Do-it-yourself online filers may need to ask for some help this tax season

  • Close to half of online tax filers watch TV while they work on their taxes, and more than a quarter browse social media, a new survey shows.
  • Forty percent say they think they've left money on the table due to confusion over deductions or credits.

Ever wonder how people deal with often-loathed tax preparations on their own? By doing other things at the same time, it turns out.

Among do-it-yourselfers who use online tax-preparation software, about half say they watch TV, and more than a quarter say they browse social media while working on their return, according to a survey released Thursday by H&R Block. Another 22 percent say they enjoy cooking.

More than 2,000 online tax filers were canvassed in December for the survey, which explored attitudes and behaviors related to the tax-preparation process.

The IRS updated its individual income tax brackets for 2019.
Aitor Diago | Moment | Getty Images
The IRS updated its individual income tax brackets for 2019.

"Another thing we heard from respondents was that it puts them in a bad mood," said Heather Watts, senior vice president and general manager of digital at H&R Block. "It's really a source of anxiety for many consumers."

There could be more tax-related anxiety in store if the government shutdown persists. While the IRS said earlier this week that it will be ready to start accepting tax returns on Jan. 28 and that refunds will not be delayed, getting help from the agency could be more challenging if the shutdown has not ended by then. The IRS said only that it would be recalling "a significant portion" of its furloughed workforce.

About 50.5 million taxpayers turned to online tax-prep software — from providers such as H&R Block or Intuit (maker of TurboTax) — in 2017, according to the latest data available from the IRS.

Which of the following activities have you done while preparing your tax return?

Watch TV 47%
Browse social media 28%
Cook dinner 22%
Fall asleep 16%
Online shopping 15%
Drink alcohol 14%
Yell at the kids 11%
Fight with significant other over money 10%
Other 15%
Source: H&R Block survey of online tax filers

Based on the survey, those do-it-yourselfers largely would rather do their own taxes than pay someone else to do it. Yet doing so could come with a cost: Forty percent said they think they've left money on the table because they didn't understand which deductions and credits were allowed.

This year, confusion could come from additional sources, because tax forms will look different and various rules have changed due to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act that took effect for the 2018 tax year.

If you go it alone and end up baffled, remember that you might be able to find answers to your question on the website of the service you use. And, of course, you can choose to pay for the option of extra help — some online tax-prep sites offer a package that gives you access to live help from a CPA if you need it.

Which of the following things or services would you rather do yourself to avoid spending money on?

Housekeeping 72%
Grocery delivery 72%
Tax preparation 69%
Lawn Service 61%
Job placement service 42%
Financial advisor 36%
Other 1%
Source: H&R Block survey of online tax filers

Keep in mind that simple federal tax returns (and sometimes state returns) can be filled out and filed for free at some of these websites. And if your 2018 adjusted gross income is $66,000 or less, you might qualify for the IRS' Free File program, a partnership involving the agency and a consortium of companies that includes H&R Block, Intuit, Liberty Tax and TaxSlayer.

In fact, roughly 70 percent of the nation's taxpayers — about 100 million people — are eligible, according to the IRS. However, not all of them take advantage of it: Just 2.5 million tax filers used it in 2017, according to IRS data.

The most popular way to file? Leaving it to the pros. In 2017, 78.6 million returns were filed via a professional tax preparer.

If you go that route, carefully choose who prepares your tax returns — because regardless of who does it for you, you are ultimately responsible for its contents. While a fraudulent tax preparer would be on the hook for illegal actions, you could owe back taxes, penalties and interest for filing an inaccurate return.

More from Personal Finance:
Here are two ways to turn your 2019 savings goals into reality
Time to check your withholding for 2019
How to buy a car, with less debt

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