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Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of income tax, you shall fear no audits.

How to File Your Taxes FOR FREE: Simple Instructions for the Stressed-Out Taxpayer

Listen up, babies. We’ve been dancing around the issue of taxes for a while now, and it’s time we got to it. Yes, we’ve explained the importance of taxes as a fee for membership in civilization. We’ve told you why you should file your taxes ASAP. And we’ve even told you about that time I got audited!

It’s time to face the beast head-on. It is our sacred duty, as your duly appointed Bitches, to take you through this unpleasantness step by step.

Yea, though you walk through the valley of the shadow of income tax, you shall fear no audits; for We art with you; Our gifs and Our snark they comfort you.

-The Book of the Bitches, 3:7-9

The stupidest tax system on Earth

The United States is known for many things. It’s the global center of hot dog eating contests; the birthplace of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson; and one of the only countries whose tax collectors say, “We know how much you owe in taxes this year, but we want you to take a guess at it. And if you guess wrong, we’re going to punish you.”

No seriously: that’s literally what tax filing season is all about.

Most people with jobs get taxes deducted from their paychecks throughout the year. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS), the entity responsible for handling tax matters in the United States, keeps pretty good records of that shit. They almost always over-tax some of us for reasons that are convoluted and boring and best left to another article. And others get under-taxed for much less complex reasons.

But what that means is, at the end of a tax year, the IRS will owe some of us money, and some of us will owe the IRS money. And we have to file paperwork with the government (“filing taxes“) to get that all sorted out.

When the IRS owes you money

The government refund on your taxes is known as a tax return. “Tight!” say you, thrilled to get a little extra folding money at the start of the year.

Yet allow me to play Devil’s Wet Blanket a moment. You’re getting money back from the government because they overcharged you on your taxes. It’s not extra money you’re getting… it’s money that should’ve stayed in your pocket in the first place. It’s money you could’ve received in your paychecks throughout the previous year. And let’s be real: you probably could’ve used that money last year.

Instead the feds hung onto it, preventing you from using or investing it until now.

When you owe the IRS money

Getting a tax return is really the best-case scenario. But some people will actually owe money during tax season. This is either because they’re self-employed, independent contractors, have multiple jobs, or for whatever reason didn’t get taxed on their income.

If you’re one of these people, you’re not getting taxed on your income every pay day. It can be easy to put on some rose-colored glasses, look at those fat stacks of Tubmans, and ignore the fact that some of them ain’t yours. You’ll eventually have to pay some of your income to the government as taxes… but how much?

One of the most difficult parts of tax filing season for those who owe taxes is determining how much of their income to save up ahead of time to pay in taxes. The hard and fast rule: 25-30% of your income. Yep.

Who needs to file taxes

As of 2019, here are the parameters for how much money (at minimum) you have to make in order to be required to file taxes:

  • Single filing status:
    • $12,200 if under age 65
    • $13,850 if age 65 or older
  • Married filing jointly:
    • $24,400 if both spouses under age 65
    • $25,700 if one spouse under age 65 and one age 65 or older
    • $27,000 if both spouses age 65 or older
  • Married filing separately:
    • $5 for all ages (this is not a typo)
  • Head of household:
    • $18,350 if under age 65
    • $20,000 if age 65 or older
  • Qualifying widow/widower with dependent child:
    • $24,400 if under age 65
    • $25,700 if age 65 or older

Them’s the rules! But note: while you may not have to file your taxes based on the parameters above… you still can! In fact, filing taxes even if you’re below the income threshold might mean you get some money back from the government for your troubles. Plus, it’s good practice.

But if you’d rather not bother when you’re under the income threshold… no G-men in dark suits will come after you. We think.

When to file taxes

Beware the Ides of April

Taxes are due on April 15th every year. What this means is that you have from January 1st to April 15th to file your taxes with the IRS for the previous year. So if you made money in 2019, you have until April 15th, 2020 to finish up that paperwork.

Filing early

Filing your taxes as soon as possible (January, if you can) is a great idea! As Kitty explained, there are all kinds of benefits to filing your taxes early.

