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Updated on Friday, April 6, 2018
A new MagnifyMoney analysis found that 45% of Americans file their taxes without paid help, while the other 55% rely on a paid tax preparer. The analysis is based on IRS statements of income data for returns filed Jan. 1, 2012 – Dec. 31, 2016.
Taking the DIY approach to taxes is most popular in these metro areas: Austin, Texas (62%); Virginia Beach, Va. (61%), Seattle, Wash. (59%), San Antonio, Texas (58%), Richmond, Va. (58%), and Portland, Ore. (56%).
For those taking their taxes into their own hands, using tax preparer software is a perfectly fine alternative. The IRS expects 155 million tax returns to be filed this year and 70% of tax filers are expected to receive refunds. However, missing even one simple detail on your return could make a big difference in your refund.
At the very least, to avoid errors, the IRS recommends e-filing for DIY preparers. It takes out some of the risk for human error, especially since most e-filing programs can help spot mistakes. If you’re comfortable preparing your own taxes, there are some last-minute tax tips to follow as you near the April 17 deadline.
DIY vs. PRO: Which is best for you?
The DIY approach is smart for people with simple personal taxes, where you basically can copy and paste information into the return, said Eric Nisall, founder of accountlancer.com, which provides accounting and bookkeeping for freelancers. For example, if simply have a W-2 from your employer and you don’t itemize deductions or have investments, you could definitely do it yourself.
Online programs continue to offer new features to help customers comprehend their taxes as they go, such as prompts nudging them to fill out missing information, or explaining why certain information is needed
A DIY approach also works if you keep organized throughout the year with receipts and statements, and if you are comfortable going through those details to correctly enter your taxes.
On the flip side, you should probably consider hiring a paid preparer if you are concerned about the difficulty of filing a tax return, have complicated financial information or want to develop a long-term accounting strategy.
Where to find help
There isn’t just one catch-all category for tax preparers today. Preparers include enrolled agents, attorneys and CPAs.
If you’re simply looking for someone to crunch the numbers for you and make sure your taxes are submitted accurately and on time, a basic tax preparer or an IRS-enrolled agent is a perfectly fine solution. They will usually charge a flat rate for filing your taxes (it will vary by location).
If you are looking for a more well-rounded tax preparer who can also offer long-term guidance on your tax strategy, you should seek out a certified public accountant.
“A good CPA won’t just fill in the forms,” said Steve Osiason, a certified public accountant and member of the Florida Institute of CPAs. “A good CPA will give you advice going forward about what you should be doing to save money.”
If you do decide to hire a professional, make sure it’s a reputable preparer who is transparent about their pricing, Nisall said.
He said some tax preparers will charge on such arbitrary basis as per-form completed (some of which take just a few check boxes to complete), or based on what you made in the previous year.
Ask for a list of their qualifications, proof of licensing and if they keep up with changes by taking continuing education classes. At the very least, ask for referrals from trusted friends, family or work colleagues. Some firms may even have Yelp review pages where you can see how past customers have rated their service.
The IRS also has a helpful tool you can use here: Directory of Federal Tax Return Preparers.
Rushing through a meticulous task like filing taxes can mean a smaller return or no return at all.
“That’s where people make the biggest mistakes,” said Nisall.
If you do feel like you’re crunched for time and may not finish by the deadline, Nisall recommends filing for an extension early. He warns not to confuse the automatic extension to file (Form 4868) with an extension to pay; you are still required to pay an estimate by the deadline.
However, if you still don’t have enough time to pay, there’s more good news.
“If you owe money, you can also ask the IRS for an installment agreement when you file your taxes,” said Lisa Greene-Lewis, a CPA with TurboTax. “The installment agreement will allow you to pay your tax debt over six years.”