How to Prepare Your Taxes & File Your Tax Return – (Possibly for Free!)

Thank you H&R Block for sponsoring this post. While this was a sponsored opportunity from H&R Block, all content and opinions expressed here are my own.

Filing your taxes isn’t always fun. But it doesn’t have to be a complicated process or take a long time. If your situation is fairly basic, you can file your taxes in less than half an hour. Of course, the more complicated your situation, the more time it may take.

Regardless of how complicated your situation is, you can make the process faster and easier by using a checklist to gather your paperwork and other records. It’s a good idea to make sure you have everything you need before starting your tax return. This includes your required tax paperwork, account numbers if requesting an electronic refund, and the tax software program to make the job easier.

Let’s take a look at everything you need to prepare your taxes, and possibly even find some last minute tax deductions.

Gather Your Personal Information and Tax Forms

This is the most important step for preparing your taxes. Spending some time to gather the required paperwork before you start will prevent you from starting and stopping your return while you go look for documents you may have forgotten about. That’s why I recommend having a tax prep checklist before you start your tax return.

Over the years I’ve created my own checklist for personal use, based on my previous tax returns. If you don’t already have your own, I recommend checking out this tax prep checklist from H&R Block. You can use the basic checklist, or use their tool to create a customized version.

Which Information and Tax Forms Do You Need?

You will need to gather all the personal information for yourself and each of the dependents who will be on your tax return (if applicable). Make sure you have the full name, birthdate, and Social Security Number for each person on your tax return. You will also need records of your income and tax deductions and a copy of last year’s tax return if you have it handy. Note: H&R Block makes it easy to import a pdf copy of last year’s tax return.

Some military members may ave special tax considerations. Be sure to check out these military tax tips to help you understand some situations you may face when you file your taxes, and which forms you may need.

The following are some examples of the tax forms or information you may need. Just use this as a starting point because each situation is unique.

Common Tax Forms for Income (this is not an exhaustive list):

  • W-2 (from your employer)
  • Savings and Investments: Form 1099-INT, 1099-DIV, 1099-B, 1099-S, 1099-SA, etc.
  • Retirement Income – Form 1099-R, 1099-SSA, etc.
  • Self-employment income – 1099-MISC
  • Copies of any other 1099s you may have received
  • Records of any other income you received, as well as associated expenses, if applicable.

Common Tax Deductions and Related Forms (this is not an exhaustive list):

  • Charitable contributions
  • Mortgage interest – Form 1098
  • Other Form 1098s
  • Proof of Health Insurance Form 1095-A, or 1095-B and/or 1095-C
  • Child care expenses
  • Any other expenses that may be tax deductible
  • Any applicable military

When are tax forms available? Most tax forms are sent out by the middle or end of January. Some tax forms are released later in the tax season. So watch your mailbox and/or your online accounts for more information. Most military tax forms are released by the end of January.

Determine How You Will Prepare Your Taxes

You generally have three options for filing your taxes: paper, tax preparation service, or tax prep software. My preferred method is filing electronically, either with a tax preparation software program, or a professional tax preparation service. But the latter is only necessary for very complicated situations. The vast majority of tax returns can be filed with a commercial tax software program such as H&R Block Online. And if you have a basic tax return, you may be able to file free with H&R Block MoreZero.

Filing a paper tax return is my least favorite method. Paper returns take longer to process, are more prone to errors (either on the preparation side, or when being processed by the IRS), and you are more liable to miss money-saving tax deductions. Finally, the longer it takes to process your return, the longer it takes to process your refund if you have one coming your way.

Most tax software programs are faster and easier to use and will often help you find ways to save even more money than if you do your taxes by hand. For most situations, using tax preparation software is the easiest and most cost-effective method.

Find out if you can file your tax return for free with H&R Block MoreZero.

