January 19, 2012

Uncle Sam Wants YOU--To Be Organized for Tax Season

It's the beginning of the new year--a time when people make resolutions to lose weight, spend more time with family and make other such improvements to their life. Many set goals to get organized in the New Year.

If that is one of your goals, that's wonderful! I commend you for setting a goal to improve the quality of your life. I have the perfect organizing project for you. When you've finished it, you'll be less stressed and have more time to enjoy the beginning of Spring.

I don't want you to sort your sock drawer. No, I'm not sending you to organize your garage in the middle of winter.

Your first organizing project of the new year is to: Get Organized for Tax Season.

We've all heard about the person who walks into an accountant's office with a shoebox full of receipts. It's a stereotype, but if I polled a bunch of accountants, they'd probably tell me that the stereotype is more of a truth than an exaggeration.

If the thought of getting organized for tax season makes you start to twitch, not to worry. I'm going to use a few basic organizing principles to guide you through the process and put a smile on your face and your accountant's.

Break a Large Task into Smaller Tasks
Prepping for your tax appointment can seem overwhelming. I'll tell you that a task becomes less overwhelming once it is broken down into many smaller tasks. Do a brain dump of all the things you need to do to prepare for a tax appointment. Then put those tasks into priority order and create a check-off list for you to follow until the last step has been completed.

Create a Home
In the next few weeks, your mailbox will be stuffed with W-2's, 1099's, statements from financial institutions and other papers necessary for filing your taxes. In order to keep track of them, you'll need to create a place for all of these papers to 'live' before they visit the accountant. Normally, I advise people to use shoeboxes an an inexpensive organizing tool but in this case, I'd prefer not to feed the shoebox stereotype. Take a large poly envelope, preferably see through, and place all tax-related documents in there. Have a file drawer or cabinet? Create a hanging file with a tab that says 'TAXES.' As they come in the mail, place the tax papers in the file.

Make an Appointment with Yourself or Delegate
If you're doing your own taxes, make an appointment with yourself to get them done. Pick a day and time when there are few distractions and when you are most coherent. Write that date on your calendar and stick to it. Are you having an accountant file your taxes? Great--you're delegating! Call their office in late January or early February to make an appointment. Put it on your calendar.

Sort it Out/Group 'Like with 'Like'
It's a week before your appointment. Take out that poly envelope or tax file and look at all your papers. If you have a stack of them you'll need to sort them by grouping 'like with like'--all interest statements from banks go together, all receipts for gas and tolls should be clipped together, etc. This will enable you and your accountant to process your tax return quickly and with less stress (and coffee).

A few tax season Do's and Don'ts:

Don't: procrastinate. This is one of the worst things you can do at tax time except for showing up with that shoebox (see above).  If you're doing your own taxes, it won't be much fun if your version of Turbo Tax unexpectedly quits at 10:30pm on April 15th. You'll never get your accountant's full attention if you procrastinate--in fact you might be put on extension. And by then, you'll be talking to the secretary if she hasn't fallen over from working overtime for the past three months.

Don't: arrive at your accountant's office with your statements in their sealed envelopes unless you want to see his/her head pop off. If your accountant's head does not pop off, it's because they have already decided that they will charge you for having to open all of your envelopes.

Do: take the Social Security numbers of all family members you are filing taxes for. If you or a member of your family owns a business, bring the tax ID number with you as well. Your accountant will thank you a hundred times for being prepared with that vital information.

Do: collect all proof of donation papers (thrift stores, schools, great causes, etc.) throughout the year and keep them in the poly envelope or tax file discussed above. You'll need them to get that tax deduction!

Tax season does not have to be a painful time of year. With some preparation and organization, you'll be on your way to a less stressful and more relaxed way to pay Uncle Sam.

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