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Ask the Readers: Basic book on doing your own taxes?

Today’s question is from Charlotte:

I’m wondering if your readers can recommend a good, basic book about doing your own taxes or just taxes in general?

My husband has always filed our taxes because whenever I try to get involved, I quickly get overwhelmed. I feel like I know so little about tax laws, tax brackets and tax breaks, so I’m looking for a place to build a little knowledge base. I just don’t want to be afraid of taxes anymore.

What I’m looking for is a very basic book. Perhaps a tax book written for High School students, or at the very most freshmen in college. -Charlotte

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79 Comments

  • Mandy says:

    I can’t think of any books because tax law changes so often, but I love TurboTax because it has links you can click on for further explanation. It walks you through everything, and basically “holds your hand” so to speak. Most of what I know about taxes has been learned through the explanations on TurboTax. I won’t use anything else to do our taxes, and it makes it easy enough that I can usually get them done in one evening (about three hours if I’m not interrupted), and we even itemize!

    I wish I knew of a book, but sometimes tax laws are even changed in the middle of tax season, so it is really hard for books to stay up to date….

    Good luck!

    • Charidy says:

      I highly recommend Turbo Tax online. Always updated with the latest stuff.

    • Liz says:

      Agree – Save your book money and purchase Turbo Tax as they provide explanations. Anything that is not clear – just goggle that topic to see if it applies. Most taxes are basic so you should be okay.

      Also – at the end of Turbo Tax there is a review by line item. Some of the lines will be a “what’s this” link and it will also provide an explanation.

      • Mary says:

        Agree with Liz! I was always intimidated as well and took my/our taxes to a professional. Last year I decided it was ridiculous to spend that much money so I did it myself with Turbo Tax. It was SO easy and I am kicking myself for spending money all those years!

    • Heather T. says:

      I too love turob tax have been using it for years, without any problems, we did take a class in High school for doing our own taxes maybe call your local schools and see if they sugest any.

    • JMP says:

      TaxAct is $17.95 for federal, state & some City taxes. Including efile. I have used it for 3 years now & it is great. I actually “checked it” last year & did my federal on both TaxAct & Turbo Tax online & they both gave me the exact same numbers.

    • Mar says:

      Adding to the Turbotax love here. I’ve used it for several years and have had different situations some years – bought a house one year, sold the old house the next year, had an HSA (health savings account for high deductible insurance plans), lost the HSA when my employer was sold and the new company didn’t offer an HSA but still took out money for the expenses, had childcare expenses, etc., etc. I’ve always been able to do the taxes with Turbotax, although there was one HSA question that I did not understand and which TT didn’t quite explain to me. I resolved that by going to their user forums, found out how to do it, and completed the return quickly. It’s also GREAT to be able to pull in last year’s return for those places where information is needed, such as a state tax refund, and as a reminder of what what was on last year’s taxes, such as the various organizations to which I made charitable donations.
      I’ve also read the IRS instruction sheets other documents on their website for information.

  • Tamara says:

    We have used hrblock.com for about 6 years now and LOVE it. They have a program that you can use for free or other various pricing programs. We use the $19.95 one and it imports everything from last year. It makes it very simple!! This program walks you right through your tax return.

    Hope that helps!

  • Char says:

    Question about Turbo Tax…do you have to get a new one each year or does it update itself?

    • Charidy says:

      I use Turbo Tax online. Use the same username & password year after year and it will always pull your previous info for the current return you are doing. I have used Turbo Tax for over 10 years & will continue using it.

    • Amber says:

      I use turbotax.com and so I don’t ever buy the software. It is like 19.95 each year and it will import all the info from last year. It is VERY easy to use.

    • Meegan says:

      You can do a TON of different tax returns using Turbotax. What we do is my parents purchase the CD to do there return, then mail it to me, I mail it to my sister, sometimes we give it to friends.

      When you split the $50 or so for the CD across multiple families, it makes it SUPER cheap. You still have to pay to file your state taxes, but it is still SOOO much cheaper than going someplace to file.

