What would you do if you got a check in the mail for $2,800? According to the Internal Revenue Service, that is the average tax refund amount this year.
While it may be tempting to blow the whole sum on a fancy vacation or high-tech toys, financial advisors say it’s best to have a plan.
“The biggest mistake people make when they get an unexpected amount of money is go to Best Buy and buy a 60-inch flat screen TV, then out to dinner, then for a weekend in the Keys,” said Andrew Wilson, South Florida regional director for Merrill Edge, a subsidiary of Bank of America. “They dip into it a little at a time until it’s gone.”
Sit down and think about what is important to you.
“The biggest mistake consumers make is not having a plan,” Wilson said.
Most people will blow found money on a consumer-oriented purchase that won’t add value to their net worth, said Cathy Pareto, a certified financial planner with Cathy Pareto and Associates in Miami.
According to a study by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, a third of people who get a tax refund fritter it away on day-to-day purchases.
To help mitigate that impulse, if you get a chunk of unexpected money, put it aside for at least two weeks as a “cooling off” period to let you think, said Elaine King Fuentes, a Miami certified financial planner and author of Family and Money Matters.
During that time, sit down with your family and figure out what’s the biggest drain on your budget, Fuentes said. Then carve up the money into pieces: pay down debts, invest, splurge.
“Think about the buckets that are important to you,” Wilson said.
Pay down debt
If you have credit card bills or student loans, make a deposit to your mental well-being by paying down some debt, Wilson said.
“The No. 1 one factor to think about is the Achilles heel of most people — credit card debt — people just slogging along, paying 14 percent interest on what they buy,” Pareto said. If you’re carrying a lot of debt, then choosing to invest the money likely won’t offset that high interest, she said.
“You need to pay down that debt. Do away with the things that are sucking down your wealth, rather than trying to add to your wealth,” Pareto said.
Invest for retirement
Paint a picture of what your retirement looks like, Wilson said. “Are you close to hitting your goal? If not, what do you need to do?” he said.
If you have paid down your debt, give yourself a gift and fund an IRA for yourself for this year, Pareto said.
Depending on your situation, you could make a tax-deductible contribution to a traditional IRA and enjoy tax-deferred growth, or invest in a Roth IRA for tax-free earnings.
If your company offers a company match for its 401K, invest at least enough to get the match.
Set up an
Most people don’t have proper reserves, Pareto said.
The rule of thumb is three to six months of your salary, but if you have a fluctuating salary, such as a commission-based sales person, you should have more. It depends on your situation, Pareto said.
Do something frivolous
If you’ve taken care of your debt and retirement buckets, then treat yourself, but do it responsibly, Pareto said.
“Instead of a $3,000 vacation, take 10 percent, or $300, and do a weekend away or splurge on a dinner that you might not do otherwise,” Pareto said. “You don’t have to completely sacrifice. You want to provide some movement to improve your financial position, but you can have a little fun too.”