Sunday, March 6, 2011

7 Tax-Filing Money Savers

Tax filing season can be painful, and not just when you owe the IRS money.

The process of collecting all of your information and figuring out where to get help and how to file forms is fraught, and the amount you spend getting your taxes done can sting.

Here's how to make the whole process less costly:

File for free. The Internal Revenue Service sponsors free filing for anyone who earns less than $58,000, and you can find a list of preparers on its website at Choose one that includes a state return in that offer; not all do.

Use a popular program for free. The major tax software offers, including TurboTax, H&R Block At Home, and CCH's Complete Tax all have different free versions available on the Web. Most will give you free federal filing as long as your return isn't any more complex than a 1040EZ or a 1040A, forms which exclude complexities like self employment, capital gains and rental properties. CompleteTax is offering free prep and filing for anyone who was unemployed during 2010, is switching from a major competitor, or owes money to the IRS. TaxACT offers free federal prep and filing for everyone.

Choose your program carefully. Every one of those free prep offers comes with some kind of financial strings attached. Most charge for state filing, or for versions which allow you to import your information from last year. And most also offer more full-fledged federal programs for a price. So, comparison shop carefully, based on the forms you have to file, and find the final total price for federal and state preparation and filing before you choose which program to use. Then lock it in. CCH claims that some programs raise their prices during the tax season.

Get free advice, too. Folks who earn less than $49,000 can get free advice from IRS-certified volunteers through the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program (VITA) by calling 1-800-906-9887 (learn more here). If you're over 60, you can get help from the Tax Counseling for the Elderly program run by AARP and sponsored by the IRS. (Call 1-800-829-1040 or learn more here). H&R Block is offering free preparation and filing of 1040EZ forms in its retail offices for all ages and income levels.

Skip the extras. You already know you should run screaming from anything that looks like a refund anticipation loan, right? These "deals" give you instant access to your refund, but at a cost that can equal annualized interest rates well above 100 percent. If you've done without that extra cash this long, you can wait a few more weeks for your money. Have the IRS direct-deposit it to your checking account, file electronically and it should show up in 3 weeks or less. Don't pay your software or preparation fee out of your refund, either: That's a messy process that puts your preparer between your refund and you. TurboTax charges $30 for that; other firms may offer that "service" for a fee as well.

Squeeze more into your retirement account. It's the only way to turn the clock back to 2010. You can feed your traditional or Roth IRA until April 18 this year and count it as last year's contribution. Even if you don't get an immediate tax break, you'll save down the road with a Roth. The limit for 2010 contributions is $5,000, plus an extra $1,000 if you are 50 or older. If you have a high-deductible health plan, you have until April 18 to stash money in your health savings account, too. The money you put into that account is tax deductible, and it comes out tax free if you spend it on healthcare, so it's even a better deal than an IRA.

Get a review. Sometimes you have to spend money to save money, and that's true when it comes to good tax advice. Even if you like doing your taxes yourself, it's worth running your forms past a pro every few years, to see if they find deductions you might be missing. But, wait until after tax season to do that; they'll have more time to focus. H&R Block offers a "Second Look" program in which it will review up to the past three years of returns; the $30 price on that drops to free at participating locations starting Monday, February 14, the company said. If they find anything great, you can always file an amended return.


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