    • Renee says:

      If you purchase the actual program from Sams Club, Walmart or a office supply store, then you MUST purchase one every year. The tax laws change every year and the program would not be up-to-date. I would recommend using Turbo Tax online because it’s up-to-date with the laws. If you qualify you could even do your taxes free.

      Renee

  • Christine says:

    First of all if you want basic information a great resorce is the booklets that are on the IRS websight. IRS.gov uUnfortunally taxes are complacted and you can call the IRS and get two different answers. If there is a way to get your hands on an H&R Block tax course book it is very good. Good luck and honestly we use turbo tax.

    • Diana says:

      I agree. I learned taxes by reading the pamphlets from the IRS. Check online and you can find the office near you and pick up the paper version of the booklets for free. It took me several years of reading the booklets each year to understand some of the different tax laws/rules. Some of the booklets are easier to understand than others…so I would read the ones I understood and ask friends or read online more about the others.

  • Mrs. B. says:

    We used Turbo Tax for years—and really liked how easy and foolproof it was.

    And wasn’t there a FREE version offered recently? We got it free-with rebate a few years ago.

  • Jessica says:

    I don’t know about a book to read ( I agree with the tax laws changing so often) but you might try looking up local offers. For a few years our local library (the main branch located downtown) was offering free tax services (through a local company). It was a volunteer service that they offered and the people were so friendly. They help walk you through the steps and so you get to be apart of the process. It was a wonderful service. The following year I brought the volunteers some muffins, and they were so thankful! They even found “extra” money that I was entitled to due to a change in a tax law. It was wonderful! We just moved, so I am on the hunt to see if our new local library will offer any such service. It’s worth looking into! Just an idea.

  • Christine says:

    Char you really should get a new version of turbo tax since you want all of the updated information on the new disk. Also you don’t want to rely on old information when the tax laws change so often.

  • Malissa C. says:

    I actually “taught” myself by reading the IRS.gov website! They go over a lot of the basic stuff right there – free and (almost) always available 🙂

    Here is the link for individuals:
    http://www.irs.gov/individuals/index.html?navmenu=menu1

    Hopefully that will help you some! I have used TurboTax as well as H&R Block in the past, but after seeing how “easy” my family’s returns are, I just read up to learn to do it myself.

  • courtney says:

    This might just be me because I’m an accountant, but whenever I have questions on tax stuff, I read the directions for the form (whether it’s the 1040 or any schedules). I did work for the IRS, but when I work on complicated tax matters that I have no knowledge or training in, that’s what I do. It’s way less complicated than actual tax code. It’s step-by-step and easy to follow. I’ve never seen and H&R Block training book, but I would bet it’s also somewhat easy to understand, since you don’t actually have to be an accountant to work there.

    • Jennifer says:

      ditto, from another accountant

    • MC says:

      Ditto from a non-accountant.

      I say, read the form and the instructions that come with it. It’s really just following directions.

    • brookeb says:

      I’m definitely not an accountant, but this is what I’ve always done. This is one of those cases where the average person doesn’t need to know too much about the things that don’t apply to them, in order to do a decent job with things.

    • Dawn says:

      I too use TurboTax. I even do our small side business taxes with it. Everything is in plain english and all the questions make it really easy to do it. You can also start your taxes for free. You don’t have to pay until you file. So you could always set up an account and get started to see what you think.

    • Bonnie says:

      This is so funny. I’m not an accountant (although I do work in finance) and I use Turbo Tax, but whenever I want to do a cross-check, I read the instructions for the tax forms, too. I’ve probably learned more from those instructions than anything else. Of course, I also have a basic understanding of how our tax system works.

  • Carla says:

    Speaking from experience, don’t go the book route unless you want to be a tax preparer. The tax codes are extensive, cover many topics that won’t apply to you, and can be overwhelming.

    However, like everybody said, the tax software is pretty helpful and will explain things as you go. I would also suggest that once your taxes are finished, print off all your forms and go through it page by page, line by line. Look up the things you don’t understand. Sometimes it helps to see how everything fits together when you look at it on the actual form. If you know someone that understands taxes and feel comfortable showing them your return, have them explain it to you. The free tax help service that someone else recommended is great too. I’ve actually been one of the volunteers before and I love it when I can help people who want to understand their taxes.

