When you come into a windfall — perhaps a bonus, tax refund or inheritance — deciding how to spend it can feel particularly weighty. Do you pay down debt? Which debt? Should you save for retirement, a home down payment or college for your kids?
The answer could be some or even all of the above.
Here are five ways you could use a $10,000 after-tax windfall to get the most bang for the buck.
1. Make sure you’re getting your 401(k) match
If your employer offers matching dollars and you’re not contributing enough to your 401(k) to collect them all, you’re passing up free cash and a guaranteed return, two things you’re unlikely to get elsewhere.
Say you earn $50,000 and your employer matches 50% of contributions up to 6%. If you contribute $3,000 a year to max out that 6% matching level, your employer will contribute $1,500 — well worth doing.
“You don’t want to leave employer money on the table,” says Kathryn B. Hauer, a certified financial planner in Aiken, South Carolina. “If you can pop $3,000 into your 401(k) and your employer will match 50%, that’s free money that you don’t want to miss out on.”
Most 401(k) plans don’t allow lump-sum contributions. So how do you put that windfall to work? Here’s a workaround: Put the amount you’d like to contribute into a savings account, then set your 401(k) contribution to the level your employer matches. When the 401(k) contribution is taken out of each paycheck, repay yourself from the money in savings. Once that money is gone, you can choose to continue contributions or open an IRA (more on this below).
The payoff: Based on a $50,000 salary, at the end of a year, you’ll have roughly $4,600 in your 401(k), including employer matching dollars and a 7% return (the expected average annual stock market return). Even with no further contributions, allowing that to grow over 30 years gives you an end balance of more than $35,000.
2. Pay down high interest rate debt
Some debts are considered good because they have low interest rates and are for investments such as your home or education.
But credit cards, personal loans and, worst of all, payday loans all have relatively high interest rates. That makes them good candidates for a swift payoff if you come into some cash, Hauer says. Paying them off will make you feel better — plus, you can put the payments you were making on them toward something more productive, like retirement.
The payoff: Wiping out a $10,000 credit card balance at 18% interest in one chunk, rather than making the minimum payments over time, will save you more than $8,600. Your credit score should improve, too, if you can knock your overall balance down to less than 30% of your total credit limit. And if you also take the payments you were making each month and invest them in an IRA, this move is worth even more.
3. Build an emergency fund
That aforementioned credit card debt? You probably wouldn’t have as much of it if you had an emergency cushion of cash to draw on when unexpected expenses come up.
Most experts recommend having three to six months’ worth of expenses in a savings or money market account. On a $50,000 salary, that might equal $15,000 after taxes and discretionary spending are taken off the table. That means $10,000 is a very good start.
Put it there and keep it there until an actual emergency arises. A vacation or a birthday is not an emergency. A leaking roof, lost job or major car repair is.
The payoff: Can you put a price on peace of mind?
4. Max out an IRA
In general, once you’ve gotten all the employer matching dollars you can with your 401(k), an IRA is the best place to continue building retirement savings. These accounts have lower costs and a larger investment selection and (in general) give you easier access to your money, should you need it.
That said, they do have contribution limits of $5,500 in 2015 (that’s a combined limit, for Roth and traditional IRAs). So you can’t put all of that $10,000 windfall to use here, but even $5,500 is a good start.
The payoff: $5,500 earning the expected average annual stock market return of 7% will turn into more than $41,000 in 30 years. That’s with no further contributions; if you put the remaining $4,500 in your IRA next year, you’d have close to $75,000.
5. Set other goals
If you’re on track with retirement savings, carrying no high interest rate debt and have a healthy emergency fund, you’re sitting pretty. It’s time to start thinking about other goals.
If you have kids, you might put this cash into a 529 plan for their future college expenses.
If you don’t have kids: Do you want to buy a house? Get married? Go on a big vacation? It’s OK to put a small portion of this money toward something fun, Hauer says — in fact, doing so can motivate you to make smart financial decisions with the remainder.
“There are always things you wish you could have and can’t afford, so to be able to get something that you weren’t expecting, to use a small portion of this for a treat, can really feel good,” Hauer says.
The payoff: A $10,000 initial deposit to a 529 account invested at 7% could total over $33,000 in 18 years, enough for almost two years at an in-state public school, based on today’s averages.
And that treat you allowed yourself? A vacation won’t generate a financial return, but research shows that spending on experiences rather than things pays off in other ways, including overall happiness.
This article first appeared at NerdWallet.