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Ask Brianna: What's the best use for a financial windfall?

Posted January 3

"Ask Brianna" is a Q&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 askbrianna@nerdwallet.com .

Q: I'm coming into some money and I have no idea what to do with it. What's the best way to use a sudden windfall?

A: If you're like most 20- or 30-somethings, a work bonus or a tax refund can feel like a gold mine. You need a plan so you don't give yourself a free pass to live like fictional boy billionaire Richie Rich.

But if your windfall is from, say, a large inheritance, a settlement from a lawsuit or a profitable sale of company stock, you'll want to call in the professionals.

"When that kind of money happens, that game-changer kind of money, it doesn't just change your finances," says Susan Bradley, a certified financial planner and author of "Sudden Money: Managing a Financial Windfall." ''It changes who you are. It changes your life."

Start with a financial planner, a tax professional and someone who can help you process the tactical and emotional changes to come, Bradley says. Others might start to view you differently or expect you to share your wealth; if you have a partner, you'll need to consider how to make decisions together about how to use your windfall, too.

For the rest of us facing a more modest cash influx in 2017, here's how to divvy it up to meet financial goals — without giving up all the fun.

EARMARK 'FUN MONEY'

You know that "sensible adult" voice in your head telling you to save every last penny or to fling it all at your student loans? We'll get to that later. First, start with the fun stuff: Set aside 10 percent to 20 percent of your windfall's after-tax total to spend however you want. Stick with the lower end of that range if you have a lot of high-interest debt or no savings.

The goal is to stop overspending before it happens. Those who come into smaller sums of money — like the $2,866 average tax refund in 2016 — might spend the whole thing. That's because the amount doesn't seem large enough to make a real financial difference, says certified financial planner Robert Pagliarini, author of "The Sudden Wealth Solution: 12 Principles to Transform Sudden Wealth Into Lasting Wealth."

Treat yourself to a slick pair of boots or a plane ticket so you feel you got something concrete and satisfying from your windfall. Then use the rest to move toward your long-term goals and create healthy money habits.

SAY HELLO TO EMERGENCY AND RETIREMENT SAVINGS

You've gotten a splurge out of your system, so now it's time to do the mature thing and save the next 30 percent. If you have no cash reserves, open a high-interest online savings account with a lump sum, say $500 of your windfall. Create a monthly transfer until the account has three to six months' living expenses.

After your emergency fund is off the ground — or if you've already got one in place — any remainder of the 30 percent should be directed toward retirement savings. Your money is mightier when you're younger since it has more time to grow. Contribute at least enough to your 401(k) to get any employer match; if you're already doing that or you don't have access to a workplace retirement plan, open a Roth IRA. These allow you to contribute after-tax dollars so you won't pay taxes when you withdraw funds at retirement.

SAY GOODBYE TO DEBT

Accruing debt at high interest is like stealing money from your future self. A windfall gives you the chance to put a dent in debt or get rid of it altogether.

Use up to 50 percent of your windfall to reduce your burden, but be strategic. Focus first on consumer debt, such as credit cards and medical bills, before student loans — especially if your credit cards have high interest rates. If your student loans' rates are higher or you can get a 0 percent interest balance-transfer credit card, attack the loans.

Repeat these steps, from splurge to systematic saving, every time you get a refund or a bonus. That way — cue triumphant music — you'll spend it responsibly, not spontaneously, year after year.

_______

This column was provided to The Associated Press by the personal finance website NerdWallet.

Brianna McGurran is a staff writer at NerdWallet. Email: bmcgurran@nerdwallet.com . Twitter: @briannamcscribe.

Related links:

IRS: 2016 filing season statistics: https://www.irs.gov/uac/newsroom/filing-season-statistics-for-week-ending-march-25-2016

NerdWallet: How to pay off debt: http://nerd.me/1qqviBL

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