    And, if you still have trouble understanding them then don’t feel too bad. I’ve taken 5 college level tax classes and I still don’t know a quarter of it all!

  • Lauren says:

    I’m with Courtney…I’m a tax accountant, and I always read the form instructions. They are really good about answering questions line by line (especially if you have to file state income taxes as well as federal). My company is one of those that offers the program at a local library to help you with your taxes, so you can look into that as well. Its through United Way and its called VITA. I also agree that TurboTax is a great option.

  • Brenda says:

    I agree with most of what has already been posted. I work for a tax company and we rely heavily on the IRS instructions. Most tax software does a good job of helping the average person with little to no tax knowledge also.
    However, if you really want to educate yourself I would recommend the 1040 Quickfinder Handbook. It’s $43 and you can purchase a print version, a CD or DVD, or software. Check out http://www.quickfinder.com.

  • Rebecca says:

    I personally use TaxAct.com. It is cheaper than turbo tax. I can file state and federal taxes for $13.95. It walks you through asking questions about what went on in your life. You can pay a little more to get more involved help. If you just want to have a concept of what taxes are about, but not necessarily all the details, try
    http://www.irs.gov/individuals/students/index.html
    Hope this helps! I know taxes can be intimidating, but really if you follow the instructions carefully line by line you can work through it.

    • Marie says:

      I’ve been really happy with TaxACT also! My biggest piece of advice is take your time and try not to rush through it.

    • Amanda Y. says:

      I was happy with tax act when my taxes were simple, but now that I have special circumstances and itemize, I find turbo tax a bit better!

  • nancy says:

    Must agree the previous posters, try Turbo Tax. We have been using it for years, my husband usually get s our taxes done a few hours, and that includes our rental property and doing my mom’s taxes. Best wishes!

  • Spendwisemom says:

    I would just get the tax software and do them yourself that way. They keep up with all the changes so you don’t have to.

  • Raspbery K says:

    I’ve worked for a tax preparer for a few tax seasons and one season for a big name tax company. I highly suggest finding a trustworthy Enrolled Agent in your area. Most will answer a question or two for free. I’ll never go back to doing our own taxes–anytime we have an issue with the IRS, our tax preparer will do the research needed and respond in a timely manner. I guess I look at paying for tax prep a little like insurance–we may not need the assistance this year, but next year we might need his help to answer a nightmare issue! (BTW, he charges by the form, which IMHO is probably the most honorable way to charge.)

    If you are interested in learning about tax prep, H&R Block offers courses every fall. Also, as mentioned before, the IRS publishes many, many booklets that assist in understanding the tax laws. If you start with getting a 1040 form and the instructions that go with it, you may very well be able to figure most of it out on your own.

    Even though the laws do change every year, there are a few things that stay the same. Income that is considered taxable will be the same year after year, as well as the schedules’ names and basic uses.

    Oh and one last thought, if I remember correctly H & R Block will look at a prepared tax return for a minimal fee.

  • Shelly says:

    I have always used Turbo Tax. It walks you through everything and makes it so easy. Although one year, I did use VITA. It was completely free and someone does your taxes for you. You have to qualify (income wise) but you should check into it. I would check your local library for more info. And don’t forget to check local colleges. They have the accounting students do taxes for free. Good luck!

  • Sarah says:

    hrblock.com is really easy to use, and if you make less than $58,000, you can file for free. (Just go to irs.gov and look for the links about Free File. You’ll get a long list of possibilities, and H&R Block should be there.) They also have versions that you can pay for (around $20) if you want your return double-checked.

    But like I said, it’s really easy. You just check everything that applies to your life (new job, new children, new house, sold house, etc.), and they walk you through everything you need. Then you just enter the information in the boxes they provide. If you’re not sure how to answer a certain question, there are help links that describe what everything means and if it applies to you.

  • Britt says:

    Turbotax all the way! I’ve heard H&RBlock has a good online system, too, though. I’m done with taxes (provided I have all my forms in front of me) in less than a couple hours and always get a great refund!

