I’M A DINOSAUR. Not only do I prepare my own tax return with no help from an accountant or tax preparer, but also I do it by hand. Yep, that’s right—no TurboTax or other computer program.
I really can’t use the computer programs because I often attach an oddball form or two that they don’t offer. On top of that, I always add “annotations” to parts of my return. These additional explanatory notes may be helpful to the IRS. But just as important, they’re reminders to me of why I did things a certain way, just in case I’m later called on to explain.
Why not just hire a pro to do my tax return? It probably wouldn’t cost all that much and it would save me many hours of hard labor. Back in my working days, our small law firm had an accountant who did our partnership return, and he often kidded me about my unusual habit. I once remarked that I’m probably the last person in America to do their taxes by hand, to which he replied, “No, I think there are two others.”
This eccentricity had a pretty natural origin. When I finished school and started working, I did my own taxes. In those days—the late 1970s—there were no computer programs to assist and I didn’t want to spend money on hiring a pro. In any event, my return was extremely simple, so I just did it. Well, it became a habit, an annual ritual. And habits can be, well, habit forming.
Moreover, as painful as the process can be—nobody thinks wading through countless IRS forms and often-confusing instructions is enjoyable—I found it valuable. For starters, it helped me understand, at least at an elementary level, how our tax system works. Of more importance, it gave me a once-a-year overview of my and, after I married, my family’s financial situation. It forced me to consider where our income came from, how it was being taxed and what measures I could take in the coming year to reduce our tax burden.
Happily, something has come along to make the whole complicated process much easier: the internet. In the early days, one of the most frustrating parts of the undertaking was getting the right forms. It never failed that, invariably while at home and during the weekend, I’d find myself deep in the weeds of our tax return, only to discover that I needed such-and-such form to proceed.
Well, of course, I hadn’t anticipated that one. I was stopped in my tracks and instead, at the next opportunity during regular business hours, I had to drive out to the IRS office, which was always inconveniently located, and stand in line waiting for my turn at the counter, so I could ask for the magical form. In those days, the IRS would include in the package it mailed out at least some of the forms you used the prior year, but never the more obscure ones. Those forms weren’t available at the post office, either. The upshot: When the internet came along, it was the happiest event in my long history as a tax filer. To be able to find any form, no matter how esoteric, on the IRS website, and then print it out at home, was a godsend.
But even beyond the forms and instructions, the internet has been a huge help. Now, when I encounter one of the confusing issues that inevitably comes up, I’m not just stuck with whatever the IRS has to say about it. Instead, I can usually find some learned explanation from the tax pros on the web. Heck, if you’re really brave, you can access the entire Internal Revenue Code online.
Another advantage of this self-imposed chore: If you do it yourself and keep decent notes, you can likely also handle any inquiries from the IRS on your own. When my kids were in college and I was using their 529 accounts to pay for expenses, I received a “letter audit” from the IRS, requiring me to justify all the outlays. I won’t say it wasn’t a pain. But equipped with my notes and records, I put together a detailed response. Ultimately, I got a letter saying that not only were they satisfied with my explanation, but also they had determined they owed me money—and a check was included.
As our kids came of age, finished college and entered the world of work, I encouraged each of them to tackle their own return. It truly is an important learning experience. If I hear a complaint that it’s so boring, I have a ready answer. When I was young, I likewise couldn’t imagine anything more tedious than spending a few hours with a tax return. But once gainfully employed and paying taxes, I eventually had a revelation: This is my money we’re talking about here. Suddenly, the whole business was a lot more interesting.
Andrew Forsythe retired in 2017 after almost four decades practicing criminal law in Austin, Texas, first as a prosecutor and then as a defense attorney. His wife Rosalinda and he, along with their dogs, live outside Austin, at the edge of the Texas Hill Country. Their four kids are now grown, independent and successful. They’re also blessed with four beautiful grandkids. Andrew loves dogs, and enjoys collecting pocketknives and flashlights. His previous articles include Weekend Warriors, Cheap and Proud and Slim Pickings.
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Just saw this article from awhile back. I’m another self-filler-outer of tax forms each year. To answer a commenter’s question, Free Fillable Forms works great for me — I just wish they didn’t make you transcribe all of the 1099 information by hand. Isn’t there some way you can link in the Forms 1099 and attach them to your filing automatically??
