Have you noticed that your paychecks have been a bit larger than normal lately? That’s because in 2011, the government is cutting the social security payroll tax paid by individuals from 6.2% to 4.2%.
How much is that in stone cold cash? If your annual income is $40,000, that’s $800 over the course of the year divided among your bi-weekly or monthly paychecks. If you earn $80,000 annually, your extra pocket money is $1,600. For those who make $106,800 or above, you’ll see an extra $2,136. Since social security is taxed individually, married couples could get up to a $4,272 take home pay boost for the year.
Now, what should you do with your extra moolah? Sheryl Garrett, the author of the Personal Finance for Dummies Workbook, a Certified Financial Planner and founder of the Garrett Planning Network, suggests these 10 ways to wisely spend your money, in order of importance for increasing your financial standing for years to come.
Balance Your Budget
If you live paycheck to paycheck, or on a tight budget, the extra $66 per month (if your annual income is $40,000) could mean the difference in paying your electricity bill this month – or not. This month, balance your budget with the fatter paychecks. Next month, adjust your budget so your expenses and income balances when the payroll tax cut expires. Since this bonus money is a one-year deal, don’t rely on it next year to cover basic expenses. Focus on other expense-reduction strategies: negotiate your next lease, use coupons at restaurants, ditch buying grocery items that are spoiling in your fridge, or change your IRS withholding if you get a refund every year.
Settle old debts
“Wouldn’t it be nice to pay off your mom and dad for the money they lent you for an apartment deposit?” says Garrett. Use this money to pay off any money you borrowed from family or friends.
Pay Off Credit Cards (and keep them that way)
Credit cards are easiest to attack, since you see the bill each month. If you use Mint.com, you can set up a goal to pay down your credit-card debt, and Mint will prepare a customized plan for you based on your cards’ balances and interest rates.
Boost Your 401(k) Contributions
If you’re currently not taking advantage of the full amount your employer will match on your 401(k), use your extra cash here. Once you’ve fulfilled this amount, deposit any remaining funds in a Roth IRA.
Contribute to a Roth IRA
Unless your adjusted gross income is higher than $122,000 if you’re single, or $179,000 if you’re married, filing jointly, you are eligible to contribute up to $5,000 in a Roth IRA. (The contribution limit is $6,000 if you’re 50 or older.) If you haven’t already made that contribution for 2010, you have until April 18, 2011, to do so. You can also, of course, contribute another $5,000 for 2011. While the amount you contribute is not tax deductible, you’ll reap the benefits once you start making withdrawals: all your withdrawals, earnings included, are completely tax-free as long as you’ve held them for at least five years. (And, of course, you need to be 59 ½ or older to make penalty-free contributions.)
Buy Yourself Marketable Skills
Enhance your ability to earn money in any of a number ways. If you’re actively looking for a job, consider hiring a resume service to help polish your resume. If you’ve been thinking of going back to school, take your GRE or GMAT test. Take a continuing education course. Buy a snazzy suit for interviews. The key is to spend cash in a way that will boost your income, now or in the near future.
Invest in Your Health
If one of your New Year’s resolutions was to improve your health, now is the time to see a nutritionist. If you’re a smoker, join a stop smoking program. Buy a bicycle to save on gas, or caulk your windows or insulate home. With every investment, think: will this save me money next year by doing this action?
Shop for Organization Tools
Luckily, Mint.com and basic tax software is free, but consider upgrading to the non-free version if you have a home business or more complicated tax forms. If your important documents are scattered across the house, buy a file cabinet or an expandable file organizer. The better organized you are, the easier it will be to manage your money.
Take a Vacay
If you already have all these categories covered, take a vacation. A yoga retreat, cruise or weekend with your honey at a B&B may be just what you need to return home and spend quality time tweaking your budget to perfection.
Reyna Gobel is a freelance journalist who specializes in financial fitness. She is also the author of Graduation Debt: How To Manage Student Loans and Live Your Life.