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Already Dreaming About How to Spend That Tax Refund?

Here are some of the best and wisest ways to spend the average tax refund of $2800. (Hint: It's not on 746 tall Caramel Macchiatos at Starbucks.)
The majority of Americans are honest when they file their taxes
The majority of Americans are honest when they file their taxes Jon Sweeney / NBC News

What would you do with $2,800?

That's the equivalent of just over 746 tall Caramel Macchiatos at Starbucks, about 1,115 gallons of road trip gasoline — and, for 75 percent of tax payers, the size of the tax refund they can expect to receive this year.

It might be tempting to use that chunk of cash to #treatyourself, but joining the majority of tax filers in thinking more long-term will definitely pay off. Over two-thirds of filers used their tax refund to immediately pay off bills or manage an emergency last tax season, according to a recent survey by TurboTax and Washington University. And 71 percent of them used the windfall to bolster their emergency funds.

That's not necessarily the easiest thing to do. Our brains are wired to opt for shorter-term rewards (i.e. shopping or using the money in the now) over delayed gratification. One way to get yourself to do the right thing? Think about people you know currently in their nineties, says Kelly Graves, certified financial planner at Carroll Financial Associates. “People are living a long time, and it takes money to support being retired for a long time.” You can also use an aging app like AgingBooth to see what you'll look like down the road. That may be even more effective.

With that in mind, we’ve laid out the best options for putting your tax refund to work for you.

Pay Down Debt

Paying down debt should be a top priority upon receiving an influx of cash. “Start with high interest rate credit cards,” says Graves. He’s right — the average household with credit card debt has balances adding up to $16,748, and the average household with debt in general (including mortgages) owes $134,643, according to NerdWallet.

All in, that can mean “throwing money away on your interest payments,” says Lisa Greene-Lewis, CPA and tax expert at TurboTax. It’s inherently difficult to pay down debt because having it means you’ve probably been spending more than you’re earning, and paying it down means reversing that. That’s why using a windfall like a tax return can help propel you forward.

Related: What do Do if You Can't Pay Your Tax Bill in Full

Be Prepared for Emergencies

Having an emergency fund is a source of security, a way out, a saving grace in the case of a negative event. Yet, just four in 10 Americans have money socked away for emergencies, according to a recent Bankrate report.

But emergencies happen unexpectedly by definition. A prime eventual savings goal for an emergency fund should be three to six months of expenses, but don’t let that overwhelm you. “Your windfall could be a start to helping you have a $1,000 emergency fund or $500 emergency fund if something happens to your car or a home repair,” says Kristy Archuleta, program director of personal financial planning at Kansas State University. “The three to six months of living expenses is for if you or someone in your family loses their job.”

Boost Your Skill Set

Why not use your tax refund to invest in you — and your future earning potential? In the aforementioned survey, 12 percent of tax filers used their refund to pay for training for themselves or their family. Taking a class could net you up to $2,000 of credit (dollar-for-dollar tax liability deduction) on your 2017 taxes via the Lifetime Learning Tax Credit.

The credit would need to be for class tuition, books or something else you need for the course, and it’d need to be at an eligible educational institution, says Greene-Lewis. To see if an institution qualifies, head here or ask the school directly.

Related: Enjoy Doing Your Taxes This Year, Because Next Year Will Be a Nightmare

Propel Your Retirement Savings

If you’re feeling behind on retirement savings, you’re not alone — one in three Americans has $0 saved for retirement, according to a GOBankingRates survey. A tax refund is a great opportunity to boost — or launch — your retirement account and get into the habit of saving.

An added plus? By investing your tax refund in an individual retirement account (IRA), you can net yourself a tax deduction when you file in 2017, says Greene-Lewis. (NerdWallet has a list of their top-rated IRAs and Roth IRAs for this year.)

Note that you can contribute up to $5,500 in an IRA ($6,500 if you’re 50 or over), and you might be able to get a deduction for that entire amount.

With Hayden Field