windfallThe holidays often come with a windfall or two: a monetary gift from a relative or a bonus from an employer. We don’t necessarily expect these gifts — that’s why they’re called windfalls — so deciding what to do with them can be a little complicated. Perhaps you have a pressing need for cash to pay an important bill. If so, that kind of practical application may make your decision for you. If you don’t have such a need, however, take time to consider your options.

1. Put it in your emergency fund

While this option doesn’t sound particularly fun, it may be a life saver. Approximately 60 percent of Americans don’t have enough to make it through a full month on just their emergency savings — a huge problem if you’ve been watching the job market lately. If you’re in that group, a windfall might be your best opportunity for actually starting an emergency fund. If you’ve got a little bit of money already put away for a rainy day, using even a portion of your holiday gift to pad it can pay off. I’ve got my emergency fund in the savings account with the highest interest rate I could find: I’ve already put a few windfalls in there, and I’ve got the comfort of knowing that they’re actually earning me a little money.

2. Set aside a few dollars for something fun

Saving money all the time can be tough. More than a few people fall off the frugality wagon because it’s depressing to save every single cent you can. What’s the point of saving every little bit if you don’t get to enjoy your savings on occasion? I wouldn’t suggest spending all of your money on entertainment, but there’s nothing wrong with setting aside a few dollars of ‘play money.’ Depending on the windfall, using a fraction of your gift towards fun could be the equivalent of a dinner out or a new television — if you can afford it, neither is unreasonable.

3. Make an investment

The stock market might make most investors cringe right now, but that doesn’t actually mean that investment is a bad choice. There are still many conservative investment options that can provide a safe place to keep your money and earn a little interest. Those conservative investments don’t provide the return of riskier choices, of course, but they can still provide a little income. Depending on your long-term financial goals, stocks may not be a horrible idea either — consider consulting a financial planner if you want to invest a significant amount of your windfall.

4. Share the wealth

I don’t tithe a certain percentage of my income, although I know people who do — including when they receive windfalls. I do believe, however, that it’s good to support causes you believe in (especially when your own financial situation is comfortable). Many non-profits are struggling this year as donations have dropped. If you have made a charitable contribution in years past but have cut back this year, think about donating even a few dollars of your windfall.

5. Pay down debt

Odds are pretty good that you’re already working on paying down any consumer debt you might have — the balances on your credit cards and accounts. Applying a windfall to those balances can not only help you eliminate your debt faster, but it can also save you money in the long run. If you can wipe out consumer debt, you don’t have to pay interest on it. If your credit card balances are in great shape, the same holds true for your ‘good’ debt: mortgages and school loans are considered good debt because they help you earn and save money in the long run. Still, they’re both forms of debt and the faster you pay them off, the less interest you pay.

6. Put it towards a bigger goal

Saving up for a down payment on a house? Or for Junior’s education? If you’ve got a big goal that you’re saving up for, a windfall may help move you along to your goal faster than you might otherwise manage. Especially if you have a little time to save up for a goal, like Junior’s college, interest can turn even a few dollars into a larger amount — there are special investment options created for just such goals, like 529 plans. If you are looking at a shorter-term goal, you can often use that savings as a sort of emergency fund: you won’t want to pull money away from your goal, but you won’t be in too much trouble if you do.

7. Mix and match

No matter how small a windfall is, you can divide it among these options if you choose. Dividing a monetary gift between your goals can give you an opportunity to move forward on all of them — if you feel like you’ve only made progress in one area this year, you have the opportunity to make a little progress on all the rest before the year ends. In some cases, it may be crucial to get ahead on a particular goal: you’ll want to take your finances into account to make your decision. And if you have any other ideas for using a windfall, please share them in the comments.

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