Taxes can be intimidating. The many forms, documents, and money involved can make even the bravest among us want to run and hide. Doing your own taxes longhand can also feel like an arduous task with serious consequences for getting it wrong.
And with just about a month to go until Tax Day – April 18th this year—you might be considering handing your documents over to one of the many fee-based tax preparation services available.
With offerings like advances on your return, they sound like a great deal, especially when the deadline is looming. But these incentives often disguise unsavory practices and terms that exploit those with low incomes, the elderly, and the many of us who just find taxes intimidating.
In reality, however, there’s no need to panic or turn to a service that might end up taking more of your return than you’d like. Whether you need personalized assistance or if you’re confident DIY-ing it, there are many IRS-partnered services available that can make your tax prep relatively easy, accurate and best of all, free of charge for many taxpayers. Here are a few options that might fit your needs while also saving you hassle and money.
Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) sites are run by volunteer tax professionals who have been trained by the IRS. In much the same way that you’d work with a tax preparer at a fee-based service, VITA volunteers work directly with you to review your income documents and prepare to file your taxes.
But unlike commercial tax prep services, VITA services are entirely payment- and pressure-free. If you made $60,000 or less last year, speak limited English, or are a person living with disabilities, VITA tax preparers can do your taxes free of charge.
Once you’ve located your nearest VITA site, you’ll see what they offer and how you’ll need to prepare for your visit. Each site may offer different methods for preparing your taxes, like drop-off services, one-on-one appointments, or virtual appointments through a secured platform.
The IRS partners with volunteers to offer services in addition to VITA tax prep that can help you navigate situations that are more common for taxpayers who are 60 years and older. Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE) provides free tax assistance and offers specialized guidance on retirement and pensions. You can use the VITA Locator Tool to find your nearest site or call 800-906-9887.
IRS Free File
If you’re comfortable working on your taxes yourself, there are several options endorsed by the IRS through the IRS Free File Program. This program offers taxpayers a choice of either guided online tax preparation through an IRS third party partner service or to prepare your taxes yourself using IRS fillable forms, available on the IRS Free File website.
Guided tax preparation services provide a user-friendly experience that allows you to plug in amounts from your W2 and other documents. They typically offer web interfaces similar to most commercial tax prep software and are free for basic returns if your adjusted gross income (AGI) is $73,000 or less, or if you qualify for free filing otherwise.
Fillable forms are a great way to get your federal taxes done if your AGI is over $73,000. They require a bit more work than guided tax prep services, but they provide basic automated calculations that will save you a lot of time if you’re confident navigating IRS form instructions yourself.
The options outlined above aren’t the only ones -- nonprofit tax advocacy organizations like the Tax Policy Center and the Get It Back Campaign offer information and links that can provide guidance to help you navigate the end of tax season and learn more about how and why taxes work the way they do.
Once you’ve got your taxes prepared and filed, it’s time to start planning to make your return work for you. Stay tuned for our next post on how to start planning to save your return before it arrives.