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Tax prep checklist: How to file your tax return 2024



Tax season for is in full swing, and millions of people have already filed their 2023 returns and are expecting refunds, according to IRS data.

In many ways, this tax season is a return to normalcy after years of COVID-related benefits and disruptions. Filers should expect a smoother process than during the pandemic, when the IRS was stretched thin, and possibly larger returns than last year’s.

Everyone’s tax situation is different, of course, and not all advice applies to everyone. But here are some basics for filing your 2023 return.

Tax day is April 15—for most people

Taxes are due Monday, April 15 (making for the ultimate Sunday Scaries on the 14th). But as always, there are exceptions. Residents of Maine and Massachusetts have until April 17 because of the Patriots’ Day holiday, and residents of Washington, D.C., have until April 16 due to Emancipation Day. Those who live in federally declared disaster zones also get extra time (this year, that includes taxpayers in Connecticut, Rhode Island, and West Virginia).

You can request an extension, which gets you until Oct. 15, but any taxes owed are still due April 15. Not paying by the deadline can incur penalties and interest.

Standard deduction vs. itemization

The standard deduction and itemizing deductions lower how much of your income is taxed. The standard deduction lowers taxable income by a set amount, while there are many possible deductions a filer could itemize if eligible (meaning they are different for everyone).

Filers simply should choose whichever is more beneficial, which for most Americans is the standard deduction—$13,850 for single filers, $27,700 for joint filers, or $20,800 for heads of household. Those 65 and older and the blind can deduct additional amounts.

The standard deduction is subtracted from your adjusted gross income, or income after certain deductions have already been made, like retirement plan contributions.

The standard deduction is recalculated each year to take inflation into account. This year, it is almost $100 larger for individuals—$12,950 in 2022 compared with $13,850 for 2023—and next year it will go up significantly again, to $14,600. (Tax brackets and retirement contributions were also adjusted.)

On the flip side, some common itemized deductions include charitable donations, deductions for state and local taxes, property taxes, mortgage interest, and unreimbursed medical and dental expenses.

You can file for free…

Anyone with an adjusted gross income of up to $79,000 can file their federal tax returns (and some state returns) for free using the IRS’s free file system.

Popular tax prep software providers like TurboTax and H&R Block are no longer involved with the IRS’s free file system; still, other companies like Tax Act and Tax Slayer can do just as good of a job, especially for simple returns (meaning not a lot of income, deductions, etc.).

Most Americans actually qualify to use the IRS’s free file system, but only an estimated 2% do. Still, it can be a budget-friendly alternative to pricier software. The IRS is currently piloting Direct File, which lets more taxpayers file directly through the IRS for free instead of via a third-party platform. But that will not be available to most taxpayers this year.

Another option is a preparer like Cash App taxes, which also helps filers with federal and state returns fully for free. Other preparers do offer free versions, but may charge fees if you are taking certain deductions or credits. TurboTax Free Edition, for example, covers W2 income and the child tax credit, but not itemized deductions or most other credits.

The biggest thing to make sure of is that you know how much the software you use will actually end up costing you—and be wary of ads that overpromise. TurboTax and H&R Block have been exposed for deceptive practices in which they advertise free versions of their software that many don’t actually qualify for. In fact, just last month, Intuit, which makes TurboTax, was prohibited by U.S. regulators from advertising its services as “free” except under certain circumstances.

You may also be able to have a volunteer help you. The IRS operates Volunteer Income Tax Assistance, which provides free in-person tax preparation for those earning $64,000 or less, people with disabilities, and those who don’t speak English.

…but it can make sense to pay for help

Still, filing taxes in the U.S. can be a daunting process, and you may feel more at ease if you enlist a professional or pay for tax preparation software. Taxes are easy when you’re young and don’t yet have a ton of assets, but they can get increasingly complicated as you get older.

Again, the best option depends on your personal situation. If you’re a high earner or self-employed, it can make sense to hire someone to make sure you cross your Ts and dot your Is. And for many people, paying for TurboTax or similar software is worth the price of admission.

Tax professionals also can help you find deductions and credits you may not know about, which can be especially helpful after a major life change like buying a home, getting married, starting or selling a business, having a child, or receiving an inheritance.

If you decide to go pro, be careful. Check the professional’s qualifications; the IRS has a searchable directory of preparers that can help and offers these other tips.

In the slew of tax documents you’ve likely received this year, there may be one from your bank related to your savings account or CDs. That’s because the IRS counts interest payments as earned income, meaning you generally have to pay federal taxes on any savings account interest you earn.

And as Americans have piled into higher-yield accounts over the past few years, they may owe taxes for the first time in a long time—or ever. This includes both interest and any bonuses paid for opening the account.

“With the low rates of the last few years, the tax was minimal,” says Rob Schultz, a certified financial planner and wealth manager in California. “But with higher rates in 2023, many people might not plan on getting such a large 1099 for their interest income on savings.”

You could get a bigger refund this year

There are countless factors that go into whether or not you’ll get a refund, and most will be particular to your specific financial situation. But if you have a fairly simple tax situation (say, one source of income, few deductions) and your income hasn’t changed too much from last year, you could get a bigger refund.

That’s because the IRS bumped up the seven brackets by 7% for tax year 2023, meaning higher incomes now may fall into lower brackets. That said, the IRS releases data periodically throughout tax season, and so far, the average tax refund is trending lower: $1,395 versus $1,963 at this time last year, the IRS said in a press release. But it’s still quite early, the agency says—things can change. Plus, tax season started almost a full week later this year than last year, meaning far fewer people have filed in general (19% fewer, in fact).

That said, there are other reasons your refund could shrink. If you got a raise over the past year but didn’t change your withholdings, that could make a difference. Others may have more investment income.

Getting a smaller refund isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, many financial experts say you should aim not to have a large refund, because that means you are overpaying your taxes and losing out on using that money in a more efficient way. Still, it can be disappointing if you were planning on using that money for something specific.

The IRS says refunds are typically issued within 21 days for those who file electronically and choose direct deposit for their payments. For those who mail in a paper return, it will take longer to receive a refund. Stay up to date on the status of your refund using the agency’s online tracking tool.

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