Tax Hacks 2018: How Not to Blow Your Tax Refund

Uncle Sam and taxes
Sean Locke Photography /

Ready for a nice, fat refund check from Uncle Sam? Before you get too excited, soberly think about how easy it is to waste that money foolishly.

All too often, extra money makes people splurge, even while they imagine they’re saving it. How do you make sure this year’s windfall makes your life better over the long haul? Try these nine ways.

Idea No. 1: Pay down high-interest debt

Credit cards close up.
Ti_ser /

High interest rates on your debt can lead to devastating costs. Eventually, you can end up with payments so large that it becomes difficult to do more than pay the minimum required each month.

That’s why one of the best uses for a windfall is to use it to pay down, or pay off, debts with the highest interest rates.

Think of this way: Paying off a debt with a 15 percent interest rate is like earning 15 percent, risk-free and tax-free. That’s an investment virtually impossible to find these days.

When you’ve paid down debt, don’t stop. If credit-card debt, payday loans or other high-rate debts have been a problem, use this moment to escape the cycle. Choose from trustworthy sources of free credit counseling and get help.

Idea No. 2: Pay off small debts

IOU note
Thinglass /

Paying off high-rate debt first generally makes the most financial sense, but it might not work for you. Some people get more excitement from demolishing smaller debts first. Then, as they see those debts fall by the wayside, they have more motivation to tackle bigger debts.

A reader discussed the potential value of such an approach in “How I Wiped Out $37,000 of Debt in One Year.”

Remember, be careful not to run up new debt and dig yourself back into the same hole.

Idea No. 3: Fatten your emergency fund

Building a rainy day emergency fund
Atomazul /

You are debt-free? Bravo! In that case, strengthening your financial safety net may be the next best use of a tax refund.

Opinions differ on how much to save for emergencies. Many experts advise keeping enough money to cover expenses for six months or longer.

Ask yourself the following: If you lost a job, how long could you expect to be unemployed? The length of time someone is unemployed typically depends on the type of work he or she does, and the state of the economy.

Your savings should be greater if you’re older because it often takes older workers longer to find work.

Idea No. 4: Save for retirement

designer491 /

Saving for retirement should be a top goal. A Money Talks News reader named Retha asked MTN founder Stacy Johnson whether it makes more sense to save for retirement or to pay down the mortgage. Stacy’s answer was clear:

Job one for people in Retha’s position should be to put aside as much as possible in tax-advantaged retirement accounts. Priority two should be saving as much as possible outside of retirement accounts. Only after building a comfortable cushion should you use spare cash to pay down a mortgage.

Read more about Stacy’s take on this subject in “Ask Stacy: Should I Save More for Retirement or Pay Down My Mortgage?

Idea No. 5: Save for college

New college graduates pose with their diplomas
michaeljung /

Whether it’s for your education or your kids’ schooling, apply your refund check to a college savings plan that offers tax benefits in addition to saving money for college.

Idea No. 6: Invest in your productivity

Monkey Business Images /

Leverage your refund to grow earnings. Here are five ways to do it:

  1. Get more education. Sign up for a workshop or course, or attend a conference or webinar. Upgrade your skills, or try out a new field.
  2. Subscribe. Sign up for professional publications, including newspapers such as the Wall Street Journal and New York Times. Or, pay for cable TV or satellite radio channels that help your work acumen. Buy software you need to get ahead. Buy a premium LinkedIn subscription to network, or to find work.
  3. Invest in the right clothes. Get a tasteful, understated but impressive outfit for work or job interviews. Make sure it’s one that makes you feel like a million bucks. Include good shoes.
  4. Buy the equipment you need. Get the new laptop, tool or piece of electronic equipment you need to move ahead in your field.
  5. Get therapy. Career advancement isn’t only about the right tools, skills and credentials. A chip on your shoulder, depression, anxiety, a fear of success or problems at home can prevent you from reaching your earning potential.

Idea No. 7: Hire a career coach

Career coach
shyshak roman /

Career coaching can help you discover strengths, identify where you could use help, set goals and strategize. There are many ways coaching can help further your career.

Idea No. 8: Contribute to charity /

Do good for others while helping yourself earn a healthy tax deduction on your taxes by supporting a charitable cause. Make sure to get a receipt for your contribution, and be sure the organization you support is a legitimate charity, as defined by the IRS.

Idea No. 9: Start a business

Monkey Business Images /

Make your refund your grubstake. Start the business you’ve been dreaming of, whether it’s consulting, opening a coffee cart or retail outlet, selling your crafts, or patenting an invention.

What will you do with your tax refund this year? Share your thoughts in comments or on our Facebook page.

Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click links within our stories.