How to Stiff the Taxman

I love doing my taxes.

Most people don’t believe me when I tell them, but I really do enjoy it.

I love the complexity and ever-changing rules. It’s like a giant springtime crossword puzzle. But I hate losing money or overpaying the feds. That’s why each year I find new and better ways to save money.

I’ve gathered some of my best tax tips to help get you ready for April 18 (remember, Tax Day is late this year).

Tax Tip No. 1: Don’t pay to get your taxes done.

The IRS provides free filing services for folks whose income is less than $60,000 a year. It’s a program called Free File.

You don’t have to buy or download any software. You just file through the IRS’ website. And the site protects your personal information. Free File even allows you to track your refund status or pay your taxes electronically. Visit the site to learn more.

If you’d rather have in-person help, the IRS also offers that assistance through the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program. If you earn less than $54,000 a year or are disabled you can get free help from its tax preparers. Check here for your closest location.

The Tax Counseling for the Elderly program also offers free tax help for people 60 and older. It specializes in pensions and retirement questions. You can learn more and look for your closest location here.

If you make more than these limits, I suggest using a software program like TurboTax.

If you already have all of your forms and receipts, it should take three hours or less to do your return. Give it a shot for about 15 minutes to see if it’s right for you. One thing to know – it is conservative. So it doesn’t play fast and loose with tax laws. That’s how you keep from making mistakes.

If your situation is complex, an accountant might be better. But on the other hand, I have found many errors over the years in friends’ tax returns done by accountants. So make sure you go to a reputable accountant and get a price quote upfront.

Tax Tip No. 2: Claim your education expenses.

If you’re paying tuition (yours or a dependent child’s), two tax credits can help lower your tax bill…

The Lifetime Learning Credit lets you claim up to $2,000 in education expenses each year, for an unlimited number of years… as long as your joint income is less than $130,000 (or $65,000 if single). However, you can only claim this credit once per annual return.

The other credit is the American Opportunity Tax Credit. This credit allows you to claim up to $2,500 of education expenses. You can only claim this credit for four years, but unlike the Lifetime Learning Credit, you can claim this credit per eligible student. And the income limits are roomier… $180,000 if married filing jointly and $90,000 if single.

You can claim either of these credits, but not both. Learn more about education credits and other education tax benefits here.

Tax Tip No. 3: Grow your nest egg.

The Saver’s Credit allows you to get as much as $2,000 in tax credit if you contribute to a retirement account.

The lower your adjusted gross income (AGI), the greater the amount of your credit. If you’re a married couple filing jointly, for example, and your income is below $36,500, you could earn 50% of your contributions up to $2,000. The highest income you can have and still qualify for the credit is $61,500.

And the credit applies to almost any retirement account, including IRAs, 401(k)s, and 403(b)s. Check out all of the available plans right here.

I encourage my coworkers to make regular contributions to their retirement accounts. Do what my coworkers do and check your taxes – if the tax credit is a possibility, you can still contribute to your retirement account and have it count for 2015’s taxes up until April 18, 2016.

If you haven’t done your taxes yet, I urge you to make the most of your savings with these tips. And don’t forget that this year, Tax Day is April 18.

What We’re Reading…

  • Can you deduct a tree? In one state you can. Find out more strange state tax laws here.