Look for Last-Minute Tax Savings

You may be able to save on your taxes up to the time you file your return. Make sure you have taken advantage of all last-minute savings, such as contributing to a tax-deductible IRA, or a self-employed retirement account if you are eligible.

Most commercial tax software will also help you find tax deductions you may not have even know you were eligible to receive.

For example, The IRS has reported that approximately 20% of people who are eligible to claim the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) fail to claim it. That’s 1 in 5 people who are missing out on a very big tax credit that can help them save big on their tax return. You can learn more about how to qualify for the EITC here.

Using a tax software program such as H&R Block Online will help you identify these potential tax savings and claim them if you are eligible.

File Your Tax Return

Once you have all your paperwork together and you’ve decided how you will file your taxes, it’s time to get started.

Grab your paperwork, set aside some time, and get started. Tax software has come a long way in the last few years. The software is powerful enough and easy enough to use that you can even file your tax return from your smartphone or tablet. Check out H&R Block’s Tax Prep App here.

Of course, H&R Block still offers an online version and a version you can download for either Windows or Mac. You can easily switch back and forth between the mobile app and desktop version or online app if you prefer to work on a larger screen.

H&R Block makes it easy to import documents such as your W-2. With H&R Block Snap-a-Pic, you can take a picture of your W-2 with your phone and import it to your tax return.

The H&R Block software walks you through an interview process about your income, expenses, and financial situation. This information is used to help find potential tax deductions. The entire tax return process is streamlined and easy. And it’s guaranteed to be 100% accurate and get you the maximum refund.

After You File Your Taxes

Your job is almost over. Once you file your taxes, you have to either send the government a check for the amount you owe them, or await your tax refund (the latter is better, of course!). You can use the H&R Block tax refund status tool to track your refund.

I will also give you one more recommendation: keep a file of your tax-related documents up to date throughout the year. I simply keep a large manila envelope in my desk drawer and I place all relevant documents, forms, and receipts in there throughout the year (right after I scan them into a file folder organized by tax year).

This ensures you keep all your tax documents up to date throughout the year. It will save you a lot of time when it comes time to file your taxes next year. Here is an overview of my tax organization system.

What Are you Waiting for? Let’s Get Started!

Filing your tax return doesn’t have to be difficult. Get started with this Tax Prep Checklist, gather your documents, and then start with your return.

Using a tax prep software program like H&R Block will guide you through a step-by-step interview process to make sure you don’t miss any potential sources of income, tax deductions, or other relevant information.

To top it off, H&R Block has audit protection and guarantees 100% accuracy, and guarantees a maximum refund. So you can rest easy knowing your tax return is as good as it’s going to get. And if you qualify for H&R Block MoreZero*, your tax return may be free to file.

You can’t beat free!

*H&R Block Online offers several tax return plans, including the following:

  • H&R Block MoreZero – free
  • Deluxe Online Tax Filing – starting at $34.99 (Best for Homeowners and Deductions)
  • Self-Employed Online Tax Filing – starting at $74.99 (Best for Investors and Rental Property Owners)

The best plan for your needs will depend on your overall tax situation. Compare all H&R Block plans to learn more!

About the author

Forrest Baumhover

Forrest Baumhover is the founder and principal of Westchase Financial Planning Inc. Throughout his career as a naval officer, his desire to help his fellow Sailors, friends and family members resolve their financial concerns has long been Forrest’s inspiration for starting a second career as a financial planner.

Forrest earned his Certificate in Financial Planning from the College for Financial Planning in 2014 and passed the CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ exam in May 2015. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree in English from the United States Naval Academy and a Master of Business Administration from Old Dominion University.

Forrest’s media articles have been published on the Christian Science Monitor, NASDAQ, Business Insider, and Yahoo websites. He is a regular contributor to NerdWallet, a personal finance website dedicated to helping consumers make responsible financial decisions.

When Forrest is not working, he and his wife, Tania, enjoy being outside with their three children exploring the Tampa Bay area.

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