Loan Money to Family? Sure, If It’s Uncle Sam

You’ve gathered all the paperwork, and you’ve gone through all the TurboTax prompts (not to mention three cups of coffee). With one final click, here comes the moment you’ve been waiting for — the part that makes blowing a whole Saturday doing your taxes totally worth it: the official amount of your tax refund.

Maybe it’s enough to pay off the last of your Christmas credit card bills. Maybe you’ll use it to fix up the house, or to fund your family’s summer vacation, or pay down a big chunk of student loan debt. Awesome, right?

Well, a lot of personal finance experts will tell you that’s foolish — that you basically gave the government an interest-free loan for the past 12 months.

If you had invested that money instead, the logic goes, you’d have earned some interest or even some investing gains from it.

And yes, that’s true… in theory. But for most of us, it’s a total crock. You and I both know you that, if you’re anything like the average American, you weren’t about to invest that extra $40 a paycheck.

Two thirds of Americans who have a credit card carry a balance from month to month. More than half don’t have enough cash to cover an unexpected $500 expense. And even a third of Americans earning more than $75,000 a year live paycheck to paycheck.

If there’s one thing most of us desperately need, it’s someone to force us to save our money — even if it’s our cranky old Uncle Sam. “In MY day, we saved up for a car and bought it in cash!” he bellows. And he’s right.

We often lament the disappearance of pension plans, but they were essentially just forced savings vehicles, siphoning away a pretty hefty chunk of an employee’s salary in exchange for a defined monthly payout in retirement. Meanwhile, the transition to “letting us invest that money ourselves instead” — the age of the 401(k) and IRA — has led to a nationwide retirement crisis. The median retirement savings of 55- to 64-year-old Americans was just $14,500 in 2013, according to Bloomberg.

uncle sam in a parade
It’s okay to loan money to your old Uncle Sam – he’s good for it. Photo: Dan Ramirez

The lesson is clear: Most of us can’t be trusted to sock away our money responsibly, or are simply unable to do so when faced with stagnant wages and fast-growing expenses such as college, health care, and big monthly bills that didn’t even exist 25 years ago, like smartphone and Internet plans.

So don’t let anyone tell you that getting a big refund check from your old Uncle Sam is a bad financial move. Forcing yourself to save is almost always a good idea.

And with interest rates so low, even if you had been diligent enough to put that money into a high-yield savings account, you’d have earned all of $15 in interest on an average $2,800 refund.

However, you’re not entirely off the hook. What matters most of all is what you do with that money now.

What to Do With Your Tax Refund

It can be excruciatingly tempting to treat yourself to a splurge when you find yourself holding a check for a thousand dollars or more — and, OK, one nice dinner out isn’t going to derail your retirement plans. But make sure you do something productive with the bulk of that big check, instead of wasting it fleeting purchases you won’t remember in a month’s time.

Here are some great ways to put your tax refund to use:

Pay Off Debt

If you’re swimming in high-interest credit card debt or student loans, paying down a huge chunk of it in once fell swoop will feel like a major victory that can inspire you to keep attacking it. Plus, it will give you some immediate breathing room by lowering your minimum payments and the amount of interest you owe each month.

Start an Emergency Fund

We can’t stress this enough: You need an emergency fund. On the baseball diamond of life, the pitcher likes throwing curveballs, from busted mufflers to sudden illnesses. These can create serious financial and emotional stress, but a good-sized emergency fund — enough to cover three to six months of expenses — can relieve some of that stress.

Kickstart your emergency fund with $1,000 of tax refund money. Then automatically add a few bucks more to it each week, and don’t stop.

Open or Fund a Roth IRA

One of the best ways to save for retirement is through a Roth IRA, if your income falls under the acceptable limits (which start at $116,000 for single filers and $184,000 for married couples in 2016).

That’s because with a Roth, unlike a 401(k) or traditional IRA, you’re able to withdraw your contributions as well as any investment gains completely tax-free in retirement. You pay taxes on the front end with a Roth, investing after-tax dollars — such as your tax refund, or any of your take-home pay.

Plan a Vacation

The average American family planned to spend about $1,000 per person on their summer vacation last year, according to American Express. Depending on the size of your refund – and your family – see if you can plan your entire summer vacation for less than you received back from the IRS. (Don’t worry, you don’t need to take Uncle Sam along with you.)

While we’ll never feel bad about our vacation spending around here, there are plenty of ways to trim the cost of a trip so your tax refund will cover it. Try camping part of the time, visiting national parks or other frugal destinations, or cashing in credit card rewards points.

Buy Something That Will Save You Money

While we don’t advocate throwing your refund check at a new flatscreen TV or a trip to the mall, there are lots of purchases that may actually save you more money than they cost in the long run. A slow cooker can pay itself off quickly if it means you cook at home more often. A bike for commuting to work can save you money on gas, parking, and expensive wear and tear on your vehicle.

Start Investing

Whether it’s in an IRA or a traditional brokerage account, most mutual funds (even low-cost index funds) require a $1,000 or $3,000 initial deposit, but then allow you to contribute smaller amounts in the future, such as $100 a month. When it comes to investing, it’s always best to start early, and the average tax refund can get you up and running.

Tackle a Home Improvement Project

Spring and summer are the ideal seasons to take on home repairs you’ve neglected or a big remodeling project, and making smart upgrades to your home is usually a pretty sound investment if you’re not overextending yourself to do it.

Start a Down Payment Fund for Your Next Car or House

When it comes to buying a car or a house, the larger the down payment you can make, the less you’ll have to borrow — which means lower monthly payments and, often, better loan terms. If you’re planning to make a major purchase in the next couple of years, get started with a specially designated down payment fund.

Jon Gorey

Contributing Editor

A former personal finance reporter at TheStreet and columnist for MarketWatch, Jason Notte’s work has appeared in many other outlets, including The Newark Star-Ledger, The New York Times, The Huffington Post, and The Boston Globe. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S. and the layout editor for Boston Now, among other roles at various publications. Notte earned a Bachelor of Science in Journalism from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University in 1998.