According to the IRS, the average tax refund in the United States in 2017 was $2,763. But remember, a tax refund is not a gift or a windfall — it’s your own hard-earned money that Uncle Sam has used interest-free for a year. Before you go on a spending spree, think about ways you can use your tax refund to improve your financial situation.

Depending on your unique financial goals, that money could be put towards debt reduction, college savings, or growing your retirement fund. Here are 10 ideas of what you could do with your tax refund this year.

1. Split it — Use IRS Form 8888 when you file your taxes to split your refund between up to three established financial accounts — for example, your checking account, savings account and retirement account. If you intend to save at least $50 or more of your tax refund, consider participating in SaveYourRefund. With $30,000 in prizes and 102 chances to win, SaveYourRefund provides big incentives to save. See the rules at

2. Pay off bills — First priorities are regular monthly bills (rent, utilities, phone, etc.) and then those with the highest interest rate. Paying off high-interest debt can help reduce how much you’ll end up paying overall by decreasing or eliminating the interest that would otherwise accrue.

3. Prepare for the unexpected — Nearly six in 10 Americans don’t have enough savings to cover an unplanned expense of $500 or more. While experts recommend keeping three to nine months of take-home income in an emergency fund, even $500 can be helpful in the case of unexpected health care, housing, or auto expenses.

4. Contribute to your retirement savings — Consider setting aside some or all of your tax refund in a savings account, investment account or individual retirement account (IRA) for future retirement expenses.

5. Grow college savings — The sooner you start to save for education, the less debt you’re likely to have to take on when the tuition bill arrives. If your kids are already educated, think about setting up a college savings plan for your grandchildren.

6. Build an investment portfolio — If you’re already investing or looking to get started, use a portion of your tax refund to contribute to or start an investment portfolio. While investments can be a more reliable savings medium over the long-run, they do involve risk. Educate yourself before you jump into investing.

7. Donate to charity — Pay it forward by donating a portion of your tax refund to an organization or cause you believe in. Supporting local entities like your hospital, library, community service organizations or even the Extension Office can help to keep your community strong and vital into the future.

8. Remodel your home — You might be able to increase the value of your home, and therefore your net worth, by using your tax refund to pay for upgrades or repairs.

9. Invest in your career — If you’re looking for the next step in your professional life, consider using your tax refund for professional training or continuing education classes. Investing in yourself and your career can help increase your long-run financial stability.

10. Special purchases — After you have considered ideas 1 through 9, then consider spending a portion of your tax refund on high-priority special purchases or travel. Before you spend, shop around to make sure you have located and negotiated the best deal.

The bottom line: Use your tax refund to build financial security by paying off debt, planning for the future, and setting money aside to help you reach your goals.

Linda K. Beech is Cottonwood District Extension agent for family and consumer sciences.