A Step-by-Step Guide to Filing Your First Taxes

Written by Peter Jones

Tax time can be super overwhelming. How can you possibly figure out what you need to do and somehow manage to pull it off without melting into a pile of despair (or committing some kind of inadvertent fraud?). It’s actually fairly simple. Here, we’ll lay out the basic steps so you can file without fear you’re missing something important.

1. Get organized.

This is really half the battle. The IRS is all about documents. Once you receive your W2 from your workplace, or your 1099-MISC if you’ve worked as an independent contractor, be sure to store it somewhere safe and easily accessible. If you get other statements, like savings account interest, student loan interest, or investment income summaries, put those in the same safe place. You might also have a proof of health insurance or records of contributions to an IRA to add to your pile.

2. Determine if you need to file, and and how.

If you’re a U.S. citizen and you meet the IRS’s filing requirements for income, then yes, you do need to file. Then you’ll want to figure out what your “filing status” is. Will you be filing jointly with your spouse or separately? Can you count as “head of household?” Are you a dependent on someone else’s return? Can you claim dependents of your own?

3. Ask for help early.

If you’re at all confused with these early stages, get someone to help—a parent, or a mentor, or a professional. They can help you figure out based on your particulars which form you need to file or whether you are eligible to file electronically.

4. Pick a medium.

Decide whether you will carry through on your own—either on paper or electronically, alone or with the aid of a software program or professional. If you made less than $52k last year, you qualify to receive free tax help with the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) Program. Check out TaxACT, TurboTax, eSmart Tax, etc. to get a sense of what they can do for you.

5. Deduct expenses.

You’ll have to figure out whether it’s best for you to itemize your deductions or claim the standard deductible. But either way, make sure you don’t leave any stone unturned in this department. Write off state and local sales taxes, student loan interest payments, child care credits, job search expenses, charitable contributions, and things like the Earned Income credit.

6. Get it done.

Don’t procrastinate. It’s best not to rush, so make sure you’ve left yourself plenty of time before April 15 to get this done right.

7. Check your math.

If you did it all on your own, make sure to have someone you trust to look over your tax returns before filing. It may even be possible to have a tax attorney do this for you for free.

Good luck, and we hope for many happy returns in your future!

About the author

Peter Jones