The 9 Best Ways to Use Your Tax Refund

Want to make the most of your tax refund this year? Here are 9 great ways (including ones that can make you money) to put it to use.

March 8, 2024

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If you’ve found yourself with a little extra cash courtesy of a tax refund, congratulations on the financial boost! Now, before you turn your living room into a gaming hub or book the next flight to Mexico, let’s talk about some smart and satisfying ways to put that refund to good use. From treating yourself to a guilt-free splurge to making those dollars work for you, we’ve got the lowdown on the nine best ways to ride the tax refund wave. 

1. Pay down debt  

Last year, the IRS disbursed over $345 billion in tax refunds, and the average refund was $2,753. That’s not a small amount! 

When it comes to using this windfall wisely, one of the most effective strategies is to pay down existing debt. This financial move not only provides immediate relief but also sets the stage for a more secure financial future. 

Begin by taking stock of all your outstanding debts, including credit cards, loans, and any other liabilities. Next, categorize these debts based on interest rates, outstanding balances, and repayment terms. When it comes to paying off debt, you have two repayment strategies to choose from: 

  1. The Avalanche Method: The Avalanche Method focuses on paying off debts with the highest interest rates, such as credit card debt, first. It involves making minimum payments on all debts while allocating extra funds to the debt with the highest interest rate. Once the highest-interest debt is fully paid, the strategy continues with the next highest-interest debt. This approach minimizes the total interest paid over time. 

  2. The Snowball Method: The Snowball Method, on the other hand, prioritizes paying off the smallest debts first. It involves making minimum payments on all the debts while directing any extra funds to the smallest debt. Once the smallest debt is paid off, the freed-up funds are then applied to the next smallest debt, creating a snowball effect. This method is more focused on the psychological boost of quick wins by eliminating smaller debts early in the process. 

You can use your federal income tax refund to make significant lump sum payments toward targeted debts. By doing so, you’re reducing your interest expenses over the life of the loan. 

This results in increased monthly cash flow, providing you with the flexibility to allocate resources towards savings, investments, or other personal finance goals. 

2. Build or boost an emergency fund

In most tax preparation software, you can opt for a direct deposit of your tax refund. All you’ll need is the account number and routing number. 

Then, you can transfer this money to an account of your choice. Building or beefing up your emergency savings is a smart money move, and using your federal tax refund can set you on the right path for handling unexpected financial bumps. 

Consider your emergency fund as a financial safeguard against surprises like medical bills, car troubles, or unexpected job changes. It’s your cushion, saving you from turning to high-interest credit cards in emergencies. Here’s a closer look at how to make the most of your refund check for your emergency fund:

  1. Figure out your fund size: Calculate your monthly living costs, considering job stability, health, and family needs. Experts often suggest aiming for three to six months’ worth of expenses.

  2. Start or beef up your fund: If you don’t have an emergency fund, use a chunk of your tax refund to kickstart one. Open a dedicated high-yield savings account1 just for emergencies. If you already have one, use your tax refund to fill in any gaps from unexpected expenses.

  3. Prioritize accessibility: Pick a savings account or tool that allows quick access to your money. While interest rates matter, focus on how easily you can get to your funds when needed. Some savings account may accrue more interest, but will they allow you immediate access to funds when an emergency strikes?

  4. Automate contributions: Make saving a habit by setting up automatic transfers or direct deposits from your checking account to your emergency fund bank account, so you’re not tempted to make withdrawals. Consistent contributions help build a reliable safety net. 

3. Save for retirement 

By steering your refund toward retirement savings, you’re making a smart investment in your financial future, paving the way for a comfy and fulfilling retirement. Make the most of tax-advantaged retirement accounts like 401(k)s, IRAs, or Roth IRAs. Depending on the account, your contributions can be tax deductible or grow tax-free. 

If you’re 50 or older, leverage catch-up contributions allowed by retirement accounts. This lets you put in extra money beyond the usual limits, helping you catch up on building your retirement savings. Additionally, use retirement calculators to estimate your ideal savings amount. This can help guide you on how to allocate your tax refund for the most impact. 

