8 ways to make the most of your tax refund

How to Spend a Tax Refund

by Sarah Gilbert


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My Story: The Tax Refund that Keeps Giving

For the past two years, doing taxes has not been bearable. Instead, it's been terrific! I've used an online e-filing service for several years now after many years of taking great pleasure (really!) in filling out the paper forms, just because it gets the money to me far more quickly.

Last January, I began to fill out the online forms and, at some point, started glancing at the little status bar on the upper right corner. I'd filled in all my dependents and household income, and the number corresponding to my refund was more than double what I thought I might be able to expect. It ended up more than triple my expectations at about $7,500. It is, I've now learned, one of the significant benefits of having a spouse whose income is coming from a war zone where it's not taxable. As my own freelance income had decreased, thanks to the extra work of holding down the house and three young children on my own, we were getting an earned income tax credit on top of the child tax credits for our boys.

This year, I'll get a tad bit less. I made a lot in 2011, but I'm not complaining a bit. I am, instead, working hard not to spend it unwisely by trying to follow the following rules:

1. Don't spend a single penny before the money arrives in your bank account.

Don't charge something on credit cards. Don't promise to spend the money. Don't put a deposit down with the rest due the day you expect the refund. Naturally, this one is very difficult in practice. This year, I had a fantastic deal on wool comforters made by a nice family on the outskirts of the city. They were a lot off retail with a third down in December and the rest due at the end of January. Surely my tax refund would arrive by then! And I really did need new comforters. The feathers coming out of my old one are so thick it looks like some geese are about to lay eggs under the bed. Everything worked out, but I had to juggle. And I felt a little awful using the comforter a few days before I expected the refund to arrive. I paid for it, but I'd have to make it up later.

You won't know what unexpected expense or nasty delay might cause you to be staring down a final payment or contract fulfillment without anything left in your bank account but hope. And then, you could end up using costly credit or financial shenanigans to make good on your promise.

2. Pick a debt that can reasonably be paid off with the tax refund. And do it!

Also, try negotiating the balance due. I'm still, faithfully but slowly, paying off long-ago-closed credit card accounts. Number two was 76% paid as of January 30. I called the day the money hit my account to negotiate a big payment that will satisfy the whole account, and I'm saving $1,000 off the original balance. (I could probably have worked it down further; my negotiation skills are great, until I wear out and let them "win." You could try harder!) Now I'm planning to spend March working out a payment plan for credit card number three, which is the last.

3. Put at least a third in a savings account right away.

Consider it "someone else's money." (Your future needy self, of course!) If I leave the money in my regular checking account, I'll consider it fair game. And it's the perfect seed for the emergency fund you've been wanting to start. It's important that I separate the concepts of "savings" from "checking account buffer." I'm far less likely to preserve the buffer, so I have to get it into a separate account. Preferably one that's harder to withdraw from. So I'm planning to get half of that savings into a Roth IRA. It's not a ton of money, but it's better than letting it sit where I can access it easily.

4. Commit to yourself to buy things that will pay you back in savings.

Note I am not including "wardrobe investments" in this (unless perhaps we're talking about a wardrobe completely devoid of work boots or something). I consider things such as upgraded windows (to save you energy costs), a couple of bus passes, or other bulk purchase of something you use very frequently (to save you stress, having to make change, and get a bulk discount). Maybe a bike could replace a short commute or a second car. (My stimulus check in 2008 went to a fancy mama bike that's saved me so many thousands of dollars I've stopped tracking.) Maybe you can buy a half of a cow from a local farmer, saving you tons all year on quality meat or maybe a chest freezer to make that possible. This concept is served by my wool comforters; they're so freakishly warm that I'll be able to turn the furnace down several degrees at night.

5. Spend 5% or so on something nice.

I know that the "windfall" rules say to only spend 1% on splurges. But let's go crazy! It's just a tax refund, after all. Go out to eat with your family (once). Buy yourself a pretty raincoat or some new wool underwear (my favorite splurge). Just make sure you feel good about yourself and you stick to the 5%. Which leads me to the most important thing of all…

6. Make your budget before you do anything.

Well, it's okay to stick that third in the savings account first. But don't rush off and spend your splurge and your "investments" before you've sat down with a piece of paper or a spreadsheet and all your bills for the month. Put in one column all your regular income and the tax return. Put in the other column all the regular bills (put those first!) and what you've hoped to spend your tax refund on. Let's not put off paying your home equity loan or your power bill because you have so much money, right? Make sure you've paid your bills first. I went so far as to forcing myself to record all the money I'd spent, down to the last bus ticket and coffee shop tip, over the month of January before I'd let myself spend any money on treats.

It's really effective (if you can hold yourself back) to let the debt payments and bill payments clear your bank account before you buy anything fun (even if that "fun" thing is a wool comforter or organic underwear for your kids: one thing on my list!).

7. Don't let yourself go shopping.

I rarely go shopping, because I rarely have much spare cash. Except for when I have spare cash! Then I love to shop. I shouldn't. Even when I'm not going crazy with the designer clothes and $300 boots, I'm going crazy with designer insulated coffee bottles. I can't help myself.

So I've found the best thing to do is to make a list of all that stuff I've been wanting ("needing") for the past year and prioritize. I've been waiting for those organic underwear the longest, and my nine-year-old has been complaining his old ones don't fit. So I need to buy that and not (for now) that cute pair of rain boots I've been longing for (but totally not needing). The wireless modem is about to fail, so we'll get that, but not the new iPod Touch to replace the one with the marred screen. It still works, and after I made my list, I learned that it would cut into my savings funds. That's non-negotiable. Make your list, do the math, and then go shopping.

8. Think about investments in a new way.

Last year I spent part of my tax refund on tickets to two conferences, thinking that they'd be good for my "professional development." The first, a culinary professional conference (I write about food), turned out to be a bust. It was really fun, but I didn't meet anyone I couldn't have met online, and it was terrifically expensive. It's more of a moneymaker for the conference organizers than for the attendees. The second, a blogging conference, turned out to be amazing; I met a couple of people just by chance with whom I went on to do consulting projects and other writing gigs. I made twice as much in income from people I never would have met otherwise as I spent on the conference. And I made some friends I love dearly.

So I'm being more strategic about conferences this year, and focusing on the ones where I am comfortable my "career" is already established and will give me the opportunity to strengthen relationships with people I really care about. I'm heading to a writing conference a lot of my favorite literary editors will attend; I've discovered that connections (when they're authentic friendships) in literary journals and book publishing are far more important than in food writing. And the ideas I get from literary events turn into even more "output." I'll also repeat my visit to the blogging conference, ever more alert to the opportunities to share ideas and meet people with whom I can collaborate and hopefully turn into more income, in addition to friendships. A happy person is both a better moneymaker and a person who needs less money, right?

The best part is that I can count all these expenses against my income on next year's taxes! No time like the present to start planning for next year.

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