22. Our $1800 will replace the money we took out of our emergency/opportunity fund in April. Knowing the stimulus check was coming we put more into our IRAs than we would have otherwise been able to afford.

  23. I’m torn between beefing up our savings (kind of light there) and paying down our debts (still very heavy, but getting lighter every snowballed month!). Maybe I’ll put $1,000 into savings and the other $500 into credit card debt.

    I agree with the above poster – when my credit card and auto loan debts are gone, we will never have that kind of debt again…ever! If only our government could learn to stay out of debt.

    This is such an ignorant program…like most government programs…and here we have our wonderful speaker of the house: “House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Tuesday called for a second economic stimulus package” (May 6, 2008). Yikes!

  24. Since I have a low interest rate on my student loans (less than 2%), and we’re already reducing that debt at a rapid rate. So we’re going to “buy stuff.” But really, we are going to put the money toward buying materials for putting in a yard. We just bought a house, and need a place for the son to play. So our check is going to buy the fence materials. Then we’ll put up the fence ourselves.

  25. $500 of mine got put into savings, $1500 towards a vacation and $100 to blow…..I know this is a horrible use of the funds but I have never had the chance to take my family on a “family vacation” and my oldest is 14 so atleast we can say we did one!

    So, I am doing my part to stimulate the Economy.

  26. Sinus surgery and new eyeglasses for my husband will eat up our stimulus and tax refund checks – but I’m leaning on him to have the surgery this year, before the deductible goes up!

  27. I am based in Australia…We are not getting a stimulus package here (unfortunately)…But we will be all getting our tax refund soon..And I will be using it to Invest – either in mortgage or shares..

  28. @ Patrick:

    Don’t beat yourself up about your vacation plans. Although there are *many* purchases I’ve made that I regret, I’ve never regretted a trip or a vacation spent with family, friends, or meeting others. Experience life – that’s really what it’s all about!

  29. That’s the goverments big problem. Folks are using the stimulus to pay for needs and debt, as opposed to the discresionary spending they were hoping for. They need to fix the credit mess, then give a stimulus!

  30. Why is your wife’s student loan interest rate so high? Why haven’t you refinanced? I refinanced my student loans and they are now at 3.5%

  31. That is a very practical way to spend it. We are using ours to fund our bank account until The Man gets a job. Also practical and not very fun. But I’m grateful to have the extra money so that this time is less stressful. Even though I’d rather use it to go to Disneyland.

  32. Why do people think that paying debts or stuffing the money in a savings account isn’t stimulating the economy?

    What happens when you pay back $500 to your credit card issuer? Well now they have $500 to loan out to someone else.

    What happens when you put $500 in your bank account earning 2.65% interest? The bank loans that money out at a much higher rate and profits.

    This is getting as bad as people who think they’re “sticking it” to the credit card companies by paying their balances each month.

  33. I don’t get it. Why should the “time length equivalence” of a family’s emergency fund depend on the number of children as in “two months’ worth of living expenses in your savings account for each dependent you have”? A family with 1 kid only needs 2 months’ worth of protection while a family with 3 kids needs 6? Seems to me both families should have the same “time length equivalence” whether it be 2 or 6 or X months’ worth of expenses. The 3-kid family certainly needs a larger amount saved per month’s worth of their expenses because they have 2 additional kids but I don’t understand why the 1-kid family can get by with only 2 month’s worth of expenses saved. This scaling makes no sense to me.

  34. @the car people: If Trent thinks he can get a car loan for less than the interest rate he’s paying on the student loans, it makes sense to pay off the student loans first. Also, Trent doesn’t know when his car is going to go bust, and my understanding is that in the meantime, he’s still saving money to buy his next car.

    @gr8whyte: I think the assumption is that your “expenses” are not really your bare-bones expenses- they’re what you actually spend, as opposed to save, during a typical month. (The original advice is two months of salary per dependent, which makes this assumption more obvious. But two months of salary is overkill if you save or invest a significant fraction of your paycheck and undefined if you aren’t paid regularly.) In the event of a real emergency, you can cut back more with one child than with three, so you need to have more saved up with a larger family.

