The 11 smartest things to do with your end-of-year bonus

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Make sure you and your bonus are headed in the right direction.
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itupictures/flickr

According to CNN, 91% of businesses now have variable compensation programs – salaries coupled with bonuses or commissions.

Bonuses tend to come around the holidays, meaning many employees are in for a nice supplemental check soon.

While it can be tempting to splurge on a new iPhone or extravagant vacation, excessive spending may not be the most productive way to handle your bonus.

Before blowing your check on gifts, trips, or gadgets, consider directing it towards these 11 options:


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Time is on your side when you’re young — contribute as much as you can to your 401(k).
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nenetus/Shuttershock

1. Increase your 401(k) contribution.

You should already be contributing to your employer’s 401(k) retirement account and be taking full advantage of any available company match program if one is available, but if you get a bonus, that’s a great opportunity to increase that contribution.

The more you can set aside today, the better off you’ll be in the long run, thanks to the power of compound interest.


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It’s smart to consider saving in IRA accounts, in addition to your 401(k).
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Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design/flickr

2. Max out other retirement savings accounts.

If you haven’t yet reached the contribution limits on other retirement plans, such as a traditional IRA or Roth IRA, consider directing your bonus towards one of those.

There are a few key differences between the two accounts you’ll want to know before choosing between the Roth and traditional route:

1. The income limit. Anyone can open and contribute to a traditional IRA, whereas there’s an income cap on the Roth IRA: Only married people earning less than $181,000, or single people earning less than $114,000, are eligible. The maximum yearly contribution for both accounts in 2015 is $5,500 (or $6,500 for people age 50 or older).

2. Taxes. Contributions to a Roth IRA are taxed when they’re made, so you can withdraw the contributions and earnings tax-free once you reach age 59 1/2. Traditional IRA contributions, on the other hand, are tax-deductible when they’re made. Both contributions and earnings are taxed when you withdraw them starting at age 59 1/2.

Right there, you can see a clear advantage to the Roth IRA: You only pay taxes on a portion of your savings (your contributions), while with a traditional IRA, you’re taxed on every penny (contributions and earnings).

Roth IRAs are particularly well-suited to millennials. However, even if you’re not a member of Gen Y, it’s worth considering if you don’t exceed the income cap.


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Before you know it, your kid will be graduating high school — make sure you’re prepared for college tuition.
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Kevin White/flickr

3. Start a 529 savings plan for your kid.

At many top colleges, the total cost for the academic year tops $60,000 and is only getting more expensive.

Time has a way of flying by, and before you know it, you’ll be responsible for a hefty tuition bill. Take your bonus and put it towards a 529 savings plan, a state-sponsored, tax-advantaged investment account that you can start when your child is born.

These plans allow a parent to contribute up to $14,000 a year – $28,000 for a couple – for each of their children’s college educations. It also allows anyone (a grandparent, godparent, or particularly generous neighbor) to contribute to the fund.


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If lingering debt follows you around, use your bonus to pay it down.
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REUTERS/Andy Mettler

4. Pay off lingering debt.

If you have debt – whether it’s student loans, car loans, or credit card debt – a bonus can be a great way to start tackling it aggressively. Especially if the interest rate on your debt is high, you’ll want to pay it off as fast as possible, as interest can cost you thousands in the long run.

If you aren’t sure where to start, consider the advice from 13 real people who paid off thousands.


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Your emergency fund is like a lifeguard for your financial health.
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Flickr / Tony Fischer

5. Start, or contribute more to, an emergency fund.

Not setting aside money in an emergency fund is a common (and costly) mistake – it’s easy to ignore the possibility of your car breaking down, a medical emergency, or losing your job, but these are all scenarios that could quickly become expensive realities.

Use your bonus create an emergency fund if you haven’t done so already.

The amount of savings you need is highly personal, so it isn’t usually measured in terms of dollars; rather, it’s months of living expenses that money could cover. A general rule is that it’s smart to have six months’ worth of savings tucked away, but you may need more or less depending on your situation.


