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Spend that tax refund. Just do it smartly.

By Carla Fried and — Bloomberg News,

Last year the IRS cut nearly 120 million refund checks with an average amount of nearly $3,000 each. If you’re in line for a nice fat refund this year, creating a game plan before the money hits your checking account can help ensure it generates maximum value.

Paying down credit card debt, shoveling more money into an emergency cash fund and funding your 2012 IRA are solid go-to refund moves. But c’mon, do you need to hear that again? Didn’t think so. Here are some other ideas for this year’s tax refund. Yes, spending — with an important twist: What you spend today pays a dividend down the line.

Fix up the house. James Carey, co-author with his brother Morris of “Home Maintenance for Dummies,” understands that strapped homeowners have been “making do with what they have” rather than tending to basic maintenance. That increases the odds that today’s small problem will become a budget buster or safety hazard if left unintended. Carey suggests making a list of everything that isn’t up to snuff and setting priorities.

For example, maybe you can live with a busted icemaker, but flickering lights or an outlet that isn’t working can be a sign of a dangerous electrical problem. And while that shower drip doesn’t seem like a big deal, it can signal something bad behind the tile. “Tackle the projects that address the long-term sustainability of your home’s integrity and value,” Carey says.

Drive a good deal. We’re all angling to hold on to our cars a bit longer. According to automotive research firm Polk, the average new car is now held for a record high 71 months. In 2008, it was less than 60 months. Spending on preventive maintenance is smart and safe.

Dan Edmunds, director of vehicle testing at Edmunds.com, recommends a set of new tires and an alignment while you’re at it: “There’s a tendency to buy a tire when you need it and to buy just one or two. A complete set will improve your handling and give you a much better ride.”

If your odometer is closing in on six figures, Edmunds suggests replacing the timing belt. It’s not a small outlay — it can be $1,000 or more, depending on make and model — but if it snaps, you’re looking at thousands to rebuild your engine (or more likely use toward a new car).

Shape up. Use your tax refund to jump-start a health kick — a gym membership or series of sessions with a trainer.

Long term, you’re giving yourself a fighting chance of having to shell out less on medical care when you’re retired. Medicare typically covers just two-thirds of medical costs for the over-65 crowd. The Employee Benefits Research Institute estimates that a 65-year-old couple in 2020 whose cost for medications falls at the median will incur $454,000 in out-of-pocket expenses for everything not covered by Medicare. If that couple’s drug expenses fall in the top 10 percent, out-of-pocket expenses will be $200,000 higher.

Take a break. More than half of us didn’t use all our allotted vacation time last year, according to a Jet Blue survey. On average, the workaholics among us forfeited 11 days, or about 70 percent of what we’re entitled to. Studies show that folks who took an annual break had a lower propensity for developing heart problems and dying from a coronary. An added bonus, as behavioral economist Dan Ariely explains in “The Upside of Irrationality”: Buying new stuff gives us a temporal buzz, while experiences can deliver long-lasting upside.

Advance your career. Consider a few sessions with a career or life coach. According to the International Coach Federation, the average hourly cost can run about $200. A few sessions can help you strategize on how to step up the corporate ladder, or step out into a new job that floats your boat.

— Bloomberg News

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