  • Dawn says:

    Taxact.com is even cheaper than Turbo Tax and we have been using it for the last 4 years…it literally is idiot proof and requires nothing but you punching in the numbers from the lines it asks for then answering questions about life events. So wonderful, you can file your state and federal for $19.95

  • Steph says:

    Great comments and suggestions. Accounting majors in college don’t generally study income tax accounting until the third year (or at least that’s how it used to be), so there might be high school-level books out there with enough detail.

  • Sara says:

    I know a lot of people are recommending Turbo Tax and I know good things about it too. I was an accountant prior to having my son, and now`

  • Sara says:

    I used to be an accountant prior to having a baby and now stay home with him. I use taxact.gov. It’s great, you can file your Federal return for free. It’s very easy and prompts you with lots of questions to determine what credits and deductions you qualify for. Good luck!

  • Jenn says:

    All the books are pretty much the same. What you need to do is take half an hour at the bookstore and sit down with a good selection, pick a topic and then see which one explains it to YOU the best. All these books offer is more detail and a different way of wording what’s in the tax form instructions. We buy the doorstop-sized book by JK Lassers every year. That and the tax form instructions will get you pretty far.

    Try just doing the EZ federal form. You may have exemptions and itemizations not covered by the EZ form but forget that for a moment, grab a calculator and your w2s and 1099s and do the EZ form. It looks a lot like a grade school worksheet. Once you’re comfortable with that try putting that info into the form you actually do use. Or, if you itemize, have your husband calculate your tax with itemizations and you calculate your tax with the standard deduction. Or figure out one piece. Like if you had school tuition and expenses, you do that research and math and give your husband the numbers to put on the form.

    Another thought is to take all your tax documents and forms to the library by yourself and do the taxes there. I’m implying nothing about your husband here but maybe it will feel less intimidating if a stranger is helping you. I love my husband to pieces but we can’t work on something like this together. For one thing, we approach things very differently and almost speak different languages. So one of us does the taxes, the other proofs. Then the following year we switch.

    Good luck! You can do this!

  • susie says:

    I went to the irs.gov and they have links for different companies you can use. I have used on-line taxes link and filed our taxes for $6.95. It is very like turbo tax. It was easy for me to use.

  • Amanda says:

    We have been using the free tax file options from the IRS. Depending on your AGI you could possibly have your taxes done online for free. We used an online tax service through H&R block that was free this year because our AGI fell in their range for free services. We found the information on the Irs website under file for free.

  • Laura says:

    Have to agree with the Turbo Tax suggestion. Check with your bank to see if they have a partnership program that would allow you to acces Turbo Tax through their website. This typically provides a 25% discount on the Deluxe service or higher and the provides the basic service at no fee at all. Turbo Tax asks you all of the questions necessary to determine what you need to report. In addition, you can back at any time to view your past year’s returns (that were filed through their service) and review or print them.

  • tracie says:

    If you go to the irs website you can file for free with different companies. I go there every year and file through turbo tax. I file both federal and state for free. Never has any problem with them. I do the same for my moms. I can have all our taxes done in a couple of hours.

  • Amanda says:

    TURBO TAX all the way- it has totally saved me hours and hours of paperwork and hundreds of pages of paper 🙂

  • Charlotte says:

    Thank you, everyone, for your suggestions and thanks to Crystal for posting my question!

    We have always used Turbo Tax… er, my husband has. I gave up after a few years. I think I’ll try starting at the IRS website. I don’t want to just get my taxes done but also know WHY I’m getting back/not getting back whatever amount it is.

    Thanks again!

  • Shannon says:

    I use H&R block and let them do the work for me, but then I just input the information into the actual forms on the IRS website. When you finish on H&R block, you can save the forms as a PDF to your computer and print them. It is free to e-file for any tax bracket on e-file on IRS.gov. Takes a little extra time, but it’s FREE! I’ve done this for 2 years with no problem, and I have to file a Schedule A as well since I itemize.

