Even if you waited till the last minute to file your taxes, if you're entitled to a refund you can still purchase savings bonds that earn more than a savings account at your bank or credit union. Even better, those bonds automatically keep up with inflation.
Tax-related identity theft can turn your life upside down and take years to resolve. I know, because it happened to me in 2007, after someone submitted an electronic tax return—days before I filed—containing personal information about me and my family, and a bogus return address. The mess took piles of paperwork, a tax advocate, and more than two years to resolve. To this day I still have nightmares that it could happen again.
My friend Chris and I recently sat down to prepare her taxes and compare two online tax-prep products: the venerable H&R Block At Home and challenger TaxSlayer. If your tax return is anything like Chris'--she opts for the standard deduction and only reports income from W-2s--you'll likely finish your taxes in around an hour, as we did for each product. (The IRS says two out of three taxpayers use the standard deduction.)
Still got some money stashed away in a health-care flexible spending account? If so, you might want to put a trip to the pharmacy on your day's to-do list, or at least check your plan's paperwork to see if you can take advantage of the IRS's optional grace period, to March 15, to spend those funds. Otherwise, after today you'll lose those savings for good.
With five more days until the April 17 tax filing deadline, many procrastinators are scrambling to get their documents together. If you're one of them, don't forget to apply for one of the tax credits for energy-efficient home improvements that expired on December 31. Upgrades that are eligible include roofs, windows and doors, heating and air conditioning, insulation, non-solar water heaters and biomass stoves. The credits range from $50 to $300.
Once tax season ends, do you dread finding room for yet another fat folder in an overstuffed closet, file cabinet or shelf? The IRS says all those stored papers may be overkill.
UPDATE: CompleteTax says its users will be able create the new IRS Form 1127A within its guided tax-prep product--rather than having to link to the IRS--as early as Saturday, March 31.
If you're in a position to help a younger or lower-income worker in your family but don't like the idea of a direct hand-out, consider kick-starting his or her retirement. A 25-year-old saving $4,000 a year through age 35 in a tax-deferred retirement account would have more than $1 million by age 70, assuming an average rate of return of 8 percent. That's compound interest at work.
If you plan to pay your taxes by credit card because you're short of cash now, the government offers an option that can cost far less. The IRS automatically accepts requests for payment installment plans (also called installment agreements) for up to $50,000 in combined taxes, penalties and interest. You'll pay interest as long as you owe, but the IRS's interest rate--3 percent for the first quarter of 2012--is far less than the average credit-card rate, and isn't likely to jump up sharply over time like a credit-card teaser rate. (If you choose the installment plan, you still have to file the return on time on April 17 to avoid penalties; you just don't have to pay everything then.)
The rules of tax deductions change yearly, but you have to learn them to play the game, and it's worth knowing the rules.
We asked CPAs and enrolled agents—individuals qualified by the IRS to prepare federal tax returns—what sends them round the bend and boosts their fees.
If you're gutsy enough to do your own tax return, take advantage of all the help available. Here are some good places to start:
Tax preparers have varying levels of expertise and charge accordingly. A good tax preparer will ease stress and might save you some money as well, here's what you need to know in order to get the most value for your tax-prep dollar.
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