By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 4/14/2011 4:41:35 PM ET 2011-04-14T20:41:35

Your taxes are filed and the check is in the mail. Now comes the big question: How will you spend your refund  — save it or splurge?

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The Internal Revenue Service expects to issue $300 billion in tax refunds this year, the Associated Press reports , with the average check totaling $3,000. This influx of ready cash would be a huge lift for the nation’s economy if every check were spent this spring, but most financial experts agree that blowing an annual windfall in a shopping orgy is not a wise strategy.

A recent poll suggests that many Americans are listening to this advice. Forty-nine percent of people who intentionally withhold extra from their paychecks to get a refund say they plan to use the money to pay down debt. Forty-four percent plan to save the money.

If you're expecting a refund this year, the nonprofit National Endowment for Financial Education, which sponsored the poll, suggests you spend your refund wisely. Here are some smart uses:

  1. Pay down debt: Credit card bills piling up? Tackle this first. Start with the card that has the highest interest rate, and if there is money left over, move to the next card.
  2. Start an emergency fund: If you don’t have at least $500 squirreled away for emergencies, setting up a rainy-day savings account should be your next priority. A stash that can cover three to six months’ of living expenses should be your ultimate goal.
  3. Save for retirement: Put your refund into an IRA where it will grow tax-free. The contribution may be deductible
  4. Pay for maintenance: Don’t let small home or car problems turn into huge headaches. If you’ve been delaying needed repairs, let your refund come to the rescue.
  5. Prepay bills: If you decide to pay down a loan, make sure there are no prepayment penalties.
  6. Go ahead and splurge: Buy that television or book that trip to Hawaii. Just make sure the first five suggestions on this list are covered.

One final tip if you haven’t filed yet: Take a deep breath and relax. You have all weekend to work on your returns. Tax day is Monday, April 18, this year.

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Vote: How will you spend your tax refund?

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