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Got a tax refund? Then get out of credit card debt!

By Ben Woolsey

If you are a savvy taxpayer and have already filed your tax return, you are to be commended. An alarming number of filers wait until the 11th hour to stand in line at their central post office drop-off window and sneak their returns in under the wire. But if you are eligible for a refund, it only makes sense to file as early as possible, right?

Taxes, credit, debt and you
Taxes, credit, debt and you

These CreditCards.com articles about taxes, credit and debt will help you navigate tax payment options, tax liability, tax-time identity theft and manage your credit and debt at tax time.

Assuming you are one of the lucky Americans who will get a tax refund this year, it may be tempting to take the whole family on a Disney Cruise or use it as a down payment on that ski-boat. Financial experts have another suggestion: Stop and examine your credit card debt situation instead.

According to the Federal Reserve's 2012 triennial Survey of Consumer Finances, about 39 percent of American families carry a credit card balance, with a median balance of $2,600 and an average balance of $7,100. As of March 2014, the average 2013 tax refund is averaging $3,034, so there is clearly an opportunity to exercise some discipline and apply this windfall to knock down a large chunk of outstanding credit card debt.

Maury Randall, professor and chair of finance at Rider University, agrees that it's wise to use tax refunds to combat credit card debt. "I even tell my students that before you put anything in stocks and bonds, one of the best investments you can make is to pay off your credit card debt," Randall says. "It's a risk-free return, and not only that, but the interest you pay on credit card debt is not tax deductible. And putting your refund toward debt is probably the best investment you can make if you have a large amount of outstanding debt, unless there is something else incredibly important that you need to spend the money on."

Becoming debt-free usually requires numerous steps, starting with changing the fundamental behavior of spending money you don't have. You can't start chipping away at the debt until you stop building it. And if you use a big tax refund to eliminate all or a large part of your debt, the closer you are to being free of having to spend precious resources on monthly bills to applying those funds toward savings, retirement or even a vacation fund.

With the average interest rate hovering around 15 percent for new card offers, consumers pay dearly for rolling over any balances from month to month.

Sky-high interest rates are another incentive to get rid of that debt as soon as possible. "Interest rates are quite high on credit card debt and you can't typically get the return that the credit card company is charging you," Randall says. "Putting your refund toward debt is a safe return -- every time you pay your credit card debt, you know for certain that you'll be saving that interest expense."Other prudent steps to get out of credit card debt and becoming debt free include transferring balances over to a 0 percent APR credit card (such as a  balance transfer credit card) or some other type of debt consolidation loan. Then you can apply all of your future payments to the principal and not have to waste any more on interest.

Tax refunds are always a welcome surprise this time of year. Be sure to use yours wisely.

Updated: March 17, 2014


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