It's not every day that $1,000 falls in your lap, but if you're looking at a bonus, commission, or even a generous gift, it pays to use that money wisely. Here are some of the best things you can do if you suddenly find yourself $1,000 richer.

1. Start, or build, an emergency fund

No matter how much money you earn, you need some sort of backup plan in case an unexpected expense hits you where it hurts or you lose your job without warning. That's why you should have an emergency fund with enough cash to cover three to six months of living expenses. Now the good news is that an estimated 31% of adults have enough savings to hit that six-month target. On the other hand, more than 50% of Americans don't have the money to reach even the lowest end of that range. If you're behind on emergency savings or, worse yet, have no cash reserves to show for, then the question of what to do with that $1,000 is a no-brainer: Stick it in the bank.

Bundles of cash in a pile

IMAGE SOURCE: GETTY IMAGES.

2. Contribute to your retirement plan

It's estimated that one in three Americans has no retirement savings, but it may surprise you to learn that this statistic applies to workers 55 and over as well. But even if you're decades away from retirement, it's never too early to start socking money away for the future, and the sooner you do, the more you stand to accumulate. In fact, $1,000 may not seem like much in the grand scheme of retirement, but if you were to invest that money over a 35-year period and bring in an average annual 8% return on investment, which is just below the stock market's average, you'd have close to $15,000 at the end of the day. Of course, $15,000 won't cut it if that's the only retirement cash you're looking at, but if you get a $1,000 bonus every year for 35 years, and invest it at that same return, you'll be sitting on $172,000 by the time your career comes to an end.

3. Pay off your credit cards

The average U.S. household has accrued over $16,000 in credit card debt, according to recent data from NerdWallet. Even if that $1,000 represents just a portion of your overall balance, the sooner you pay off any of your debt, the less money you'll waste on interest. Imagine your credit card charges 22% interest and that it takes you a year to pay off $1,000 worth of debt. You'll wind up throwing away $122, which, if you're heavily in debt and behind on savings, is a lot of money to waste. On the other hand, if you use your newfound cash to chip away at your balance, you'll avoid losing money you can't afford to part with.

4. Get better health insurance

Many people buy the cheapest health insurance possible because they can't afford the higher premiums. And while having bare-bones coverage is better than having no coverage at all, opting for a less expensive plan could cost you in other ways. For one thing, though your premiums might be relatively affordable, you could face higher deductibles and copayments once you're forced to use your insurance. And if the cost of the services you need is enough to send you into sticker shock, you might end up delaying treatment, thereby putting your health at risk. It's estimated that 25% of Americans avoid medical care because of the costs involved, so if you have an extra $1,000 to work with, it pays to look into upgrading your plan.

5. Save it for your next vacation

Of all the things you might do with a $1,000 windfall, spending it on a vacation is hardly the most responsible. On the other hand, if you're absolutely intent on taking a vacation this year, and would otherwise need to charge that trip on a credit card, you're better off using that cash to pay for it up front than racking up a hefty balance. Roughly 74% of Americans go into debt in order to pay for vacations, with the average adult winding up $1,100 in the hole. Though you're certainly better off sticking that $1,000 in your emergency fund or retirement account, using it to avoid debt is better than blowing it on nonsense and charging your next getaway.

Though $1,000 isn't necessarily a life-changing sum, if you use that money wisely, you stand to reap the benefits for many years to come. Before you waste your newfound payout, think about the ways it can best serve your needs and do your part to make the most of it.

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