Read This Before You File Your Taxes This Year
Try DIY Software
More than half of American taxpayers hire a professional to prepare their forms. If there's anything complicated about your financial life—say, you own a business that has capital investments and office space, or you have lots of rental properties—a trustworthy pro is the way to go. But I recommend that everyone else try software such as TurboTax or H&R Block. Even if you use a tax preparer, you'll still need to gather your paperwork—and doing your own taxes will likely save you a few bucks. The average cost to hire a professional runs from about $160 for a simple return to $300 or higher for a more complex one. By comparison, the all-in cost for software and e-filing is likely under $100. Brokerages and banks often offer discounts on tax software for clients, so check around for deals.
Stop. Getting. Refunds.
Thrilled that you've got a refund on the way? You shouldn't be.
• The money was already yours. You just let Uncle Sam or your state Treasury hold on to it all year. I'd rather you had that money to use for paying off debt, building up your emergency stash, or investing.
• You're more susceptible to identity theft fraud. In 2013, scammers armed with stolen Social Security numbers filed fraudulent tax returns that netted them an estimated $5.8 billion in refunds. Victims found out only when their own legitimate returns (and refunds) were rejected. Though the IRS has a system for making sure victims get their refunds, that takes time.
• The fix: Do your best to make sure you won't have a refund by adjusting your withholding or estimated tax. If you simply can't break the refund habit, aim to file your taxes ASAP each year to lower the odds that an ID thief will beat you to the money.
The Average Refund Check: $2,800
Resist the Standard
Nearly 70 percent of tax filers choose the easy route of taking a standard deduction rather than filing a return that claims itemized deductions. If you don't own a home or you live in a state without (or nearly without) an income tax—Alaska, Florida, Nevada, New Hampshire, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Washington, and Wyoming—that can make sense. But for everyone else, I want you to make sure that you are indeed getting the biggest possible tax break. For this year's returns, the standard deduction for an individual is $6,300, and for married couples filing a joint tax return, it's $12,600. (Over 65? You can get a larger standard deduction: $7,850 for single and $13,850 for a joint return.)
If the sum of the major expenses below is more than the amount of your standard deduction, you should consider itemizing.
• Mortgage interest (including interest on home equity loans and lines of credit up to $100,000)
• Property tax
• State and local income tax*
• Charitable deductions
There are dozens more deductions that can come into play as well, such as medical expenses that exceed 10 percent of your adjusted gross income. If you use a software program, it will walk you through myriad deduction possibilities.
*Filers can claim either income tax or sales tax as a deduction. Residents of states with no income tax who have big-ticket purchases (such as a car) should tally the year's sales tax payments and add them to their pot of potential itemized deductions.
Fewer than 1 percent of individual tax returns with adjusted gross income under $200,000 are audited by the IRS.
Warning: Married? Look before you sign!
The minute you file a joint tax return, you are assuming liability that all the information—for you and your spouse—is correct. That's just one more reason you need to be involved in your finances and taxes.
Suze Orman's latest book is The Money Class: How to Stand in Your Truth and Create the Future You Deserve (Spiegel & Grau).