Beginner’s Guide on How to File Taxes

By Timothy Moore · January 31, 2024 · 11 minute read

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Beginner’s Guide on How to File Taxes

Welcome to the wonderful world of filing taxes, a key aspect of adulting. The process can be intimidating, especially for first-timers, but you will get the hang of it. Actually, once you’ve filed a couple of times, it can get easier, because you know just which documents and numbers you’ll need to complete your forms. That applies whether you file on your own or work with a tax preparer.

So, here’s a great starting point for learning how to file taxes when you aren’t so familiar with the procedure. Read on for the details you need, including:

•   What you need to file taxes

•   Where you can file your taxes

•   How can you pay your taxes

•   Tips for first-time tax filers

•   Mistakes to avoid when filing your taxes.

What Do You Need to File Your Taxes?

If this is your first time filing, it’s a good idea to gather everything you need before you sit down at a computer or with an accountant. Here’s what you’ll need:

•   Social Security number: If you aren’t sure, ask your parents or legal guardians. Once you start filing taxes, it’s a good idea for you to keep your Social Security card and other important documents, like your birth certificate, instead of leaving them at your parents’ house.

•   Wage and income information: For most first-time filers, this will simply be a W-2 form from your employer.

◦   If you did any freelance or contacted work, you should receive 1099 forms from each entity that paid you.

◦   If you have a bank account or investments that earned interest, and you will have received forms for those, typically a 1099-INT or 1099-DIV.

•   Documentation for tax credits and deductions: When doing your taxes at a young age, it is unlikely that you will qualify for many tax credits and deductions, if any at all. And because the standard deduction has increased significantly over the years, you will likely take the standard deduction (instead of itemized), for which you won’t need any documentation.

◦   If you’re a student, also look for the form 1098-T from your school, which details tuition payments you have made and funds received (such as grants), to help you identify whether you are eligible for any deductions. In addition, be aware that some college scholarships or grants may be considered taxable income.

•   Bank account info: If you expect to receive a refund and want the money electronically deposited into your bank account, you need to have your account number and routing number at the ready. If you owe money, you can pay from your bank account, a credit or debit card, or a paper check or money order.

The IRS also advises checking with parents before filing to see if they are claiming you as a dependent.

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Where Can You Fill Out Your Taxes?

When learning how to do taxes for the first time, one big question is exactly where to get this done. The IRS allows you to fill out your taxes in several ways, either on paper or electronically.

Filing Online

You can file online directly through the IRS website with a tool called IRS Free File. And if your adjusted gross income (AGI) is $79,000 or less, the IRS even offers free guided tax preparation. Even if you brought in more than $79,000, the IRS makes all its tax forms available for e-file free of charge.

However, navigating tax forms can be overwhelming. Purchased tax software comes with educational resources and interactive platforms that prompt you for the correct information. Using tax software could help filers avoid math errors and find deductions and tax credits they may not have otherwise known about.

As a filer, it’s up to you to research popular tax software solutions (such as TurboTax, H&R Block, TaxSlayer, and TaxAct) and find the option that suits you best. Prices can range from about $25 to $89 and up.

Filing Manually

The old method of filing by hand with pen and paper is still possible, but the IRS has warned that returns filed on paper can take six or more months to process.

Because pen and paper can lead to more errors, it is a good idea for first-time and veteran filers to utilize free or purchased online software or even a tax professional.

Recommended: How Long Does It Take for the IRS to Mail Tax Refund Checks?

Filing With a Professional

Tax professionals can file manually and online, but the IRS encourages all accountants to utilize the online option. For a speedy return and fewer errors, most tax professionals will likely file electronically for you.

As a first-time filer, your tax situation will not likely be complex enough to warrant a tax professional. But as your finances become more complicated — with investments, real estate, small business ownership, and more — a tax accountant may make sense.

Another benefit of working with an accountant can be their training and knowledge. A professional may be able to help you find (legal) ways to pay less taxes.

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How Do You Pay Your Taxes?

When filing taxes for the first time, there’s a good chance you will not owe anything. In the event that you do owe the government money, however, you have multiple options for paying your taxes:

•   Direct Pay: The amount owed will be debited from a checking or savings account.

•   Credit or debit card: You can pay your outstanding tax balance with a debit or credit card online. This is a nice option if you have cash back rewards, but you will typically be paying a high interest rate if you carry a balance.

•   Check or money order: The IRS still accepts checks in the mail, as well as money orders.

•   Installment agreement: If you cannot afford your tax bill all at once, you can use the IRS Online Payment Agreement tool to apply for an installment plan.

Filing Tips for First-Timers

Feeling nervous about doing taxes for the first time? Here are some tips for making the experience easier; consider them steps for how beginners can file taxes.

1. Watch Your Income

To determine if you need to file, you can watch your income throughout the year. Once you pass a certain threshold, you will be required to file. This filing threshold can vary depending on your situation, so you’ll need to check out the IRS filing requirements .

If you know that you will make enough money to pay taxes, it’s a good idea to ensure your employer is withholding the proper amount of money from each paycheck for federal, state, city, and even school district taxes. If you believe your employer is not withholding enough (or is withholding too much), the IRS recommends filling out a Form W-4 to change your withholding.