Finally, consider getting advice from a financial expert or tax preparer to tailor your retirement savings plan to your unique situation. Expert guidance can optimize your investment strategy and address specific savings goals or concerns. 

4. Invest in education or professional development

By investing your tax refund in education or professional development, you not only level up your knowledge and skills, but also set the stage for better career opportunities, earning potential, and overall job satisfaction. 

This strategic investment in yourself can pave the way for a more fulfilling and successful professional journey. Plus, some of these may be deductible expenses when you file your federal tax return next year, especially if you’re self-employed. Some ways to do this include: 

  • Take courses or workshops: Enroll in courses, workshops, or seminars using your tax refund. Online platforms offer tons of options for conveniently boosting your knowledge and skills. 

  • Get certified: Consider investing in recognized certification programs. They not only boost your professional credibility but also open doors to exciting opportunities. 

  • Brush up on language or soft skills: Improve your language skills or work on soft skills like communication, leadership, and time management. These are versatile skills that amp up your effectiveness in various professional settings. 

  • Tech and digital skills: Stay in the loop with technological advancements by taking courses that build up your digital skills. This is especially crucial in today’s tech-driven work environments. 

  • Go to networking events: Use part of your tax refund to attend conferences, workshops, or networking events. These not only provide insights, but also help you make connections and stay updated on industry trends. 

  • Build a personal library: Invest in books, journals, or online subscriptions that align with your professional interests. A carefully curated collection can be a handy reference and a source of continuous learning. 

5. Make home improvements

By strategically using your tax refund for home improvements2, you can not only create a more comfortable and aesthetically pleasing living environment, but also make a sound investment in the long-term value of your property. 

Conduct a thorough assessment of your home to identify areas that require maintenance, repair or upgrades, prioritizing projects based on urgency and long-term benefits. These could include:

  • Energy efficiency upgrades: Think about energy-efficient upgrades like programmable thermostats or new windows. Not only do they cut down on bills, but they also make your home more eco-friendly. 

  • Kitchen renovations: Give your kitchen some love by upgrading appliances or changing up the layout. A kitchen facelift isn’t just practical; it adds a touch of style. 

  • Bathroom remodeling: Amp up your bathrooms with new fixtures or a refreshed look. A modern bathroom adds value and makes daily life a bit more luxurious. 

  • Landscaping and outdoor spaces: Spruce up your outdoor spaces with landscaping or patio upgrades. Maybe throw in a barbecue area for some extra fun. It’s all about boosting curb appeal and creating family spaces. 

  • Painting and refreshing: A fresh coat of paint can work wonders inside and out. Budget for all paint, trim updates, or a facelift for the exterior. It’s an easy and affordable way to give your home a new look. 

  • Roof repairs or replacement: Take care of your roof with repairs or a replacement. Fixing leaks and shingles not only extends your home’s life but also prevents potential water damage. 

  • Smart home upgrades: Dive into smart home tech for added security and convenience. Smart thermostats, security systems, or automated lighting can instantly make your home more comfortable. 

  • Flooring upgrades: Swap out worn-out flooring with something fresh. Whether it’s hardwood, laminate, or tile, new floors can transform your home’s look and feel. 

  • Basement or attic conversions: Make the most of under-used areas like the basement or attic. Convert them into a home office, guest room, or a cool entertainment spot. 

  • Upgrading home systems: Upgrade essential home systems like HVAC, plumbing, or electrical to keep your spaces working like it should. 

  • DIY projects: Feeling crafty? Try some DIY projects that match your skills and interests. Custom shelving, furniture refinishing, or unique decor can add a personal touch to your home. 

For more complex projects or renovations, consider consulting with professionals such as contractors or interior designers. Their expertise can ensure that the investment yields optimal results and adds lasting value to your home. 

