Balancing Priorities

How to get your taxes done for free

In the last-minute scramble to file your taxes, don't be fooled into thinking you need to pay through the nose for help.

Americans can spend hundreds of dollars preparing and filing their taxes, although there are plenty of ways to do it at no or little cost.

Michael Nagle | Bloomberg | Getty Images

For starters, ambitious filers can always do it on their own by filling out the e-file forms the IRS — and in some cases, state tax departments — make available online. But an increasing number of tax-preparation software companies offer to help — for free.

Most recently, Credit Karma announced Credit Karma Tax, a do-it-yourself tax prep service at no cost. It covers a 1040 (the standard federal income tax form) and is best suited for simpler returns. (Those with multistate filings or a trust or farm subsidies would still be better off with an accountant who can offer advice as well as assistance, according to Credit Karma's founder and CEO, Kenneth Lin.)

Another such service is Absolute Zero from TurboTax, which launched three years ago for taxpayers filing federal 1040A or 1040EZ returns, as well as state returns.

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The IRS also maintains Free File for more complicated (but still not multistate) returns. It is administered through the Free File Alliance, a nonprofit organization of a dozen tax-prep service providers, including TurboTax, H&R Block and Jackson Hewitt.

Free File projects that, in 2017, it will prepare about 3 million individual income tax returns out of the 153 million the IRS expects to receive.

"One-hundred-million people are eligible, but it's not advertised, so nobody knows about it," said Tim Hugo, the alliance's executive director.

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The program, which walks you through your tax filings step by step, is geared toward low- and moderate-income taxpayers, but each provider has its own restrictions on who qualifies. For example, some will accept all filers who make $64,000 or less, while others may have age requirements or geographical restrictions (a wizard will walk you through the available programs that fit your criteria).

Even if you qualify, you still may not be able to wrap up all your paperwork before April 18 (yes, the deadline is different this year) completely scot-free. There could be some additional charges, including a fee for those who owe taxes and use a credit card to make a payment or for filing a state return online.

For those who can't afford help or are determined not to spend a dime yet still want in-person assistance from a tax pro, the AARP Foundation runs the volunteer-based Tax-Aide program.

One-hundred-million people are eligible, but it's not advertised, so nobody knows about it.
Tim Hugo
executive director of the Free File Alliance

The IRS also has both a Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, or VITA, for people with disabilities, limited English or those who generally make $54,000 or less, and Tax Counseling for the Elderly, or TCE, for those age 60 or older.

VITA and TCE sites are generally located in community centers, libraries and schools around the country. And many of the TCE sites are operated by AARP's Tax-Aide program.

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