A raise can be a boon to your household finances. Although it is tempting to immediately spend the entire raise on a new car, handbag, laptop, or gadget, there are several considerations that should be addressed before you splurge.
The first thing you should do if you get a significant raise is checking your tax situation. There are some instances when the raise pushes your income into the next tax bracket. Most employers will automatically adjust your withholding, but if you are already claiming zero exemptions, you may need to have an additional amount withheld in order to avoid penalties. This will require an updated W-4 form.
The next thing to consider is your retirement contributions. If you have access to a 401(k) account from your employer and your employer offers matching funds, you should contribute at least enough to the account to receive the full company match. Even if your fund choices are meager, the employer match is free money that is available to fund your retirement. If your 401(k) offers low-cost mutual funds or index funds, consider increasing your contribution to the federal maximum. In 2009, the maximum annual contribution is $16,500 or $22,000 if you are over 50.
When considering a significant 401(k) contribution, keep in mind that every employer has slightly different limitations that may prevent you from contributing to the federal maximum. One limitation is the maximum percentage limit or the maximum percentage of your pay that you are allowed to contribute and shield from taxes. The second limitation is the highly compensated employee (HCE) income limit. Employees that have an annual income greater than the HCE limit will have their maximum contribution lowered or even reduced to $0.
If you do not have access to a 401(k) account or you are contributing the maximum amount, consider saving most or all of your raise in an IRA or a savings vehicle. The savings vehicle should be chosen based on your timeline. Money earmarked for an emergency fund should be liquid, either in a high-interest savings account or in a combination of savings and a short-term (under two years) CD ladder. Money designated for large expenses should be in a CD ladder with a timeline based on when you expect to incur the expenses.
Finally, if you are able to fully fund a 401(k) or another retirement account, an emergency fund, and a large expense fund, use some of your raise as a reward for your fiscal responsibility, but keep in mind that a permanent boost in your standard of living may put you at risk for living beyond your means in the future.