This year I spent my tax return on 9 months of rent and paying off my car loan.

A lot of finance people want you to pick that magic number on your deduction form when you start a job so you don’t owe tax but you don’t have to pay tax so you get all the cash you can in your paycheck. That’s great for people who are willing to save money in small bits during the year but even when I was young, single, and making decent money I claimed zero because I’m better at doing things with a chunk of cash once a year than with four dollars a week more. Your mileage may vary but if you’re like me, this might help you out.

If you ran a business last year and found at the end of your taxes you owed the government money this year, I salute you. I’ve been there and it hurts when everyone else is getting a big refund check and you’re writing a check. I wish you well and wanted you to know I know you’re out there since most business owners get ignored or glossed over during this season.

Last but not least, I realize that because of where we are at financially we get a very large tax return ($9200 this year) because Mr. Brickie works but we are still below poverty level so we get a lot in Earned Income Credit as well as the Tax Credits for three kids. Here are some things you can do even if you get a smaller tax return. If you get a bigger tax return, you can do more of them.

If this is your first year doing something boring responsible with your tax return, do one or two of these and use the rest to have some fun like your normally would.

  1. Pay your insurance. Monthly fees range but are usually around $7/mo. to pay monthly. You can save $84 if you set the cash aside and pay that auto insurance twice a year or your home/renters insurance once a year. (Shop around now and then for better rates, too. You might be surprised at how much less you can pay for the same coverage.)
  2. Make an emergency fund (or fill yours up a bit!) If you don’t have an emergency fund (or it’s not big enough) you can choose not to spend your tax refund at all and set it aside in case you need it. The relief you feel at having backup money might be worth not going shopping for a new pair of shoes.
  3. Pay off a credit card. If you’re working toward being debt-free, pay off a card. This is the first year I haven’t wiped out all my credit card debt with my refund. It made me sad but paying off the car was too important to pass up.
  4. Clean up your credit report. If you have a bill you owed to AT&T or Comcast years ago that’s still hanging out on your credit report and it might keep you from getting a car or a house or an apartment … get rid of it! Call and see if you can negotiate a deal to get the overall amount you owe reduced. A chunk of cash gives you negotiating power.
  5. Prepay utilities. If you know you’re the type of person who can’t have an emergency fund without spending it, send extra money to your gas/electric company or pay a few car payments in advance. It can give you some breathing room to get the rest of your finances on track. Put $20 in an online savings account and practice not spending it. Like exercise, you can’t become a budget ninja in a minute, you have to start with baby steps. Once you can keep yourself from spending that $20, bump the amount up to $40. Eventually your discomfort will fade and you’ll enjoy seeing that number sitting there, waiting for you, just in case.
  6. Get an Oil Change! If there is some routine maintenance you have been avoiding on your car because it’s not that important or it’s just a little too expensive…now is the time. If you google your car year/type and routine maintenance you should be able to find what’s recommended and get your ride spruced up. If your car is already running it’s usually cheaper (and a hell of a lot less expensive) to get that routine maintenance and keep her running right instead of ignoring the little things until they become a big thing that costs a big chunk of cash.

I try really hard to keep it classy and not judge people who buy name brand accessories or phones or whatever instead of doing the above super-responsible stuff for the future. If I did judge it would be out of sheer jealousy and I don’t want to be that person. Seriously, I would be lying if I told you it was easy and fun to pay off the car instead of going on vacation somewhere warm and swimming in a pool with my kids while we relax, laugh, and order copious amounts of room service. I feel like a crap mother most nights because my children don’t directly benefit at all from paying the rent in advance or paying off the car. Sure, you can tell me (like I tell myself) that giving them a stable childhood is the most important thing but you and I both know that’s not something they can feel or touch. It’s difficult to choose the intangible option, even when you know it is the best possible decision for the whole family.

If you need me I’ll be laying out getting a tan next to the pool in my mind palace ordering an imaginary Bellini from my imaginary butler, Jarvis.