For one thing, if you’re owed a tax return you’ll get your money a helluva lot sooner! This has the added benefit of lining your pockets with smugness and a sense of superiority. Plus there’s the relief of having the whole unpleasant tax filing process behind you for another year.

You will usually get your tax return within three weeks of filing your tax return (even earlier if you allow them to deposit it directly into your checking account).

Something tells me if you owe taxes… the IRS will swipe it from you a lot faster than three weeks.

Importantly in this frightening digital age of HAXX0RS and THE DARK WEB™: filing your taxes early lessens your risk of identity theft. Get your money before those nefarious, 1997-looking (I assume) Dark Web brigands get to it!

Filing late

If you file your taxes late—or worse, pay your taxes late—you could be fined. According to the IRS, “The penalty for filing late is normally 5% of the unpaid taxes for each month or part of a month that a tax return is late. That penalty starts accruing the day after the tax filing due date and will not exceed 25% of your unpaid taxes.” I quoted that exactly as an example of the stilted language the IRS likes to use when dealing with us plebeians.

That said, if you know you’re going to be late because of extenuating circumstances, you can request an extension from the IRS here.

What you need to file taxes

You won’t be ready to file your taxes until you’ve gathered the following documents. And note: some of these don’t apply to you! And that’s ok! Tax requirements can vary pretty drastically from person to person and household to household.

I’ve also left out some of the more unusual forms and things that apply to people who have a lot more assets than the average citizen of Bitch Nation. I made the call to keep it (relatively) simple and I stand by that decision.

So just check all that apply and consider yourself lucky that your taxes aren’t more complicated.

  • Personal information
    • Social Security Number (SSN) or Individual Tax Identification Number (ITIN or just TIN) for everyone on your tax return. That means spouses and dependents if you have any. If you don’t have an SSN or TIN, here’s where you can apply for a TIN.
    • The exact date of birth (DOB) for everyone on your tax return.
  • Income and investments
    • Form W-2. This bad boy shows how much you earned in income and how much was withheld for taxes. Your employer (or employers WHAT UP AMERICAN WAGE DEFICIENCY) will send this form to you by February. And if they don’t, urgently request it from them! Even if you only worked there for a few weeks during the year, you’re still owed a W-2 from the employer.
    • Form 5498. If you contributed to an IRA (Individual Retirement Fund), you’ll need this one. If you didn’t, don’t worry about it!
    • Form 1098-E. You’ll need this one from your lender if you have student loan debt.
    • Form 1098 Mortgage Interest Statement. This one is for if you have a mortgage on a home.
    • Form 1099. This baby comes in many shapes and colors. You’ll get her if you’re self-employed and received more than $600 from a client (1099-MISC); if you received investment dividends (1099-DIV); the government gave you money or benefits (1099-G); you took distributions from a retirement plan (1099-R); or if you made money from third-party transactions through services like PayPal or Venmo (1099-K).
  • Medical records
    • Receipts for medical expenses that did not get reimbursed by your health insurance: glasses, hearing aids, prescriptions, preventative care, etc.
    • Form 1095. This is your health insurance coverage form, and you might get a few different ones: if you’re enrolled through the Marketplace you’ll get a 1095-A; your insurance provider will send you a 1095-B if you have health insurance; and if you get your health insurance through your employer, you’ll get a 1095-C.
    • Social Security benefits. Our readership trends young (anybody here remember Fraggle Rock?), so most of you won’t have to worry about this. But if you’re a beneficiary of Social Security, you’ll get an SSA-1099.
  • Charitable donations.
    • If you donated to a charity or nonprofit, they should’ve sent you a receipt. You have the option to use that receipt to deduct your charitable donation from your taxes. But you don’t have to if you’d rather avoid the trouble of itemizing your deductions. More on that later.
  • Home ownership information.
    • If you own property, you’ll need your property tax statement from the county where you own the property; a mortgage interest statement (Form 1098); and any property tax receipts. These documents are pretty redundant, so if you get only one of them, you’re probably still ready to file your taxes.
  • Documents you don’t necessarily need to file your taxes:
    • Lease or rental agreement
    • Birth certificate
    • Every pay stub or check you’ve received in the last year
    • Every receipt for purchases you made in the last year
    • High school or college transcript
    • Car loan paperwork (though you can deduct it if you want)

How to file your damn taxes

Filing federal taxes

To file your taxes, you need to fill out Form 1040. In the halcyon days before the interwebz ruled our lives, this was a literal piece of paper you mailed in to the IRS. But these days you can mostly fill it out online.

