Most people don't need help spending money.
But they do need help spending money wisely.
The vast majority of taxpayers are probably going to get some money back from the government this year. For the 2001 tax year, 76% of taxpayers got a refund, and the average refund was close to $2,000.
And before your tax refund flies right into a dozen dinners at the Olive Garden, you should pick a more prudent way to use that cash.
Here are some suggestions from the professionals on what to do with that windfall.
Knock Down That High-Interest Debt
John Montgomery is one unconventional mutual fund manager. He champions lower costs and better disclosure for fund investors, and he actually delivers on those promises with the Bridgeway funds he oversees.
And once again, Montgomery doesn't sound like the typical fund-company executive. "As much as I would love to say invest your tax refund in Bridgeway, you should pay off any credit card debt first," says Montgomery. "Even our best-performing funds cannot make a return as high as 15% a year."
When you're trying to decide between paying off any credit card debt you owe and investing the money instead, you only need to look at the interest you're paying on those loans. That's the return you'll have to beat in any investments you might make -- after you pay taxes on the gains. And that hurdle is impossibly high.
The national average for credit card rates
fallen over the past two years. But it's still 13.25%, down from 17.25% in March of 2001, according to
Bankrate.com. Can you reasonably think of any stock, bond or chunk of metal that will definitely produce an after-tax return more than 13% in the next year? No.
Paying off credit card debt carrying a double-digit interest rate is a "slam dunk," Montgomery says. "It's never too late to get on a serious program of paying off your credit cards. They are the free heroin of our society."
Don't Wait on the IRA
Working in Charles Schwab's Center for Investment Research, vice president Bryan Olson hears what investors are thinking all of the time. And "often people don't think about funding an IRA until the end of the year," Olson says.
Rather than putting off investing in an IRA for another eight months or even a year, you can take your refund and make your IRA contribution right away. (Most people can contribute up to $3,000 to an IRA this year -- $3,500 if you're closer to retirement age.)
"You get an added year's worth of compounding," Olson points out. "That extra return also compounds for the next 20 years and can really add up."
Any actual investment ideas? "Buying a Wilshire 5000 stock index fund is the easiest, simplest thing to do," says Olson. "And do not buy fixed income because you're looking at past returns. It's meant to add stability and income to a portfolio if you need it. But it's not going to provide a high return after inflation over any long period of time."
You Shouldn't Even Be Getting a Refund
Greg McBride, a senior financial analyst at Bankrate.com, thinks something's wrong if you're getting a big check back from the government. "That means you just gave Uncle Sam an interest-free loan for a year," McBride says. "The idea is to come out as close to even as possible -- not getting a big refund but not having a big tax obligation."
The first step you should take is to adjust your withholding so your employer is taking less out of your paychecks. "If you're getting a refund you're having too much deducted from each paycheck, and changing your withholding will put more money in each paycheck," says McBride. "That puts money in your pocket. You're also in a position to boost 401(k) contribution without giving up any net pay."