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The Guaranteed Way to Save at Tax Time

Before you pay for software or a storefront service that will reduce your refund, learn who can help you for free.

It’s that time of year again. The Internal Revenue Service began accepting 2019 returns on Jan. 27. Low- and moderate-income filers who don’t have complicated financial lives may have many cost-free options available to assist them. But you have to know where to look, and the tax-prep companies who want your business don’t always make that easy.

For instance, a 2019 ProPublica investigation found that some companies hid their free options (a government program that these firms operate), and instead steered online searchers to their paid products. The news site heard from dozens of taxpayers who said they’d been charged by an online tax service even though their earnings qualified them for the company’s free product. One 87-year-old widow was charged $124.98 to file online, even though her 2018 gross income was only $11,000.

If you need assistance figuring out the often-complex tax rules, you can take advantage of free preparation and advice from AARP Foundation, the IRS, volunteer organizations and some commercial tax advisers.

Here’s where to get real help.

AARP Foundation Tax-Aide
The program offers free tax-preparation assistance Feb. 1 through April 15. Now in its 52nd year, Tax-Aide helps 2.5 millionlow- and moderate-income taxpayers each year. You don’t have to be an AARP member, and there’s no age requirement to get tax help from IRS-certified volunteers. “All of our tax preparations are done by volunteers who must complete training and pass IRS certification annually to assist in tax preparation,” says Lynnette Lee-Villanueva, vice president for AARP Foundation Tax-Aide. Check the Tax-Aide Site Locator for locations or call 888-227-7669 toll-free.

Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE)
A federal grant program provides tax-preparation assistance, particularly to those 60 and older, from IRS-certified volunteers. (Most TCE sites are operated by AARP Foundation Tax-Aide.) For more information, call 888-227-7669 toll-free or check online.

Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA)
Under another federal grant program, IRS-certified VITA volunteers provide tax-preparation services to people who generally have income of $56,000 or less, as well as those with disabilities or limited English language skills. Call 800-906-9887 to find a nearby VITA site. Online assistance is also available.

IRS Free File
About 70 percent of taxpayers are eligible to file federal tax returns online through IRS Free File, which connects single filers and families with annual incomes of $69,000 or less to free filing software from select partners like TaxAct and TurboTax. To browse the options and confirm your eligibility, visit Free File software offers page.

IRS Taxpayer Assistance Centers (TACs)
Help is also available at local IRS offices that host a Taxpayer Assistance Center. All TACs now operate by appointment; services may vary by office. Check the IRS site to find a location near you.

MilTax Filing Service
A Department of Defense-funded program (Military OneSource) provides e-filing software to active-duty military personnel and select others, including spouses, dependent children and survivors. Consultants are available to provide 24/7 phone assistance at 800-342-9647. Check the Military OneSource site for more information.

Do-it-yourself online options
Several for-profit tax providers offer online filing tools, including no-cost filing for federal 1040 forms and some state returns. (Those with complex filing needs, like freelancers or business owners, typically need to pay for upgraded versions of these tools.) Check H&R Block’s free online tax filing, Intuit’s TurboTax, Credit Karma Tax, TaxAct and TaxSlayer Simply Free.

Not sure whether your money situation fits any of the free filing options? Ask a tax preparer whether you qualify — before handing over those W-2s. The National Society of Accountants says nearly 90 percent of accountants and tax-prep professionals offer free client consultations and can help you decide if it makes sense for you to file on your own.

Hope our tips make tax season less taxing! A last piece of advice: If you’re owed money by the IRS, consider using it to build a rainy day fund.

Editor's note: This article has been adapted from a story via aarp.org.

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