You’re prepared: Your documents are at the ready, you’ve got an eye on the deductions and credits you can take, and you’re ready to fill out your tax return for the first time. Now we just need to walk through how to find the right forms, make important choices about how you’ll file, and actually submit your paperwork to the IRS so they can process your return. We promise it’s not painful.
Start simple: Use the right form
Just like making sure you use a No. 2 pencil to take a multiple-choice test, making sure you’re using the right form for your taxes, ensures all your hard work isn’t for naught. You’ll use some variation of Form 1040 in order to file:
- Income Tax Return for Single and Joint Filers With No Dependents: Form 1040EZ
- U.S. Individual Income Tax Return (for those with a taxable income of less than $100,000): Form 1040A
- U.S. Individual Income Tax Return: Form 1040
Use this handy questionnaire from the IRS if you need help determining which form is the right one for you to use when filing your taxes. Before you start, you need to know how much income you made, your filing status, and how much federal income tax was already withheld from your earnings. If you work full time, all this information should be on the W2 or 1099 you receive from your employer.
Standard or itemized deductions?
You have the option of taking the standard deduction on your taxes or you can itemize when you file. The standard deduction is a set amount that you can automatically deduct from your taxable income — hence, standard.
When you itemize, you list out every single deduction you can claim. Depending on your situation, itemizing may allow you to reduce your taxable income more than the standard deduction.
To decide which makes the most sense for you, start by knowing your standard deduction. Here are the amounts for the 2016 tax year:
|Married Filing Jointly
|Married Filing Separately
|Head of Household
This means if you file your taxes as single, you automatically receive a $6,300 reduction to your taxable income. It makes sense to itemize on your tax return if your itemized deductions add up to more than $6,300. You’ll reduce your taxable income more if you itemize, meaning you’ll likely owe less.
McCarthy says many first-time tax filers will find the standard deduction is more than their itemized deductions. “But if you’re a homeowner, have high medical expenses, have made significant donations to charity, or if you have high unreimbursed employment expenses,” he advises, “you should take a close look at itemizing.”
Get your return to the right place
When you’re ready, you have a few options for actually filing and getting your return to the IRS. The easiest is to work with a tax preparer who can help you prepare your entire return and will submit it on your behalf.
But you can also prepare your own return and submit it to the IRS yourself. You can fill out and send in a paper return, or you can file electronically using the government’s E-File options. Depending on your income, you can file for free through the IRS’s website.
Note that paper refunds can take up to six weeks to process. Filing online is much faster — and safer. If you’re entitled to a refund, you should get it within 21 business days of filing your return. In addition, the online e-filing option really walks you through the process, step by step, and offer guidance on where to find certain numbers on your forms.
Once you click “submit” (or your tax preparer does), you can check the status of your return or refund after you file using a portal provided by the IRS. You’ll need your Social Security number, your filing status, and your refund amount to access your status.