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Third stimulus checks, tax refunds: Why this behavioral research expert says planning ahead can help you save more of these windfalls

Perry Wright of Duke University’s Common Cents Lab on how to make the most of your windfall cash.

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With tax season upon us and a third Covid relief bill in the works, over 150 million Americans are expecting to receive windfalls of cash in the coming months.

While counting on a larger chunk of money is both exciting and useful, it can also disappear quickly if you don't carefully plan ahead what to do with it. Known as "precommiting" to some behavioral researchers, mapping out a purpose for such windfalls helps you use the money in meaningful ways — and avoid losing track of where it goes.

When you commit ahead of time to saving a portion of this "free money" now (versus when it actually hits your bank account) you're likely to save at least few hundred dollars more than you would otherwise, says Perry Wright, a senior behavioral researcher at Duke University's Common Cents Lab.

These savings can help you build an emergency fund, or pay off high-interest debt if you've already got your basics covered. As the project lead for BlackRock's Emergency Savings Initiative, Wright's research has shown time and time again how windfalls from tax returns (and, now, the stimulus) have the potential to make a big difference.

Below, he explains the importance of identifying and strategizing your savings needs now before you receive any windfalls of cash.

How planning ahead helps you save more

In a Common Cents Lab study that looked at people who wanted to save their tax refunds, one group saved as they received their tax refund, whereas another group precommitted to saving months before.

Whether it's $100, $500 or more, precommitting means making a promise to prioritize a specific amount of your windfall months before it even arrives.

The first group (the non-planners) saved an average of 17% of their tax refund, and the second group who precommitted to saving beforehand saved an average amount of 27%. With the average tax refund in 2020 at $3,125, this would equal a difference of saving $843.75 versus $531.25 — just from planning ahead. That's roughly $300 more in your savings, versus seeing that money go towards discretionary expenses, like quarantine loungewear or a new Peloton bike (which are great to have, but not exactly necessities).

This study aligns with other outside scientific research conducted by the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization which found that setting up automation or texting reminders, in addition to committing to save beforehand, also encourages good habits.

"You could call it nudging," Wright says. "It means giving people certain options as a way to pave an easier path for making decisions."

How to precommit your windfalls

Pecommit your windfalls by thinking ahead about where you will deposit your stimulus check and/or tax return. Find ways to make saving easier and automatic. Instead of putting the money in a traditional savings, for instance, consider opening up a high-yield savings account now that will earn you more interest over time.

The Marcus by Goldman Sachs High Yield Online Savings ranks as CNBC Select's best overall choice for savers because it is pretty straightforward, offering no fees whatsoever and easy mobile access. The American Express® High Yield Savings Account is our best pick from a big bank for being easy to use and having 24/7 customer service with good reviews. Both high-yield savings accounts also offer above-average rates, have zero monthly fees and require no minimum deposits to open yours today.

You can also use the months ahead to open a budgeting app. Link it to your current bank and credit card accounts to get an overview of your finances and a better idea of what you should be saving for with those extra funds. Most apps, like Mint (the best free budgeting app), allow you to create savings goals as well.

Bottom line

Wright's research and insight shows us that committing to save money we don't even have yet, along with strategizing certain behavioral tools (like automation) can lead us to saving more from future windfalls of cash.

Editorial Note: Opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the CNBC Select editorial staff’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any third party.