Bonus? Inheritance? Big Tax Refund? Put Your Lump-Sum Payout to Work

Bonus? Inheritance? Big Tax Refund? Put Your Lump-Sum Payout to Work
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Let’s say you recently got a lump sum of money. Maybe you received a bonus – from your civilian employer, or for deciding to remain in uniform. Maybe had to take a required minimum distribution from an account. Or maybe you got an inheritance, or you took home a substantial tax refund.


What should you do with it? Save it? Spend it? Pay down debt?


Unfortunately, there’s not an easy answer to this question. The path forward will depend on your financial situation and your personal goals.


Here are some questions you can ask yourself to help guide your next money move.


[RELATED: Protect Your Pay: 6 Ways to Stop Scams Targeting Servicemembers, Retirees]


Do I Have an Emergency Fund?

While there’s no universally accepted amount to have in your emergency fund, three to six months’ worth of living expenses is a reasonable place to start. If that seems like too much, start with a lower amount, even if it’s only a few hundred dollars, and work your way up.


If you don’t have an emergency fund in place, or if your fund isn’t big enough, then that may be a good place to park your windfall.


You always want to keep your emergency fund in an FDIC- or NCUA-insured financial institution, ideally in an account separate from the one you use to pay bills.


[RELATED: Know When to Tap Into Emergency Funds]


While you could keep a portion of your emergency fund in a CD, which might earn higher interest than a savings account, you could pay penalties or forfeit interest if you need to access your funds quickly. A no-penalty CD that allows for early withdrawals could be a solution, but be sure to check whether the interest rate is higher than a high-yield savings account.


Do I Have Debt?

Not all debt is created equal. I wouldn’t immediately think of using a lump-sum payout to pay off a mortgage or a car loan, but I would certainly consider paying off high-interest credit card debt.


The average credit card interest rate is 27.64%, and no investment, CD, or savings account will earn anything near that. Even if your credit card’s rate is slightly lower, paying off high-interest debt can be looked at as another method of saving.


Am I Making the Most of My Employer-Based Retirement Account?

Does your employer match contributions to your retirement account? If you aren’t contributing enough to receive the full match, consider using the lump sum to up your contributions.


If you’re getting the match, consider using the windfall to max out your contribution this year.


[RELATED: MOAA's Retirement Resources]


Do I Want to Boost My Brokerage Account?

If you’ve got a rainy-day fund, have paid off your high-interest debt, and have maxed out your retirement savings (or don’t have an employer), you could consider opening a non-retirement brokerage account and finding low-cost mutual funds or exchange traded funds (ETFs) to invest in.


Having investments outside of your retirement plan can give you more flexibility, and in the case of ETFs, better tax efficiency. Still, steer clear of day-trading, which can be risky

Rather than dumping the entire lump sum into the market at once, consider dollar-cost averaging, the practice of investing a fixed amount of money over a period of time. By spreading out your purchases, you reduce risk and take the emotion out of investing.


Do I Want to Treat Myself?

Finally, I am a firm believer in setting aside a portion of a windfall for a “want” as opposed to a “need.” Discipline is critical to financial success, but just as you would budget some of your regular funds for entertainment or travel, consider doing the same for this income.


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About the Author

Lila Quintiliani, ChFC®, AFC®
Lila Quintiliani, ChFC®, AFC®

Quintiliani is MOAA's Program Director, Financial and Benefits Education/Counseling. She is a former Army Military Intelligence Officer as well as the spouse of an active-duty servicemember, and worked for over a decade at military installations as a personal financial counselor.