It isn't every day that $1,000 just falls in your lap. Whether you're sitting on a bonus, a generous gift, or a long-awaited tax refund, here are a few ways to make the most of that money.

1. Start (or complete) an emergency fund

We're all told we're supposed to have enough money in the bank to cover three to six months' worth of living expenses. Now the good news is that as per a recent Bankrate study, 31% of U.S. adults have cash set aside to cover six months of living costs or more, while 17% have enough for three to five months of expenses.

Pile of cash

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That said, most Americans still have a lot of catching up to do. If you're one of them, sticking that $1,000 in an emergency account should be a no-brainer. This especially holds true if you've yet to start building that fund in the first place.

2. Build your nest egg

Many people don't save for retirement not because they don't think it's important, but because they live paycheck to paycheck and don't have enough left over to set aside for the future. If you're behind on retirement savings but have a decent chunk of emergency cash, take that $1,000 and use it to open an IRA. You'll not only kick-start your long-term savings, but you'll get to deduct that $1,000 on your tax return when you go to file it.

If your employer offers a 401(k), you can also increase your yearly contribution by $1,000. You'll get the same tax benefit as with an IRA, but you might avoid some of the legwork that comes with opening an outside account.

And if you think that $1,000 won't do much for your nest egg, think again. Even if you never manage to add another dime to your account, if you invest that $1,000 for 30 years and generate an average annual 8% return, which is just below the stock market's historical average, in three decades' time, you'll be sitting on more than $10,000. And though that's not enough to live on in retirement, it's certainly a decent start.

3. Pay down costly debt

The average American household has a whopping $16,061 of credit card debt. Even if your number isn't nearly as high, the longer you carry a credit card balance, the more money you'll wind up throwing away on interest charges.

Imagine you owe $1,000 on a credit card charging 20% interest, and that it takes you two years to knock out that balance. In that scenario, you'll end up spending $221 on interest alone. On the other hand, if you use your $1,000 windfall to get rid of that debt, you won't have to waste another penny.

4. Improve your home

Perhaps your windows could use an upgrade. Or maybe your fence is in serious need of repairs. Home-improvement projects don't tend to come cheap, so if you find yourself $1,000 richer, it pays to use that money to make your property a more comfortable place to live. Not only will this improve your day-to-day quality of life, but it'll increase the value of your home so that if you go to sell it, you're likely to command a higher price.

5. Buy yourself some wheels

Many of us need a car to get around town and commute to work. And these days, Americans are spending more on automobiles than ever before. A recent Edmunds.com report found that consumers are now borrowing an average of $31,000 to finance their cars. If you have an extra $1,000 on hand, that money can either serve as the down payment on a vehicle, or help you avoid some of the potentially costly auto debt so many folks are taking on.

6. Get a will

It's a disturbing fact that a good 58% of Americans don't have a will in place. If you're one of them, and you have $1,000 to work with, you may be in luck, because according to Nolo, that's about what it costs for an attorney to draft a detailed, non-boilerplate will. Of course, if your estate is fairly complicated, you may end up spending more, but putting that $1,000 toward this critical document is a move that will really pay off in the long run.

Getting your hands on an extra $1,000 might seem like an invitation to blow that money on something frivolous or fun. But you're far better off using that cash responsibly, whether it's to build your savings, get out of debt, spruce up your home, buy a car, or get your estate in order. Though you'll miss out on some instant gratification, you'll be happier down the line if you go the responsible route.

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