It’s tax season: That joyous time when you look back on what you earned last year and figure out whether you gave enough of it to Uncle Sam. Think of it as Christmas for the government.
If you’re new to filing a tax return, the process can seem daunting. The forms have cryptic names. Making a mistake can have serious consequences, whether it’s inadvertently paying too much, or paying too little and getting audited. A quick lesson in the basics of filing a tax return might help.
Before we begin, a reminder: I’m not an accountant. If you have a question about your individual tax situation that you can’t answer by consulting the Internal Revenue Service, ask a professional. (See also: 6 Great Places to Get Free Tax Advice)
1. Do I Have to File a Tax Return?
You may be surprised to learn that not all adults are required to fill out a federal tax form every year. According to the Internal Revenue Service, you could be off the hook if you earned less than $10,000, or if certain other criteria were met. However, you may still want to file, because you could qualify for a tax credit that puts money back in your pocket. (More on that below.)
2. Do I Need to Hire an Accountant to File?
No. If your tax situation is simple — for instance, if all your income comes from your full-time job and your earnings are modest — your filing process should be straightforward. Of course, hiring an accountant could save you time. The IRS estimates that the “short form,” 1040A, takes about 10 hours to file.
If you want to do your own taxes but are worried you’ll make a mistake, using a tax prep website can be a good compromise. TurboTax, H&R Block, and TaxAct all offer free versions for simple returns. If your taxes are a bit more complicated — for instance, if you want to search for possible deductions — you can get both state and federal taxes filed through these sites for between $40 and $100. (See also: 8 Ways to File Your Taxes for Free)
3. Where Do I Find Tax Forms?
If you file online, you don’t need to locate forms — any of the websites mentioned above will ask you questions and then submit your return online. But if you want to take pencil to paper, you can print out tax forms from the IRS website or pick them up, along with instruction booklets, at a public library or post office.
4. What Money Do I Have to Pay Taxes On?
You have to pay taxes on almost any money you make, whether it’s from working, selling something, or even finding buried treasure. That said, there…