You can file your federal taxes through the IRS’s free-file site or through any tax preparer. We recommend going straight to IRS.gov, but if you need a helping hand, your city or county might provide free, in-person consultations with volunteers trained in tax preparation. Find these angels here.

You may also go to online tax preparers like TurboTax. This is a valid choice… but make sure you read to the end of this article before making that choice.

Form 1040 itself looks complicated. This is another reason why you might want to get help from those angelic volunteers or a professional tax preparer. But if you’re feeling bold, then here, I got you this: line-by-line instructions on how to fill out your federal tax return.

You’ll be doing a lot of looking information up on your various forms (W-2, 1099s, etc) and writing them in the various boxes on Form 1040. It’s not hard, just headache-inducing. Once your done, you a) sign the damn thing and send it in with a check if you owe money, or b) sign the damn thing and send it in with your account information so you can receive money.

And by “send it in” I mean “click the ‘submit’ button” on your browser. Let’s be realistic.

Filing state and city taxes

Since you had so much fun filing your federal taxes… you get to do it again with your state and city taxes! Try to contain your excitement.

You’ll need to fill out another Form 1040 for your state taxes. You’ll know which one to fill out because it’ll have your state’s name on it.

If you went through a tax preparer’s website, they’ll use the information you’ve already entered for both forms so you only have to go through the process once. It’s super convenient, I’ll admit.

Again, here are those line-by-line instructions for filling out the 1040, and you can get your state’s 1040 at their department of revenue website.

Itemizing deductions

Taxes get complicated when we start talking about deductions. An itemized tax deduction is basically when you tell the IRS “I donated to charity and paid a bunch of money in student loans this year” and they tell you “Yes, good job, here’s some money back for your good deed and undue burden of citizenship.” They’re expenses allowed by the IRS that decrease your taxable income.

You can either deduct all your charitable donations, mortgages, and student loans, or you can file the standard deduction. The standard deduction is a lot less work. It’s the flat-rate, no-questions-asked reduction to your income.

Nerdwallet has an excellent piece on when the itemized deduction or standard deduction is the right choice.

For most of us, tax deductions are minuscule. Controversial statement, but… with few exceptions I think they’re generally not worth the trouble. DEBATE ME IN THE COMMENTS, HATERS!

The tax preparer lobby is evil and they want you to pay for something that is literally free

I’d be remiss if I ended this how-to without getting my social justice warrior on. For there is something rotten in the state of tax season! And that thing is the tax preparer lobby, which represents TurboTax, H&R Block, Intuit, and their ilk.

In 2017, ProPublica broke the story that the makers of online tax filing systems like TurboTax were lobbying the government to the tune of millions of dollars. They wanted to pass a bill that would “permanently bar the government from offering taxpayers prefilled filings.”

Remember way back at the beginning of this article where I made the bold but absolutely true statement that ours is “the stupidest tax system on Earth”? Because it’s a system so complicated that it necessitates a how-to article like this one?

It could be better. We could have the IRS send us a short form with all the information already filled in—a “prefilled filing,” if you will. Something simple, for the purposes of taxpayer review and approval. We could sign it, send it back… and then be fucking done.

But such a simplified system would put tax preparers out of business. So they have a vested interest in keeping the system stupid and more complicated than necessary.

