My freshman year of college, I downloaded self-service software to file my taxes. When I got to the end, I had to pay fees for filing my federal and state taxes. Plus, I OWED both state and federal taxes. This made zero sense, since I was a college student and made less than $8,000 that year.

I went ahead anyway—then started getting letters from the IRS telling me to pay what I owed before getting penalized. It was all a blur, and none of it made sense. Looking back, I was incredibly naive to file my own taxes, but that experience made me more mature.

Now, I know that there are other ways to handle taxes without having to completely jeopardize my refund. With tax season approaching, I think it's important I share my self-filing lessons—especially if it’s your first time doing taxes.

Get A Second Look

If you are filing and something confuses you, stop and do some research or ask somebody. And before submitting self-filed taxes, definitely try to get them looked over with a fresh pair of eyes.

If you don’t know a professional who can help you, find someone you trust to take a look. My senior year of high school, my statistics professor helped me file my taxes. As an emancipated minor, no one claimed me—so I had to do this on my own.

With my teacher’s help, I filed without issues. That’s why I thought I could do this by myself when I got to college. I was wrong.

Check Your Software

If you are filing for yourself, use the IRS.gov website or a secure website with a FREE e-filing service. There's no need to spend extra money. A lot of places claim they can get you a bigger refund, but they just use that to reel you in or upsell you.

My sophomore year, I paid around $30 for a popular tax software that I later found out only filled out my federal taxes for free. When it came to file my state taxes, I had to pay an extra fee to do them.

Also, despite claiming to be easy to fill out (what a lie, right?), I had a hard time figuring things out. It just wasn’t as user-friendly as I thought it’d be.

Find Free Help

If you don’t know enough about the process, then don’t do your own taxes. There are plenty of free services where people will do your taxes or help with them, especially if you’re a student.

On my campus, there is a department called “VITA” (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance). Essentially these volunteers (usually business majors) hold sessions where you can come in with your W2s and they file your taxes for free. Look on your campus and in your state to see if they offer similar programs.

VITA helped me clear up the mistakes I made my freshman year, as well as fix these issues with both the Department of Revenue and the IRS. Had I known about them earlier, I could have avoided a tedious and extremely scary situation. So, this year, I’m learning my lesson—and going to VITA first.

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