  35. Since I pay estimated quarterly tax payments; as soon as I receive my “stimulus” check, I’ll set it aside and use it towards my next quarterly tax payment. Unfortunately, I will not be stimulating my bank account or the economy. But, at least my next tax payment will hurt a little less!

  36. @Jon: Paying down debt or saving money does not stimulate the economy as fast as direct consumption does. (Plus, individual banking and credit card companies aren’t the sectors of the economy that are in trouble right now.) The intent of this stimulus is to stimulate the economy quickly, particularly in the consumption-driven sectors of the economy that are in trouble now with the downturn in the housing market, to prevent a recession.

    That doesn’t mean that people need to use their checks this way, and if you have debt, it’s a good idea for your own personal economy to use the check to pay it down.

    Incidentally, a lot of Americans say that they’ll use the rebate to pay down debt. They said that the last time too, but economists have discovered that most of the people who did that were in just as much debt 6 months or a year later. It just goes to show that if you’re not committed to spending less than you earn, sudden windfalls are not going to help you.

  37. i put 450 into my savings, 200 into a vacation fund (vegas baby) then next paycheck put an extra 50 into savings. so, technically 200 of it is getting spent, but it wasn’t an immediate expenditure (the vegas trip was planned for september, but got moved up to may due to convenience and price)

  38. Dave Ramsey polled listeners for what they’re doing with their “stimulus” check a few days ago on his radio show. The overwhelming response was either: debt snowball or emergency fund (first $1000 or 3-6 months). Two people were going to blow theirs, one on vacation, I don’t remember the other – both of those emails were from people on baby step 6 – pay off the house.

    We’re putting ours straight into our emergency fund. If we weren’t done with the debt snowball, it would go there instead. This really is the most intelligent thing to do – not spending it frivolously – unless you’re debt free.

  39. my $600 is going towards my continuing education. this time the class is free. Yay government!

  40. I am considering putting mine towards a 49cc motor scooter. For now it will go into savings until I decide. I am moving close enough to my work for it to be viable. Monetarily it would pay for itself quickly. As gas climbs higher and higher it might even pay for itself in less than a year. If I got rid of my car, that number would change to 3-4 months (no insurance necessary). I admit I can’t seem to let go of the car.

  41. We have no debt of any kind and our tv just went out. I am buying a tv with mine(lcd not plasma)

  42. I’m paying for my little daughter’s eye surgery and the rest that’s left will go towards my older one’s preschool expenses. I’d like to invest it but these seem to me like worthy causes. I’ll stimulate the surgeon’s pockets and she can go spend on a new car :)

  43. You sir are a traitor to our country! It is our patriotic duty to spend our checks at our local American-owned-but-supplied-by-China retail outlet. Being responsible and paying down your debt? Outragious! Good day to you, Sir.

  44. Dude raises an excellent point that I always bring up when people are considering paying off student loans–if the interest is tax-deductible for you (it’s not always), then paying off the loan is equivalent to a taxable investment.

    A more subtle point that many student borrowers aren’t aware of is that some student loans (primarily federally-guaranteed loans) will be discharged in the event of death or total disability. That’s one reason I’m just paying my student loans off at the standard pace; even though I’m single, if something happens to me the entire debt evaporates, and my family can use my estate for some good purpose rather than to repay it.

  45. I’ve been debating whether to put the $1200 my wife and I are receiving towards something we need (probably a new washer/dryer unit to replace the one that has died) or as a nice step towards my medium term goal of building an emergency fund capable of covering at least 1 year’s worth of living expenses.

    I think I’ll likely end up putting mine into savings. Now that I’ve managed to get my last debt cleared, I should be able to start putting 20 to 25% of each paycheck into savings, and this will be a nice psychological kickstart to that process. As much as I want to get the washer/dryer replaced (both to save around $9 a week on average at the laundromat, and the convenience/time savings factor) I think the savings boost will be the better solution. I can easily change my mind later if I do this, but it’s kinda hard to “unbuy” an appliance, or at least get the full money back if I did try.

  46. My husband and I are supporting the local economy by buying two road bikes. It will give us hours of riding pleasure this summer and is good for our health and evvironment. We have minimal debt on our home equity and a good emergency fund built up. We also decided we wont be driving too far for vacation this summer so this was a guilt free decision.

