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Tax season can be stressful, but it doesn’t have to be. By starting early and dividing the tax prep process into a series of simple tasks, you can save time and money — and manage both your finances and your mental health.
Credit card accounts can come in handy by providing a record of your expenses and possibly even a way to access tax software.
“Mental health-wise, the earlier you begin prepping to file your tax return, the better,” says Dana Miranda.
Miranda is a Certified Educator in Personal Finance® (CEPF®) and founder of the popular financial wellness resource Healthy Rich. Her goal is to help people take care of their finances while simultaneously taking care of themselves.
With that in mind, here’s Miranda’s advice on how to maintain your mental health this tax season — and what you can do in December to get ready for April.
How much tax prep can you get done in December?
If you want to start doing your taxes in December, think in terms of preparation, not completion.
“December could be a challenge, because you might not get some of the key documentation you need to fill out a tax return until January 31,” says Miranda. “But this can be a good time to read through your tax forms and make a checklist of the information you need to fill them out.”
Form 1040, for example, requires you to provide basic identifying information for yourself, your spouse (if you are married filing jointly) and any dependents. Many people will be able to fill in that information right away, even if they’re still waiting on their W-2 or 1099 forms.
You’ll also be able to decide whether you want to do your taxes on your own, use one of today’s best tax software programs or work with a tax preparer or CPA. Most software programs and tax preparers will be able to provide a list of the information you need to collect for the 2022 tax season, from IRA contributions to charitable deductions.
That’s how Miranda suggests beginning the tax prep process. “Make a list of everything you’ll need before you start filling anything out,” she says. If the only thing you do in December is complete that list, you’ll be on target for a low-stress, mentally healthy tax season after the new year.
Should you file your taxes on your own or ask for help?
Not sure whether you should file your taxes on your own or work with a tax professional? Here’s some expert advice.
“Start with IRS Free File options if you earned less than $73,000,” say Miranda. “Free paper forms are also usually available at the library.” If all of your income comes from a single employer and you are planning to take the standard deduction, filing your taxes on your own could be a smart move — for yourself and for your mental health.
“If your finances are simple, filling out the forms on your own could be less stressful than answering a series of questions through an online tax prep service that’s trying to get you to upgrade and pay extra,” says Miranda.
If you think you can handle it yourself, some basic software can help. Check to see if your credit card has a promotional offer for tax-prep software. Amex, for example, offers 15 percent off on TurboTax for SkyMiles members through Dec. 31, 2022.
What if your taxes are more complicated? “If you’re a homeowner, run a business, donate a lot to charity or anything else that adds complexity to your financial situation, filing a tax return is probably going to feel complicated and frustrating,” says Miranda. “A local or online tax preparer can take the work off your plate with a range of price points to meet most peoples’ needs.”
How can you prepare for a mentally healthy tax season?
If you want to keep anxiety from compromising your tax prep, start by reminding yourself that the IRS makes it relatively easy to resolve most of the stress that comes with filing taxes.
“There are processes for dealing with all the scary things,” says Miranda. “You can request an extension to file later than tax day, file a correction if you made an error, set up payment plans if you owe money, submit corrections if you’re audited and so on.”
Then, go back to that checklist you made and start collecting the relevant documents. “Organizing your tax information in advance gives you time to dig up any documentation you need and avoid feeling scrambled in April,” says Miranda.
If you aren’t able to get this task done in December, don’t worry. “For a lot of people, December is one of the most hectic months of the year!”
Lastly, remember the money you pay in taxes goes directly towards improving people’s lives — including your own. “If you’re frustrated about the prospect of paying taxes, try to adjust that mindset,” says Miranda.
Your tax dollars fund everything from public schools to medical research, not to mention Social Security, Medicare and other essential services. By reframing the process of paying taxes as the opportunity to contribute to a functioning society, you can prepare for tax season from a position of gratitude.
What if your tax refund is lower than usual?
One of the biggest stresses associated with tax season is getting a lower-than-expected tax refund. If your refund is lower than you were anticipating, consider adjusting the deductions that come out of your paycheck next year.
By allowing your employer to withhold more tax from your paycheck now, you could receive a higher tax refund later, and vice versa.
What can you do in December to save money on your taxes?
Looking through your credit card statements for the year can be a good way to check how much you spent, especially if you run a home-based business and use a card dedicated to those expenses.
In most cases, people can lower their tax burden through deductions and credits. And while many end-of-year tax savings tips focus on increasing your potential deductions, it may be better to begin by claiming your potential credits.
“Check that you’ve claimed all the tax credits you qualify for, because those are dollar-for-dollar money in your pocket,” says Miranda. “Consider the Earned Income Tax Credit, Child Tax Credits, Savers Tax Credit and so on.”
As for deductions, keep in mind that many tax deductions require you to pay up-front — especially if you’re making tax-deductible purchases for your small business. The amount you are able to deduct is often less than the cost of the purchase, so be careful that you’re not spending more than you can afford just so you can save a little on your taxes.
“I don’t encourage people to make financial choices just for the tax deduction because those require you to take money out of your pocket, and they don’t repay you one-to-one,” says Miranda. “The money-saving benefit is probably imperceptible if you have a low income.”
If you purchase tax-deductible items on credit cards and carry a balance, the interest you might end up paying could reduce the tax benefit even more.
Should you take the standard deduction or itemize?
Many taxpayers automatically opt for the standard deduction — and in many cases, the standard deduction is the best choice. However, you might want to use part of December to do the math on whether to itemize your deductions.
Bankrate has a guide to help you through the process of deciding between the standard deduction and itemized deductions, as well as a tax calculator that can help you run the numbers. Getting this particular item off your tax to-do list before the end of the year can save you a lot of stress next spring.
The bottom line
If you want to have a mentally healthy tax season next year, start by getting your tax documents together this December. Even though you probably won’t be able to complete your taxes until after January 31, you can still decide whether you’ll use a tax prep service, whether you’ll take the standard deduction and whether you’re taking advantage of any potential tax credits that could help reduce your tax burden or increase your refund.