Taxes 101: A tax prep crash course

We’ve rounded up some helpful pointers and information for tax filers of all ages and stages.

February 24, 2021
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It’s tax filing time, and for many of us, it can be a little nerve-wracking. After all, we all want optimal results, whether that means maximizing a return or minimizing the amount owed, and it’s easy to feel like we missed something — especially if you’re new to filing taxes or your circumstances have changed. No matter your situation, we have some good news: We’ve put together some tips to help point you in the right direction. But before we dive in, please note: We are not a substitute for a trained tax professional, and we strongly encourage you to consult with one to tackle your specific needs. Now, let’s get to it!

Filing for the first time?

Welcome to the world of income taxes! There are lots of tips and resources available to help make filing your taxes fairly straightforward. Here are a few to get you started:

  • Gather everything you need. This includes (but is not limited to) W-2s from your employer(s), 1099s, tax forms that report other types of income, tax deductions, and corresponding receipts.
  • Do an income double-check. Did you forget about earnings from a side hustle or interest from an investment or savings account? Even cash income should be reported and may even help your case for a larger refund if you use your own equipment and supplies and itemize your deductions. (Check with a pro on this one — and we know you know this, but you should report all income regardless.)
  • Choose the right filing status. You don’t want to leave money on the table! For example, say you’re unmarried and have a dependent child. You may think you should file single status, but you’d actually be better off filing as head of household.
  • Look into education credits. These credits help offset the cost of higher education by reducing the amount of tax owed on your tax return. Other important considerations include deductions for charitable contributions, as well as other miscellaneous credits and deductions for individuals. With a small amount of investigative work (and our handy links), you may be able to increase your return, or at least be better informed about the outcome. (Again, it’s best to consult a tax professional!)
  • Lastly, double- and triple-check for errors. Review the calculation of your income, the spelling of your name, and the accuracy of your address, date of birth, Social Security number, and bank account information. Inadvertent mistakes can significantly hold up your return or even raise unnecessary red flags.

Just turned 18 and filing on your own?

The first thing you need to do is find out whether your parents are claiming you as a dependent. This is a biggie, as you are unable to file on your own if they have included you on their return. Before you begin, talk with your parents to avoid misunderstandings. If they have been paying for your college expenses, they may want to claim you on their taxes so that they can claim education credits. However, if you paid more than half your own expenses for the year, your parents can’t claim you as a dependent on their taxes, and you can file on your own. In that case, refer to the section above for first-time filers.

Have a minor child who has income?

Congrats at achieving this milestone in child-rearing! It can make filing a bit stickier, though. What you don’t want to do is simply add your child’s income on to yours — a major tax faux pas. However, a few simple diagnostic questions should help you determine whether the income is earned, like from a job, or unearned, such as interest, dividends, Social Security, capital gains, or survivor annuities­, as well as whether it meets or exceeds the filing threshold. A visit to IRS Publication 501 (scroll about three-fourths of the way down) can answer those questions and many others pertaining to dependents. Even if your child isn’t required to file, they may want to in order to get the amount owed them. In either case, it’s as simple as filing for him or her — or, you can seize the opportunity for a teaching moment and do it together.

Filing resources

So where should you turn with your tax-filing questions? While COVID-19 has certainly impacted the number of in-person tax filing assistance sites, help is still available, and it’s just a click away. We’ve compiled a list of helpful links to hopefully make your filing as painless as possible:

  • Start with the IRS. For answers to questions both general and specific, links to forms, and helpful articles on tax topics of interest, you really need the Internal Revenue Service.
  • Filing assistance and how to find it. The IRS’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) and Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE) programs offer free basic tax return preparation to qualified individuals. For general information on these programs, the VIT/TCE locator tool, and the AARP locator tool, you’ll want to visit this page on the IRS website. AARP Foundation Tax-Aide provides in-person and remote tax assistance free of charge to anyone, with a special focus on taxpayers who are 50 or older or who have low to moderate income. 
  • For taxpayers in the Cornhusker State. Nebraska Department of Revenue’s website is chock full of information, both general and specific. Additionally, Lincoln VITA offers tax appointments for United States residents and for international visitors in the Lincoln area. An added bonus: The Lincoln VITA Coalition, through the University of Nebraska – Lincoln, prepares tax returns for low-income, working families and students for free. There are tax preparation sites available in the Omaha, Nebraska area, and Creighton University’s VITA program offers tax filing assistance to qualifying individuals.
  • For Kansas filers. Kansas Department of Revenue is a great resource for state-specific filing information. Additionally, K-State Research and Extension offers VITA virtual and by-mail filing assistance.
  • For those who serve our country. MilTax from Military OneSource and the Department of Defense offers free tax services, including tax prep and e-filing software and personalized support for current, retired, and honorably discharged military service members.

We hope we’ve given you enough info to help you get started — and alleviated some tax time anxiety in the process. At the end of the day, don’t be afraid to utilize all of the resources available to you. And when in doubt, contact a tax advisor in your area for specific guidance on your unique situation. We wish you a painless tax season!

Check out our tax resources page for more help.

  • Managing Your Money
  • Taxes

Learning Center articles, guides, blogs, podcasts, and videos are for informational purposes only and are not an advertisement for a product or service. The accuracy and completeness is not guaranteed and does not constitute legal or tax advice. Please consult with your own tax, legal, and financial advisors.