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taxes

Getting the most from tax software

Even if you're an experienced filer and have used the same program in past tax years, companies invariably tweak their products. They also usually offer tips on ways to more easily maneuver the new features. By taking a few minutes to familiarize yourself with the program, you'll likely save yourself some frustration later in the process.

Find the 'help' link

As you're learning about your new software, locate the "help" link. We're not talking the "tax tip" button, but rather the link that will take you to technical assistance staff. A sudden error message is never welcome, especially not when you're on line 57 of some detailed tax schedule.

Most software programs offer online and phone support for specific problems, as well as a basic troubleshooting guide as part of the package. Know how you can get to this help before you need it.

Run the final form check

You're done! Not quite. Before you print out or e-file your return, run the "review" option. This feature is included on most packages. On some, it's automatic as soon as you fill in the last line of the last form.

Keep in mind, however, that what a software program flags may not necessarily be an error. Many times the reviews also point out reminders or suggestions related to certain entries. Run the review, consider whether the suggestions will help (or even apply to) you and correct any legitimate mistakes. You'll be glad you, rather than the tax examiner, caught them.

Save your work

When you're finished, don't be in a hurry to shut down the software. Save your return as a file on your computer, as a printed copy or both. You'll want this confirmation in case the IRS doesn't get your return, or worse, has some questions about it. Most of us should keep our tax records for at least three years; hang onto them for six if you may have underreported income. That's how long the IRS has to take a closer look at your filings.

Check out other options

Finally, consider the possibility that you may not need to buy tax software at all. Free File, a joint IRS and tax software company program that makes online tax preparation and e-filing free to millions of filers, kicks off each filing season usually around mid-January. But because Congress did not approve tax changes until earlier in the month, the Free File program doesn't open for business this year until Jan. 30.

The free tax preparation and filing service is available to taxpayers whose incomes don't exceed a certain amount, adjusted annually for inflation. If Free File appeals to you -- and you qualify to use it -- you'll definitely save some bucks as well as time.

If you're not eligible for Free File, you still may be able to get a deal by filing online for a fee. You don't have to purchase the software; simply go to the software company's website and pay a fee to use the tax program. Your tax return then is filed electronically and your tax data is stored at the vendor's site.

But don't simply accept the first free (or discounted) tax-filing program you find. Even though you're not buying the software, you still need to make sure it fits your tax needs.

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