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Pay Dirt!

That IRS refund check can buy more happiness if you strategize well

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Stop! Wait! I hope I'm not too late -- although if you, like me, eagerly await the end of January, I probably am. You've already filed online and seen the direct deposit refund swell your checking account. Yay, tax time! But as gamblers and lucky lotto players know, that sudden wealth can evaporate, leaving the winner feeling much more like a loser.

So if you haven't received your tax refund yet -- or if you've yet to spend it -- here's my very serious advice: Do as little as possible with the money for a month. Move it to a separate account not linked to your debit card, because knowing you can swipe, swipe, swipe away can sure trigger the desire to spend. At the start of that month, make a list of all the things that you want to buy. At the end of that month, see how strongly you still feel about those items. Yes, you deserve nice things, but you also deserve a chance to make smart decisions. Waiting increases the likelihood of intelligence prevailing over impulse. Money is a form of power, so why not hold on to that power for as long as you can? Why not use that power for as much good as possible?

I know, I know -- boring. You work so hard, already spend most of your energy bettering the lives of others; shouldn't you get to finally spend some cash on yourself, experience the thrill that comes with shopping and saying, "Yes, I'll take that!"? Of course! But if you're not careful, you might end up wondering where that fat chunk of cash disappeared to, then feel like a loser for blowing it. In a country where poor people are already seen as worthless -- barely deserving of food and shelter, surely not valuable enough to provide with health care -- you don't need to add your own voice to the judgment choir.

(For the still-confused, who don't understand why a tax refund should hold such significance, let me elaborate: For those of us in the working class, filling out the form is simple -- no need to itemize deductions -- and the reward relatively great. Case in point: In 2010, my tax refund equaled approximately six weeks of salary; in 2009, the cash back from the IRS totaled over 10 weeks of what I was then earning. When you're surviving (barely) paycheck to paycheck, this is huge -- the closest to a "windfall" we get.)

While you're anxiously awaiting that money to make an appearance, make two lists: one itemizing what you absolutely need to pay immediately and one containing items you'd love to buy. The first might look something like, "Shoes for kid, doctor bill, overdue student loan payment, cat to the vet, new brakes." The second might say, "New couch, teeth cleaning, massage, tickets to Costa Rica, camera." (Somebody, somewhere yells, "What about saving?!" I'll get to that later.)

With that first list, be careful. Always pay off what you need to, but be sure to leave yourself with enough money to live on. I've been guilty of paying off my credit cards and outstanding bills with a big flourish, only to find myself charging groceries three weeks later because that flourish turned out to be a bit too grand a gesture. Clearing the slate feels so good, but you can also pay mostly everything and finish the job over the next few paychecks with less impact -- examine your finances and choose accordingly.

The second list is the one you'll be sitting with for a month. Some things you might know you want, are sure you need. For years, every single school morning, as I've been making breakfast, I've wished I had music in the kitchen. Rather silly, but a small portion of this year's refund went to an iPod dock -- a much bigger chunk paid for this year's farm share. (arcatacsa.com) Ask yourself, "Will this greatly improve my quality of life? Will it last? Will it save me money in the long run or otherwise provide lasting benefits? Will I still be pleased with it in five years?"

This might be the time to splurge on a KitchenAid stand mixer, for example. Or tickets to visit your grandmother in Kentucky. You can't go wrong investing in good shoes or a quality coat or a better-fitting bra or vaccinations for the dog or that trip to Europe you've dreamt of. But if you stop for lunch on your way to buy that appliance and then throw 10 more things in the cart just because all the sudden you can, you may end up with more remorse than pleasure. Take just enough cash to cover what you plan to buy and leave the bank card at home. If the travel plans are still out of reach, consign what you can to a special account to keep that dream alive -- SmartyPig.com, goofy name aside, is useful if you need more than your own motivation to help you truly save. (Ahem.)

Yes, savings. I believe in the idea of savings, but the reality is, I've spent many years counting nickels to get through the week. This is not the place to read about investment comparisons or which places offer higher yields -- the folks for whom those places are yielding have much higher incomes than I'll likely ever see. And maybe every cent of your refund is staving off starvation or homelessness. Maybe you need to pay several months rent up front because your job isn't paying the bills and you need the breathing room to find something else. Been there. But if you're only mildly desperate, then take 10 percent or a couple hundred bucks off the top, shove that cash in an envelope, seal it and hide it deep. Forget about it until something makes you need it so badly you remember. (Maybe invest in a small fireproof safe, too? Good for birth certificates and social security cards!)

And, always, always remember those less fortunate than you. Donate to Doctors Without Borders or Betty Chinn's Blue Angel program, Food for People or Miranda's Rescue -- whatever charity's work most appeals to your heart.

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