Spring signals the return of warmer weather, blooming flowers and trees, baseball, and more. And for many of you, it's also when your state or federal tax refund will arrive.
Truth be told, you're better off not getting a tax refund. That money going back to you means that the government took too much from your paycheck and that you need to adjust your withholding.
Still, since a tax refund is commonly seen as a windfall, we offer our suggestions for what to do with a refund. The average federal refund was about $3,000 last year; our refund recommendations range from free to pricey.
Upgrade your tires. New tires can make a measurable improvement in your car's performance and safety. When looking for new tires, focus on tires that do well in our tests for braking, handling, and resistance to hydroplaning.
Find a GPS navigator. You can get many of the same functions that the infotainment systems in new cars have buy picking up a portable GPS navigator. Basic units priced at $125 from Garmin, Magellan, and TomTom provide helpful turn-by-turn directions. For a bit more, you get free traffic information. At the high end, you'll find devices that add features such as a trip computer, Bluetooth capability, an MP3 player, and an FM transmitter
Start streaming. The brand-new Roku 3 streaming media player ($100) features an enhanced user interface for finding content to watch, a motion-sensing remote with a built-in headphone jack, and a fast, powerful processor. Roku's earlier models had a lot to offer, including a wide selection of services and apps.
Take a bite of a new Apple. The 27-inch Apple iMac ($2,050) delivers excellent overall performance. Among other noteworthy features are a really thin stunning display, the latest Intel Core i5 processor, and a generous terabyte of storage. The built-in speakers are only so-so, so invest in a pair of headphones and/or external speakers. Check our buying guide and Ratings for computers.
Snap away. The Canon EOS Rebel T4i ($850) belongs in every camera maven's gear bag. This digital SLR has an excellent image stabilizer, quick startup time, a touch-screen swiveling LCD, and it can fire off five shots a second. It's also smaller and lighter than some hgher-priced SLRs. And, most important, it takes very good photos! Check our buying guide and Ratings for cameras.
Home & appliances
Paint your interior. Use Clark+Kensington finishes, high-scoring paints that cost only $32 a gallon. Create the right mood with top-rated LEDs, especially now that they're coming down in price and some are about $15.
Update your landscape. Pruning an overgrown landscape with a selective removal of plants can make a yard feel more organized, and clear the way for new plantings. Perennials tend to be less expensive than annuals and fill the yard with seasonal color and blooms. Read more about reducing the size of your lawn—and your yard work.
Get a new refrigerator. If you love seltzer and your current fridge is on the fritz, you might consider putting your tax refund toward the Samsung RF31FMESBSR French-door refrigerator, which has a built-in SodaStream sparkling-water-dispenser. Check our refrigerator buying guide and Ratings.
Contribute to an IRA. You'll get a tax break in addition to tax-deferred investment growth. Contributions made before April 15 can count toward either tax-year 2012 or 2013. (If you didn't account for the contribution in your 2012 return, you'll have to file an amended return.)
If you're not eligible for a traditional IRA, you might qualify for an after-tax Roth IRA. There's no deduction, but the money grows tax-free and can be withdrawn tax-free after age 591/2.
Help fund your kid's Roth IRA. If you get a W-2 you can contribute up to $5,000, but no more than your child earns, per year. An expert working with Consumer Reports Money Adviser found that $5,000 invested in a Roth every year between ages 22 and 29, and compounding at an average 8 percent through age 66, would grow to $1 million, with no additional investments. (If you have kids, find out how to balance essential spending and saving for your family.)
Go for a ride. For about $1,000 you'll get a good cycle-cross, which combines the knobby tires of an off-road bike with the turned-down handlebars of a road bike. Want something different? Consider the EllitiGo 3C ($1,800). You pedal while standing up, using the same elliptical motion of the indoor exercisers. And don't forget to invest in a good helmet. Our top-rated Specialized Echelon costs $60.
Cook more healthfully. Restock your kitchen with new cookware. Our top-rated nonstick set, Swiss Diamond, costs about $500. You'll also want some high-quality knives for prep work. A high-scoring set of J.A. Henckels costs about $300; a very good Ginsu Chikara set runs less than $100,
Babies & Kids
Buy baby and yourself a new stroller. If you run or walk for exercise, consider the Schwinn Free Runner ($220), which earned a very good score for running and excellent marks for maneuverability. This model is safe, thanks to its top-notch one-touch braking and five-point harness. Other strollers to consider are the Micralite Toro ($525) and, if you have two kids to push around, the Bumbleride Indie Twin ($690). Check our strollers buying guide and Ratings for more details.