By timestaff
April 29, 2008

Wondering where to put that extra cash? Before you buy a flat screen, try these suggestions and improve your long-term financial well-being.

Question: I’m thinking of using my stimulus check to make my home more energy efficient. Do you think this is wise choice, and do you have suggestions for other ways to use this extra money? -D.D.

Answer: I’m glad you asked because in a rare display of bureaucratic efficiency, it appears the federal government is actually getting those economic stimulus payments out ahead of schedule.

Which means two things:

First, you may find yourself on the receiving end of a check or direct deposit from the IRS of anywhere from $300 to $1,200 (plus a possible $300 per qualifying child) sooner than you think, if indeed you haven’t gotten the payment already. (The IRS Web site has a calculator that estimates your payment.)

Second, it means that people in the more than 130 million American households eligible for these payments will soon be asking themselves much the same question you pose: What should I do with this little windfall?

Well, the honchos down Washington – not mention the nation’s retailers – are hoping you’ll quickly spend this manna from DC and in so doing, rejuvenate the flagging economy. And if that’s what you’ve decided to do with this extra cash – or, given the rising price of food and other living expenses, that’s what you have to do with it – fine.

But if you’re in a position to do otherwise, I don’t think it would be unpatriotic to use this money to improve your financial prospects.

Certainly your idea of using the stimulus rebate to boost the energy efficiency of your home in the face of increasingly burdensome energy costs can be one way to both spend and invest your money, although I caution you that there are also plenty of people out there touting all sorts of energy-saving home improvements and products that may take decades to generate a decent return.

Keep in mind that the extent to which those savings enhance your financial security depends on what you do with the extra cash. If lower utility bills allow you to increase your contributions to a 401(k), that’s great. If the savings end up going to more lattes, then I’d say the long-term benefit is more tenuous.

So if you’re looking to really turn this bonus of sorts to your financial advantage, I’d be more inclined to consider moves where the payoff is more direct and easily quantified. Here are some suggestions.

Pay down debt. It’s no secret that a rising tide of borrowing helped fuel the last economic boom – and contributed to its demise. So if you went a little crazy during the good years and piled on too much credit-card, home-equity or other debt, this rebate check could be a good way to lighten the load.

To get the biggest bang for your loan-repayment buck, start with debt that carries the highest rate (most likely credit cards, which charge an average rate of 12%) and then move on to lower-rate loans.

Of course, this move will pay off even more if you keep your debt under control once you’ve pared it down. You can then apply the money that used to go toward repaying loans to one of options below.

Build an emergency reserve. With the economy flagging and it looking more and more like we’re sliding into recession, it’s even more important than usual to have a cushion of ready cash equal to three months’ of living expenses that can help tide you over a layoff or other financial setback. If you don’t have such a reserve, your stimulus payment can be your first step to building one.

Remember, this is money you have to depend on in a pinch, so you want to keep it in a secure place where it won’t get hammered if the financial markets head south. For the most part, that means keeping it in a short-term bank CD or a money-market fund run by a well-known investment firm. You can check out CD rates and compare yields on money-market funds on sites like Bankrate.com.

Invest it. If you’ve got your debt under control and have a decent emergency fund, then why not use this government grant of sorts to either start an investing program or add to one you already have? You don’t have to do anything fancy. Indeed, given the recent experience of how supposedly sophisticated investors got tripped up by securities backed by subprime debt, I think simpler is better.

There are no guarantees, of course, but if you stick with a mix of low-cost mutual funds with solid track records like the ones you’ll find on our Money 70 list of recommended funds, you should do just fine.

Invest it in an IRA. As long as you’re investing your check, why not consider investing it in an IRA and improve your retirement prospects at the same time? And assuming you qualify you can also get a nice tax deduction (if you do a traditional IRA) or enjoy tax-free withdrawals down the road (if you opt for a Roth IRA).

And you may be able to cash in on another tax bennie. If your income falls below certain thresholds, the Saver’s Credit program can provide a tax credit of up to 50% of your contribution to an IRA or other retirement accounts up to a maximum credit of $1,000 for singles or $2,000 for married couples. And yes, this credit is in addition to the regular tax benefits IRAs and other retirement accounts offer.

Finally, at the risk of sounding preachy, I’ll throw out one more idea. If your finances are pretty solid, you might want to consider donating a portion of this money that you weren’t expecting (at least not until recently) to a charity or a cause that you feel deserves your support. That may not improve your financial well being like the others I’ve suggested, but you may collect dividends in other ways.

Got a question? Ask the expert.

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