Top 4th of July Sales Best 4K Projectors 7 Early Prime Day Deals Wi-Fi Range Extenders My Favorite Summer Gadgets Cheap Car Insurance Target's 4th of July Sale Best Running Earbuds, Headphones

Is Your Tax Refund Just Sitting in Your Bank Account? 6 Smart Ways to Put It to Use

Put your money to work for you. From investing to paying down debt, here's how to do it.

hundred dollar bills folded into bunches with rubber bands against purple background
The money from your tax refund could be used to boost your financial health. 
Mykola Sosiukin/EyeEm via Getty Images

This story is part of Taxes 2022, CNET's coverage of the best tax software and everything else you need to get your return filed quickly, accurately and on-time.

Tax season has passed, and the average refund clocks in at $3,012, per the latest IRS filing data. That's a good chunk of money that could be put to good use. As a possible recession nears and inflation costs US households nearly $300 more per month on average, your refund could help stretch your budget a bit further. But if you don't need this money for rent, bills or everyday essentials, there are smart ways to use it to improve your financial health. 

Whether your tax refund is sitting unused in your bank account or you're still waiting for your money (here's why your refund may be late and how to track it through the mail), here are six ways to put your tax refund to work for you. 

1. Pay down debt

Whether it's credit cards, student loans, buy-now-pay-later services or medical bills, living with debt can be all-consuming. While your tax refund may not be large enough to wipe these balances clean, you can use it to make a dent in your debt -- specifically high-interest compounding debt.

Credit cards tend to be the debt with the highest interest rates -- though this isn't always the case. Paying down the debt with the highest interest rate first (aka the avalanche method) can help you save money down the road in interest charges. Plus, with the Fed raising rates twice so far this year, credit card interest rates are also expected to rise.

If you have multiple credit cards with similar APRs carrying debt, you could also opt to pay down the smallest balances first (the snowball method) so you have fewer remaining credit cards to worry about paying off.

"Tackling the card with the lowest balance first can be a quick win and give us the mental strength to pay down the remaining balances. It's an initial confidence booster that can go a long way toward becoming debt-free," said CNET Money Editor at Large Farnoosh Torabi.

2. Build or boost an emergency fund

An emergency fund is an important financial tool that can help you in the event of a job loss, salary decrease or unexpected financial emergency (like a hefty medical bill). Your emergency fund should contain three to six months' worth of expenses, which is the amount you spend on things like rent, utilities, groceries, gas and other essentials.

Your tax refund can help you get started on building an emergency fund. A high-yield savings account that earns slightly higher interest rates that you can access quickly is a great place to store this money. Many online banks like Capital One, Ally and Marcus offer high-yield savings options. 

And, if you have debt you'd like to pay down and no emergency savings to speak of, you might be unsure of how to best put your money to work. "Shore up some emergency savings first -- even just a few hundred dollars can be extremely helpful before embarking on your debt payoff strategy. It provides a buffer for unexpected expenses that won't cause you to sink further into debt. As soon as you have about a month's worth of essential expenses set aside, get more aggressive with your debt payoff plan," said Torabi.

3. Pay your future self by growing your money

While it may not be the most glamorous way to enjoy your money now, investing in your future is important at any stage of your career. You can use your tax refund to contribute to any retirement plans you have, 401(k)s or IRAs. In 2022, you can contribute up to $20,500 to a 401(k) and $6,000 for traditional and Roth IRAs. (If you're over 50, you can contribute an extra $6,500 to your 401(k) and $1,000 to an IRA.) 

"If maxing out your workplace retirement plan isn't feasible, consider investing enough to earn your employer's full match or contributing at least 1 to 2 percent more than last year," said Torabi. 

And, if you're already on track to meet your retirement goals, you could use your money to purchase an I bond, which could help grow your money by offering a higher savings rate than the rate of inflation.

Lastly, you could consider investing your refund. There's no one way to begin investing; it will look different for everyone. If you'd like to invest with minimal risk, purchasing an ETF, or exchange-traded fund, or index fund might make sense. Both options spread out your risk across different stocks and bonds that track a particular index, like the S&P 500. You won't get rich overnight with index funds or ETFs. They're more of a long-term play. 

If you want to take a more active role in investing and don't mind taking on higher risk, you could invest directly into the stock market through a brokerage. A few online options for investing in ETFs, index funds and stocks include TD Ameritrade, E Trade and Fidelity Investments.

For those who don't want to be as active in the investing process, a robo-advisor might make sense. Robo-advisors like Betterment, Wealthfront and Ellevest use AI to create a portfolio based on your financial needs and goals.

4. Add funds to your HSA or FSA

A health savings account is a savings plan specifically designed for health-related costs. HSAs are a type of investment account, even though they're called "savings" plans. If you have a high-deductible health plan, you're eligible to open an HSA. HSAs are triple tax-free: Your contributions, earnings and withdrawals aren't taxed. Your employer may also offer access to an FSA, flexible spending account, which is also a tax-free account designed for qualifying medical expenses.

If you have a health savings account or flexible savings account for medical expenses, you might want to use some of your tax return toward funding this account. The contribution limits for 2022 for an HSA are $3,650 for an individual and $7,300 for family plans. The FSA contributions limit for 2022 is $2,850. 

5. Start a college fund

Whether it's for a child or yourself, you can put your refund to work by investing it for future college expenses. You have different options for storing this money, including a high-yield savings account, an investment account or a 529 plan.

A 529 plan is specifically made for college savings, but it acts more like an investment account. Earnings grow tax-free and as long as you use the funds for education-related costs, you're not on the hook to pay taxes on your withdrawals.

6. Invest in yourself

While college is a great self-investment, there are other ways you can use your tax refund for a good cause. If you've been contemplating a career change or side hustle, use your money to invest in that switch. If you need capital to start your own business, this could be your chance. Or use your funds to invest in classes, courses or certifications that will help take your skills to the next level. 

"Considering that it may take time before your new business starts to generate revenue, having at least one year's worth of financial runway, or personal savings, can be vital to both your financial security and the long-term success of your business," said Torabi.

The stress of the past two years has taken a toll on all of us. While paying down debt, saving and investing your refund are smart ideas, investing in your mental health is just as important.

Consider using your refund to give yourself a much-needed break -- whether that means a no-laptop staycation, a trip to see family and friends or a relaxing vacation to recharge, reset and refocus. "Health is wealth," said Torabi. "Mastering your money takes more than just managing your dollars and cents properly. It's a far more holistic endeavor that centers around your mental well-being above all."