VITA volunteers provide free tax service to lower income people 03

Tad Greener, of Orem, talks with Terry Mills, site coordinator with Volunteer Income Tax Assistance, as they go through forms during a free tax preparation session held by VITA on Wednesday, April 3, 2019, at one of Snow Springs Elementary School's on-site portable classrooms in Lehi. Isaac Hale, Daily Herald

As of May 11, the IRS had sent out 128.3 million stimulus checks: $1,200 to qualifying individuals, $2,400 to qualifying couples and an additional $500 for each child under 18. Add to that the average annual refund of $2,852, and many Americans are finding themselves with some much-needed extra cash.

What’s the wisest thing to do with this money? For starters, if you haven’t filed your taxes yet and qualify for VITA help, reach out to them! Then, once you have your tax refund and stimulus check in hand, try some of our ideas for saving or spending the money in a way that makes the most sense for you.

Get tax help from VITA

With three extra months to complete taxes this year, it’s the perfect opportunity to use resources you may not have had time to look into in previous years. VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance) is one resource you might consider before the July 15 deadline comes too close. VITA volunteers prepare taxes for elderly taxpayers or those whose annual income is $56,000 or less. With help from professionals, you can be sure your taxes have been filed correctly and that you will get the right amount for your refund.

Because of current social distancing recommendations, VITA volunteers are not holding in-person appointments, so qualifying taxpayers can drop off their documents at their nearest drop-off site or access the virtual tax service. The drop-off service is by appointment only. Clients come in, fill out paperwork and have their documents scanned. Their return will be prepared off-site, and the client will return a few weeks later for a physical copy of their tax documentation.

Try some of these saving ideas

Once you’ve received your tax return and stimulus check, one option is to use the money to boost your savings! On average, Americans save less than 5% of their disposable income. Here are a few ideas for starting to become a better-than-average saver:

  • Save $500 to $1,000 in an emergency fund. A recent poll from Bankrate found that 28% of respondents had a major unanticipated expense in the last year, and the average cost of that expense was $3,518. It’s such a relief to know that if you were to face an unanticipated emergency, you would have money in your savings account to help you cover it. Start with $500 to $1,000 and build from there!
  • Put it in a fund for something special you’re saving for. Are you hoping to pay for a new car, tuition, job certification fees, an apartment or a new home fund in the future? The stimulus check, combined with your tax return, can add a lot to your savings fund for these items.
  • Put it toward seed money for a new business. Got an idea you’ve been dying to share with the world? Businesses need capital, so use this money to invest in your own business.

Try some of these spending ideas

Saving isn’t the only smart way to use your tax refund and stimulus check. Depending on your situation, it may be wisest for you to spend that money instead. Here are some ideas:

  • Pay off high-interest debt. According to Dayana Yochim and Alana Benson at NerdWallet, “There’s no bigger drag on your bottom line than lugging around high-interest debt — typically credit card debt — with interest compounding against you month after month. If you have credit card debt, paying it off is the best investment you can make with your tax refund.”
  • Invest in yourself. Consider using your tax refund or stimulus check to pay for training, tuition, a work-related conference, or membership in a professional organization. It’s always a good idea to improve yourself professionally, and if there’s something you can do to help yourself qualify for a raise or promotion, go for it!
  • Donate to a charity of your choice! There are few things as soul-satisfying as giving to those in need. Charities and nonprofit agencies like Community Action Services and Food Bank (CASFB) have strong partnerships that allow them to stretch each dollar. At CASFB, for example, we can turn one dollar into approximately four meals for a hungry family.

How can you make the most of your stimulus check and tax refund? Start by filing your taxes if you haven’t already, and use VITA resources if you qualify. Then implement some of our ideas for saving or spending the money in a way that is wisest for you and your family.

Karen McCandless is the executive director of Community Action Services and Food Bank in Provo. CASFB is located at 815 S. Freedom Blvd., Ste. 100. For more information on educational programs, how to make donations, upcoming classes, food drives and more, visit communityactionuc.org or call (801) 373-8200.