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TAX RETURNS ARE LESS LIKELY TO TRIGGER A SPENDING SPLURGE THESE DAYS

Getting a big income tax refund once meant party time. That is changing.

As the 2005 filing season ends, pollsters are reporting that growing numbers of taxpayers plan to shun big spending sprees this year and use their approximately $2,200 per household average refund checks more soberly.

Martha Smith of Kansas City is among them.

The 40-year-old teacher's aide and parent of two has specific plans for her sliver of the $158.2 billion the U.S. Treasury has returned to taxpayers since January.

"I'm going to pay bills, take a couple of classes and have some dental work done," Smith said. "For me, that's major."

At least half the nation's taxpayers getting refunds this year plan on using the money to pay off credit cards and other bills, according to surveys. About one in three said they intend to save or invest their refund. About one in 10 said they plan to splurge on something.

"Five years ago, everybody bought furniture and other big-ticket items the minute they got their refund checks," said Kevin Taylor, a financial planner with H&R Block Financial Advisors in Overland Park, Kan. "Now they're concerned and spending more slowly."

Financial advisers generally agree on the most effective ways consumers can use refunds in uncertain times. Their top two recommendations: paying off debts or adding to an emergency fund.

Their next three suggestions generally include putting the money in an IRA or other retirement fund, saving for college or adding to an investment account.

Savers can be creative with the money. Taylor said he recommends a two-step plan to disciplined money managers: Put, say, a $2,000 refund in a savings account, then boost the coming year's 401(k) contributions by that amount, which will reduce taxable income for that year.

"You get a nice tax break next time around," he said.

Savers also need to be realistic about their spending habits to get the most benefit from refunds, said Randy Gerard, financial planning officer at the Bank of Blue Valley in Overland Park.

"I generally recommend building up enough savings for three to six months of living expenses before a look at paying off credit cards," Gerard said. "Otherwise, if your credit-card balance goes back up, you're no better off than before."

Advisers often recommend that taxpayers who get big refunds adjust the amount of taxes withheld from each paycheck and swap next year's big refund for more money in each paycheck throughout the year.

That's a good theory, but run a reality check on your spending habits first, to make sure you'll use the extra money wisely, Gerard recommends.

"Our society is so geared to consumption that it is easy to fritter it away," he said.

Monthly snapshots by the Cambridge Consumer Credit Index of of America's borrowing habits show that consumers generally have become increasingly cautious during the last nine months, said Allen Grommet, Cambridge's senior economist.

"They really turned conservative in April," Grommet said. "People in general are planning to use less credit. We don't know why yet, but I have a suspicion that people are feeling higher gasoline prices."

Many analysts say they simply don't yet know how much of an economic boost normally inspired by income tax refunds might be muffled by rising gasoline prices.

Rising gas prices hit families with lower incomes harder than those with higher incomes, said Keri Spanbauer, an analyst with Thrivent Investment Services in Appleton, Wis. Those families presumably would need to use larger shares of their refunds to pay bills rather than make new purchases.

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