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Last Minute Tax Help

Last Minute Tax Help
Taxes are due April 15

    The deadline for filing your federal income tax return (if you’re a U.S. citizen) is five days away. If you haven’t gotten around to filing yet, you’re in good company: one-third of all Americans file in the two weeks just before the deadline, and TurboTax reports that 200,000 taxpayers used their software in the last two days alone. The IRS has actually made it easier to file your taxes at the very last moment, and offers other choices for taxpayers feeling a too-tight deadline. You still have options, although I’m not an accountant or a tax lawyer and your situation may require the advice of a tax professional.

    Make Sure You Need to File

    According to the IRS, millions of people file tax returns every year even though their incomes are below the minimum required to file. In general, that means that it’s worthwhile checking to make sure that you actually have to file — although this year is a special case. That economic stimulus check the government’s promised? You are absolutely required to file a tax return in order to get your $600. If you made less than $3,000 total in 2007, however, go ahead and skip the paperwork.

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    In most years, however, the question of whether to file a tax return boils down to whether you either expect a refund or expect to owe the government more money. If neither of these cases apply to you, you may be able to skip the paperwork. The IRS offers a page that can help you decide based on your answers to a series of questions.

    File Electronically

    80 million taxpayers filed electronically last year. The IRS brags about the greater accuracy of electronic filing, the faster processing of refunds and the ability to avoid postage. But what we procrastinators really care about is the fact that we can file 24 hours a day and 7 days a week — even the night of April 14th.

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    To file online, you’ll need the same paperwork you would to fill out your 1040 by hand:

    • Last year’s tax return
    • Social Security cards for your dependents, if any
    • W-2s from all your employers
    • 1099s from any other income you received, as well as income receipts from real estate, royalties, trusts, Social Security and other sources of income
    • Any receipts pertaining to your small business

    If you plan to itemize your deductions, you’ll also need the paperwork to document your itemizations — claiming the standard deduction may be faster if you get down to the wire, but many taxpayers could save a lot of money by itemizing.

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    Once you’ve gathered up the necessary paperwork, you’ll need to choose your e-file provider. To file electronically, the IRS requires taxpayers to go through authorized e-file providers: companies that are not actually affiliated with the IRS but have been authorized to file electronically through secure methods. These companies are broken down into two groups — Free File options and e-File options.

    Free File providers do just what the name says: they allow you to file your tax return for free. There is a catch though: you are only eligible to use Free File if your adjusted gross income for the year was under $54,000. To find your AGI, add up any income you received including wages, alimony, unemployment compensation, capital gains and anything else you can think of and subtract off your deductions using the standard deduction can make the process go faster if you aren’t sure just what deductions you are eligible for.

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    Everyone making over $54,000 but wanting to file electronically must pick an authorized provider off of the IRS’ list. To be honest, most of these companies operate in pretty much the same way and have similar pricing. However, many do not offer state tax preparation. It’s up to you to find a provider who can also determine your state tax burden and help you file. To make matters harder, there are still a few states that do not accept electronically filed tax returns.

    Request an Extension

    For some of us, even filing electronically won’t get our paperwork in before April 15th. The IRS does give taxpayers the option of requesting an extension until August 15th. You have to submit Form 4868 (PDF), which is actually pretty easy to fill out: you list your name, address, Social Security number and answer four questions about the taxes you owe for the year. You can send in the form through the mail, electronically or through an authorized outside service provider. There’s only one drawback to the extension process — no matter why you might request an extension, you must pay whatever taxes you expect to owe when you submit your Form 4868. Uncle Sam doesn’t care so much about the paperwork, because he still gets your money. File for an extension without paying off your estimated balance and the IRS can slap you with some serious fees and penalties, making it worthwhile to over-estimate and err on the side of caution when making your payment. You’ll still get your refund, although it can take an extra four months.

    File Regardless

    Before April 15th rolls around, it’s crucial to have filed something with the IRS. File a tax return or a request for an extension — either way, you’ve filed. As long as the IRS has a Form 1040 or a Form 4868 (and that all important check from anyone owing taxes beyond what may have been automatically deducted), you’re cool with the IRS. It’s the guy who’s required to file, but hasn’t, who will be having trouble down the line.

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    Last Updated on January 21, 2020

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

    The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

    Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    How to Self-Taught Effectively

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

    More About Self-Learning

    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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