Just last January, we were still spending money on things like deli salad lunches, manicures, and pants with buttons and zippers. Fast forward to the present day, and spending habits have shifted.

Perhaps we’ve saved cash on subway fare and happy hour cocktails (sniff), but, a year into a global pandemic that’s kept many at home, we’ve also managed to find new and novel ways to spend money. See: ring lights, 50-pound bags of flour, hot chocolate bombs, and an impressive collection of elastic-waisted loungewear. Some of these things have probably improved your quality of life, or made you feel a spark of much-needed joy, and maybe some have … not.

With tax season is upon us, nearly 100 million Americans expect to receive a check in the mail. (Or, more accurately, a return of the loan they’ve given to Uncle Sam.) Last year the average federal tax refund for individuals was about $2,700.

But how do you know that you’re spending that windfall on something worthwhile, especially after a particularly weird financial year? If you, like us, have spent the pandemic with questionable shopping habits and a little buyer’s remorse, read on for six expert ideas, from finally booking that bucket list trip to see the cherry blossoms in Tokyo to a pair of lamps that will make you smile every day.

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Boost your Financial Security

Making smart investments in your personal financial health has always been important, but if 2020 taught us anything, it was to expect (and plan for!) the unexpected.

“With the impact of the ongoing pandemic, there is so much uncertainty as it relates to the economy, jobs, finances and health, so investing your tax refund wisely is essential,” says Bola Sokunbi, author and founder/CEO of Clever Girl Finance.

If you don’t have emergency savings (which most financial experts define as three to six months’ worth of expenses), Sokunbi suggests using a tax refund to start an account, or boost an existing one. Other ideas: Pay down any high interest debt or loans to get ahead of compounding interest, save for a short- or long-term goal (like a home down payment) or invest for retirement.

“If you are focused on saving for long term goals, five years and beyond, it’s a good idea to invest your money so it can grow through the power of appreciation, dividends, and compounding!” Sokunbi says.

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Spruce Up Your Personal Space

If you had the luxury of working from home this past year, you’ve probably already spent some money on making your space a little more inviting. According to experts, consumers increased spending on furniture, appliances, and home goods, with a nearly 50 percent increase in the second quarter of 2020 from the first quarter.

“After spending an entire year (and still) at home the importance of home has grown more meaningful,” says Kate Rohrer, founder of Rohe Creative. “It’s always about the people and pets you get to share it with, but the items you choose to surround yourself with at home should make you feel things, and—after this year—it should make you feel only good things.”

The interior designer suggests splurging on something that is a reflection of your personal style. “Really lean into that piece of art, furniture, or decor item, whatever it is, that makes you unapologetically you, and forever joyful.” Rohrer is gravitating toward vintage pieces on Chairish, First Dibs, and Etsy, including this pair of Art Deco bedside table lamps. “Looking at them every day would make me smile.”

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Book a Bucket-List Trip

Americans are looking forward to traveling again, and while you may not quite be ready to hop on a plane, there are good reasons to start the planning process. “If you’ve been holding out on traveling, now might be the time to take advantage of the great deals,” says Sara Skirboll, Shopping and Trends Expert at RetailMeNot. “You’ll find discounts on everything from airfare to hotel stays this time of year as the travel industry gears up to promote spring break.”

According to the company’s data, domestic airfare will be discounted by about 80% this month. But, she cautions, always read the fine print: “While a lot of airlines are waiving or being more lenient with change fees, you still want to make sure you understand any potential penalties if you do choose to postpone!” (Skirboll also says March is also a good time to invest in new luggage for those upcoming trips, with discounts averaging 21% off.)

With all these discounts, now may be the time to start planning a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Amy Tadehara, Senior Travel Consultant for InsideJapan Tours, says her company is providing flexible booking policies while things are still uncertain, so it’s an ideal time to plan a trip for peak season (typically, springtime, when the cherry blossoms bloom). “We know that with the world’s attention focusing on Japan for the long-delayed Olympics this year, interest in the country will keep rising, so I urge people to make their plans soon,” she says.