The ProPublica reporting on the case is fascinating and definitely worth the read. But to sum up: the tax preparer goons kind of lost that battle but briefly won the war. They’re now required to offer basic tax preparation for free (and most people only really need the basics). But they found a couple loopholes: 1) they can bury their free filing option behind so many internet trap doors it’s impossible to find, and 2) they found a way to prevent the IRS from advertising its own free-filing option after trying to legally prevent the IRS from even having a free-filing option.

These problems have largely been fixed (again, thanks to journalists exposing the dastardly scheme), but we don’t believe in rewarding bad behavior even after the fact.

All of which is to say…

HERE IS THE IRS FREE-FILE WEBSITE.

THIS IS WHERE YOU FILE YOUR TAXES FOR FREE.

IF YOU THINK TURBOTAX SHOULD GO FUCK THEMSELVES, CLICK HERE TO FILE YOUR TAXES FOR FREE THROUGH THE IRS.

SERIOUSLY, CLICK THIS LINK AND YOU WON’T PAY A DIME ON FILING YOUR TAXES.

STICK IT TO THE MAN. FILE YOUR TAXES FOR FREE.

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18 thoughts to “How to File Your Taxes FOR FREE: Simple Instructions for the Stressed-Out Taxpayer”

  1. Dang!
    I filled out my taxes a week too early! I’ve never heard of the IRS free file site. I did go through FreeTaxUSA, which “only” charged me $13 to file federal and state taxes.
    I will definitely be bookmarking this article for next year.
    😛

  2. I’m old (but not really) enough to remember when the IRS would mail me a booklet every year with the 1040 and instructions on how to fill it out. You could also go to the library and get a copy of it. When I was in my 20s and single my taxes were so easy. I added up the numbers from my three W-2 forms and filled in the 1040ez, put it in an envelope and mailed it to the IRS. I also had the option to go to my dad’s house and use his copy of Turbo Tax on the computer that let you do taxes for 4 people per software CD license but it wasn’t always worth the hassle of going over there to do it. Luckily? I’ve only had to file state taxes twice because most of my life I’ve worked/lived in WA state where we tax property and sales but don’t tax income. It sounds great, but is one of the most regressive tax systems in the US (worse than Texas and Florida!) where the richest people pay 3% of their income in taxes and the poorest pay 17.8%.

    I’ve been using Turbo Tax and/or H&R Block online for the last 10ish years and it’s been handing to do my taxes on my phone from the couch – but I think this year I’ve hit my breaking point. I used a discount code to get $10 off and I was filling in my boxes in the app and then it asks me if I sold any stocks or bonds last year. Normally I breeze right through these bougie questions because my life isn’t that complicated. I don’t own rental property, I don’t have my own business (although my spouse earns a few hundred acting in local commercials each year 🙂 ) and I wasn’t investing the stock market beyond my 401k and IRA. But then our income increased and our expenses didn’t and I realized that I shouldn’t have all these dollars in my checking account so we opened a for real emergency fund account and instead of a high yield saving account it’s in a low risk but still securities Diversified Income Plus Fund. And then last year I looked at our emergency fund and looked at our mortgage and they were the same number of dollars. And then I did some math and saw that after the mortgage was paid off we wouldn’t need such a big emergency fund so I figured out the magic number and waited while we made regular payments until the outstanding mortgage equaled the difference between our current e-fund and our new e-fund number. It was the first time selling investments and I felt scared and like the grown up I’m surprised people think I am (what, I’m only 41!).

    So now Turbo Tax says I have to pay for the Advanced package so I can calculate the capital gains on the investments that I sold even though I’m pretty sure they already know this since the investment bank will have reported it to them and will (eventually) send me the form that gives me the answer. [This institution seems to take forever to send me my tax forms even though I already have all of my W-2s, bank interest, and my Vanguard forms.]

    No more I say. I can do math, especially addition and subtraction. I can do my own taxes on paper again (or on the online fillable form that the IRS has [link above]. Yes, I’ll have to add some things together and keep track of everything on a separate piece of paper but damn it, I’m pretty sure my satisfaction is worth spending an evening in front of Netflix figuring it out and saving $55 to boot.

    1. I “joke” that I cannot turn 30 until my first instinct when something goes less-than-perfectly is to look for the Adult in the room.

