Tax return season comes with plenty of temptation.
Once the annual boost lands in your bank account, it's easy to want to spend on all of the things you haven't been able to afford or justify buying. But with a solid plan and commitment, private wealth adviser Mary DiChristofano said tax return season can be one of the best times to "get ahead."
"It's a matter of habit. If you use that tax refund as an opportunity get ahead and do that consistently, it can really have an impact," said DiChristofano, with Graystone Consulting, a business of Morgan Stanley. "It could be life-changing in terms of flexibility and freedom later on. Don't think of it as a way to treat yourself to that next shopping trip, think of it as a way of achieving financial goals."
She said consumers should remember tax refunds are your money coming back to you, so it's important to use them in a way that'll benefit your future.
Here's some of her advice on making the most of your return.
Make a plan and commit to it
Even before you know how much your tax refund will amount to, DiChristofano recommends making a plan.
"Make a plan and have a commitment first in the hypothetical world. If you were to get a tax refund, you would put a certain percent of it toward this, and a certain percent toward this other area," she said. "I think that helps us commit to ourselves that we will have the discipline when those dollars come to us. That's opposed to all of a sudden finding out we have this windfall and then making a knee jerk reaction."
She said having a solid plan helps us to avoid spending on small, frequent purchases that add up and eat away at our income.
Prioritize your needs
In making a plan, DiChristofano said it's best to take a step back and analyze your financial situation to determine what your priorities are.
"Any time we're making a decision regarding what I do with my money, it's always the benefit versus the negative impact the decision may have," she said.
For many people, she said reducing high-interest debt might be one of the best ways to use your tax refund. If you have outstanding debt with a high-interest rate, such as credit card debt, she said that should be one of the key areas to target first.
But she said not to rely on tax refunds to pay down debt. If you're regularly spending beyond your means and using the tax refund to pay off debt, rather than keeping up-to-date on monthly payments, she said you aren't getting ahead.
Another way to responsibly use your tax refund is to cushion your emergency fund, ensuring you have between three and six months' worth of expenses saved in case of emergencies.
DiChristofano also recommends filling college savings accounts, such as a 529 plan, and adding to your retirement account. She said "never underestimate the value of compounding," urging consumers to save now.
And your tax refund could also be used to cushion individual savings accounts, aimed at paying for expenses such as that new car or vacation.
Invest in yourself
If your tax refund is larger than you expected, DiChristofano said stick to your plan.
"That'll just mean you're ahead for next year," she said. "At the end of the day, we're always reassessing how we stand versus the goals we set, and how on target we are. The sooner you start and the more disciplined you stay, you won't only be on target but you'll be ahead of your target. That means down the road you're creating more opportunities for financial freedom."