As income tax refunds flow into the economy, businesses are understandably urging people to spend that money on whatever products and services they sell, but tax refunds aren't lottery winnings.
Refunds are generally a return of the income that people overpaid in the prior year. So, don't think of a tax refund like extra or unexpected cash. Think of it as a big withdrawal from your savings account, because it's money you already earned.
So, what are you going to do with it? For folks getting a big check, it can be a once-a-year opportunity to get an infusion of cash and figure how to put their financial house in better order. That's not just true with tax refunds. Some Boeing employees in North Charleston have the same challenge with bonus checks they received Thursday.
The difference with tax refunds is, if you're getting a big refund, that's money that you've been letting the government hold, interest-free. If you have steady, predictable income, you can adjust your tax withholding amount at work so your paychecks will be larger for the rest of this year, instead of paying the government too much and then getting a refund.
For those getting a large check, it's awfully tempting to treat it like found money and enjoy buying things, but without a plan, that cash will be gone in a flash. That's particularly true for low-income families who will be getting Earned Income Tax Credit refunds, and surely have many pent-up wants and needs.
There are endless formulas, charts and tips on where people should put their money when they get an infusion of cash. Here's my relatively short version:
Address high-interest, short-term debt first, such as credit-card bills, payday loans and title loans. Eliminating such debts should be No. 1 on the financial to-do list, as high interest charges add up fast, draining your wallet while making it harder to pay off the underlying debt.
If you don't have savings, now's a chance to set some money aside. The Corporation for Enterprise Development says more than 47 percent of S.C. households have little or no savings set aside, and a third don't have a savings account at all.
Short-term savings can help avoid costly fees, such as those for bank overdrafts, as well as charges that stack up when bills are paid late. Longer-term savings can help protect against unexpected large expenses, such as major car repairs or a broken appliance, and buffer against financial crises such as a job loss.
If your short-term debt is under control and you have adequate savings, consider any big expenses for the coming years. Will you have to replace a vehicle, install a new roof or pay tuition bills? A big refund check can help you start preparing.
Is your retirement planning on track? A refund or bonus can help you catch up with a contribution to a retirement account. If a refund suggests that you change your tax withholding amount at work, that's an opportunity to increase the amount you're contributing to a 401(k) plan if your employer offers one.
No one wants to get hit by a large, unexpected tax bill. But remember, getting a big tax refund just means you paid too much in the first place.