Excited couple seeing their tax refund status sitting on a sofa in the living room at home

5 Really Dumb Things You Could Do With a Tax Refund

Tax time—that interesting time of year when ordinarily smart people begin to make really dumb financial decisions. Isn’t it amazing to watch what a little extra cash (otherwise known as a tax refund) lining the pockets can do?

Excited couple seeing their tax refund status sitting on a sofa in the living room at home


Last year, the U.S. Internal Revnue Service (IRS) processed approximately  tax returns and returned $512,000,000.000 of taxpayers’ money in so-called tax refunds, averaging $2,151 each. And 61% of taxpayers expect that this year, they’ll receive some sort of refund on their returns.

While there are many dumb things one could do with a tax refund, there are just as many smart moves. The choice is yours.

1. Don’t act like it’s FREE money

The operative word in the term “tax refund” is REFUND! Common synonyms for refund are “repayment,” “reimbursement,” and “return of overpayment.” Tax refunds are not free money. The government is not giving you a bonus every year just to thank you for being so awesome.

This is money that you’ve allowed the government to borrow from you all year long. And now, unlike most of your friends or family members, they are actually paying you back.

Never mind the fact that you made the loan with NO interest even though you pay them back with interest on your student loans or credit card accounts. Do you really have enough money to lend some of it to anyone, let alone the government, under those terms?

Think about the times this year that you came up short and felt your only option was to go into debt for groceries. How many times did you pay only the minimum required on your credit card statement because you simply did not have enough in your bank account to pay the balance in full. Remember those days when you white-knuckled it to payday and fed the kids six straight meals of ramen? Yeah, those times when you were in a jam but at the same time blithely sending the cash you needed to the government.

Smart Move!

If you routinely get a big tax refund, change your withholding (use this calculator to determine the amount you should be having withheld along with instructions on how to change it). Your goal is to neither owe or to be owed at the end of the year. If you can come within $100 of that goal, you’re golden.

2. Don’t pay down debt

Before you do that—noble as it may be—you need an emergency fund. If you are not able to fund your own future emergencies, you’ll never get ahead because you will keep running back to the credit cards for a bailout.

Smart Move!

Keep making your regular payments on credit cards, student loans, and any other debt you’re carrying, and use the refund to create your Emergency Fund. (It’s OK to save money even when you owe money!). Then keep adding to it until you reach your goal (enough money to live for at least three months without a paycheck, or let’s just say $10,000). Now you’ll be in a beautiful position to rapidly pay down your debt and have confidence that you’ll still keep going when life happens.

3. Don’t make a down payment

On a car, television, furniture, or any other thing that will turn into new monthly payments—also known as debt.

The burning sensation and feeling of prosperity and richness strong arms people into putting money down on a new car, boat, Disney vacation or what have you. Here’s the thing to remember: After that down payment, you’re still responsible for the pesky monthly payments that stick around much longer.

Even though you’re feeling good right now, remember a tax-refund comes but once a year. The joy of getting back your tax overpayment can quickly turn into a nightmare if you’re not careful.

Smart Move!

Assuming you are prepared for emergencies (refer to #2), use the refund to abolish your bills, not create new ones. Never create on-going debt with one-time funds.

4. Don’t indulge in a little retail therapy

There’s no doubt that shopping for new clothes, shoes, electronics, or other cool stuff is a great anti-depressant, but it’s dumb. Once that shopper’s high wears off you’ll be right back where you were—broke but with more stuff.

Smart Move!

Go for a brisk walk, spend time—not money with your kids, friends, and family doing things that won’t cost money. Most every city has a big museum or zoo that’s free on one day each month. Or go on a picnic, take a bike ride, explore your own city by googling the name of your city plus “free attractions” to find all kinds of things to do for free. You’ll be amazed. And you’ll feel a lot better, too.

5. Don’t cram it under the mattress

It’s an idea, but not a very good one. Money under the mattress is  vulnerable to theft and fire—but most of all it’s vulnerable to you in a weak moment.

Smart Move!

Open an online savings account at SmartyPig.com, or Ally.com. Deposit your tax refund then sit back and know it’s safe from you and at the same time, growing. You can open an account with as little as $1 at Smarty Pig!

If you do lose your job or have a true financial emergency, you’ll be plenty glad you got smart with this year’s tax refund.


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7 replies
    • Mary Hunt says:

      SmartyPig Accounts are offered through Sallie Mae Bank, Member FDIC. See this article Beyond that I am not aware of any such law or regulation. SmartyPig accounts would be subject to all regulations imposed upon FDIC insured banks.

  1. Lauren P says:

    I stopped allowing the Feds to ‘borrow’ money from us years ago by switching to estimated tax payments. The money stays in OUR account until we make our required quarterly payments. I also try to come within $100 of our annual tax liability.

  2. Robin L Meinicke says:

    I use mine every year to pay as much of my car insurance as I can for the next year – the rest comes from my reserve. If I pay it in full I recieve a discount and I never have to worry about that monthly payment (or the $4 “service fee”). In Michigan our car insurance is the highest in the country so I try to keep mine as low as possible getting every discount I can. I also shop every year – if someone offers a lower price, I call my current carrier to see if they’ll match it or beat it.


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