It’s that time of the year! Byebye tax return, hello tax refund!
If you’ve already filed your taxes (what a boss!), your refund should be well on its way!
Depending on how you filed your taxes (digitally or on paper), you could be expecting a sweet refund within 2 to 8 weeks (assuming CRA has already received your tax return).
You might get it faster if you have signed up for direct deposit with CRA.
Is there a better feeling than knowing that a big-ish amount of money is arriving soon?
Not to the 27 year old me who received her tax refund cheque with dollar signs sparkling in her eyes, already brainstorming ways to spend it.
I don’t remember how I ended up spending that $1,700. Chances are, I probably treated myself to a $5 smoothie, bought a $50 dress and saved the rest in my chequing account to be spent slowly over time.
Not the worst thing to do in the world, but far from the best.
The present day me is older and wiser (but mostly older), and has a much better handle on dealing with tax refunds.
For anyone that feels a bit behind financially and wants to play catch-up this time of the year, having your tax refund at your disposal can make a world of difference.
I have mapped out the exact steps to maximize the use of your tax refund to the fullest extent.
Step #1: Pay down your consumer debt
Credit card is a hella expensive way to borrow money.
Most popular credit cards come with interest rates in the 20% to 30% range, on top of annual fees, which is crazy when you compare it to other types of borrowing such as mortgage, student loans and lines of credit.
Because of that, it’s all too easy to fall into a debt spiral that people struggle to get out of. And of course, we want to avoid that.
That’s where tax refunds come in.
If your credit card debt is low enough, aim to pay it off with the tax refund that you receive.
If that’s not possible, make a sizable dent in the debt by making extra payments. This will help to lower the amount of interest you’ll have to pay down the road.
Bonus tip: don’t limit yourself to just paying off your credit card debt, feel free to direct your money towards any debt with interest rates of 5% or more.
Step #2: Save for retirement
Once you’ve tackled your debt (or that you were debt-free to begin with), it’s time to leverage those tax-sheltered accounts and boost your retirement savings!
Your mileage may vary, but in most cases, you can’t go wrong with putting a significant chunk of the remaining tax refund into your RRSP, TFSA, or both.
In an ideal world, we’d all be maximizing our TFSA and RRSP contributions every single year, but in reality, most of us have to prioritize one over the other.
TFSA vs. RRSP, which is better?
Their respective merits have been debated endlessly online and in personal finance books.
Generally speaking, the higher your household income, the more you’d want to prioritize contributing towards RRSP over TFSA for the short-term tax benefits.
Besides that, it really depends on each person or couple’s particular circumstances and preferences so your financial advisor would be in a better position to lay out a more detailed plan.
Regardless, with the exception of rare cases, putting your tax refund into either RRSP or TFSA would be better than spending it.
Step #3: Top up your emergency fund
Emergency fund (or rainy day fund) is money set aside for emergencies like job loss, medical emergencies, and surprise bills, that covers at least 3 to 6 months’ worth of living expenses.
As someone who recently lost a major freelance client, I can definitely vouch for the necessity of having an emergency fund.
Without it, my husband and I would be at our wits’ end by now.
Don’t have an emergency fund? Don’t worry, it’s never too late to build one up once your refund deposit arrives.
If you already have an emergency fund, but depleted it for whatever reason (no need to feel guilty over it, that’s what it’s intended for), you have an opportunity to top it off with your tax refund.
Step #4: Make extra mortgage payments
If you’re currently mortgage free, feel free to skip to the next step.
The average Canadian mortgage is just shy of $200,000. Now that is a lot of money.
Some people aren’t in a rush to pay off their mortgage because they have low mortgage rates or other priorities. For others, the thought of carrying any amount of debt induces a cold sweat. But no matter where you sit on the mortgage love/hate scale, you’d rather see it go away.
My husband and I are only 2 years into our 30-year mortgage, and we’re paying an enormous amount of interest right now. If we want to build equity faster and pay less interest over the life of the loan, we’d have to make extra payments.
That’s precisely the reason I would recommend you to consider using your refund to pay extra toward your mortgage principal. You’ll feel so much happier getting rid of the mortgage burden sooner!
Step #5: Save for a big expense
By now, you’ve paid off your consumer debt, made significant headway on retirement savings, whipped your emergency fund into shape, and even made extra mortgage payments if you own a place.
Whatever tax refund money you have left at this point, it is money you could use to save towards bigger expenses like a vacation, a kitchen reno, a new degree or a new car.
Notice that I purposely put this step as the last one to ensure that you’ve covered all your financial bases before any type of spending comes into the picture.
If you’ve followed the steps above, congratulations!
Don’t forget to pat yourself on the back for a job well done.
I usually like to give myself a small reward (like a $5 bubble tea) whenever I’ve completed a dreaded task, so that I’d be more inclined to repeat the desired behaviour in the future.
I know it sounds crazy for a personal finance blogger to advocate for spending money, but seriously, you deserve a small prize for smartly handle your tax refund. And don’t let anyone guilt trip you into thinking otherwise.