Tax season is here. Hopefully, you’re organizing your documents and getting ready to fill out your tax return.
Unfortunately, preparing your taxes can be a frustrating and difficult process. The good news is that you don’t have to be on your own. Plenty of low-cost resources can help you with your tax preparation.
Here are six free or low-cost tax prep resources that may be able to help you.
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But First, Do You Need to File?
For many of you this is a no-brainer, but if you’re curious about whether or not you should file taxes this year, take this 12-minute interview to see if you need to file a federal tax return. The Interactive Tax Assistant (ITA) walks you through step by step to help you decide your filing requirements.
Before you start the process, decide if you want to file as a single tax payer, married filing jointly, or married filing separately. You’ll also want to have your W2 or estimated federal taxes withheld from this past work year and any other income information you have for 2017. Things like receiving Social Security benefits and retirement plan payouts all go into the calculator to give guidance on whether you should file.
Many of us live in fear of the IRS. But the reality is that the IRS can actually be there to help.
The IRS has a host of online tools and resources you can check out first. These tools help you figure out if you have to file or determine your filing status. Missing a W-2? The help center has information on what to do in this situation, too.
If you can’t find the answer to your question online, you can call the IRS help line for individuals (1-800-829-1040) or for businesses (1-800-829-4933) to get answers to your tax-related questions. The wait may be long, but you’ll get the answers you need for free. Before you call, the IRS recommends that you gather the following information:
- Social Security Numbers and birthdays for everyone who is on your return
- Filing status
- Your prior-year tax return, if applicable
- A copy of the items you’re calling about
- Any letters or notices the IRS has sent you
While you may have to wait on hold for a while, you’ll definitely get accurate answers if you call the IRS directly with your tax-related questions.
The IRS also offers free tax prep and electronic filing to qualifying individuals who make around $54,000 or less each year, have disabilities, or have limited English language skills. The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program (VITA) lets citizens donate their time to fellow citizens who need help preparing their taxes. Volunteers receive online and classroom training in tax preparation, and have an opportunity to work flexible hours throughout the week.
Use this VITA Locator tool or call 800-906-9887 to find the closest VITA/TCE office, usually in your local community centers, shopping malls, and libraries. The locator tool works best from mid-January through the end of tax season – the VITA centers pop up and shut down at the opening and close of tax time.
This is another IRS program, but it’s executed with help from certain tax preparation services. As of December 12, 2017, the income limit for the Free File program is listed as $64,000. You can use tax filing software to file your federal and state taxes completely free.
If you make over this limit, you can still use fillable forms from Free File. This won’t do all the steps for you. But it will help you fill out the forms and do basic math for you.
AARP Tax Aide
If you meet certain income and other requirements, you can get help preparing your taxes from the AARP. AARP’s Tax-Aide matches volunteers up with those who need help preparing their tax returns and can’t afford to hire an accountant. If you have questions about preparing your tax return, this can be a great resource for you.
The Tax-Aide site also has a list of frequently asked questions, so you can see if your question already has an answer. If you don’t find your answer on the site, you can contact a volunteer from the organization for more help.
Local Community Organizations
Your community might provide tax help through local organizations. Find out if there is such a program and what requirements you need to meet in order to qualify. In some cases, communities arrange help on one night a week, or on a series of nights over a short period of time. It’s important that you check to find out when the help is being offered, since it is usually a limited-time proposition.
University Accounting Students
If you live in a college town, find out if the university offers tax prep help by accounting students. Many accounting programs use tax time as a way for students to practice their skills. Most of the time, the professors oversee the students.
They can answer specific questions, or may be able to actually prepare you return with you. Typically, students are equipped to help with both state and federal taxes.
Tax Prep Software
These days, more and more tax software is offering a free version. TurboTax and H&R Block both have completely free options for 2018. Granted, these are only for tax filers who can use the 1040A or 1040EZ form. So these are people with relatively uncomplicated tax situations. But if you qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit, Child Care Credit, and a limited number of other important credits, you may still be able to use these free versions.
Even if your tax situation is slightly more complicated, you may be able to find a free or cheap online option to help you file. For instance, the Credit Karma Tax software is free for all filers and covers most of the forms the average taxpayer will need. It may not offer as much step-by-step guidance as other options, but it’s better than filling out paper forms by a long shot.
Another option is a cheaper tax preparation software that is still paid. For instance, TaxAct is a great option. This software lets many users file their state and federal taxes for about $50. It, too, has a free version that covers basic forms. But if you need a slight boost, such as filing a regular 1040 or taking a mortgage interest deduction, the cheapest paid version might work for you.
For Military Service Members
Military Service members can use the resources above and have the added benefit of in-person and free tax preparation using the resources below, even if they have complicated tax returns to file. One of the hidden gems of military life is that virtually all military bases have tax preparation offices. You can schedule an appointment at your local office on base, take all your income related documents, and walk out with a professionally prepared tax return after one or several meetings.
Military One Source
If you’re stationed in the United States, use this page to find information on your garrison tax preparation office. If you’re stationed overseas, OneSource has a country dialing guide here. They offer tax-prep for all military service members. Military spouses facing the challenge of having to file when their spouse deploys can use OneSource’s guide to help. Deployed service members qualify for filing extensions up to 180 days after they return to home station.
When to Hire More Expensive Help
It’s true that you can get help preparing your taxes at a low cost, or even for free. However, all these methods require you to do most of the work. You might get help and answers to your questions. But you will have to do the bulk of the heavy lifting yourself.
At some point, you might decide that you want to hire someone else to take care of all of the mess associated with preparing your taxes. For years, I prepared my own taxes, since it’s really not that hard to do. It’s just a bit tedious and time consuming. However, as my business grew and my husband and I organized our LLC, and as more of our income started coming from investments, the tax return became increasingly complex.
Instead of taking the time to wade through all of the paperwork, which included filling out a business tax return on top of an individual tax return, I decided to hire an accountant. It’s been great. When you get to the point where the time and effort you spend is no longer worth it, or if you have a complex tax return and you are worried about getting the best result, it might be time to pay a little bit more and spring for the CPA.