You have an emergency fund stashed away, right? That's three to six months (or more) of your living expenses, invested where you can get your hands on it quickly and where it isn't likely to fall sharply in value. If you don't have such a fund, or if you'd like to learn how to make the most of one, click on over to our Savings Center, which is chock full of handy tips.

Emergency funds can save you from financial catastrophe should you lose your job or face some unexpected big-ticket expense. But they can also prevent you from being ripped off if your money is suddenly tight. Imagine that you're strapped for cash and have few options. If you're expecting a tax refund from Uncle Sam, one of your options is a "refund anticipation loan," An RAL is an advance on your refund -- for a fee, of course.

And the fee is the big problem. According to the National Consumer Law Center, the average RAL costs $130. If you're expecting a refund of $1,000, you'll be out a full 13% from the get-go, just because you couldn't wait for the check to arrive. If you were expecting $3,000, the bite is still significant at more than 4%.

With nearly 13 million processed in 2002, RALs have become a big business, focused mostly on "serving" people in lower income levels. They typically get borrowers the money just a few weeks before the government would deliver. And their interest rates, on an annualized basis, are often well above 100%. Ouch.

As an aside, the perhaps uncomfortable good news for investors is that if you've invested in tax-preparation firms such as H&R Block (NYSE:HRB) or Jackson Hewitt (NYSE:JTX), your companies have been making money from RALs. H&R Block, though, has recently agreed to eliminate its RAL administrative fee and to beef up disclosure, helping customers choose less-expensive options. Jackson Hewitt is considering similar moves.

Emergency funds can prevent people from having to resort to an RAL, but even those without such funds have a few other options. Negotiation can sometimes work, for example, if you're thinking of borrowing the money to pay off a creditor. Perhaps the creditor can wait just a few weeks, if you can show that you have a refund coming.

If you ask around, you may also find some similar services, some of which are even free. For instance, the San Francisco area has ACORN VITA centers, where low-income households can file their tax returns and get rapid refunds for free. (ACORN stands for Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now and VITA for Volunteer Income Tax Assistance.) To find tax services in your neighborhood, check at your local library or look up local VITA sites at

And if you'd like to get your financial ducks in a row, grab a free sample of our Rule Your Retirement newsletter, which can keep you out of hot water. It's plenty valuable on its own, but right now you can get an extra gift with it -- a copy of Fool co-founders David and Tom Gardner's book on retirement, Money After 40.

Longtime Fool contributor Selena Maranjian does not own shares of any companies mentioned in this article.