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Archive for Monday, March 1, 2010

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Put your tax refund to work

Lawrence, K.C. financial advisers offer smart strategies for windfalls great or small

March 1, 2010

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On the street

How do you plan to spend your tax refund this year?

Probably put it back into energy-efficient windows in my house.

More responses

Free E-filing

The Free-File Alliance is a government/tax payer software partnership created to encourage e-filing. The 2010 Free File program is available now and you can find the free income-tax software at the IRS’ special Web site. This program makes it easy to file, but is offered only to those of particular income levels.

This year, you can use the software at no charge if your adjusted gross income is $57,000 or less. However, the IRS has added Free File Fillable Tax Forms to the program, which is available to everyone, regardless of income. This is handy if you already know the data for your Form 1040 as you can just type it in and send directly to the IRS at no cost.

Source: McClatchy Newspapers

Call it financial Christmas, a rainy-day fund, your yearly perk as a U.S. citizen: the tax refund.

While it might not be much — or, for some, it might not exist at all — any, ahem, “windfall” hitting your bank account can mean a lot if you plan on bettering your financial situation in 2010, local money experts say.

Here’s a look at what you could do with your refund, whether it be $100 or $10,000.

• Pay down/off debt. If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a million times: Revolving debt like credit cards is bad debt and shouldn’t be hanging around your portfolio.

“Pay off any credit card debt. Pick the highest-interest card first, then work your way down,” says Mike Roark, a certified public accountant with Roark & Associates in Lawrence.

• No debt? Add to your savings. You can always use more savings. Roark says you should have at least three months’ worth of basic living costs saved in an emergency fund in case of job loss or unexpected expenses. These funds should be liquid and separate from your interest-earning long-term accounts.

“Consider using your tax refund as means to improve your financial position,” says Paul Ward, a financial adviser with Ameriprise Financial in Overland Park. “In most cases tax refunds are an unexpected lump sum. However, we would recommend the tax refund be used to increase emergency fund reserves, retirement savings or paying down ‘bad’ debt.”

• Take a look at retirement. It may be a long ways away, but it is costly, and any little bit helps.

“Fund a Roth IRA. You can do $5,000 for 2010 if you have at least $5,000 in earned income, $6,000 if 50 or older,” Roark says. “Some restrictions may apply if you are high income and covered under another retirement plan.”

Also, if you adjust your exemptions and get a few more dollars in your paycheck rather than a lump refund, you can change your 401(k) contribution to include those extra dollars. It might be a small difference, like $7 extra a week, but it’ll add up overtime in your retirement account. Whereas if you left it in your paycheck, it might just be spent on workweek splurges like coffee or snacks.

• Don’t cave to material wants. Getting a couple hundred buckaroos in the old checking account may have you frothing at the mouth at the thought of replacing your less-than-perfect television/microwave/couch, but don’t head for the store.

“Try and shy away from short-term material purchases. While it might feel good to purchase that new TV, closely examine your long-term goals and commit to putting your tax refund to work towards those objectives,” Ward says. “If invested properly, 20 to 30 years of saving your tax refund could help accomplish your long term financial plan.”

• OK, we know you’re human... Yes, it’s hard to be completely virtuous when it comes to all things financial. It may be completely unreasonable to suggest saving your whole refund, and our experts know that.

“If you just can’t resist spending your refund on that new hi-def TV or other item you feel you just can’t live without, then at least try to save a portion of your refund,” Roark says. “Some savings is better than none.”

However, just know that the fact that you feel compelled to spend rather than save points to a bigger problem, says Ward, who notes that he often sees clients who are habitually behind on their financial goals.

“A major contributor to that is because they do not have the discipline to say no to a ‘great deal’ on a material object. If someone has done a good job of saving into an emergency fund and retirement accounts, they won’t feel the need to buy something because that extra money is not foreign to them, they are used to having the extra cash on hand,” Ward says. “If an individual does not have any savings and that refund is burning a hole in their pocket because they are not used to it, they should consider revisiting their goals and most likely need to save that money for a rainy day.”

The experts’ top tip? Don’t have a refund in the first place.

While it may not be as fun as getting a lump sum every spring, it’s probably a better idea in the long run.

“If you have a refund — it just means you paid in too much,” says David Mattern, a financial consultant with Wells Fargo in Lawrence.

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