Need Help with Your Taxes?
Filing taxes can quickly turn into a headache, but hiring a CPA to do them can quickly turn into a massive bill. Thankfully, we now have many alternatives to sitting down with an accountant — including options that range from free government-sponsored assistance to e-filing software.
Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) Program
VITA is a volunteer initiative coordinated by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). The program sets up shop at locations throughout the country (often at schools and community centers) where you can get tax help from VITA’s trained volunteers for free. If you want to use VITA you generally have to make $54,000 or less per year. Schedule your appointment as soon as you have all of your tax documents because appointments fill up quickly.
- Every return reviewed by a supervising volunteer with advanced certification
- Certification for preparers may not be as intensive as those in the private sector
The IRS has partnered with select commercial tax software companies to bring free tax preparation software to low- and middle-income Americans. This program is called Free File, and it allows you to do your taxes from the comfort of your own home. You must make $66,000 or less per year to use Free File.
- Software endorsed by the IRS, so you know it's legitimate
- Guidance from professional software
- Guidance throughout filing process will vary depending on the software you choose
- Requires a secure computer/Internet connection (so probably not a good idea to use the computer at the public library)
If you want to use Free File, the IRS has provided a tool to help you identify software options that are best for your financial situation and your state of residence.
Commercial Tax Software
If you don’t meet income limits, you may look into getting tax help from software outside of the Free File system. Keep in mind that tax software you buy at the store still will require a secure Internet connection and safe computer. Some tax software is available only to those who make less than $100,000.
- Basic returns typically are free
- Often cheaper than storefront tax preparation
- Guidance from professional tax software
- Returns including business income, stock sales or homeownership often come with a fee
- State returns often cost extra
- Watch out for “gotcha” fees disclosed at the final step before e-filing
- Be diligent about what you agree to in the terms of service (i.e., agreeing to receive marketing emails)
While shopping, be sure to do proper research to make sure the software is legitimate and authorized for e-file with the IRS. It is safest to buy direct from the company rather than on discount third-party websites.
Storefront Tax Preparation
Not everyone wants to file on their own. These individuals often use storefront tax preparation services where they can sit down with a human preparer to get tax help.
- Preparers often have more training than VITA volunteers
- Typically don’t have to pay until after they run your numbers and give you a quote
- Preparers are trained seasonal workers, not Certified Public Accountants (CPAs)
- Often charged by the form
- Get quotes — you may be able to find an accountant for a lower price
Parents “Helping” Adult Children
Children may leave the nest, but they’ll often come back to get help filing their taxes. When they’re 18 this makes sense, but when they’re 30, it may be time to cut the cord.
- Parents' experience might help child avoid mistakes
- The child may become dependent on their parent to do taxes
- Parents are not infallible; mistakes could strain family relationships
- It might not feel “free” if the child gets lectured or he or she doesn’t want to share personal financial details with parents
If the parent is a CPA, the child is off the hook. They are smart to take advantage of their connection with a professional they trust.
Pen and Paper
More than 90 percent of taxpayers filed their returns electronically for the 2016 tax year. There are few remaining pros for filing a paper return.
- Select forms cannot be filed online, necessitating pen and paper
- Free if you prepare your taxes yourself
- Cyber security is a real concern, but it’s easier to steal a piece of paper than it is to hack a computer
- Errors are more likely, as IRS agents have to manually input data into computer systems
- Takes longer to process returns
[Any reference to a specific company, commercial product, process or service does not constitute or imply an endorsement or recommendation by the National Endowment for Financial Education.]