  47. I have to admit, I wouldn’t be totally sensible, I would put $1,500 towards paying down debt or an emergency fund, and the other $300 on something that I really want that has practical applications, in my case probably an electric lawnmower and some new pruning shears. As I’m in Australia, this is all hypothetical anyway.

  48. I am Canadian so I don’t get an economic stimulus check, but if I did I would do the same thing I did with my income tax refund: pay down my student loan. We have no other debt, and it’s our goal to be debt-free soon.

  49. Some student loans, notably private student loans, can’t be consolidated at the very low interest rates (though, if you have a variable interest rate, you can get it to a fixed one), aren’t dischargable in death or disability, and do not have deductible interest. For those of us with this type of student loan, paying it off makes a lot of sense.

  50. I live on a 50/50 rule when extra money comes in. I always put half of it in one of my savings or retirement accounts. The other half we spend on something for the house or go to something fun, etc. We have no debt, and we have a decent efund already – so spending some of the extra money that comes our way never feels tooooo guilty ;) The other thing is, I don’t really like spending money, so even if that 50% makes it into my checking account, and I don’t spend all of it – it most likely will get redistributed into one of my savings accounts on the first of the month.

  51. My “stimulus” check is simply going from one federal agency to another — I still owe taxes from 2006.

    Normally, I don’t support Keynesian economics, but having the feds shave $1800 off my tax bill? I’m not complaining.

  52. It’s fun to read everyone’s plans … although most of those who plan to blow it probably aren’t posting on PF sites! :)

    We are going to do a “worthy blow” with ours … use it to pay for a vacation to go see my in-laws whom we haven’t seen in 3 years. I’m hoping we can use miles for the air travel and let the government pay most of the rest of our costs.

  53. Everyone around me are wasting their checks instantly. I don’t think I made enough last year to qualify (something about total tax burden), but if I do get anything it’s going straight into my emergency fund.

  54. Mine is sitting safely in my savings account for the moment, although I’m thinking about buying a new mattress to replace the sagging, 10-year-old junker I sleep on now. Oh, my aching back!

    Plenty of my friends had spent their checks even BEFORE they arrived. *groan*

  55. Well, I am happy for all of you. As for me, I made the mistake of making too much money last year so I do not qualify for the stimulus check. I pay the government $1,142.01 every two weeks just in federal taxes (not including social secuity or medicare which is another $400+). Am I rich? No, I would have qualified for the check any year of my life except for the one that matters. The funny thing is that I spend very little on consumer items and would have been happy to have an excuse to go by a LCD TV. Am I pissed? YES! Why should I have to pay such heavy taxes and not, at least, get the stimulus check (which is a stupid idea anyway)?

  56. I still don’t get emergency funds, it just doesn’t make sense to me. Why put money into an account making less money, when you can put them into an some sort of stock plan, and then use a credit card if an emergency happens and dip into your stock portfolio to pay it off. I understand conventional wisdom is to start an emergency fund and have it be thousands of dollars, but if you don’t need the ‘secure’ feeling, isn’t it smarter to invest in stocks and w/d in case of a windfall?

    I’ve been trying to get this Q answered by Trent for a while, maybe the readers can help me out here, am I missing something?

    -Nate

  57. @ !wanda : OK, I now get that “dependent” could include a spouse as well still but don’t see the scaling. The statement “two months’ worth of living expenses in your savings account for each dependent you have” suggests 2*D scaling for the number of months, where D is the number of dependents, but it says nothing about the amount/month that should be saved. A breadwinner in a 1-kid family would have 2 dependents and the family needs 2*(3-1)=4 months’ worth of expenses; a 3-kid family needs 2*(5-1)=8 months’ worth. This makes no sense to me — why should the number of month’s worth of expenses depend on the number of dependents? Seems to me the scaling should look something like M*(C + N*A) where M is the number of months (e.g. 6 months), C is a constant independent of the # of dependents (e.g. house payment), N is a number that reflects family size (e.g. adult=1, kid-under-12=0.4, kid-over-12=0.8), and A is the monthly expenses for an adult. Using this scaling for 6 months, assuming all kids are under 12, a 1-kid family needs 6*(C+2.4*A) and a 3-kid family needs 6*(C+3.2*A). Expenses C and A are whatever you want them to be — bare-bones, bones with gravy, pot roast or steak. Do you see the difference between Trent’s statement and M*(C + N*A) scaling which separates out the time covered from family size?