6. Save for future goals

If you decide to use your tax refund to save for future goals, make sure to differentiate between short-term and long-term objectives. Categorizing financial goals by time horizon allows for a tailored savings strategy. 

Short-term goals, like a vacation or home renovation, may require liquid savings, while long-term goals, such as retirement or a home purchase, may involve strategic investments for growth. This strategic approach fosters discipline, motivation, and long-term financial security, facilitating the alignment of your financial resources with your unique aspirations. 

7. Contribute to a college fund

Putting your tax refund into a college savings fund for your children is a wise step toward early savings. Consistent contributions can accumulate into a substantial fund, offering financial support for their higher education and potentially reducing their reliance on student loans. College funds, specifically 529 plans, provide flexibility in covering various eligible expenses, including tuition, books, room and board. The specific advantages of a 529 plan include:

  • Tax-free growth: Gains within the account grow tax free, offering a powerful financial benefit over time. 

  • Tax deductions for contributions: While federal deductions are not applicable, some states provide tax deductions or credits for contributions to in-state 529 plans.

  • High contribution limits: 529 plans allow substantial contributions, making them advantageous for families aiming to fully fund their children’s education. 

  • Flexibility in beneficiary designation: If educational plans change, you can switch the beneficiary to another family member without penalties. 

  • No income restrictions: Accessible to families across various taxable income levels, as there are no income restrictions. 

  • Ease of management: 529 plans are relatively straightforward to manage, with professional fund managers handling investment decisions. 

8. Donate to charitable causes

Donating a part of your tax refund to charity is a meaningful way to use your financial resources positively. Identify causes aligned with your value – whether in education, healthcare, or environmental conservation –  and ensure they are legitimate nonprofits with tax-exempt status. 

Next, strategically approach giving by allocating a portion of your tax refund for one-time donations, exploring monthly giving programs, checking for employer matching gift programs, or contributing to a donor-advised fund for flexibility. 

The IRS states that charitable donations can lead to federal tax deductions for American taxpayers if you follow specific guidelines. Deductions are generally based on the fair market value of the donation, subject to adjusted gross income limits. Non-cash items and some volunteer expenses may also qualify. For high-value items, a qualified appraisal may be necessary. 

9. Treat yourself, but mindfully

Finally, celebrate your hard work by setting aside a small portion of your tax refund for personal enjoyment. Choose a reward that aligns with your interests or passions. Keep it in check, though, with clear spending limits, ensuring you prioritize essential expenses and savings. By avoiding impulse buys and investing in experiences that contribute to personal growth, you create a harmonious balance between responsible financial choices and self care. 

Get financial products customized to your needs 

Using your tax refund wisely is crucial for optimizing your financial well-being, as strategic allocation towards debt reduction, savings, investments, and essential expenditures contributes to long-term financial stability and personal fulfillment.

If you’re looking to refinance your debt or pay it off faster, Navient lets you compare lenders for free all in one place. Just enter a few details about yourself and get personalized results within seconds.

Disclaimer: This blog post provides personal finance educational information, and it is not intended to provide legal, financial, or tax advice.

1 Navient customers are invited to consider savings offers through our partner Fiona. Navient has not shared your information with Fiona.  Savings offers are made by participants in Fiona’s savings platform, powered by Even Financial.  Even Financial, Inc. is the technology platform powering financial services online.

2 Navient customers are invited to consider personal loan offers through our partner Fiona. Navient has not shared your information with Fiona and is not involved in the personal loan application process in any manner.  All information is submitted directly to Fiona and any personal loan offers are made directly by participants in Fiona’s lending platform, powered by Even Financial.  Even Financial, Inc. is the industry-leading embedded financial marketplace and independent subsidiary of MoneyLion Inc. (“MoneyLion”) (NYSE:ML). Checking your rate will not affect your credit score. Eligibility is not guaranteed and requires that a sufficient number of investors commit funds to your account and that you meet credit and other conditions.

Loan proceeds may not be used for postsecondary educational expenses, including refinancing federal or private student loans.

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