How to File Taxes: A Simple 5-Step Guide

Every year, American taxpayers have to file their taxes. The most complicated part of the process is preparing your return, but even once you're done, there are still some traps for the unwary. However, tax filing doesn't have to be hard. By following five simple steps, you'll learn how to file your taxes, and you'll put yourself in the best position possible with the IRS.

Step 1: Find out whether you even need to file

If you earn a relatively small amount, you might not need to file a return at all. In 2017, most workers can earn up to $10,400 as a single taxpayer or $20,800 if as joint-filing taxpayers without filing a return.

However, just because you don't have to file doesn't mean you shouldn't file. Some tax breaks, such as the earned income tax credit, require you to file to claim them. Provisions that can put money back in your pocket can make it worthwhile to file even if you otherwise wouldn't have to do so.

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Step 2: Decide whether you'll file electronically or by paper

The biggest decision you'll need to make that affects how to file your taxes is whether you use electronic filing or use a paper return. The IRS has tried to push taxpayers toward electronic filing, because it speeds up the process, eliminates some common errors, makes processing returns easier, and facilitates getting information into its database.

Step 3: If you file electronically, get help sending your return to the IRS

To file electronically, you'll need to use some type of service. The IRS offers a free-file program that involves various tax preparation partners that are willing to help you prepare and electronically file your return. However, the program is only available for taxpayers who earn up to a certain threshold income amount, which in 2016 was $64,000. Otherwise, you'll need to pay for the associated tax preparation software.

Once you choose a provider, it will give you instructions on how to file your return electronically once it's complete and ready to go. From there, just follow the instructions and expect to get an electronic confirmation that the IRS has received your return.

Step 4: If you file a paper return, send it to the right place

Unlike electronic filing, sending returns by mail involves more logistics. First, you'll need to figure out where you need to send your return, which depends on where you live and whether you owe money or are getting a refund. This IRS tool will tell you the appropriate place to send your return.

Step 5: How to send your paper return

In addition to using the right address, you also need to think about the right method for sending in a paper return. Regular mail works, but if your return gets lost, you won't have any record to confirm that you filed your taxes on time. That's why the IRS recommends using registered or certified mail, because the receipt you'll receive is evidence of your having sent in your return. You can also use private delivery services such asFedEx or UPS. However, the added costs beyond simply using first-class mail lead some to consider electronic filing more closely.

Once you've prepared your return, it's important to know how to file your taxes correctly. That way, all the work you've done getting those tax returns ready won't be wasted, and you'll avoid having the IRS breathing down your neck trying to figure out why you haven't filed your returns in a timely manner.

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