My wife met our CPA when they were working together at the old AT&T in the early 1980s. He retired from his corporate job 5 years ago but still does taxes for his long time clients. His fees have also always been modest, including for our 2019 taxes that involved the sale of our house and rental property and the deferral of capital gains and recaptured depreciation taxes via a 1031 exchange.
On the other hand, I took over doing taxes for my mother and one of my sisters after finding out that they both were being charged more than $400 for simple returns.
Sounds like an interesting hobby for the winter months, but I’m thinking one only a lawyer or account may enjoy. 😎 Give me my iPad and TurboTax and I’m good.
I also love doing my own taxes by hand, and have been doing so for 50 years. As a retired computer programmer, I am quite comfortable reading technical documents including IRS publications. Attention to detail is another required skill, and that is certainly associated with computer programming. I should add that my taxes are generally quite complex, but I love the challenge. On the 2 occasions that I have been audited, the IRS has accepted my returns.
I’ve been using H&R Block (formerly TaxCut) since the 90’s and finally decided to try TurboTax for 2020. I’m actually using both side by side and so far I’m annoyed at how fat (612MB) and slow TurboTax is. H&R Block (105MB) presents a leaner, more professional appearance – but the proof will be in the pudding once the 1099’s, etc., come in. Another great article. 🙂
I got tired of being nickle and dimed every year by TuboTax with their price hikes, so this is what I’ve used for the last 3 years or so. I wouldn’t switch back to TurboTax if they paid me to use their stuff.
TurboTax Deluxe is not that expensive. Last year I downloaded it from Costco for $40. In prior years I downloaded Premium from sellers on Ebay for as little as $15.
I did my own taxes too, until I married a CPA.
I admire those with the patience, tenacity, and attention to detail to do their own taxes. I’m not one of them. I used TurboTax for years but now get so much joy and peace of mind out of my tax accountant doing the job instead of me. Worth every penny.
I’m in the hiring a professional camp but there is a lot to learn by doing one’s own taxes, if not every year, every once in a while. The forms can be intimidating, I suggest that rather than trying to tackle this on one’s own, pay an accountant to walk you through it (off season) the first time.
Many are worried that they might miss something. To build confidence, do it yourself and compare to your accountant’s results for a few years. If the same every time, then lose the accountant.
I’ve done my taxes by hand for 30+ years, including small business taxes. Have been able to take actions to save many thousands with the information gained thereby. Seems like they’ve made it harder to complete tax forms on your own in last 5-10 years, though.
I use the IRS “Free Fillable Forms” option to file my taxes.
Any issues with e-filing? Looks more complicated than turbotax; efiling portion of return. And they admonish if it doesn’t go through correctly you can’t do it over, you have to file amended return.
In the beginning I always did my own taxes. Then marriage and we used a former IRS agent to do our taxes. But that person could not offer any tax advice regarding whether to open a Roth IRA or any tax strategies. The last two years we moved to a CPA requesting some strategy, even willing to pay for it. So far, no advice. Need to go fish again.
Has anyone used free tillable forms?
I do my own taxes for the same reasons. Last year I discovered Section 199a on the 1099 form and had to file a new form 8995 to explain it. A few years ago I discovered the famous Qualified Dividend Worksheet that saved me a penalty by reducing my taxes.
I do mine by hand as well. And I haven’t even been filing taxes as long as some of the commenters. I would prefer to use a program, but it seemed like such a hassle to download or install it, I just didn’t bother. The hard part for me is collecting and organizing all the records. Once it’s time to fill out the return, most of the work is done.
I do my own taxes on paper. I have the IRS mail me the forms I think I’ll need; it’s impossible to find them anymore and I don’t want to print them at home at my expense.
My Father was a CPA and I did my own taxes. I would file out obscure for Fuel tax credits and income averaging (many years ago) which would have cost more to have someone do than the tax savings it would generate. But about 5 years ago I found FreeTaxUSA and started using it primarily because I was getting frustrated using the worksheets needed to fill out the forms.
When you do your own taxes by hand you find things that the IRS and Congress who passed the tax laws don’t want you to know. Things like the 40.7 and 49.95% marginal tax rates for people getting Social Security and have incomes of around $60-70,000 (single)