Editors' pick: Originally published Feb. 27.
It's kind of appalling what you don't know about filing your own tax return.
The Internal Revenue Service started the nation's tax season when it began accepting electronic tax returns at the end of January. More than 153 million individual tax returns expected to be filed in 2017. The first refunds claiming the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Additional Child Tax Credit (ACTC) start arriving this week.
"For this tax season, it's more important than ever for taxpayers to plan ahead," says IRS Commissioner John Koskinen. "People should make sure they have their year-end tax statements in hand, and we encourage people to file as they normally would, including those claiming the credits affected by the refund delay. Even with these significant changes, IRS employees and the entire tax community will be working hard to make this a smooth filing season for taxpayers."
Granted, the IRS makes it a bit difficult for taxpayers to keep things straight by tweaking the process each year. This year, it's going to be particularly tough for folks who don't save their prior-year tax returns. If you're changing tax filing software or tax preparers this year, you're going to need the adjusted gross income from your 2015 tax return in order to file electronically -- as the Electronic Filing Pin is has been eliminated to prevent filing fraud.
Some changes, however, have more immediate benefits. This year, you don't have to file your federal tax return until April 18 this year, thanks to April 15 landing on a Saturday and Washington, D.C.'s Emancipation Day celebration taking place on Monday, April 18. That gives you some time to work out a plan of attack, if you haven't already, and find some places to cut into this year's tax return.
"The opening of filing season reflects months and months of work by IRS employees," Koskinen says. "This year, we had a number of important legislative changes to program into our systems, including the EITC refund date, as well as dealing with resource limitations. Our systems require extensive programming and testing beforehand to ensure we're ready to accept and process more than 150 million returns."
However, tax law is dense, layered and intimidating, which explains some of the more interesting indiosyncrasies of the U.S. taxpayer. For example, more than one in three U.S. taxpayers with household income less than $50,000 a year hired someone to prepare their taxes last year, even though they may have qualified for free tax software for filing, according to a new NerdWallet survey.
There's a reason you're shelling out that money: the rest of that survey shows that you're frighteningly unaware of even basic federal tax rules. Of the questions NerdWallet asked about IRS rules for common deductions, retirement and education savings plans, taxpayers, collectively, answered just 25% of the questions correctly. Here's how bad it gets:
You don't know your tax bracket: It's not just a few of you who don't know what income tax bracket you fall into -- 46% of you have no idea which of the seven tax brackets between 10% to 39.6% covers your income.
"Knowing your bracket can help you determine the value of any deductions you take and whether a tax-advantaged investment is worthwhile," says Liz Weston, NerdWallet columnist and certified financial planner. "When you pay a dollar in mortgage interest, for example, your bracket determines whether you can save 10 cents or 39.6 cents."
You don't know what your tax forms are: Only 43% of you know that a W-4 is used by taxpayers to tell their employer how much to withhold from their pay for taxes. Not only did 57% of you get this wrong, but a full 33% got it confused with a W-2 form, which tells workers how much tax was withheld from pay that year.
You don't know when you have to pay taxes: Most taxpayers (58%) in the survey think that if they file for a tax extension, they can delay tax payments. No. You have to pay at least an estimate of what you owe by the April deadline. If you don't, what you didn't pay is subject to interest and a late-payment penalty — even with an extension.
You don't know what your deductions are: Think contributions to the popular 529 college savings plans are tax-deductible? Yes and no. Earnings on 529 accounts are tax-free when taken out to pay for college, but contributions aren't deductible from federal taxes. However, there are some states that allow 529 contributions to be deducted.
Meanwhile (59%) of you are missing out on actual deductions by not knowing that you can contribute up to $5,500 for traditional IRAs up to the day taxes are due. Gambling losses from casinos, horse races, raffles and lotteries are also deductible on federal income taxes, as long as the amount isn't more than your winnings. Yet only 34% of you knew that.
You don't know how to vet your tax preparer: A professional who prepares your taxes requires a valid preparer tax identification number, or PTIN, from the IRS to do so. It allows you to check their qualifications and record and comes in especially handy since very few states regulate tax preparers. However, 56% of you don't know that a PTIN is a prerequisite -- or that it exists.
Oddly, the only things you seem to know well is that mileage driving back and forth for volunteer work is tax-deductible, and you can adjust tax withholdings with your employer anytime during the year. Perhaps it's those virtuous, complicated lives your lead that keep most of your paying for tax preparation.
Last year, 35% of taxpayers used commercial tax software such as TurboTax or TaxAct o file their taxes, while 9% used free tax software tools like Free File. Roughly 40% of you hire a tax professional, such as a tax accountant or tax preparation company (32%). Roughly 17% of you do your taxes the hard way by using paper and mailing (9%) or getting a friend or family member to do so for you (8%).
Also, as was mentioned earlier, taxpayers who make under $50,000 and are still choosing more costly options. Last year, 26% hired a tax professional, such as an accountant, which costs an average of $273 for each return. Another 12% hired a national tax preparation company like H&R Block (which averages $154 per return) or Liberty Tax Service ($228). A whopping 33% used commercial software, which as of Feb. 1 cost on average $69, though commercial software providers including as TaxAct, FreeTaxUSA and H&R Block's online tax service, allow customers to file simple federal returns (Form 1040EZ and Form 1040A) for free.
Just 12% filed their federal income taxes with IRS software that is free to taxpayers who make $64,000 or less. That's a shame, as the IRS estimated in 2016 that more than 70% of Americans — or about 100 million people — qualify to file their taxes for free.
There are people who seek the comfort of a professional, and there are free options there, too. Volunteer Income Tax Assistance offers free tax help to those who generally earn $54,000 or less, have disabilities or limited English skills, while Tax Counseling for the Elderly also provides free tax help to anyone despite specializing in older taxpayers."It's never been cheaper or easier to file taxes electronically," Weston says. "But people are still worried about doing it wrong or missing out on tax savings, so they're paying for that reassurance."