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If you tap into employee benefits, you can end up saving a bunch of money in the long run.
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Sebastiaan ter Burg/Flickr

6. Contribute to a healthcare flexible spending account.

If your employer offers a healthcare flexible spending account, it could be a smart investment to consider. It’s a pretax benefit account you can use to cover a variety of healthcare products and services, from acupuncture and physical therapy to vaccines and over-the-counter medicine (note that OTC medicines are only eligible when prescribed by a physician).

You can put up to $2,550 of tax-free money into this account in 2015, and save about 30% on healthcare expenses with the tax break, WageWorks reports. Note that you must spend the money saved in an FSA by the end of the year.


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HSA’s can be used as a supplemental retirement savings account.
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Flickr / Moyan Brenn

7. Contribute to a health savings account (HSA).

Another health-related benefit you may be able to tap into is the health savings account (HSA), into which you can put pre-tax money and use towards medical costs whenever you want, not just during the plan year. The contribution limits are higher than FSAs – $6,550 for a family in 2015 – and there’s no limit to how much can be rolled over at the end of the year.

To qualify for a HSA, the IRS requires you to be on a high-deductible health care plan (HDHP) – a plan that offers a lower health insurance premium and a high deductible. This option is particularly advantageous for those who are generally healthy and don’t have to go to the doctor’s office or hospital that often, such as 20- or 30-somes without children who are looking to save for future health care expenses.

“It’s one of the more popular benefits these days,” says Britta Meyer, CMO at consumer-directed benefits administrator WageWorks. “It allows you to contribute on a paycheck by paycheck basis, and you can keep it for as long as you want, even if you change jobs.”

While you can use it to pay for qualifying healthcare expenses today, you can also use it as a complementary tool for retirement planning, as the funds will always be available for you to use.

“If you can afford it, you can contribute to it even in the early years of your career when you may not have a lot of medical expenses,” Meyer explains. “You can contribute year after year and develop a ‘healthcare nest egg’ that grows over time and will always be there for you.”


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Dependent care FSA’s will cover childcare expenses.
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Getty Images/Carlo Allegri

8. Contribute to a dependent care flexible spending account (FSA).

If you have younger children, dependent care FSAs are worth considering. This account works very similarly to the healthcare FSA, in that you can contribute pre-tax money, but is specific to dependent care services, such as preschool, summer camp, daycare, or before and after school programs. Again, you must spend the money in your FSA by the end of the plan year.

“It is probably the single most underutilized benefit,” says Meyer. “Employers offer it quite frequently, but people are not taking advantage of it.”


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Setting aside money today will alleviate future financial stress.
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Flickr/Scarleth Marie

9. Set aside money for big purchases.

There are bound to be big expenses in your future – a home, car, vacation, and kids, to name a few – that require diligent savings.

The best way to prepare for these expenses is to create savings goals, and then set aside money as early as possible. Use your bonus to jump start these savings goals, or add to previously established ones.


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Consider diving into other investment platforms — the sooner you put your money to work, the better.
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Business Insider

10. Consider investment platforms outside of retirement savings plans.

An end-of-year bonus is a good opportunity to start investing in low-cost index funds, which legendary investors Warren Buffett and Jack Bogle recommend, or to consider online investment platforms known as “robo-advisers,” which manage your investments for you through unique algorithms.

You could also consider making a lump-sum investment with your bonus – when you invest your money all at once, rather than over time – explains Richard Graziadei, managing director of TIAA-CREF: “Putting a bonus to work right away is a smart thing to do. Get it invested – if you’re going to invest it – within a few weeks. Don’t wait three, six, or 12 months.”

Of course, you’ll want to make sure your general finances are in order before you invest – but if you have a sound emergency fund, have prepared for future expenses, and are debt free, the quicker you put your money to work and jump start its growth, the better.

Read up on the basics of investing before diving in.


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Use your bonus to invest in your education and physical and mental health.
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Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

11. Invest in yourself.

Self-educate by enrolling in a course, attending a work related conference, or investing in books. The wealthiest, most successful people are constantly exercising their brains and looking for ways to continue learning long after college or any formal education is over.

On a similar note, invest in your health – consider using your bonus for a gym membership, yoga classes, juicer, fitness magazine subscription, or anything else that will better your health and strengthen your mind.