Go Back Go Ahead

Few things are quite as thrilling as opening that envelope from Uncle Sam and finding a refund check--you're finally getting something back, instead of always paying in. Some people even view tax refunds as a savings strategy, or a license to shop. According to The Wall Street Journal, the average tax refund to date for 1998 is about $1,400. That's a lot of moolah.
      Before you head to the mall, consider these options:

You do realize,
don�t you, that
your tax refund
is your money, and
Uncle Sam has been
using it interest-free
all year?
Find out how not to get a refund next year.
What?! If you're one of those taxpayers who views tax refunds as found money, this idea won't be music to your ears. But why let Uncle Sam waltz with your money without paying you interest? You did realize that this was your money all along, didn't you? It's money that could be in a savings account earning interest for you.
      Make the change. Contact your personnel department and complete a new W-4 form to better match the amount of money withheld to the amount of money you owe each year. Then, use payroll deduction to systematically build a credit union savings account to help you reach your goals.

Build an emergency fund.
Experts advise that you keep three to six months' living expenses in an emergency fund. If yours is nonexistent or insufficient, use your refund to set it up or beef it up.
      Keep your rainy-day dollars where they�re readily accessible, such as in a savings or money market account at your credit union. Remember: This account is for true emergencies, like illness or unemployment--it's not for buying a new stereo or for taking a vacation, no matter how desperately you think you need them.
      If, down the road, you truly need to dip into these funds, make it a top priority to promptly replace any withdrawals.

Using $1,400
to pay down a $3,000
credit card debt
can actually end up
saving you $1,587.
Buy financial freedom.
As long as you didn't earn interest on the money Uncle Sam kept during the year, you at least can apply it to pay off or reduce a debt--especially one that's saddled with a high interest rate. Check your credit card statements and loan papers to find which one's costing the most, then use your refund to pay the debt off or down.
      Here's an example of how this strategy could pay off: Say you owe $3,000 on a 16% credit card and you're only paying the $60 minimum each month. It will take you seven years and $1,977 in interest to pay off this debt. Now, let's say you get a $1,400 tax refund and put it toward your credit card debt. Your new balance is $1,600. Now, instead of paying the new minimum monthly payment of $32, keep paying the $60 you've been paying. It will take only 2.75 years to pay off your balance, costing $390 in interest. That $1,400 you used to pay down your debt ended up saving you $1,587. (Of course, you realize that you won�t save this money if you simply turn around and reload your balance with further credit spending.)
      Once you pay down this debt, switch those steady monthly payments to help reduce other high-interest debts. Over time, you'll be debt-free. You then can redirect the money you paid toward your debt to your savings and investment goals. And, if your credit cards or loans are from other lenders, now is a good time to check out the favorable rates at your credit union.

Buy some peace of mind.
We never think we�re going to get sick, crash our cars, or lose our possessions to disaster. But after months of El Niño, we've all learned that anything goes--and often takes everything with it.
      Check to see that you have adequate health, disability, life, homeowners, auto, and personal liability insurance. If you don't have the necessary insurance, or don't have sufficient coverage, put your refund toward better coverage. Ignore this and you're being penny foolish. Don't believe it? Just weigh the cost of your premiums against the full price of replacing your car, rebuilding or refurnishing your home, or missing a year of work without pay.
      Speaking of El Niño, let's look at flood insurance. Laying out a couple of hundred dollars in flood insurance could be a financial lifesaver if you live in a high-risk area. According to the Insurance Information Institute, Washington, D.C., the average premium costs $296 for around $107,000 of coverage. Although flood insurance is not part of your homeowners insurance policy, you usually can purchase it through your regular insurance agent or directly from the National Flood Insurance Program.

Invest in a bright future.
If your emergency fund is set, your debt is under control, and you're adequately protected by insurance, you're ready to think about investing that refund. Before you invest, set your goals and do your homework.
      Keep money you'll need for short-term goals, such as buying a house or taking a vacation, in a savings or money market account at your credit union. However, money that you want to save for long-term goals, like retirement or your young child's college education, has time to ride out the roller-coaster ride of the market. Seriously consider investing it where it can grow, such as in stocks or stock mutual funds. For example, if you put a $1,400 tax refund in a stock mutual fund that earns an average annual pretax return of 8%, in 10 years you'll have more than $3,000.
      Who should you save for first--you or your kids? Follow the flight attendants� advice: First secure your oxygen mask before assisting young children with theirs. That's because you, or your children, always can borrow money for college--but no one�s looking to lend you money for retirement.

Columnist Franny Van Nevel is a consumer advocate and writer. She formerly was director of consumer information for the Wisconsin attorney general�s office for 12 years, and is a frequent contributor to Woman�s Day.

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