Welcome to the third and final post in our series of tax-time tips! If you haven’t finished your taxes yet, it’s understandable to feel a certain amount of panic. After all, April 15 is just about two weeks away. It probably doesn’t help to tell you that Tax Day this year is actually April 17. Maybe it does.
Tax Day seems like an immutable standard, but the taxman doesn’t like to work on the weekends or holidays. If April 15 falls on a weekend, taxes will be due the following Monday. April 16 is Emancipation Day, the day in 1862 when Abraham Lincoln freed over 3,000 in the District of Columbia. Since April 15 is a Sunday this year, and Monday is a holiday, we get two extra days.
While I hope the long weekend gives the tax collectors time to enjoy a picnic, it won’t feel like a holiday to you if you’ve waited until the last minute to file. Getting caught up may feel daunting, but the first step is a comparatively easy one: choosing the best way to prepare your taxes.
Though electronic filing has become the most common method for filing taxes and is required for most accountants, it’s still possible to download a paper tax form and fill it out with your favorite fountain pen. Though you sacrifice automation, you might find that filing your taxes this way removes distractions. It might be just that much harder to waste your afternoon looking at LOLCats or spending your refund on Etsy before you even get it. Always double check that all your numbers add up, look up where to file and get to the post office. Don’t forget to pay your state taxes too, where applicable.
Thrifty taxpayers might avoid electronic filing because they’re under the impression that there are additional fees, or that they have to buy tax preparation software. In fact, the IRS offers a number of free electronic filing methods. The most basic are electronic tax forms which do not offer any assistance beyond simple calculations; this is much like using a paper form but asking someone to check your math. If you want more help than that, you still don’t necessarily need to purchase software. The IRS teamed up with the major accounting software companies to create the Free File Alliance, which offers free tax filing software. Only those who earn less $57,000 a year can free file, including couples who file jointly. The IRS advises looking at last year’s tax form to estimate if you will be eligible this year.
Sometimes the cost of asking for help is worth the time you save. The Internal Revenue Service told MSN Money that the average taxpayer spent 23 hours filing his own taxes in 2010. In many cases, that time could be well spent doing the work that earns you money. TurboTax starts at $40, but lets you file up to five federal tax returns at no extra cost. It also automates obtaining your tax information from many sources such as your bank, saving you the hassle of collecting all those papers. For an added fee, these programs will file most state taxes, too.
There’s also a lot of merit in getting the advice of a professional. A competent tax preparer is not just filling in boxes and forms on your behalf, but actively seeking to save you money. MSN Money’s Jeff Schnepper writes that your best choice is someone who asks a lot of questions, “a teacher who educates you not only on what’s allowable as a deduction but also on how to structure your activities to minimize your tax exposure.” The best accountants not only save you money this year, but show you how to pay less taxes in the future. He warns that to find this quality of help, you may have to search further than the first storefront agent you meet in the strip mall down the street. It may be more and more difficult to find an available accountant as Tax Day draws closer, but we may have noticed a Groupon or two for filing services at some franchises.
Whatever method you choose to file your taxes this year, Simple hopes it’s painless and fast, so you can return to browsing photos of felines with clever captions, guilt-free.
Kit O'Connell is a writer, editor and citizen journalist living in Austin, Texas.
The illustration by Ryan Pequin for Simple Finance Technology Corp. is available through Creative Commons license (by-nc-nd 3.0).
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