While filing your taxes can be tedious, many Americans often look forward to receiving a tax refund. But it's important to remember that if you're receiving money back from Uncle Sam, it's because you had too much withheld and overpaid your taxes last year — it's not really extra money. So before splurging on a dinner out or a weekend getaway, consider these steps to put your tax refund to work this year, setting yourself and your family up for long-term financial success.
• Pay down your "bad" debt: Eliminating your debt, especially the high-interest consumer debt with no tax benefits, makes it easier to reach your financial goals. If you're carrying a balance on your credit cards or other high-interest loans, use your tax refund to pay down these expensive debts.
If you're still not down to zero after you use your tax refund, continue to make this a high priority in 2019. When it comes to smart money management, the only thing more important is contributing to your company's retirement plan at least enough to receive the maximum employer match. Often, those contributions are taken straight from your paycheck before your taxes are deducted. Whether your employer matches 50 percent of your contribution or dollar-for-dollar up to a certain amount, it's hard to beat that kind of return, even in a bull market.
• Build up an emergency fund: Unexpected situations happen frequently, but most Americans are unprepared. A recent survey found just 35 percent of Americans have an emergency fund. It's best to tuck away between three to six months of essential living expenses in a savings or money market account. Your money won't grow much in these types of vehicles, but it will be easily accessible when you need to pay bills in case of a job loss or unexpected illness. Having some cash ready for unexpected situations will help you avoid expensive and unwise alternatives like living off credit cards, being forced to sell investments at an inopportune time, or withdrawing money from a retirement savings account, which often results in having to pay early withdrawal penalties.
• Max out your retirement accounts: Even if you have a 401(k), an Individual Retirement Account (IRA) can be a great way to supplement your retirement savings. Try to contribute up to the IRS maximum, which is $6,000 in 2019, plus an extra $1,000 if you're over the age of 50.
• Consider other tax-efficient saving and investing accounts: If you're trying to save for college for your kids, contribute to a 529 college savings plan or education savings account, which both benefit from tax-deferred growth on your investments. You could also contribute to a health savings account (HSA), which is tax-advantaged savings and investment account available to people with high-deductible health plans.
• Save for a down payment or pay down your mortgage. Alternatively, you may consider saving for the down payment on your home or making an extra payment or two on your mortgage or student loans. While those are considered to be in the "good" debt category since they are tax deductible and can help boost your credit score, eliminating your debt ultimately helps free up future money for other uses.
• Treat yourself or keep investing for something bigger. Once you've addressed your savings goals, you may consider if there's any left to treat yourself and your family. But make it something you really want, or if you're still working toward a bigger goal, keep saving or investing for the long-term.
While these steps are especially important when you're trying to prioritize how to save and invest, they're applicable to much more than just your tax refund. Smart saving and investing behaviors are key to helping you reach your long-term financial goals.