When experts talk about what you should do with your tax refund, they usually focus on a couple of options: deposit it in an IRA or pay down your credit-card debt. But there are other options to consider, especially because, thanks to last year's tax-law changes, this year's refunds are 5% higher, averaging $2,100 per return. You may eventually decide the IRA deposit or debt-reduction strategy is for you--but here are some other possibilities:
GET A FINANCIAL PLAN. It may cost you, but it's worth it. According to new research from Bankrate.com individuals who plan their finances carefully are more likely to contribute to retirement accounts, pay bills on time, own a home (and get the best rates on their mortgage) and switch to credit cards with lower interest payments. That doesn't mean you put a financial adviser on your payroll for life. I'm a big believer in using financial planners as short-term therapists to get you on the right track--then going back to them only when you feel you need additional help. Check out www.fpanet.org the Financial Planning Association website, or www.napfa.org the website of the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors.
HAVE YOUR CAR TUNED. Gas prices are high as we head into the year's heavy driving season, and little relief is in sight. Buying the most fuel-efficient vehicle in a particular class can save you $300 to $500 a year. But if trading cars doesn't make financial sense for you, be sure to take care of your vehicle--proper maintenance can improve gas mileage by as much as 10%. What do you need to do? Replace clogged air filters, get your oil changed regularly and make sure tires are properly inflated.
MAKE AN EXTRA MORTGAGE PAYMENT. If you have a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage and you make an extra principal payment each year, you will reduce the term of that loan to 23 years. That's right: you can wipe out seven years of interest payments. If the cost of refinancing your mortgage stopped you from undertaking that transaction in the past, keep in mind that using your refund to refinance can save you additional money in the long run.
JOIN A GYM. Exercising regularly is always a sound investment. According to a study of 7,000 men that was coauthored by Dr. Tedd Mitchell of the Cooper Clinic in Dallas, fit individuals spend half as many nights in the hospital as unfit individuals do. And with the cost of an overnight stay now in excess of $1,100 (according to the Healthcare Financing Administration), those visits add up. --With reporting by Carolyn Bigda