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What to do if you really, really need your tax refund

Fast-track your refund, but use it to make sure you won’t be in dire straits next year as well.

For the fastest turnaround time, file taxes online

For the fastest turnaround time, file taxes online and direct deposit your refund to your bank account. Photo Credit: AP / Brennan Linsley

Many people really need their tax refunds, to cover bills and pay down debt. They want to know how to get it as fast as possible.

The average individual tax refund was $2,895 in 2017, according to the IRS. For the typical American, that would cover rent for about three months, or a car payment for almost six months.

But if you don’t spend it strategically, you could be back in the same position by St. Patrick’s Day. The issue isn’t that you want your tax refund now. It’s that you need it now.

A tax refund is a chance to do what we all know we should do, but somehow avoid: change our ways. Here’s how to get your refund fast, then use it to build a savings account you can pull from when necessary — and avoid an anxious wait again next year.

  • How to fast-track your refund

Tax season started Jan. 29. Wait to file until you’ve received key documents, like all your W-2s, or a Form 1098-E student loan interest statement.

For the fastest turnaround time, file taxes online and elect to direct deposit your refund to your bank account. The IRS says it will issue most refunds within 21 days, but many filers receive federal refunds in 10 days to two weeks.

Several tax-prep companies offer interest-free tax refund advance loans, which are repaid with your expected refund. While these loans are an option for those who need money immediately, they often come on a prepaid debit card, which could have associated fees. In some cases, getting a loan requires you to visit a tax preparer in person, which can cost more than filing online — especially if you earn less than $66,000 and qualify for the IRS’ Free File program.

You can even receive in-person help for free through the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program if your income is $54,000 or less.

  • Spend your refund wisely

Before your refund hits the bank and you’re tempted to buy a round at the next work happy hour, make a plan for it.

Cover necessary bills first to keep the lights on and your student loans or rent payments in good standing. Consider spending the rest this way:

  • 50 percent to debt (high-interest credit card debt should go first)
  • At least 30 percent to savings
  • No more than 20 percent to things you want

When the government refunds you money every spring, it means you’ve been overfilling the IRS’ coffers throughout the year. Update your Form W-4 at work so you get that money in your paycheck instead. Start by increasing the number of allowances you claim by one, Porter says; that means your employer will withhold less tax. Put the additional money in your check into an emergency fund. Pull money from there to cover unexpected bills, rather than using a credit card.

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