Recommended: What Tax Bracket Am I In?

2. Gather All Necessary Documents

Tax documents will start arriving in the mail or digitally early in the new year, typically near the end of January or in early February. As these documents come in, it’s wise to store them in a safe place, like a manila folder in a fire safe or an encrypted folder on your computer. When it’s time to file, you’ll be able to access all your tax forms quickly and easily, rather than hunting all over for them. Being organized this way can also help you be aware of any missing tax documents.

If your tax situation is more complex — for instance, if you are self-employed, receive student loans, or make charitable donations — it’s a good idea to hold on to relevant forms throughout the year. Self-employed individuals, for example, may want to save receipts for business expenses incurred throughout the year. These can help you claim tax deductions for freelancers.

3. Learn About Potential Credits

When filing taxes for the first time, you may not be eligible for many tax credits. Tax preparation software, a tax professional, or even the IRS’s guided filing tool may be able to help you find out which credits you qualify for.

Before filing on your own, it could be wise to review the IRS list of tax credits for individuals to see if any apply to you.

4. Understand Potential Deductions

Similarly, most first-time filers will want to take the standard deduction instead of itemizing because it may offer the larger discount. However, the IRS does offer itemized deductions for student loan interest and work expenses, if you are self-employed.

You can familiarize yourself with IRS deductions, including tax deductions for college students (if that applies) before filing to determine if itemizing deductions is right for you.

5. Hit Your Deadlines

Tax Day in the United States is traditionally April 15, but if that date falls on a Saturday, Sunday, or legal holiday, the tax deadline moves out to the next business day.

If you owe estimated taxes each quarter (say, if you are self-employed), you will need to pay taxes four times a year. Working with a tax accountant may be in your best interest. Members of the Armed Forces may have special rules governing the due date of their taxes.

Individuals can also apply for a tax extension; this extends the due date of filing, but not the due date of payment. That means you might get a six-month extension to file the paperwork, but if you have not paid what you owe by April 15, you could be subject to late penalties.

Do You Need to File Taxes Every Year?

Not everyone is required to file tax returns every year. It all comes down to your unique tax situation and how much you earned. However, if you earn income throughout the year, there is a good chance you will need to file. It’s a good idea to review the IRS filing requirements or speak with an accountant if you are not sure.

Tax Filing Mistakes to Avoid

Working with tax preparation software or an accountant can help avoid some common mistakes when filing taxes, but familiarizing yourself with some of the most common errors can be helpful, no matter how you’re filing:

•   Forgetting about state and city. We often think about federal income taxes, but your city and state (and maybe even school district) could also have their own taxes that you are required to pay.

•   Not filing. Income thresholds can change each year. It’s always a good idea to check whether you are required to file taxes for a given year even if you didn’t have to for the previous year.

•   Not checking with parents. If you are filing taxes for the first time, your parents are likely used to claiming you as a dependent. Talking with them about dependent status before filing could be a smart move.

•   Filing without all your forms. Getting taxes over with early can relieve a lot of stress (and means you can get your tax refund early), but if you have any tax form stragglers, like a 1099, that appear in the mail after you’ve completed your taxes, you might land in trouble with the IRS.

•   Entering in the wrong info. Tax preparation is not something to speed through. Even though e-filing helps avoid simple pen-and-paper mistakes, it’s still possible to incorrectly enter things like your birth date or Social Security number. Slow and steady — with lots of double- and triple-checking — wins the race.

The Takeaway

Filing taxes as a beginner can be intimidating, but if you put some time and organizational effort into the process, it can go smoothly. You’ll also be better prepared for next year’s Tax Day once you’ve filed. Whether you do your own taxes or work with a tax professional, it’s wise to gather the necessary paperwork, understand your potential credits and deductions, and file on time and precisely.

The fastest way to get a tax refund, if you’re due one, is a direct deposit into your bank account. If you’re a first-time filer, it’s wise to have an account ready to receive any funds heading your way.

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What happens if you make an error on your taxes?

As soon as you realize you have made a mistake on your taxes, you can amend it with Form 1040-X or by calling the IRS at 800-829-1040. In general, the IRS does not consider mistakes to be tax fraud, though you may end up paying late penalties. If you have intentionally made errors and the IRS catches you, you could be charged with a tax crime.

How much income do I need to make in order to pay taxes?

The amount of income that you need to make to pay taxes can fluctuate each year and depends on your filing status (single; head of household; married, filing jointly; married, filing separately; qualifying widow/widower). For the most recent tax season, a single filer under 65 needed to make $13,850 or more to file.

What is the deadline for filing taxes?

In general, the tax deadline in the U.S. is April 15. If this date falls on a weekend or legal holiday, the deadline shifts to the next business day. Members of the military may have special rules affecting their deadline, and self-employed individuals typically must pay quarterly estimated taxes throughout the year.

How can I avoid tax scams?

The best way to avoid tax scams is to educate yourself on what they look like. The most common tax scams are email phishing scams and phone scams. Remember that the IRS will never email you requesting personal or financial information nor will the IRS call you and threaten legal action or leave pre-recorded, urgent messages.

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