  • AmyB says:

    I’m a “retired” CPA now that I have kids, but I spent a few years preparing tax returns. When I was in college studying tax, I found IRS Publication 17, “Your Federal Income Tax,” helpful. It’s all online at http://www.irs.gov, and it is a large publication, but it is good at explaining all you basically need to know about preparing your taxes. I used it a lot as a reference until I got more comfortable navigating the IRS website. That is my suggestion for a starting point. It has all the information that a book will have. The only caveat is that it too is not going to be current to the minute so it will be important to prepare your taxes with a software that allows updates for current legislation. I use taxact since it is significantly less expensive than the other brands.

    When it comes to taxes, don’t fret. Look at your situation and read only what applies to you. Then any extra reading should mostly be spent on maximizing deductions and any significant events that might take place in the next couple years. Let curiosity guide you further. I find tax law both fascinating and frustrating ;-). Hope that helps!

  • Joyce says:

    Instead of the book route, why not learn by doing? Turbo Tax is great and all, but I recommend becoming trained as an EITC (earned income tax credit) volunteer and helping others out. It’s a great way to learn and serve the community at the same time! I live in Boston and I know they are always looking for volunteers during tax season. I know this program is available nationwide as well.

  • Kristen says:

    We have used Turbo Tax for years. We had an accountant do our taxes only once. He refused to itemize for us because we don’t own our home, however we give quite a bit each year to our church. When we used Turbo Tax, we found it SAVED us SO MUCH MONEY because it found we were owed more back as a result of our giving, interest on our school loans, and other miscellaneous things that it walked us through. We buy it every year because of the tax code updates and often get a $10 rebate when we get it at Costco.

    One thing Turbo Tax offers is a program included (can’t remember the name of it) in it that has put a lot more money back in our pocket. It is a program that helps with itemizing donated items, like to thrift stores. We have always estimated a much smaller amount when donating items for fear that they will actually audit and ask us what was the value of the specific things we donated. This program will help us put value on those items. One time we had a big load and it found we could claim $1,100 and we had the itemized list to prove it. There’s no way we would have been brave enough on our own to claim that amount on donated items just by estimating values. GL!

  • Chris says:

    Try reading “Taxes Made Simple; Income Taxed Explained in 100 Pages or Less” by Mike Piper. I got it from Amazon. It’s a simple and quick read, and I thought it gave a great overview of taxes.

  • Camille says:

    I would suggest getting a hard copy of the forms you use and the instruction manuals. Sit down with all of your tax info, open the book to page 1 and start reading. Then go line by line with the manual and the form and start filling out. Get or print out schedules as you need them. Do the calculations right in the book. Do it just for practice and use a pencil! Don’t be afraid to mess it up –this one is for you! Then compare your form with your husband’s form.

    The IRS is actually pretty good with their instructions. Don’t worry about the “why” just the “how”!

    • Melanie says:

      This is the approach that I like – TurboTax and HRBlock software can seem like a “blackbox”. If you read the instructions, you know all the whys and wherefores. If you want, you could start w/ a 1040EZ, work your way up to 1040A and then the full blown 1040. That’s how I’ve done it, over a period of years. (EZ when I first did them; 1040A when we had too much interest for the EZ; 1040 once we bought a house and had more deductions.)

  • Ann says:

    My Dad used a number of the tax softwares out there and he said TaxAct is the easiest to use – I’ve used it the last few years and our taxes aren’t all that simple (we own a rental along with the normal family stuff).
    That said – it does take me a lot of time to do our taxes. I don’t want to miss anything so I’m reading a lot of the IRS instructions.

  • Krista says:

    H&R at Home explains everything as u go and you can import everything fromt he previous year. Have used it for years, love it!

  • Erika says:

    I have an accounting degree, have worked for H&R Block, and can honestly say any book is a waste of time and money. The IRS will allow you to order the pub 17 for free and they will mail it to you but you can access all the laws online at IRS.gov. If you really want a book, be prepared to purchase one every year because tax laws change every year. The one I recommend is “The Tax Book” and you can find information on it at http://www.thetaxbook.com this is the best resource and H&R provides this at every office. Most tax pros by their own to buff up on all the changes. I will say turbotax is the way to go. I have used Block’s taxcut and their professional software as a tax pro and I still prefer Turbotax. Depending on your income you can use software of all kinds for free you just need to check what is available at IRS.gov Good Luck!

