6 Ways to Get the Most From Your 2012 Tax Refund

WASHINGTON (MainStreet) -- That $2,946 average refund the IRS has been handing out this year isn't getting any bigger, so you may as well use it while you can.

Hey, we all know what supposedly "good" boys and girls are supposed to do with their tax refund: Pay down debt, save, or put it into an IRA or mutual fund and wait for the IRS to come after the interest when you finally take it out again. Well aren't you all good little worker ants? It's great that the same folks who were leasing luxury marque cars, mortgaging McMansions that looked like "luxury" double-wide trailers and ordering shots or bottle service of whatever costly alcohol brand was name dropped last in a music video are now born-again believers in austerity. Just because fair-weather spendthrifts been shell shocked into not throwing money on every shiny thing within reach doesn't mean they'll necessarily make purchases that will stretch those saved dollars to their potential.

According to the National Retail Federation's 2012 Tax Returns Consumer Intentions and Actions Survey, conducted by BIGresearch, of the 66% of Americans expecting a refund this year, 44% will sock their refunds away -- up from 42% last year. Meanwhile, 40% will pay down credit card and mortgage debt.

That's perfectly OK, we guess, but it seems like the 12.3% of Americans who are going to spend their refund on a big-ticket item this year, down from more than 13% last year, will have a lot more fun.

"After a rocky few years, consumers are now more vigilant about how they spend their money and the importance of preparing for future financial stability," said NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay. "Increased consumer savings proves extremely beneficial to shoppers and businesses in the long run, allowing future opportunities to invest in a large household item or even take advantage of a well-deserved family vacation."

As noted earlier, however, that average refund isn't getting bigger. It's already down from the $3,022 that was doled out at this time last year after the Making Work Pay tax credit expired and credits for first-time homeowners tightened. That's a shame, since Americans are better prepared to spend than they've been in years. The national unemployment rate dropped from 8.9% in February 2011 to 8.3% last month. Meanwhile, the Consumer Confidence Index jumped 9.6 last month even as average gas prices flirted with the $4 mark.

There are still ways to help boost the economy without being an absolutely spineless spender. Here are five ways to take that $2,946 shopping while still spending wisely:

Home remodeling

Putting in an attic bedroom or throwing up some vinyl siding will cost way more than $3,000, but you can make an investment in your home that adds more resale value than any of those changes.

According to Remodeling Magazine's latest Cost. vs. Value Report, the home improvement that gives a homeowner the most back his or her entire investment in resale value is swapping out existing front, back and side doors with steel doors. It's a bit of a fortress mentality, but the average $1,238 spent swapping out an old door and jambs with a 20-gauge steel door with new casings and lock set consistently adds $903 (or 73% of its cost) in resale value.

Replacing a garage door for $1,500 yields a similar 72% return on the investment. Taking the project upscale with a $2,996 replacement including an insulated door, thermal seals between the panels and insulated glass kicks the return up to 78%, even if it costs another $50 out of pocket at the outset.