It’s 5 p.m. April 15, and you haven’t even started on your income tax return.
Should you panic?
Actually, no. Anyone who wants one can get an automatic six-month extension on the federal income tax deadline just by sending in Form 4868. That gives you until Oct. 15 to file.
There’s just one catch: If you owe money, you’ll need to send that in by April 15 or pay a penalty.
While the most efficient among us filed our income tax returns months ago and have already received and spent our refunds, there are always those procrastinators who wait until the last minute. Mostly, procrastination doesn’t matter, especially if you are getting a refund.
But if you haven’t filed your taxes yet, there are a still a few things you can do to save money.
File your taxes for free
Before you go out and buy tax software, see if you can use the free software online. The IRS Free File program, in connection with commercial tax software companies, provides free online filing tools for taxpayers with low and moderate incomes. Many of the companies charge for state returns and, apparently for that reason, Floridians are not allowed to use them. But about half the companies do provide services to Florida taxpayers.
Each company has its own rules for which taxpayers qualify, but in general you need to make less than $57,000 a year. Some services set an upper age limit of as young as 52. Some of the companies will let you use their services for a fee if you don’t meet the age or income requirements.
If you earn more than $57,000 a year or otherwise don’t qualify for the free filing programs, you can still file your federal income tax return online using free fillable forms, which are essentially the tax returns you used to fill out on paper. In fact, if you want you can still print out the paper forms and mail your return to the IRS.
Be warned that few post offices stay open until midnight for late filers.
Get free tax help
The AARP, with a grant from the IRS, offers free income-tax preparation for low- and moderate-income taxpayers, with those over 60 a priority. Most of those sites will be open through April 15 but a few close a few days before that and some require an appointment. You can find a site at www.aarp.org/money/taxes/aarp_taxaide/ or call 888-227-7669.
The IRS also has a Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, organized through local community organizations, that provides free tax preparation help for people who make $51,000 a year or less. To find a site go to http://irs.treasury.gov/freetaxprep/ or call 800-906-9887.
Open or contribute to an IRA
You have until April 15 to contribute to a regular or Roth IRA, Coverdell plan or SEP. But if you don’t already have an account, make sure you open one on time. If you’re going to have to mail paperwork or checks, you can’t start April 15.
You don’t have to itemize your deductions to get the tax benefits of contributing to an IRA.
Single taxpayers can contribute up to $5,000 ($6,000 if they’re over 50), but there are income limits if you participate in a 401(k) plan at work.
Those with lower incomes are eligible for a Retirement Savers Tax Credit of up to $1,000.
If you’re self-employed, you still have time to open an SEP and make an even larger contribution and garner a larger tax savings.
Find the money
If you owe taxes for 2012, you must pay by April 15 or face penalties, even if you get an extension and don’t file a return yet.
The IRS does take credit cards, but you will have to pay the fee usually paid by the merchant. Those fees are $2.99 to $3.99 for a debit card, and 1.89 percent to 2.85 percent for a credit card. For a $1,000 tax bill, that fee could add to $23.50.
If you face a large tax bill you can’t pay, ask the IRS for a payment plan or an installment agreement, but be warned that those also incur fees. Visiting a tax professional might be a good investment at this point.
If you’re expecting a refund, you can check its status at the popular IRS Where’s My Refund? website: www.irs.gov/Refunds.
The clock is ticking
There are a few things you need to do as soon as possible to maximize your deductions and minimize your tax bill.
If you added a child to your family last year, though birth or adoption, you need a Social Security number for the child in order to claim a tax deduction.
If you haven’t done it yet, check your W-2, 1099s and other forms for mistakes. You may need to ask employers, banks or others to issue corrected forms, which could take some time.
If you sold stock, make sure you have the cost basis information for claiming gains or losses.
If you’ve already filed your return and realize you made a mistake, you can file an amended return, even for previous tax years.
When you need help
Finally, if your tax situation is complicated, file for an extension and find a good tax preparer.
South Floridians who sold homes in short sales or lost homes for foreclosure, for example, potentially face five-figure tax bills for the forgiven debt. But if you meet certain requirements, a good tax preparer may be able to cut that bill down to nothing.
The self-employed, business owners and people who had large medical bills last year also may benefit from professional tax advice.