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Getting a tax refund? Here are some smart ways to spend the money.

BY Michelle Singletary

No matter how much experts advise that you shouldn’t plan to get a tax refund, many people like the lump sum of cash anyway.

If this is you – and there’s no persuading you to get your money throughout the year – at least make sure you are taking full advantage of this once-a-year infusion of funds. The IRS has already issued more than 38 million refunds worth a total of $142 billion. The average refund as of March 1 was $3,068. There’s a lot you can do with that much money.

This is your chance to act on the financial promises to yourself. And, if you need some positive reinforcement, here are some great ways to spend your refund.

n Open a 529 college-savings account. You’ve been promising for years that you need to start saving to send your kid to college. So do it.

Under a 529, earnings are not subject to federal tax if the money is used for such qualified education expenses as tuition, fees, books and room and board.

For individuals with disabilities, there’s an opportunity to save in an ABLE account, also called a “529 A” account. This is a tax-advantaged way to save for disability-related expenses for a disabled beneficiary. The annual contribution limit for an ABLE account is $15,000 per individual. Earnings in an ABLE account also grow tax-deferred, and withdrawals are tax-free if used for qualified expenses such as housing, assistive technology, employment training and support, as well as health care expenses not covered by insurance. You can find more details about this savings vehicle at the ABLE National Resource Center (ablenrc.org).

n Invest in a low-cost index mutual fund. It’s smart to use your refund to start or boost your emergency fund, but it’s time you also let your money work for you by investing in a nonretirement account. Start your search for a good fund by going to bankrate.com. Search for “Best Index Funds in 2019.”

n Fill out IRS Form 8888, “Allocation of Refund.” The IRS has made it easy for you to invest by allowing you to directly deposit part or all of your refund straight to a financial institution of your choice.

You can also use the form to purchase up to $5,000 in U.S. Series I savings bonds, a low-risk savings product issued by the U.S. Treasury. Investors earn a combination of a fixed interest rate and the rate of inflation. Your request for bonds must be in increments of $50.

n Play to win. How about participating in a program that gives you a chance to win money when you save your refund?

America Saves and Commonwealth sponsor a “Save Your Refund” lottery. Tax filers 18 and older who use IRS Form 8888 to save a portion of their refund can enter for a chance to win one of 100 prizes of $100. There’s also a photo contest for a chance to win one of two grand prizes of $10,000. Go to saveyourrefund.com for more details.

There is also the “Save to Win” program. In order to enter, you need to be part of a participating credit union in a state that has legislation for prize-linked savings accounts. The way this program works is that you get one entry per $25 deposit, up to a maximum of 10 entries per month. You can win up to $5,000 – except if you live in the state of Washington, which has a $1,000 top prize. For a list of participating states and credit unions, go to savetowin.org.

n Pay down debt. I find people getting a refund like to park the money into a savings account. Yes, you need some money in a rainy-day fund. But don’t keep high-interest debt around because you’re too scared to spend your savings (which isn’t earning much interest, by the way).

My youngest child once said something to me when she was just 4 that I’d like to share if you tend to waste your refund.

I had been promising to do something for her, and I kept putting it off. Each time when she asked about the promise, I would say, “I’ll do it tomorrow.”

Finally, she had enough of my procrastination, and one morning she said, “Mommy, today is tomorrow.”

If you haven’t in the past, make this year the one you do something smart with your refund.

I’d like to hear how you plan to spend your tax refund. Send an email to colorofmoney@washpost.com. In the subject line put “Tax Refund.”