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As a U.S. taxpayer, you typically have two options if you’re not working with a CPA to file federal taxes:
- You can file your taxes through an independent tax software program, app or online forum.
- You can file your taxes by hand and mail them to your local IRS collection address.
You’ll need to decide how you’d like to file well before Tax Day rolls around in April to make sure that you’ve got plenty of time to file. We’ve laid out some of the differences, benefits, and processes associated with both filing methods, as well as some information on how to choose which method is right for your needs.
Filing By Hand vs. Using Online Software: Which Is Right For You?
If you choose to file your taxes by hand, you’ll download and fill out relevant IRS forms, then mail them to your local collection address. Tax forms are available for free at IRS.gov, and you may need to fill out more than one, depending on your deductibles, employment situation and marital filing status.
To make a payment, you may mail a check to the IRS directly or you use a debit card, credit card or same-day wire transfer by using the IRS’s online payment system. Filing your taxes by hand may take a little longer, but it can be a good option if you have a simple return.
If you aren’t really interested in learning more about tax process, don’t have a ton of time on your hands, or you’ve got a more complicated return on your hands, you’ll probably want to use a tax prep software to help guide your way.
This is especially true if you own rental properties, if you make regular income through the stock market and need to calculate investment taxes, or you are a business owner who needs to calculate capital gains taxes. Members of these groups need to navigate a myriad of tax laws, deductibles and exemptions and should almost always use a tax software program to file.
Method 1: File By Hand
Though you may shudder at the thought of precariously calculating your taxes by hand, there are a number of benefits of doing things the old-fashioned way:
- You learn more about where your money is going. Tax software programs are designed if you want your taxes to be finished as soon as possible and with as little intrusion as humanly possible. Tax preparation software programs don’t do a great job of explaining the tax process, where your money is going after you pay it or the laws surrounding tax preparation. If you’re an inquisitive person (you like to see how the sausage is made) doing your taxes by hand gives you an inside look at how you’re taxed and where your tax money goes.
- You’ll fight against tax complexity. The United States has one of the longest and most arduous tax processes in the world. Some critics blame tax software companies for their lobbying efforts against a simpler tax code, that were it not for software manufacturers’ interference, the public would have adopted a less complicated tax process ages ago. A growing body of consumers chooses to do their taxes by hand to discourage complex tax laws and encourage government representatives to simplify the tax code.
- You save money on software. Filing your taxes by hand is basically free, saves the cost of postage, ink for your printer and mailing supplies.
If you’ll be filing your taxes by hand this year, your first stop should be to IRS.gov, where you can download the necessary forms to begin your return. If you’re like most Americans, you’ll need to fill out the Form 1040, which is suitable for most who are employed either full time or part-time.
To view a step-by-step guide to filling out Form 1040, check out the video tutorial below:
Method 2: File Using a Tax Program
Most Americans who do their own taxes choose to use tax preparation software. Some of the benefits of choosing a tax software program include:
- You’re less likely to make a mistake. Mistakes on your tax return can be costly — from audits to additional fees to missed deductibles and credits. Carelessness can cost you when filing your taxes. Tax software programs make it less likely that you’ll make an expensive error on your return.
- You’ll save time. The tax code of the United States is over 70,000 pages long and has sextupled in length since 1955. Though most of this tax code does not apply to the individual filing taxes, it can still take a long time to sift through over 10 million words’ worth of tax laws to find relevant materials. Tax software distills the overly-complicated tax code, guiding users through their return with a simple Q&A style format that finds deductions and fills out all necessary forms.
- You may be able to file with a free federal version. If cost is high on your list of concerns, know that most major tax software manufacturers offer a free edition to help users fill out federal income tax files.
If you’ll be using a tax software program to help you file your returns, you’ll need to choose a provider first. From industry standards like Intuit TurboTax to save-as-you-go programs like TaxAct, there are a number of software options and packages currently available on the market to suit every individual’s needs. For more information on the best tax software programs, check out Benzinga’s list of current favorites and offerings.
If you’re planning to file your taxes by hand, you’ll want to make sure that you leave yourself plenty of time to do extensive research on your liability, your tax bracket, and the credits and deductibles for which you’ll that you qualify.
If you have a more complicated situation, you’re managing brokerage taxes, or you’ve recently undergone a major life change (like having a baby, getting married or switching from an employee to an independent contractor), you’ll run the risk of losing out on money, paying more than you owe or filing the wrong form.
If you’ve really got your heart set on handling your own taxes without assistance, check out the IRS’s tax topics compilation, which offers answers to some of the most common tax inquiries.