If you're a homeowner, find the mortgage and property tax statement from your lender. In many cases, these amounts alone exceed the standard deduction. Don't forget that you can also deduct any state and local taxes, so you'll need the documentation of these payments.
Philanthropic filers get a break, too. Your qualified cash and property donations can reduce your tax bill. You now need substantiation of any monetary gift, regardless of amount. Acceptable records include a canceled check, a bank or credit union statement that shows the name of the charity and the date and amount paid, or a credit card statement indicating the charity and the transaction posting date. Make sure you have an official receipt for any charitable gifts that were $250 or more.
Next, pull out your medical records for last year to see if your costs total 7.5 percent of your income. If they do, you can use them. If not, don't waste any more time here.
And don't overlook miscellaneous deductions. This amount has to total 2 percent of your income, but there are a lot of expenses you can include here -- unreimbursed employee business expenses, investment costs, even tax preparation fees.
If you're self-employed, track down all receipts and documentation for any number of business-related expenses. This includes the mileage records you kept when using your car for business, the office equipment and supplies you bought, and the utility bills you paid to keep the home-office lights on.
Now to the credits. These breaks can help cut your tax bill dollar for dollar.
If you didn't make much, you may be eligible for the earned income tax credit, or EIC. The break could be even larger if you have kids.
Even if you don't qualify for the EIC, you may be eligible to take $1,000 per child off your tax bill. If you paid a nursery school to watch them while you worked, part of that cost may cut your taxes. Pull child care records for the exact amount you spent.
Credits also are available for some educational costs -- yours and your children's. You'll need these details. And there's even a credit to cover some adoption expenses.
Once you've found all this material, stack it next to your income info. You're finally through for the day.
Day 3: Find your formsNow that you know what you made and how you can reduce it to a more tolerable taxable level, find the forms you'll need to file.
The IRS offers three individual tax return forms: the 1040EZ, 1040A and 1040. Each has specific requirements you have to meet to use it.
It may be tempting to use the simplest form, the 1040EZ, if you're eligible. But you should look at the other two anyway. Generally, the longer versions offer more opportunities for tax breaks. For example, the deduction for up to $2,500 in student loan interest can't be claimed by EZ filers.
Once you've made your choice, take a few minutes to read over the form. Here you'll see exactly where you'll put the information you gathered on days one and two, and where the deductions and credits are subtracted. (But don't enter anything yet. We have to have something to look forward to!)
In addition to your main tax form, you'll get an idea of any additional forms you may need. Where an attachment is required, it will be noted on the individual tax return you file.
For example, if you opted for the long 1040 return, you'll likely need Schedule A (referenced on line 40 of the 1040) to itemize your deductions. You also might want Schedule B (asked for on the 1040, line 8 and line 9) if you have a lot of interest or dividend income to report. Self-employed taxpayers will see mention of Schedule C or Schedule C-EZ (line 12 of the 1040), along with the accompanying Schedule SE to pay self-employment taxes (the 1040's line 27 as an adjustment and line 57 as a payment).