  • Jen says:

    My suggestion would be after your taxes are done and filed use one of the on line programs to start a return (you can usually start the return for free and only pay when you file). Start from the very beginning and click on the what is this links or search the irs.gov site for info on the topic. Go all the way through the program but don’t file. I think you will learn lots from actually doing it without the pressure of “what if I miss it up majorly”. This way you can learn why the IRS needs this information and what they do with. And go through every step (even if you don’t need and/or qualify) the program should let you know if you don’t need to do that step. I’ve been using Turbo Tax for years and this is how I started. After I had filed my taxes (with a tax professional) I would come home and setup an online account going through the entire process (but not filing) and see if I came up with the same numbers. After 3 years I felt very comfortable (and getting the same numbers as the professional 3 years in a row) and started doing them on my own.

  • Marjorie W says:

    For a general understanding, I’d post on Craig’s list or Freecycle for a used
    tax text book from H+R Block, Jackson-Hewitt or something similar.
    They really do start quite slowly, and you can only read what you’re apt to read. For example, I may have been tested on business deductions for setting up a business, but that’s something you probably don’t need. The schools/offices might even give you a copy of last year’s for the asking, since you aren’t looking for the course.

  • jane says:

    I would suggest this book: http://www.amazon.com/Taxes-Made-Simple-Income-Explained/dp/0981454216/ref=pd_bxgy_b_img_b

    It’s about 10 bucks (or they might have it at your library) and a good, basic intro to how personal income taxes work. Turbo Tax works fine, but I think in general the more you understand about money, the better off you are. This is 100 pages, easy math, simply explanations, and my students have generally found it helpful. (I used to teach a tax class.)

  • Amanda Y. says:

    Seems like everyone has covered the basics, but I highly recommend doing your own taxes on turbo tax.com (most people qualify for federal free, if you are under $52k and don’t itemize, and state is about $20, and you don’t pay until the end IF you choose to file with them), you can learn so much by just doing them, but also there are additional links to read more. I have learned so much for myself this way–for example, one year I learned that since I itemize because of a mortgage deduction and I learned that by simply requesting a receipt when I donate clothes, etc. to goodwill, I would be able to deduct those amounts as well. My boyfriend doesn’t itemize, so no charitable donations for him. So, if we donate some of both of our stuff, I should get the receipt for my stuff, but he doesn’t need to bother.

  • Angela says:

    If you have the time and the interest, one of the best things I ever did was take the H&R Block tax course. It was free (I think I had to buy the book). Basically, they are teaching it primarily in hopes of finding tax preparers – if you do well, they offer you the chance to interview for employment. I learned a lot of basics and feel more comfortable when I read through the tax forms/instructions. I even had a part time job with them for a few years, before children, that allowed me to earn a little extra money.

    I now use an online program to do my taxes and for the most part, they do provide pretty good guidance in completing your taxes.

  • Jennifer says:

    I know several others have already mentioned this, but TaxAct.com is great! We’ve used it for at least 5 years. It is free to e-file a federal return. We live in a state with no state income taxes, so we’ve never paid a dime to use it. However, if you need to file a state return, a $14.95 fee applies.

    If you are interested in the specifics of tax laws, go to irs.gov to read the instructions for the particular form you are using.

  • Evie says:

    If you want to read & do your taxes yourself, the IRS has publication 17 available on http://www.irs.gov that takes you through each section of the 1040 and directs you to additional publications that may be of interest to you. Pub 17 is almost 300 pages, but you could easily skip over the non-applicable portions.

    I’ve used TurboTax in the past. I’ve started studying taxation to help my husband in his CPA firm and realize how little I understood of what TurboTax was actually doing. I wonder whether or not it was the most accurate tax return because of that.

    You can also eFile for free through the IRS.

  • Monica says:

    Turbo Tax, We’ve used this program for over 7 years now… Simple step by step instructions. You are also allowed 5 federal e-files!

  • Michele says:

    Try IRS website Publication 17 is a great reference

    http://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/p17.pdf

    I use it all the time.

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