"Ask Brianna" is a column from NerdWallet for 20-somethings or anyone else starting out. I'm here to help you manage your money, find a job and pay off student loans — all the real-world stuff no one taught us how to do in college. Send your questions about postgrad life to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Q: I really need my tax refund, to cover bills and pay down debt. How can I get it as fast as possible?
A: The average individual tax refund was $2,895 in 2017, according to the IRS. I understand why you'd want so much money in your hands ASAP: For the typical American, that would cover rent for about three months, or a car payment for almost six months.
The problem? 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, says Trent Porter , a certified financial planner and certified public accountant in Durango, Colorado.
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, Porter says. If you'll claim the Earned Income Tax Credit or the Additional Child Tax Credit, though, your refund won't arrive until Feb. 27 or later, the IRS says.
Several tax-prep companies offer interest-free tax refund advance loans, which are repaid with your expected refund and can help cover bills before it arrives. 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
The IRS lets you direct deposit your refund into multiple accounts. By making a plan, you can send the amount you've earmarked straight to savings and sleep a little better at night.
You may be in dire straits and need your entire refund for food and shelter. It happens — and keeping yourself healthy and housed comes first. But you can use your taxes to change what happens next year.
SKIP THE MONSTER REFUND IN 2019
By saving consistently — starting with your current refund, and throughout the year — you're less likely to feel strapped in 2019.
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 1, 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, owing interest and paying it off with a tax refund.
Once you've put away $500, start saving in an employer-sponsored retirement plan or an individual retirement account while you slowly boost your emergency fund. Doing taxes strategically — that's when you're on the way to money mastery.
This column was provided to The Associated Press by the personal finance website NerdWallet. Brianna McGurran is a writer at NerdWallet. Email: email@example.com. Twitter: @briannamcscribe.
NerdWallet: The fastest way to get your tax refund
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IRS: Free tax return preparation for qualifying taxpayers