Use tax refund to help meet financial goals

Published 11:39 am Friday, April 3, 2009

Each year, before you prepare your taxes, you probably wonder: “Am I going to get a refund?”

Actually, your odds are pretty good: In 2008, about two-thirds of taxpayers received refunds, slightly down from 2007, when Uncle Sam paid back three-fourths of tax filers.

But if you do get a refund, how can you use it to help yourself make progress toward your key financial goals?

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You might think that your refund wouldn’t be big enough to make much of a difference in your life. But that’s not necessarily true.

In 2008, the average tax refund was about $2,400. You could receive more or less than $2,400, of course, but for the sake of illustration, let’s see what you could do with that amount:

• Contribute to your IRA. You’ve got until April 15, 2009, to contribute to your IRA for 2008, but even if your refund arrives after that date, you can start funding your IRA for 2009. You can put up to $5,000 (or $6,000 if you’re 50 or older) to a traditional or Roth IRA (income limits apply), so your $2,400 would put you nearly halfway to the limit. And even though your IRA balance probably dropped in 2008, it’s still a good idea to fully fund this retirement vehicle, which offers substantial tax advantages. Specifically, a traditional IRA’s earnings grow tax-deferred, while a Roth IRA’s earnings grow completely tax-free, provided you meet certain conditions.

• Pay down your debts. As you well know, we’re living in a difficult economic environment. And in times such as these, when you are facing possible threats to your income, or even your job, you’ll to keep your debt load as low as possible. Consequently, you may want to use part of your tax refund to get rid of some debts. For example, if you owed money on a credit card that charged 11 percent interest, and you could pay off that card, you would, in effect, be earning an 11 percent return. Consequently, you’d likely be making a pretty good “investment” by applying some of your $2,400 toward your credit card debt.

• Save for college. College costs have risen sharply over the past several years. To send your children to college, you’ll want to save early and save often. Fortunately, you can find several attractive college-savings vehicles, including the Coverdell Education Savings Account and the Section 529 savings plan. You can put up to $2,000 per year to a Coverdell Account—so your $2,400 is enough to completely fund your plan for 2009. Or you might also want to consider putting your tax refund into a Section 529 savings plan. (Section 529 plan contribution limits are quite high.).

• Build an emergency fund. If you don’t already have an emergency fund containing three to six months’ worth of living expenses, you should consider creating one—and your $2,400 will make a nice start. Once you’ve set up an emergency fund, you may be able to avoid dipping into your long-term investments to pay for short-term needs, such as a major car repair or an expensive new appliance.

This year, if you get a tax refund, put it to work. By making the right moves, you can reap benefits from your refund long after tax season is over.