|Taxes are like a constant one-two punch to our bank accounts. All year long, we deal with the sight of looking at those deductions on our pay stubs, dreaming about how we could have used the money for something else. Then, around this time of year, many of us pay extra money to a professional tax preparer to assort and file reports to the IRS for money that we’ve already paid.
And it costs a pretty penny, too. According to a 2013 report by the National Society of Accountants, a tax preparer charges an average $261 to file taxes for an itemized 1040 with a Schedule A and state tax return form. For the same documentation without any line deductions, it’s only a bit cheaper at $152. And the region of the United States where tax prep costs the most? The Pacific Coast, at $303.
Tax season is here, but so is free help. Many financial institutions and volunteer organizations provide free tax prep services, particularly to low-income clients, and even the Internal Revenue Service goes in on some charitable tax help, as well. If you prefer to go the self-prep route, don’t forget that you can get your software at a discount with the right coupons.
Read on to find out how to save money by preparing and filing your taxes for free.
Free and Low-Cost Tax Prep Programs
Spring Bank in New York City has partnered with nonprofit Ariva Inc. for more than five years to offer low-income residents free tax preparation, as well as other tax-related troubleshooting. Spring Bank is also offering bank accounts to filers who use Ariva as a resource, allowing them to receive their refunds via direct deposit and avoid hefty check-cashing fees.
Ariva provides assistance to filers who make less than $52,000 with dependents, or $18,000 without dependents, from Jan. 16 to tax preparation day, April 15.
State Employees’ Credit Union
State Employees’ Credit Union in North Carolina offers tax prep assistance to eligible members. According to the credit union, if you’re a member of SECU, tax preparation reps will first determine if you qualify for help under the IRS-sponsored VITA program (more on that below). If not, the credit union’s own program costs a flat, low rate of $75: a significant savings when compared to the traditional tax prep route.
SECU’s site details all the documentation you’ll need to bring, including:
A picture ID and Social Security card
2012 tax return
All income documentation (W-2s, 1099s, etc.)
Documentation of other expenses, like childcare, school tuition, proof of student loan interest paid
(For this low-cost tax prep, members’ household income must be more than $52,000 to qualify.)
Alternatives Federal Credit Union
Members of Alternatives Federal Credit Union in Ithaca, N.Y., can also find an alternative (and free) way to prep their 2013 taxes. Also open through April 15, the credit union will prepare federal and state income tax returns for eligible members. If you’re single, you must earn less than $30,000 annually; families must earn less than $52,000 to take advantage of the tax prep program.
Alternatives’ tax program has helped prepare, according to the credit union website, more than 10,000 tax returns to date. The credit union’s website has more details on walk-in times, dates and eligibility requirements.
VITA and TCE
The IRS’ Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, or VITA, can be a vital help for people looking to save on prepping/filing their taxes this year, who earn $52,000 or less annually. Here, IRS volunteers will help organize and e-file your income taxes. According to the IRS, these VITA volunteers “can inform taxpayers about special tax credits for which they may qualify such as Earned Income Tax Credit, Child Tax Credit, and Credit for the Elderly or the Disabled.”
VITA sites can be found at community and neighborhood centers, libraries, schools, shopping malls, and other locations cataloged by the VITA Locator Tool. Interested filers can also call 1(800) 906-9887.
The IRS’ Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE) program gives free tax help and answers tax questions for people 60 and over, about topics ranging from retirement funding to pensions and other important issues. TCE volunteers are often retired individuals associated with local nonprofit groups.
A Different Kind of Tax Refund
Don’t ever, ever buy anything full price, even if you’re looking to purchase tax software and do your own filing.
H&R Block, for instance, sells several tiers of its tax filing software, ranging from free to $36.99. (Disclosure: The free version does come with a $27.99 filing fee for each state return.) This free version offers zero-cost prep, printing and e-file, free in-person audit support, and free expert tax advice.
Coupon websites like RetailMeNot.com and Coupons.com are also currently offering discounts on a range of tax filing software, like TurboTax, TaxSlayer and the H&R Block software mentioned above. Just check for the coupon codes and enter them at checkout.
Take any of the options mentioned in this story and you’re bound to save money on preparing your taxes – and maybe even avoid paying a single cent. So though paying taxes might be unavoidable, think of the money you save prepping and filing them as a sort of tax return on top of your forthcoming tax return — one is the entree, the other is a free dessert.