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Doing your own taxes isn’t the same as doing your own brain surgery. But if you have anything more complicated than salary and bank interest, you’re probably better off with a professional tax preparer.
If you just have the very basics, then you can file form 1040EZ, which has seven questions. It’s simple enough that TurboTax has an app that lets you file taxes by phone — just snap a picture of your W-2, answer a few questions, and you’re done. You must have earned less than $100,000 in 2012 ($120,000 if you’re married) and have only W-2, interest or unemployment income.
But even the 1040EZ has pitfalls: If you have student loan interest, for example, you can’t deduct it using the simplest form. If you don’t report it, you will pay too much in taxes. You’ll need to move up to 1040A, the next-easiest form.
If you have anything more complicated — itemized deductions, self-employment income, rental properties — hand the job off to a pro, says Peggy Ruhlin, a financial planner in Columbus, Ohio. “The new tax law didn’t make anything easier,” she says. “Even if it’s something as simple as computing investment losses or gains, it’s easy to make mistakes.”
For most people, the big tax-preparation firms are fine: They train their employees on new tax rules, and can stand behind the return if the IRS questions it. This may not be true for mom-and-pop operations, says Ruhlin.
The drawback with tax firms: It will cost you, even though the fee is deductible. Storefront preparers have tiered pricing structures; H&R Block’s fees range from free for first-time filers to $49.95. If you hire a CPA for a complex return — say, for a small business — the sky’s the limit.
Finally, if you are expecting money back, don’t take out a refund-anticipation loan unless you’re desperate for immediate cash: The associated fees will take a big bite out of your refund.
John Waggoner is a columnist for USA TODAY’s Money section.