  58. “In the end, though, I should have listened to that little voice in my head, because most of the time, that voice is right – it cuts through the excuses and stories we tell ourselves to justify things.” As I had mentioned in an earlier comment, this is not always true. Let me give you some examples of what my little voice of guilt tells me. I feel guilty when I spend time reading, exercising, enjoying myself, or relaxing because I should be productive and working instead. I feel guilty when I dare to sleep enough because other people don’t get as much sleep as I do. I feel guilty for making decent money because there are people less well-off than me. I feel guilty for working 55 hours a week because other people work 80. I feel guilty for having 4 pairs of pants instead of 2 because I can survive on 2 pairs. I feel guilty for buying something extravagant that I’ve wanted for years even though I’ve saved money for it and can pay cash. So in some cases, that little voice can actually be destructive because if I gave in to MY little voice, I’d probably be either miserable or dead from the stress. Don’t cross the line from frugal to stingy. It’s surprisingly easy to do, and it’s not so great for your soul.

  59. @ Nate #61 : People are complex — What works for one may not for another. If you feel sufficiently secure without one, then don’t get one. I have one and like it. Re. “… isn’t it smarter to invest in stocks and w/d in case of a windfall?”, you could but that scheme carries risk. Palatable to you perhaps but not to others especially for an emergency fund.

    @ Carrier #63 : You’re on the wrong thread. “The Battle Between the Stuff I Want and the Guilt I’m Left With” is the one you need.

  60. Robert, you could put some of the stimulus check into a USED washer/dryer set and save that money and aggravation on the laundromat, and have the rest for something else. Like a car, washer/dryer units are best purchased used to avoid the depreciation hit.

  61. Hey, Nate — I really don’t like the term “emergency fund” either — I’ve known too many people that feel they have their emergency fund, the rest they can blow… when they need to develop a firm savings and investment strategy for future wealth building.

    I don’t generally keep more than one month in a cash type account — I invest in mutual funds, and if I need to cash out I can easily and pay the fees. While many think it’s risky — and it may be — I have never “had” to cash out for an emergency. And it’s been 15 years.

    My stimulus check? It’s going into our checking, where it will be used like I did a draw from our business checking. I did buy new cushions for our 20 year old “This End Up” sofa, who’s cushions were WAY past due for replacing. And I am looking to buy a new desk… as I have been for the past year and half…

    But we don’t carry debt, no car loans and a mortgage that we are prepaying on already…

  62. More than half of our $$$$ is going to half-fill our fuel oil tank so that we don’t get quite as broke next winter trying to stay warm. With the price of oil and gas rising almost daily it makes sense to buy it now, even though it is finally (!) warming up here.

  63. Here’s a shocker…I’m actually using my economic stimulus check to purchase items I really want!! I went to Circuit City yesterday and purchased a 42 in Plasma Tv. My wife and I also purchased two pieces of furniture for our living room as well. Want to know why?? Because we make good money and actually know how to budget. Therefore, when we found out that we were recieving a “tax-free” check, we decided it was time to reward ourselves. We have a mortage, mutual funds and 5 months of so-called “emergency funds”. I have student loans but my wife doesn’t. They are always paid on time and I don’t see the value of sending in an extra $1500 just to pay it off 7 months early. Hell, I will be paying on them for the next 10 yrs anyway!! I view the stimulus check as a reward for our hardwork and sacrifices my wife and I have made over the years. I have been wanting a flatscreen since I purchased my home 4 yrs ago and finally got my wish. Maybe some of you aren’t in the same financial situation my family is but let’s not judge. I’m each of you have had a desire to purchase something you’ve really wanted before.

  64. @ Jade #23: Me too! I was right on the cutoff area to get a stimulus check. Both in 2007 and 2008 I couldn’t get one because I was claimed as a dependent under my parents, and due to financial aid rules you’re not considered an independent until you’re 24. I was 21 and 22 back then. Arg! I would have used it. :(

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