The tax deadline is looming.
Right now, about 47 million American workers are feeling a familiar pang anxiety as April 15 bears down.
Don’t panic just yet.
We’ve put together a comprehensive guide for anyone who needs a hand getting across that finish line:
1. Gather all of your paperwork.
- Identification: Social Security Numbers for everyone included on your return.
- Proof of employment: That includes a W-2 from each employer or a 1099 form from any freelance or contract work that netted over $600. If you collected unemployment, you’ll need a 1099-G form, which you should find in your online your state labour department.
- Proof of interest earned: You’ll need financial statements of interest paid and/or earned on savings and loan accounts. The same goes for gains you’ve earned on any investments or a home sale (and yes, even those Bitcoins). Student loan servicers typically include that information in your online account, and banks will send out interest statements via mail.
- Last year’s Adjusted Gross Income (AGI): This number should be included on your previous year’s tax return. Alternatively, click here to get an Electronic Filing PIN from the IRS or call them at 866-704-7388.
2. Decide how you’re going to file:
- Free filing online. There are a number of ways to file your taxes on the Web, which is hands down the fastest way to get a refund. If you earned less than $57,000, you can file your federal taxes for free at IRS Free File. Some tax software companies also offer free state tax filing.
- Paid tax software. Unfortunately, commercial tax software prices tend to rise the closer it gets to the filing deadline. Still, no matter which software you end up choosing, run a quick Google search beforehand to see if any coupon codes pop up online. Prices vary widely –– $30 to $100 with TurboTax, $20 to $80 with H&R Block At Home and $55 for TaxACT, according to Consumer Reports.
- Hire a professional accountant. The 11th hour is not exactly prime time to get an appointment with a professional tax preparer. Still, it’s worth a shot. Find a certified public accountant via the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants’ search function. It’s the safest way to be sure you’re getting someone competent who has your best interests at heart.
- National tax preparer chains. National chains like H&R Block, Jackson-Hewitt, and Liberty Tax Service are widely available and open on the weekend. They’re best (and cheapest) for straightforward tax returns, which means they can be pricey for people with more complicated finances. A married couple filing jointly would have paid more than $200 for federal and state filing via H&R Block in 2012. Still, for some, the peace of mind of speaking with a live individual is worth the cost.
3. Don’t leave money on the table.
The beauty of tax software or working with a CPA is that you’ll be prompted throughout the process to determine whether you qualify for certain tax deductions. Since the tax code is constantly fluctuating, you may be eligible for new deductions you never knew existed. Kiplinger has a helpful list of some of the deductions taxpayers miss the most, and we would recommend heading to the IRS to find out how to claim them. Everything from child care costs and moving jobs, to student loan interest and the earned-income tax credit could put more cash in your pocket.
4. Check for errors –– even if you’re sure it’s perfect.
Don’t let a dumb mistake get in the way of your refund. The most common error cited on tax returns is the simplest thing of all –– the Social Security Number. You should always sign and date your return as well, and that goes double for your CPA, if you hired someone to help.
5. Max out your retirement and Health Savings Account contributions.
Most people can still make a contribution to their tax-advantaged retirement and healthy savings accounts before April 15. For IRAs, you can contribute as much as $6,000 if you’re over 50. Maximum contributions for HSAs run up to $6,000 for families. It’s a great way to reduce your taxable income. Important: Make sure you tell your account holds that you’re making a contribution for the tax year 2012, otherwise they’ll wind up reporting it as a 2013 contribution.
6. Figure out how you’re going to pay.
- You can’t afford to pay: File your taxes anyway. Even if you apply for a filing extension, that doesn’t give you any extra time to pay your tax bill. Once you’ve filed and you know what you’re up against, you can work out a repayment plan that suits your needs with the IRS. Be aware of the fact that you’ll still be charged late fees and interest each month the debt goes unpaid. If you have a 0% interest credit card handy, that might be a better route –– but only if you’re sure you can pay it off within the promotion period.
- You’re ready to pay: You can pay directly through tax software. Otherwise, e-payment options are available through the IRS. Checks should be written out to the “United States Treasury.”
- Request a Filing Extension. This does NOT mean you have more time to pay if you owe taxes. This simply gives you until Oct. 15 to do the paperwork. File for an extension here, or download Form 4868
The final tax deadline doesn’t have to be your enemy year in and year out. You’ve got all the relevant information above, now get to it and remember to at least try to file just a little bit earlier next year.