A Beginner’s Guide to Filing Taxes

Ah, spring fever has hit as we anxiously await the warmer weather and putting away that bulky clothing (well, at least if you live in Nebraska like I do). But before we can start our spring break plans or look ahead to the long days of summer, we need to remember what season it really is—tax season. If you’re new to filing taxes, like I am, I thought I’d do us all a favor and research some essential tax tips to help us get through this together. Here, I present the beginner’s guide to filing taxes.

Mark Your Calendar

Even if the thought of filing your taxes sends a chill down your spine, filing late should be avoided at all costs. Most years, April 15th is the deadline for paying your taxes. However, you get an extra three days to file this year thanks to Emancipation Day: it falls on April 15th, so federal offices will be closed. Still, that isn’t an excuse to procrastinate. If you don’t file your taxes on time, the IRS can charge you interest and penalties on any unpaid taxes. If you’re trying to save money, you don’t want laziness to chip away at your wallet.

…And Give Yourself Extra Time

You should give yourself an ample amount of tax preparation time in case you run into any issues or questions you cannot solve on your own (don’t worry, we talk about where to find help in just a bit). It is also important to plan for enough time to double check the information on all your forms, then file your taxes manually or electronically. More information on where to send your taxes if you file by mail can be found here. If you are using a software program to complete your tax return, it will typically walk you through the process of submission (read on to learn about free tax preparation resources).

Know Your Forms

If you’re doing your taxes for the first time, you might not know where to start—and that’s okay. The first move you should make is getting your tax documents together. For most folks, that means getting your W-2 form from your place of employment, which employers are required to mail out by January 31st. This form lists your salary information for the previous year and reports the amount of federal, state, and other taxes that have been withheld from your paycheck. If you performed any freelance or contract work, you would receive a 1099 form instead of a W-2. And if you paid any student loan interest during the year, you would receive a 1098 form to deduct that interest. Obviously, everyone’s tax situation is different, so it’s good to have a handy reference guide like this to understand the variety of tax forms you may need.

Analyze Your Tax Prep Options

Many college students can’t afford an accountant or outside service to prepare their taxes. Luckily, there are a few different options for free tax help:

  • The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program operates nationwide to provide free tax preparation. Use this site to find a VITA program in your area.
  • Public libraries may also provide free tax assistance.
  • The IRS Free File program partners with online tax programs to offer free software or fillable forms, depending on your income. Visit the Free File site for more information.

Above all, as you go through the tax filing process, use this as an opportunity to examine how taxes are impacting your bottom line. Maybe you’d rather have a small refund, as that means more money in your pocket throughout the year; maybe you’d rather get a large refund so that you can plan financial goals around your tax return. Either way, understanding how taxes work and what impact they’re having on you each year is crucial in truly mastering your money. And if this is your first year to file taxes on your own, congratulations! This is a great step in gaining financial independence. For more information on resources to help you file your taxes, visit the IRS student information page