Maximize Your Tax Refund

Dear Dollar Stretcher,

I have 4 children and do not work outside the home. As tax season approaches we are anxious to get that large tax check. As usual, we have it spent before it gets here. There are so many things we need. My washer and dryer are breathing their last, the car has a leak in the radiator. Then there is the desire for a date with my husband. We haven’t had any private fun in such a long time.

I know that it would please our creditors to just plunk down the tax check in their lap. There won’t be enough to pay all of them. But when that money is gone, what do we do to buy the high-dollar items that we need? Would it really help to use maybe $1,000 or so of the tax check on one of the loans? Should we use it on the highest interest loan?

Cathy asks a good question. While it’s tempting to use a tax refund to treat yourself to some special purchase, in many cases it’s more important to use the money to pay off bills or make necessary purchases.

The honest answer to Cathy’s question is – it depends. What she does with the tax refund may be less important than what she does with the other bills and expenses that she faces.

Using a $1,000 tax refund to pay off her credit card could save Cathy $180 a year (assuming 18% interest rate). So if she’s able to keep the balance down she’d save that much every year for the rest of her life.

However, a more likely scenario is that she’ll use the card for an auto repair or other purchase soon after and have the same credit card balance that she started with. In that case, she really hasn’t accomplished anything.

She can gain an advantage by using the refund to pay down the account that’s charging her the highest rate of interest. Then put new purchases on the card that’s charging her the lowest rate of interest.

Cathy should always be trying to move her debts to the lowest cost credit card. It may not seem like much, but if she has a $7,000 balance and can reduce her rate from 18% to 13% she’ll save $350 each year.

What happens if Cathy spends the refund? Again, it depends on what she buys and how she buys it.

Anyone who is married with children can appreciate Cathy’s desire for a date with her spouse. But, she might be better off planning a candlelight dessert with hubby at home after the kids’ bedtime once each month.

What about the auto repairs or a new washer and dryer? She could visit her mechanic and have him install a new radiator. An alternative would be to have her husband or a neighbor install a radiator purchased at a junkyard. That could reduce the cost of the repair by 50% or more.

It’s possible that the IRS refund could give Cathy some buying leverage. Take her washer and dryer for instance. If she waits until they break she’ll probably be forced to buy immediately. Having the refund check available means that she’s a ‘cash’ buyer. That could allow her to drive a better bargain. It would also allow her to look for a good used deal in the paper.

Another possibility would be to save the old washer and dryer. Perhaps a $100 service call would buy some time.

The trick is not to use the refund to momentarily feel wealthy and pay retail. Use it to give you flexibility to make it go further.

There’s still one other option for her tax refund. She could use the money for a cash emergency fund. In most cases it would be silly to keep an emergency fund that earns money market rates (less than 1%) while she’s still paying credit card debts at 18%. But, if Cathy could learn to face emergencies without using her charge cards, it could be worth it. Generally, once a family begins to put big expenses on their credit card they’ll always carry a balance.

Two final thoughts. Part of every monthly budget should be money set aside for medical, home and auto bills. It might not be easy setting aside $50 or more each month. But it’s essential. In Cathy’s case, she might want to find a part-time job that could generate that much.

Cathy and her husband may also want to have his withholding changed. Remember that the IRS doesn’t pay you interest on your withheld taxes. So instead of getting a big refund each year, Cathy could use the extra take home pay and use it to reduce those 18% card balances each month.

This article by Gary Foreman first appeared on The Dollar Stretcher and was distributed by the Personal Finance Syndication Network.

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