Nearly half of Americans expect a tax refund this year, according to a survey by TD Ameritrade. Of those, only 15 percent say they'll fritter it away.
Instead, most who expect a refund plan to stash that money in saving accounts, use it as investments or to pay down debt. But with the average refund last year hovering around $3,000, and interest rates at all-time lows, the return on being virtuous isn't much of a reward.
With that in mind, we asked financial planners, bankers and the people at TD Ameritrade themselves to offer up ways to maximize the IRS's payback of the funds they've been holding for you. "The goal is not just to save it, but to make your refund pay you back," said Carrie Braxdale, managing director of investor services at TD Ameritrade.
Here are our favorite four ideas:
Bake It Into Your 2012 Return
There's something very pleasing about turning your tax refund around to lower your taxes further. Maybe the most gratifying version of this is using your 2012 refund to max out your IRA contribution for the same year (thereby getting a bigger refund).
Here's how it works: Let's say you've already contributed $2,000 to your tax-deductible IRA, helping you to get a refund of $3,000. Now refigure your taxes, this time adding the refund amount to your existing IRA contribution. (If you're an employee under 50 years of age, you can contribute up to $5,000 to a tax-deductible IRA for 2012; if you're over 50, you can kick in $1,000 more, for $6,000 total.)
If you file early enough, the IRS will send your refund back in time to make the contribution by April 15, 2013, the deadline for 2012 contributions. Otherwise, take the extra $3,000 out of savings and pay yourself back when your refund arrives.
(Read More: What Are Homeowners Doing With Refi Profits?)
Just don't forget to designate your additional contribution specifically for 2012, or your IRA company will assume it's a 2013 contribution. Also be sure to remember when you're refund comes that you've already promised it to your savings account or to your IRA.
If you've already filed, you can still take this route by amending your return with a 1040X form. Or you can sock the refund into your tax-deductible IRA for next year and make your planned 2013 contribution on top of it, raising your chances of maxing out for this year.
Increase Your 401(k) Contribution
Scott Tiras, a private wealth adviser for Ameriprise in Houston, suggested doubling down on your refund by upping the amount your employer takes out of your paycheck for retirement.
After putting your refund in an interest-bearing account, go to H.R. and adjust the portion of your paycheck that goes to your 401(k) by the same amount. Then compensate for the extra bite out of your salary by doling out the dollars from the refund. "This is an especially good idea if your company matches your 401(k) contributions," Tiras noted.
Pay Your Property Taxes
Your mortgage company holds money in escrow — often a few thousand dollars at any given time — to pay expenses related to your home, such as property insurance and school and local taxes. "Not all lenders allow this, but it's worth asking your lender if they will allow you to pay these bills instead," said Jim Kelly, head of direct banking at Capital One 360. Your refund, stowed in a savings account replaces their escrow account and makes the annual interest they are currently paying.
At today's rates, you won't make more than $20 a year or so on an average refund, but paying those bills yourself may prompt you to remember to shop around occasionally for better prices on homeowner's insurance or contest your property-tax bill.
(Read More: A 'Worrisome Disconnect' on Retirement)
Alternatively, says Kelly, you could put the refund against the principal left in your mortgage, treating your home "as a big piggy bank."
Remodel to Get a Tax Credit in 2013
Certain kinds of home improvements, like new windows, doors and other energy efficient improvements, can take up to $500 off of next year's taxes in the form of tax credits — that's a 15 percent return on the average refund, not counting the savings you'll likely reap from lower electricity, gas or heating oil bills.
The best resource for information on energy efficiency tax credits is the Energy Star website. It's also worth going to the Department of Energy's tax credits and rebates page, which lists state programs.
Some of these ideas can be labor-, time- or even frustration- intensive. If you're the type for who gets anxious about a few unanticipated thousand dollars sitting around unspent, you may be better off immediately paying off high-cost, short-term debt or using the refund as seed money for a much-needed emergency fund or a deep-freeze savings account.
In that case, you may want to file Form 8888 with your tax return, directing the IRS to electronically deposit the refund in a dedicated account, so that you'll never see it.
Then, as much fun as it is to get what seems like free money, get rid of next year's refund. Talk to your company's administrator about adjusting your W-4 form so the IRS withholds fewer of your dollars.
Just be sure to do something as smart with the extra cash as you did with this year's refund.