5 Smart Ways to Use Your Tax Refund

If you were one of the 27.3 million taxpayers who filed their federal income tax returns by early February, you’re probably expecting a nice, big refund check from Uncle Sam. The IRS says that as of February 7, 2014, the average tax refund check is $3,317, up 4.6% compared to the same time a year ago.

That’s a lot of dough. And unfortunately, it’s easy to squander a windfall like that. Some people will waste their tax refunds by splurging on something frivolous. Others will simply fritter their tax money away little by little.

To avoid such mistakes, plan ahead to handle your tax refund wisely.

Here are five smart ways to use your tax refund check.

RELATED: Score a Big Tax Refund with the Earned Income Credit

1. Pump up your emergency fund

How much do you have sitting in your emergency savings account right now? Probably not a lot, according to a February 2014 survey from Bankrate.com, which showed that 28% of Americans have more credit card debt today than they have in a savings fund. Only 51% of Americans have more emergency savings than credit card debt, the lowest percentage since Bankrate begin tracking the topic in 2011.

So you could use your tax refund check to replenish any funds you ended up using over the year. Or, if you already have some cash stashed away, you could just build up your existing nest egg so you have more money available in the event of unforeseen events.

2. Pay down credit card bills

Do you have some large credit card balances that just never seem to go down? If you’ve only been making the minimum payment on these accounts for a while, use some or all of your tax refund check to pay down a good chunk of debt.

Reducing your debt load can improve your credit and also lower your monthly payment obligations.

3. Get help from a financial pro

Numerous studies have shown that wealthy people usually have financial advisors to provide economic guidance, investing advice and overall financial planning.

Among struggling populations, however, too many people balk at getting financial help because they feel it’s “too expensive.” Many cash-strapped people think: “Well, of course the rich have financial help. They can afford it.”

I don’t buy the argument that the rich only get financial help once their bank accounts are plentiful. I would argue that one of the reasons many wealthy people got that way is because they had good strategic counsel along the way. In other words, having quality financial advisors is one factor that helped wealthy individuals to achieve financial success.

The IRS says that as of February 7, 2014, the average tax refund check is $3,317, up 4.6% compared to the same time a year ago. Unfortunately, it’s easy to squander a windfall like that.

When you look at it this way, you can’t afford not to have financial help. Many professionals offer a free consultation. But even if you have to pay a couple hundred dollars for an hour or so of advice, it will be worth it.

Unfortunately, quality financial guidance isn’t plentiful in the African-American community.

A 2013-2014 study from Prudential, called the African-American Financial Experience, found that only 25% of African-Americans feel that any financial services company has effectively reached out to their community.

Additionally, across all income levels, African-Americans are 13% less likely than the general population to have received contact from a financial advisor, the Prudential survey found.

Even if no financial pro has ever reached out to you, there’s nothing to stop you from initiating contact. Particularly if you’re getting a very large tax refund, say $10,000 or more, you’d be wise to talk to a financial advisor or personal finance specialist about putting together a good budget, creating a financial plan to help you meet your personal goals, or even investing the money if appropriate.

By the way, nearly half (45%) of investors expect to receive a tax refund, and among them, 61% plan to save or invest the money, according to a recent survey of 1,000 investors released by TD Ameritrade.

Among those polled by TD Ameritrade, 21% plan to use the money to pay off debt, 19% plan to spend it on discretionary items, and 18% expect to spend it on necessities.

4. Invest in yourself or your career

Have you been struggling to maintain a healthy weight for a while? Are you striving to build a side business so you can branch out into entrepreneurship in a year or so?

Consider using your tax refund check as an investment for something positive in your life.

Whether it’s hiring a personal trainer or nutritionist, attending a business conference that will help you connect with other professionals in the industry, or even going back to school so you can learn how to run a business, think of ways that you can improve yourself or your career.

Your tax refund check could be just the funds you need to invest in yourself.

5. Make an extra payment on the mortgage, car loan or student loan

Paying down larger loans like your mortgage, a car loan, or college debt can help you reduce your debt repayment period and lighten up your debt load overall.

Making a lump sum payment towards these debts might feel good, but to give your credit score the biggest possible boost, focus on paying down credit card debt first.

Maybe you don’t have any credit card debt, but you do have other big debts. If that’s the case, and if reducing your debt is one of your biggest financial goals for the year, use that tax refund check to get yourself on the fast track to reaching it.

Any of these five strategies will improve overall finances and help you avoid blowing your tax refund in 2014.

Lynnette Khalfani-Cox is a personal finance expert and co-founder of the free financial advice site, AskTheMoneyCoach.com. Follow Lynnette on Twitter @themoneycoach and Google Plus.