Why You Should Apply the 72-hour Rule to Your Tax Refund

Ka-ching! Your tax refund just hit your checking account. Time to apply the 72-hour rule.

Whether your refund is in the thousands or hundreds, the urge to spend the funds might instantly become overwhelming. Maybe you already had an idea of what you want to spend the money on and you’re all set to hand over your refund for it. Or, maybe the money means you finally have enough to make a large purchase you’d otherwise need to save for.

Whatever your reason, don’t spend your refund quite yet. If it’s not an immediate emergency (read: root canal, car accident, flood, etc.), let the cash burn a hole in your pocket for about 72 hours.

Journalist and money expert Carl Richards came up with the “72-hour rule” to kick his habit of buying every book he wanted on Amazon, ending up with a pile of unread books. Now, he says he lets a book sit in his shopping cart for at least 72 hours before hitting “buy,” and he’s saving money only buying books he will actually read. You can apply a similar practice to your spending habits.

Why wait 72 hours?

Our brains respond positively to instant gratification. It’s why so many of us find it difficult to save money or lose weight. We want the item or food now, and when there’s nothing stopping us, why wait?

You need the space between receiving the money and spending it to think. The shorter that space is, the less time you have to think and the more likely you are to spend the funds impulsively.

“People often look at their tax refund as found money like lottery winnings or inheritance. The temptation to spend surprise money on something fun or frivolous is strong,” says Denver, Colo.-based Certified Financial Planner Kristi Sullivan.

You want to avoid doing that. Your tax refund isn’t lottery winnings or an inheritance. It’s your hard-earned money being returned to you with no interest gained.

Tax refunds averaged $2,860 in 2016, according to the IRS. This year, a SunTrust survey found about 1 in 4 Americans already planned to spend their refund money on a large purchase before they even received the funds. That proportion rises to 36% among millennials and 40% among Gen-Xers, according to SunTrust.

That’s no bueno, considering the average citizen admits they can’t pull together $400 in case of an emergency.

Kinney says “hitting the pause button on spending impulses gives the rational brain time to think” of more practical ways to use the money like getting out of debt, contributing to a college savings fund, or adding to your savings.

Although he acknowledges when you’re living paycheck to paycheck, it’s a little harder to resist a sudden — albeit predictable — boost to this month’s budget.

“People feel constrained by their paycheck all through the year, then suddenly this windfall of money gives them the ability to splurge. The temptation can be hard to resist,” says Kinney.

Here are a few ways you can manage the temptation, and the time.

While you wait…

Weigh your wants vs. needs

The waiting period is supposed to help you to spend your tax refund responsibly, right? Consider all of the expenses the money could go toward. Should you buy the new iPad or pay off your credit card? How about that car loan? Time to weigh your options.

Sullivan says that means you should pit your “wants” against your “needs.”

“A need that you haven’t already bought is rare. Wants are everywhere. Time to reflect might have you making a more mature decision with your money,” says Sullivan.

Do some soul searching to see where your financial priorities lie. You might find your need to pay off your credit card this month to avoid paying more in interest outweighs how badly you want that new gadget. Think about it.

Review your finances

Since your tax refund might consume your every thought for three days, you might as well use the time to think about your overall financial picture.

“Sit down and think about other pressing financial issues, and how you plan on paying for them,” says David Frisch, a Melville, N.Y.-based financial planner. He suggests you review bank statements, brokerage accounts, long-term goals, and other financial considerations, then give some thought to whether or not you’re on track to achieve them.

For example, if you realize you don’t have enough in your emergency fund to cover three to six months of expenses, you might decide to put the money there instead of spending it. Or, if your refund could completely pay off a high-interest debt like a credit card, you might decide to free yourself from the debt burden.

Make sure you don’t get a huge refund every year

Most Americans receive a refund because the government withheld too much in taxes. The government uses information you gave them to decide how much of your paycheck to withhold each pay period.

“Changing your withholding will give you more of your money during the year so that you will not get a large refund that you might be tempted to spend frivolously,” says Alfred Giovetti, president of the National Society of Accountants.

You can change information on your withholding forms on your own if you’d like. Use this IRS calculator to determine your proper withholding and figure out what information you need to correct on your W-4 form. Then, contact your employer’s human resources department to turn in a new W-4 with the correct information.

If you’d rather have some assistance, you can contact a professional. Work with your accountant or financial adviser to change information on your W-4 and its equivalent withholding form for the state in which you reside.

“Plan with a good tax accountant to get a small refund or a small liability by changing your withholding, so that you do not rely on the refund as ‘mad money,’” says Giovetti.

Treat yourself

We admit, waiting sucks, but it doesn’t have to be complete torture. Sullivan suggests taking the edge off with a small reward for each day you wait.

“It could be an ice cream cone, a long phone chat with a friend, an hour reading a trashy novel, or whatever makes you happy,” she says.

Just make sure the reward you choose isn’t too expensive, and you should avoid getting into more debt. Your “reward” could serve as a break while you comb through your finances.

The takeaway

Take some time to think before spending whenever you receive unexpected income, and you might make better spending decisions. Maybe you need only 24 hours, instead of 72, or maybe you need a little longer to decide what to do with money, but the same lesson applies. If you’re considering a purchase that’s a “want” and not a “need,” think before you buy.

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