      It would be funny if I hadn’t spent the last decade-plus celebrating my 29th birthday.

  3. Great stuff in this article. Would help if you can clear up some caveats of filing taxes free vs. using software, i.e. greater room for error, no prepopulated data from previous years, efficiency if you have HSA contributions/distributions, real estate, business owner, side incomes, etc etc.

    1. If you’ve got Marketplace insurance, the only place I’ve found that’s free is Credit Karma. Free file doesn’t include the necessary form until you pay extra. I work part time for a tax preparation service and I think our prices are ridiculous but pretty standard for the industry. Just let me assure you it’s not because of what they are paying the help.

  4. Great article. I love the tone of your blog. I did notice one small mistake: the Ides of April is actually on the 17th. The Ides only falls on the 15th in March, May, July, and October. All the other months it’s on the 17th.

  5. I have always hired a tax preparer, but I budget that into our spending. I do think there is value to learning about the rules and managing the process firsthand, but I get close enough to that just pulling my numbers together to give to our tax preparer and staying on top of financial news (including tax changes). The tax code is so complicated that net-net I think it’s worth having someone who focuses on that full-time. That said, I do know there are varying degrees of competence, so it’s not always true that paying v. doing it yourself will get you better results.

  6. I work enough at my full time job and side hustles. I pay someone else to do the terrible tedious task of filing taxes for me. I did my own taxes as a working teen and young adult, but once I became a contractor and things got more complicated, I hired that stuff out. The tax code is incredibly complicated and constantly changing, and I don’t have the mental bandwith to add that to my load.

  7. I LOVE this

    I want to note that I believe that most of the free software has an income cap, as do the helpful tax prep volunteers. It’s usually around 60 or 70K I think?

    My husband is a CPA/tax accountant and HIS advice for most people is to use free file and local volunteers as long as they qualify with the slight exception of if their taxes are actually super complicated OR they are genuinely not planning on taking the standard deduction (in which case they probably are above the caps).

  8. Caveat Lector: writing from up in Canada, and working in an office that does handle personal tax returns (more bookkeeping and accounting, but some personal tax as well).
    Our tax system is very similar to yours. Employers are supposed to tell the government what they paid you, and how much tax they deducted off your paycheque, and then you tell the government the same thing plus some other info, and if it all matches you are golden.
    If that’s all that’s going on in your life, do it yourself. Seriously. All the actual work consists of COLLECTING THE DAMN SLIPS OF PAPER. You will do that part anyway, most likely.
    On the other hand, if you own rented real estate, get paid directly (subcontractors, entrepreneurs, and side-hustlers take note), or otherwise have complications, come on in.

    Oh, and: If you live/work across national borders, check in on tax laws in all the relevant countries. There are tax treaties meant to divvy up what tax you pay to which government, but you usually have to sign some extra forms to affirm that.

  9. We have a quirky one man accountant that does our taxes now. I did my own and my mom’s for years but discovered I had made some errors on depreciation basis of our rental when my dad died, but in my defense I was 14 and did my best.

    Now i am way busier so I pay my dude a token amount and he deals with firing it out. He in fact is so cheap, I tell him he can charge me more if he wants as I feel a little guilty that he doesn’t know his true value but he’s like, no I’m good. I am happy to give a local accountant my business. I decided unofficially that some of my charitable contributions should go to local people’s businesses without guilt from my frugal side and I get stuff in return.

    MIL used to use H+R block, paid more than double my guy and had tax errors two years in a row from the big firm. Maybe they should take all that lobbying money and use it to train their tax professionals and programmers on tax code. She uses my guy now. I had no idea about the lobbying. Will never use those scum suckers because of that.

  10. If you own a house & live in a place with high property taxes & fat mortgage interest (west coast represent, yo), the itemized deduction is still worth it. The last GOP tax law did cut the benefit down significantly for many of us, but it’s still enough to be worth the hassle to me (admittedly, I use TurboTax w/a discount thru my credit union, so that helps).

