Understanding the Tax Preparation Process: A Guide for Everyone

By Jordan D. Howlette, J.D., M.B.A.

Preparing your taxes might seem like a daunting task, but it's actually quite straightforward once you understand the basic steps and concepts involved. Think of it as a simple four-phase game where your goal is to report your income, minimize your taxes within the rules, and obtain any refund you're owed quickly and safely. This post breaks down the tax preparation process in a manner that even an eighth grader would find easy to understand.

Step 1: Gather All Information to Report Your Gross Income

First things first, you need to know how much money you made. Gross income is just a fancy term for the total amount of money you earned in a year before taking out any taxes or deductions. Imagine you have a piggy bank, and every time you get money—from doing chores, a part-time job, or gifts—it goes into the piggy bank. At the end of the year, the total amount in the piggy bank is your gross income.

Step 2: Decide Between Standard Deduction or Itemized Deductions

Once you know your gross income, you need to figure out how to reduce it to get your taxable income. This is where deductions come into play. You can choose between taking the standard deduction—a fixed amount that the government allows everyone to deduct, no questions asked—or itemizing your deductions.

Think of itemized deductions like a discount on a shopping spree. If you spent money on certain things that the government decides are deductible—like donations to charity, medical expenses, or interest you paid on a student loan—you list them all out (itemize them) and subtract their total from your gross income. It's like telling the IRS, "Here's what I spent money on that I think I shouldn't be taxed on."

The difference between gross income and taxable income is simple: gross income is everything you earned, while taxable income is what's left after you subtract deductions (either the standard amount or your itemized list).

Step 3: Determine If You're Entitled to Any Tax Credits

Now, let's talk about making your tax bill even smaller with tax credits. Tax credits are like golden tickets that reduce the amount of tax you owe, dollar for dollar. Unlike deductions, which lower your taxable income, credits directly lower your tax bill.

Imagine you're at a store, and your bill comes to $100. If you have a $20 deduction, it's like getting a discount before the total is calculated. But if you have a $20 tax credit, it's like the store clerk handing you a $20 bill along with your payment—it directly reduces what you owe.

Some common tax credits include the Child Tax Credit, for those with kids, and the Earned Income Tax Credit, for those with lower incomes. These can make a big difference in your tax bill, sometimes even leading to a refund if they reduce your tax liability to less than zero.

Step 4: Input Your Direct Deposit Information

Lastly, if you're expecting a refund, the easiest and safest way to receive it is through direct deposit. This means the IRS will send your refund straight to your bank account (typically within 14 to 21 days from the date your return is accepted). You just need to provide your bank account and routing numbers on your tax return, and voilà, your refund appears in your account.

Wrapping Up

That's it! The tax preparation process might have a few more details depending on your specific situation, but understanding these four main phases gives you a solid foundation. Remember, the goal is to accurately report your income, take advantage of deductions and credits to reduce your tax bill, and set up an easy way to get any refund you're owed. With this knowledge, you're well on your way to navigating tax season like a pro!