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March 30, 2021

What to do with a Cash Windfall

It can be tough figuring out how to make your money work for you, especially if you’ve recently received a large sum due to an inheritance, a settlement, or a gift. Should you use your newfound wealth to pay off debt, lock it up in CDs and money market funds to preserve your assets, or roll the dice on real estate and stocks to grow your net worth – high risk for high reward?

The answer depends on many factors, including your age, assets and financial priorities. Here are some tips to keep in mind as you make decisions about your finances.

Safety net

You do have to mitigate risk, and you can do so by first ensuring that you have a safety net built up in a savings account. Depending on your age, dependents, and career, this can be 3-6 months of expenses. This is also a good time to check up on your insurance (health, auto, property, liability and long-term care), whichever applies to you. This way, you can mitigate the risk of having to shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars for long-term care in the future, for example.

The reason for having your safety net in place is so that you’re not making decisions from a scarcity mindset, and can focus on thinking about future opportunities instead of threats.

Take it slow

Have you heard the saying that sometimes the best thing to do is to not do anything at all? Receiving a large influx of cash is great, but sometimes gets overshadowed by immediate overthinking and other peoples’ opinions. Consider your options with care. Don’t make any rash decisions (reversing out of them might cost you a lot of money), make sure you have a safety net first and remember to think about your long term future goals when planning.

On the other hand, if you do have people who you can confidently trust (like a spouse or child), don’t be afraid of including them in your plans. They might help you weed out emotional spending and short term focused moves.

Figure out what you’ll need to pay in taxes

In most cases, receiving a large amount of money will trigger a tax event and you  will owe a portion of your windfall in taxes. Depending on where you live, you’ll likely have state taxes along with federal taxes, capital gains taxes, or estate taxes. That’s why it’s important to figure out what you’ll need to pay in taxes right when you receive the money (talk to a CPA or tax specialist if need be), and then set enough money aside so that you don’t run into trouble at tax time.

If you haven’t been contributing to an IRA or other tax-advantaged account (such as a 529 plan for education-related expenses), contribute to it first before putting money in a personal investment account.

Put money toward your principal balance on any debts

While you don’t have to pay off all debt immediately (especially if you have a low interest rate), consider using part of your cash to pay off some of the principal balance on your loans. Even making an extra car payment or student loan payment can feel pretty exhilarating, especially if you’re being vigilant about being debt-free.

If you’re using a large chunk of cash to pay part of your mortgage or student debt, just make sure to specify that you want to make a principal-only payment. If you don’t let the lender know that you’re making a payment specifically towards the principal, they sometimes keep it as a ‘deposit’ in case you miss any future monthly payments instead of actually making your loan amount smaller.

Don’t be afraid to invest in yourself

Be a little selfish when it comes to your and your family’s future goals. This is the time to invest in yourself, in a business, or in something that will save you money later. If you feel fulfilled in your career, take a few courses to keep your knowledge and skills up to date. If you’ve always wanted to make a career change but never felt like you could risk it, now could be the time to invest in an online course to grow your skills, or a training seminar to help you grow in your field. If you’ve always wanted to start your own business but thought it too risky, use this cash to pad your safety net (to a year or so of expenses) and upgrade your equipment, buy some inventory, or set up your website.

Pay it forward

While it’s okay to be a little selfish when investing in yourself, your cash windfall is a great opportunity to help others as well. Whatever you feel strongly about—whether it’s human rights, homelessness, or saving the planet—can lead you toward a charitable organization where your donation will help further the cause.

If you volunteer for a charity, you’ll know they would welcome a financial gift, no matter how big or small. Or maybe you know someone who is struggling financially, and covering their electric bill or car repairs will help them through a rough patch.

Revisit your portfolio’s asset allocation

Your cash windfall may impact your risk/return behavior when it comes to investing. If you’ve taken the steps above to fund your safety net, get insurance, and invest in yourself and the others around you and still have some cash left to invest, you might be able to take on a riskier profile than previously. Vice versa, if you’re using the money to retire or start your own business, your strategy would change to one that focuses more on portfolio preservation and buffering against potential market downturns. You may also want to consider tax-free investments like municipal bonds, which can help reduce future tax payments (especially if you’re now in a higher tax bracket as a result of your windfall).

Consider payout options

There are ways to set up your cash inflow to look more like an annual ‘salary’, rather than a lump sum.

Not only does this introduce an element of stability and predictability into your finances, but it could also keep you from making impulsive decisions that could have a bigger financial impact down the road. Keeping payouts consistent also keeps you from falling into lifestyle creep. You can (and should!) treat yourself and your loved ones periodically, but these decisions don’t have to be impulsive. Think about what would bring you and your family the most happiness, and don’t be afraid to use your discretionary income to make that happen!

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