  11. I filed my taxes last week and I’m getting a ~$300-some refund directly into my savings, after which I will have enough in savings to start a CD account. I feel so virtuous–thanks, bitches!

  12. THANK YOU for this post–without it I would have just kept doing the dang thing with TurboTax, and there was no need for this! I ended up being just under the free file threshold.

    H&R Block’s free file works for anyone with an adjusted gross income (your normal income minus a couple things like retirement contributions and 529 plan contributions) of 69k or under. If that matches you, I highly recommend their free file–it was super easy, just as simple & pretty as TurboTax, and most importantly, free, INCLUDING for state taxes.

  13. Quick note on student loans: You do not have to itemize deductions to get the deduction for student loan interest. It’s a rare ‘yes and’ win of tax breaks (an “above the line” deduction). Gotta take advantage of every tiny bit of help offered along with these enormous undue burdens!

  14. I’d also like to add that I took advantage of free tax-filing programs through the United Way in my city, run through the VITA program!!! If you make less than $56,000 or $66,000 a year I think you qualify and they run through public places, libraries, etc. – I go to the place where I also vote. That’s something to take advantage of if (like me) you feel so much anxiety and don’t want to do something wrong. Basically, I wanted someone else to do it fo me and it’s still free! I love it and I think it’s so important that these programs keep existing for people who don’t have the resources to hire someone, don’t feel confident to do it themselves, and may not even own a computer or have internet access.

  15. Ooh ooh! Almost useless pedantic nerdy commentary ahead probably not of interest to most people, but I’m a relatively green CPA and *that girl* at parties (and the typical conversation on income tax becomes fairly stale otherwise) so…

    1. In practicality, I absolutely agree that our tax system is overly convoluted and heavily dominated by special interests, but there is one theory embedded in our system that, were we to somehow correct all the other festering issues, doesn’t make our system ENTIRELY 100% bullshit. In a system where the taxpayers provide the support for their taxes instead of the government, there is some extra power afforded to the taxpayers. The government becomes reliant on reports from the taxpayers and is limited in its ability to enforce (or nitpick/abuse its power). Of course, this power is easier to abuse by taxpayers in the form of tax evasion, but such a limitation on the government would probably affect how the tax code is worded anyways. It make me curious about what tweaks to our system could be made to make it more viable and a legitimate alternative to what most other countries do. That said, I haven’t done a deep dive into the nuances, so this could ultimately amount to something fairly useless. Does this feature outweigh all the inconveniences? I haven’t yet seen any real reason to believe so, but I love a good thought experiment.

    2. A more important issue to consider than the above is about the “tax refunds are bad” advice people like to dole out like candy (not that you are in this case, but at one point I certainly was and I would like to help people not fall down this trap, so this is just to add nuance for which no one asked). The math behind the opinion is sound (government has your money and pays you no interest, whereas you could have earned interest on the money if you had it; therefore the government forced you to give it a free loan), but it does not necessarily lead to the “avoid tax refunds always” conclusion we so often hear. If you are a savvy investor who is in a position to take advantage of that interest (probably many of us bitches here), then tax refunds are indeed bad. But not everyone IS in a position to put that money to work, either due to laziness or immediate need. Many people will say that despite the interest lost, they still prefer to have a tax refund because it forces them to save money. It’s easy to just say in response, “get better with money” or “put it in a savings account” or “but if you avoid a tax refund you’ll be more likely to get out of your bad financial situation,” but there’s a real danger of being condescending like that. If someone is aware of the interest issue with tax refunds and STILL prefers them because they need that mechanism to force them to save, I would argue that demonstrates they’re EXTREMELY financially savvy; they’re self-aware enough to know what their problem behaviors are and how they still make poor choices in the face of logic, and so they are building fail-safes into their lives to protect themselves. (It’s kind of like how annuities are typically really bad investments unless you KNOW you are the kind of person who wouldn’t be able to control your spending to make your retirement savings last.) Personal finance by itself isn’t enough to make good financial decisions; what’s most important is to understand yourself.

    Now to kick off my t-shirt/bumper sticker business.

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