Chances are you aren’t thinking about your taxes just yet. It’s March and taxes are something to worry about in April. However, you’ve surely noticed some tax forms coming in the mail. Your employer has sent your W-2. And at this point, your stuff is due in three weeks, more or less. So first, congratulations for clicking on this article! And second, to save you time and trouble—and money—avoid these common mistakes when you get started. Which will be soon, right? (Right?)
It’s not worth paying a professional $273 (on average) to prepare your tax return when you can do it yourself with software for less than $20… in less time than it takes to shoot through a few Call of Duty missions.
It’s easy to put off preparing your tax return, but it’s to your advantage to get cracking. Think about it: The sooner you file, the sooner you’ll get your refund. If you do it electronically you could have the refund in your checking account before April even begins, instead of, like, Mother’s Day. It’s your money, why wait to get it?
And hey, even if you end up owing money, it helps to start sooner. Preparing your return now gives you almost a month to compile the cash to send to the IRS. Hell, you can probably Uber it together between now and then.
2. Paying Someone to Do Your Taxes
Unless you own your own company, have an estate trust from a long-lost rich uncle, or possess some other unconventional source of income, you can safely do your own taxes. It’s not worth paying a tax professional $273 (on average) to prepare your tax return when you do it yourself with software from H&R Block or Turbo Tax for less than $20.
Yes, doing your own taxes can feel intimidating. But in reality personal taxes can typically be done in a few hours. This is not brain surgery. It’s just a matter of collecting documents from your employer (W-2), banks (1098 & 1099), etc. and putting that information in the right box on a tax form.
Thirty years ago, that was difficult because you had to do your taxes manually on paper. That was a mistake-prone process that was both cumbersome and tedious. But software automates all of that now.
It gets even easier to do your taxes the second year (and beyond) because the software can download the return from the previous year. Chances are the mechanics of your taxes haven’t changed, and even if they have the software will walk you through it and make sure you are doing the right thing. The end result? A perfect return in less time than it takes to shoot through a few Call of Duty missions.
3. Trying to Game Your Exemptions
Some people wring their hands year after year trying to pick the perfect number of exemptions on their W-4 in order to get a neutral tax return (i.e. $0 refund).
It’s true that when you’re getting a refund, you’ve effectively given the government an interest-free loan, but big fucking deal! What are you really giving up? The average tax refund is $2,800. (I’ll use $3,000 going forward in examples to simplify the math.)
This is not the case where $3,000 will turn into $60,000 in 30 years, assuming a 10 percent annual return. That can only happen through the miracle of compounding interest over years and years. Compounding interest is bupkus in year 1.
If you want to invest in stocks, the historical return on the S&P 500 is 10.2 percent. Over one year that investment would net you $320, on average. That’s not insignificant, but stocks are risky investments. The standard deviation is 20.2 percent. That means there’s a reasonable chance you could also lose $267 (or more) instead.
If you preferred to put your money someplace safer, a money market account currently yields 1.1 percent. That would give you a paltry $33. That’s not even worth the entertainment value to see if you ‘win’ and beat the IRS. (At least Vegas casinos give you free booze while you’re gambling.)
4. Splurging Your Refund
Your tax refund is not ‘found’ money to be used to buy toys. You should know what you are going to use the refund for before the check is deposited. In fact, you should know what you’re going to use it for before the year starts.
I typically use my tax refund to replenish my emergency cash savings account (if needed), and then fund my Roth IRA retirement account. If any money remains I’ll donate it to charity (which gives a tax benefit for the next year). All of this sets me up well for the future, but I’ll concede it is pretty boring.
You can also use your tax refund to pay for something more exciting but in a responsible way. For example, the tax refund could be your vacation fund. Last year I used part of my refund to buy a new computer. This purchase made me appreciate the computer more because I had to ‘earn’ it with deferred gratification. I think the same would be true for you if you spend the refund deliberately.
In the end, taxes are nothing to be afraid of. Sure they’re a pain in the ass, but it’s best to just rip the Band-Aid right off, ya know. Do it this weekend and, we promise, those Saturday night beers will be that much more satisfying.