If an African safari has always been on your list, Elizabeth Gordon, co-founder and CEO of Extraordinary Journeys, says there are some rare deals to be had. “Peak-season travel (usually summer through fall) notoriously excludes any special incentives or discounts, but for travel in 2021, we’re seeing a big exception to that.” Some safari camp owners are offering free nights, free in-country flights, and even ‘kids stay free’ incentives for summer travel. If taking a trip this summer feels too soon, though, most offers run through the fall and winter, so you can book now and lock in the good rates. “Additionally,” she says, “the terms for rescheduling due to COVID are in effect through the end of 2021 for most places, so you just can’t go wrong taking advantage of the availability, pricing, and flexibility.”

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Make Your Outdoor Space More Inviting

For anyone lucky enough to have private outdoor space, it was a true savior over the last year, providing a venue for safer entertaining, or zen hobbies like gardening. “So many people have been stuck at home and our outdoor spaces have, more than ever, become a place where we can escape, where we can relax, and in many ways, the only place where we can gather,” says Matthew Muscarella, Terrain’s design and landscape manager.

Using a portion of your tax refund to bring the indoors outside will provide a backdrop for dining, lounging, and celebrating for years to come. “Creating these outdoor ‘rooms” will help bring that much-needed vacation right to your own backyard,” Muscarella says, and suggests investing in an all-weather wicker sectional sofa for relaxing on during outdoor movie nights, or a beautiful teak dining set that will “last forever and provide endless opportunities for dining al fresco.”

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Buy Art You Love

“Thanks to several scientific studies, there’s now hard evidence that identifies a link between looking at art and the normalization of heart rate, blood pressure and even cortisol levels,” says Carrie Scott, London-based art consultant and founder of Carrie Scott & Partners. And who couldn’t use better cortisol levels after the past year?

If you’re ready to purchase art for any reason, Scott says to first prioritize your response to it (over its possible investment qualities). “You will have to live with it on your walls for many years before you see [monetary] appreciation, so you should love it; you should get that sense of calm or joy from it first and foremost. Then, if it appreciates in value, that is just a bonus, and a big one!”

For total art-buying novices, the consultant tells her clients to start by looking at photography. “First, the photography market is still a growth market, and a great place to find pieces that are still affordable,” she says, adding that she thinks it will continue to grow, in part because of social media. “We create and consume hundreds of images a day, which means most of us are very literate in this medium—we know how to spot a good photograph from a bad one pretty quickly, we know our own tastes,” she says. “The same isn’t true of, say, painting or sculpture. We aren’t exposed to it in the same way.”

Scott also suggests visiting galleries and talking to consultants. Both work with the artists they “believe in, and that they feel will grow and have a strategy and vision,” she says.

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Invest in Your Health

If you’ve spent the last year on a break from your gym (but falling in love with bread all over again) spring is a good time to hit refresh on your fitness routine. With online platforms thriving, it’s never been easier to get in a good sweat from the comfort of your living room.

“The best investment you can ever make is in your physical and mental well-being,” says Mark Mullett, co-founder of obé. A variety of class types, instructors, and themes can help you stick to your new routine, as does working out with a friend; the platform recently launched Workout Parties, a feature that lets up to eight members gather virtually for a live or on-demand class.

For an inexpensive way to level-up a workout, or squeeze in a short burst of exercise, invest in a set of resistance loops. “They’re one of the most versatile pieces of equipment and can be used for sculpting, strengthening, stretching and everything in between,” says Mullet’s co-founder Ashley Mills. “Plus, they fit perfectly into your suitcase or weekender when it’s time to start traveling again!”

Want to splurge? Build a fitness starter kit, with the resistance loops, yoga tune up balls, kettlebells, a mat and yoga blocks. “These items can take you through a full scope of movement health for your body,” says Elaine DiFeliciantonio, certified personal trainer and Strong First kettlebell instructor. “Training is also about recovery, so these tools can help you recover and get healthy and agile for the next session.”

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