This article is accurate for returns filed through tax year 2017. Under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, some of the laws mentioned changed beginning in 2018. Learn more about the updated tax laws enacted under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act here.
Thanks to the advance of technology and the availability of exceptional tax software, filing your own return is easier than ever before. Unless you have a particularly complex tax situation, you should be able to file your own return with little difficulty.
Handling this process yourself will not only save you the expense of paying a tax professional, but it may also save you time. In fact, you may be surprised to learn that filing on your own can be quicker than filing with the help of an accountant—as long as you have a plan in place.
Creating such a plan is exactly the topic we will tackle in this post. If you are trying to figure out how to do your taxes, this is a great place to start. Learning how to do taxes does not have to be a long and difficult process for most people. Take some time to review the tax preparation checklist below and you will be well on your way to a successful filing experience.
Step 1 – Find a Free Online Service
To get started, you will want to find an online tax service which you can use to file your annual return. Fortunately, there are many great services available, and many of them are free for the average taxpayer.
The key here is to find a service which is going to meet your needs based on the forms you will have to file. If you have an extremely simple tax situation—for example, your only income is through traditional employment, and you have no unique deductions—it will be easy to find a free online service that suits your needs. As things get more complex, you may need to pay for a tax filing service that can handle all of your demands.
Step 2 – Understand Deadlines
You need to know when your taxes are due in order to make it through this process successfully. After all, learning how to do your taxes really isn’t going to pay off if you don’t do them in time!
For individual returns, April 17, 2018 is going to be Tax Day. This is the date that all individual returns are due for the 2017 tax year. If you are not ready to file your taxes by that date, you can file an extension which will push back your due date until October 15, 2018. However, it needs to be noted that any tax you owe is still due on April 17, even if your completed return is not ready to be filed.
Step 3 – Make a Checklist
At this point, it would be a good idea to step back from your computer and turn to good old pen and paper for the next step. Write out a checklist of everything you can think of which may affect your tax situation. Obviously, you will start with your sources of income, such as traditional employment or any independent contract work. Don’t forget to include other ways in which you may have accumulated wealth, such as capital gains.
On the other side of your checklist, write down things that you believe may lead to deductions. If you have kids, there will certainly be deductions and credits associated with them. Also, you may be entitled to deductions through things like charitable donations and the interest you pay on your home, so keep an open mind.
The point of your checklist is to get a mental handle on everything in your life that affects your tax situation. By putting it all down on paper in front of you, the picture will become clearer and the task in front of you will be less intimidating.
Step 4 – Organize and Collect Your Paperwork
Now that you understand your personal tax picture, it’s time to collect all of the various pieces of paperwork that you will need in order to file. Of course, the term “paperwork” is a little out of date—much of this information will be delivered to you in digital form.
Whatever the case, gather up all of your paperwork prior to starting your return. Save all physical pieces of paper in a specific folder in your home, and set up an email folder to store the relevant online documents.
The good news is that even if you’re not completely organized—or you’re still learning how to file taxes online—you can make a start on your return before you have all of the necessary information in hand. Fill in what you can, save your progress, and make a note of what you’ll need to continue.
Step 5 – Consider All Deductions and Credits
This step is where it really comes in handy to have a quality piece of tax software on your side. When using an online service, most (or all) of the work will be done for you when it comes to looking for deductions and credits. The service will evaluate the information you enter and suggest potential deductions you can take or credits you can claim. Unless your tax situation is quite complex—in which case, it may be wise to work with an accountant—automated tax software should do an excellent job of catching potential ways you can save.
Of course, it would be a mistake to simply go on blind faith with regard to your taxes. While the software should help you find the right deductions and credits, do a little research on those items to make sure they apply to you properly. Look up any deduction or credit that you are suggested to take and make sure you are comfortable including it on your return. This step will only take a moment, but it should add to your peace of mind.
Step 6 – Double Check Your Work
It’s a good idea to get started on your return well in advance of the filing deadline. For example, consider starting to work on your return in March rather than waiting until the middle of April. By starting early, you can complete the return but wait to file. With your work saved and waiting for you, come back to it after a few days and check for mistakes.
This kind of review will help you to catch any clerical errors you might have made, such as entering the wrong income amount or making a typo in your address. Many mistakes made in tax returns are the simple result of having to rush to finish it up and submit it before the deadline has passed.
Step 7 – Celebrate!
At the beginning of this seven-step process, you may have been wondering how to file taxes. Now, you are done! That wasn’t so bad, was it? For most people, the idea of learning how to do your taxes is much more intimidating than the actual process. It really isn’t that hard—especially when you have a quality tax return filing program on your side. For many people wondering how to get the largest tax refund possible, the answer is simply to use the right technology.
Remember: get started early, take your time to make sure all of the details are correct, and use a physical checklist to get your head around everything that matters in your tax world.
And thank you for taking the time to review our seven-step process to filing taxes like a pro. We hope you now feel that you know how to file tax returns, and you are ready to take on this task for yourself. Good luck, and here’s to a big refund!