The Ultimate Guide to Doing Your Taxes

Why do you need to file a tax return, and how do you do it?

If you’ve got a job with a regular paycheck, you’re almost certainly already paying taxes! The taxes you owe on your earnings are withheld from your paycheck and paid to the federal and state governments.

So why do you still need to “do your taxes” every year?

Why You Need to File a Tax Return

For starters, your payroll withholding usually isn’t exactly right: The decisions you make when you set up your payroll withholding at the beginning of your employment can result in you under- or over-paying your taxes.

Further, you may be able to reduce the taxes you owe — and thus, get a refund on taxes you already paid — by taking certain deductions or credits provided for in the tax code. On the flip-side, you might have additional income not included in your paycheck that you’re legally required to report, and which may result in you owing more in taxes.

The result of all this is that you’re required to file a tax return every year. Through this process, it’s determined whether you owe additional taxes beyond what you’ve already paid to the federal and state governments, or if you’re owed a refund of the taxes you’ve already paid.

Your tax return for the tax year is due on or near April 15 of the following year. For instance, your tax return for 2017 will be due on April 17, 2018.

How to File a Tax Return

There are three main ways to file your taxes.

  1. File your taxes manually, filling out a form called a 1040, according to instructions provided by the IRS; and mail it to the IRS, along with any payments you owe.
  1. Use a software program or the website of a service like TurboTax or H&R Block. The service will walk you through a series of questions about your income and potential deductions, fill out your 1040, and (if you so choose) file it electronically for you.
  2. Get professional help from an accountant or tax preparer, who will work with you to maximize your refund and fill out your tax return on your behalf.

    The first option is free. If you go with the second option, you’ll likely need to pay a fee, though some programs now offer free filing if your return is simple enough. The third option — professional help — will almost certainly cost you money.

    How Your Taxes Are Determined

    How much you need to pay in taxes is determined primarily by your total income. The federal government uses a progressive tax system, which means that the more money you make, the higher your effective tax rate is. These rates are determined by tax brackets; for instance, if you make between $91,900 and $191,650, you’re in the 28 percent tax bracket. However, only the portion of your income above $91,900 will be charged at that 28 percent rate. Thus, contrary to popular belief, getting a raise that moves you into a higher tax bracket does not mean that you wind up bringing home less money!

    If you have a regular job, your employer will give you a form called a  W-2; this includes information on how much they paid you, and how much has already been deducted in taxes. This information is then transferred to your tax return, and is the main method for determining how much you owe — or are owed — in taxes. Self-employed people and contractors use similar forms called 1099s, and other forms may be issued to you from banks and investment firms where you’ve accumulated interest income.

    The income information here is all transferred to your 1040.

    However, the amount of your income that’s actually taxable can be reduced by what’s known as deductions. For instance, if you gave $2,000 to qualifying charities and non-profits in 2017, you can deduct that when you do your taxes in spring 2018. (Note that this doesn’t mean that your total tax bill gets reduced by $2,000, but rather that the income figure used to determine your tax bill is lowered by this much — which, in turn, lowers your effective tax rate by some amount.) Tax filers may choose to itemize such deductions, but there’s also a standard deduction that, for many filers, will wind up being higher than the total of their itemized deductions. A tax program or preparer will be able to make this decision easy.

    Getting That Refund (or Paying That Bill)

    Once you’ve entered all the relevant information about your income, deductions, and credits, you’ll be able to determine the balance — whether you owe money, or if you’re owed a refund.

    If you owe money, you’ll probably just send that money to the appropriate government agencies (the IRS and/or your state’s department of revenue) along with your tax return; if it’s more than you can pay all at once, you’ll be able to set up a payment plan. If you’re owed a refund, you have a few options for receiving your payment(s), including a mailed check or direct deposit into a bank account.

    Don’t forget to save a copy of your tax return for your records — it will come in handy when you’re doing your taxes next year, and it will really come in handy if the IRS has questions and decides to audit you.