Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Lessons learned doing taxes

I just finished filing my taxes this year, and I figured I'd share a couple of things I figured out. Actually, I usually figure these things out every year, and then forget them by the time next tax season rolls around.

Lesson 1: Online services are great for Federal Taxes

In past years I've used TaxAct. I decided to give TurboTax a try this year. It felt a little smoother, but almost everything on the Internet gets better after a year, so maybe TaxAct is just as good by now. The point is, they're both pretty good options.

TurboTax offers free Federal e-Filing if you're just using the standard deduction and can therefore use the 1040-EZ form. Then they charge $20 if you're itemizing. TaxAct lets you file your federal return for free even if you itemize, but you have to pay if you want them to e-File it for you.

These online services are nice because you can work on your taxes for a while, save your progress, and come back when you have more time. The information is saved online, where you won't lose it if your computer crashes. You don't have to buy or install any software for your computer. It's really a nice experience overall. As nice as filing taxes can be, anyway.

Lesson 2: Don't fall for the bait-and-switch

The reason these tax preparation services offer to do your federal taxes for free is because they want to suck you into their bait-and-switch trap. After entering all my information for Federal taxes, TurboTax said, "Next we'll copy information from your Federal return to your State return..."

Next thing I knew, I'd entered all the remaining information they needed for my State taxes, and I was all ready to e-File. This is where they pull out the switch: if you want to keep the paperwork they just put together for your State return, that'll cost you another $40 dollars. Ouch! If you don't want to pay the extra money, you'll have to delete your State return before you continue.

When you've done all this work to get your taxes to this point, and you're staring at this big tax return that could be yours right now if you just go along with them, it sure is tempting to just throw your arms up in the air and say, "Fine! Take my stupid forty bucks!" And thus the devil cheateth their souls, and leadeth them carefully down to ... well, to being $40 poorer.

Here's the thing: Utah has a great online tax filing service you can use for free. Once your federal taxes are done, the hard part's over! Just fill in a few key numbers off of the 1040 form you just filed, and don't forget to fill in the Withholding worksheet to tell them how much money your employer already withheld for your state taxes. It takes maybe 20 minutes, and you're done. You get to have the money deposited directly into your bank account for free. It's great! I ended up with the same refund that TurboTax would have given me.

The other bait-and-switch TurboTax pulls is to offer to simply deduct the price of their service from your tax refund... for an extra $25 or something like that. Again, you are exhausted from putting together your tax return, and you're thinking, "What's an extra $25 just to get this over with?" Don't fall for it. It takes all of 2 minutes to whip out your credit card and finish the process.

Lesson 3: There are only two things certain in life

The old maxim still holds true. You probably though that you got out of paying sales tax when you bought all those Christmas gifts on Amazon. Think again.

Federal law makes it so that the states can't require retailers like Amazon to collect sales tax when people outside their home state buy things from them. However, most states (including Utah) have a "Use Tax" that applies to anything you buy to use in the state. If you didn't pay sales tax when you bought it, you have to pay when you file.

This is where you get mad at me and say that you would have been better off not knowing this. Ignorance is bliss and all that. But you cannot be saved in ignorance. Do the right thing.

All major online retailers have a way to look up your past invoices. Take the time to go through them and figure out how much you owe. It probably won't be all that much unless you bought something incredibly expensive last year. You'll feel better knowing that you're not cheating society, and blessings will follow.

By the way, if the items you bought were for use outside the state, they don't qualify for the Use Tax. For example, if you bought a watch for your cousin who lives on the East Coast, you don't have to pay Use Tax. I interpreted this to mean that Amazon gift cards and such don't apply either, because they will be used for purchases on Amazon, which legally take place in the state in which Amazon does business. If they are used to buy something for use in Utah, then the purchaser would be responsible for paying the use tax on that item.
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