Income tax season is months away, and you may still be basking in the glow of being done with this year’s filing. But if you’re looking to make next year’s taxes easier on you and your budget, a little preparation now could be very helpful.
“The starting point for tax planning is at the previous year’s tax appointment,” says Cindy Hockenberry, enrolled agent and director of education and research services at the National Association of Tax Professionals, a nationwide trade group.
If you dread the stress of filing your taxes properly and on time, you may want to consider taking these steps to get an early start preparing for next year’s tax season.
Gather your details
Now is a great time to request a copy of last year’s tax return with a transcript of your wages and income from IRS.gov, says Merry Brodie, enrolled agent and fellow of the National Tax Practice Institute, a continuing education provider.
“That allows you to look back at last year’s return and compare your return with that transcript to make sure you don’t miss anything,” Brodie says, adding that this may also be helpful when deciding between using a tax preparer and handling the job yourself.
According to Hockenberry, consumers planning to use a tax preparer should consider interviewing several to determine who’s the best fit, aiming to choose one before January.
“You will be divulging private financial information to this person, so you want to have a level of trust established. Find out how long they have been in business, what their background is, whether they take continuing education or belong to a professional organization,” she says.
Legitimate preparers should have a preparer tax identification number (PTIN). Ask about this, as well as what steps the preparer takes to protect your information and identity, before deciding on one.
If you plan to file on your own, you might want to investigate some of the popular tax return software options and choose one you find safe and easy to use.
Prepare before filing
If you’re using the same preparer as last year, send an update on any major changes you anticipate for the rest of 2015, including marriage, childbirth, or a home sale, so the preparer can help you plan for deductions and credits.
This is also a good time to organize any relevant tax documents, including information regarding potential dependents.
“Have one container in your home where everything you might even suspect relates to taxes goes in there,” Brodie says, whether you’re using a tax preparer or plan to file on your own.
Follow a timeline, file early
Even if you know how you’re filing and which deductions and credits you have receipts for, you still can’t file until you receive your W-2 forms, which employers must send you by Jan. 31.
But if you’ve set an appointment with your preparer or have familiarized yourself with your tax software, you should be ready to file as soon as this paperwork arrives. If you don’t receive your W-2s in a timely manner, contact your employer.
Once you have your W-2s, you’ll likely want to file immediately. Tax fraudsters and identity thieves who file taxes using stolen consumer data tend to do so early in the new year. The sooner you can file, the better chance you have of avoiding potential fraud.
There are plenty of reasons why tax season is associated with stress. The options, forms and decisions can get confusing, which is why planning ahead can be wise.
According to Brodie, “not filing on time and not paying on time costs you big bucks,” both in fees and compounded penalties. “The people that get in trouble tend to be the least organized,” she says.
Taking these small steps throughout the year will help you understand the filing process and learn about your rights and responsibilities. No one looks forward to doing taxes, but if you work ahead, you may be able to file confidently — and avoid any stressful surprises — before April 15.
Dustin Pellegrini is a senior web producer and writer at Think Glink Media, where he specializes in reporting on identity protection and credit. He studied writing and visual media at Columbia College Chicago.