From Dependent to Independent: Filing Taxes for the First Time

Computer and calculator used in filing taxes for the first timeIf you’re filing taxes for the first time, you might not know how to feel about it. Some people are excited because they know a tax refund is waiting. Others are worried they’ll be audited or have to pay a tax bill. Here are some need-to-know tax facts to help you understand the process and give you confidence to e-file on your own.

You have to file an income tax return to get a tax refund.

If you are single and you earn less than $12,000 in a year, you technically don’t have to file a federal income tax return. But here’s the thing: if you have a job and money is being withheld from your paycheck for income taxes—or if you qualify for an education tax credit—you may be entitled to a tax refund. That means money back in your pocket just for filing your taxes. Filing your taxes doesn’t mean you will owe taxes. But one thing is for sure: you won’t get your refund if you don’t submit a tax return.

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You need to report all your income.

As a college student, you could be earning income in all sorts of ways. For tax purposes, you need to report all of them. Taxable income comes from wages or salaries. It also comes from tips or money you earn from a side-gig. In some cases, even your scholarship is taxable. The good news is, you don’t have to pay taxes on every dollar you earn. The amount of income tax you owe is based on your total income, minus any allowable deductions.

Deductions are specific expenses that the IRS allows taxpayers to subtract from their total income for the year. Once all deductions are taken, the remaining income—also known as “taxable income”—is taxed at a determined rate. Almost all taxpayers are eligible to take a standard deduction. If you are filing as single, your standard deduction is $12,000.

You can’t claim education tax credits if you are a dependent.

When you file your tax return, you will be asked, “Can anyone else claim you as a dependent?” If the answer is yes, you should still submit a tax return, but your dependent status will limit which tax credits you are eligible for.

The American Opportunity Credit and the Lifetime Learning Credit are two tax credits offered exclusively to qualifying college students. If your parents claim you as a dependent on their tax return, they could take the tax credit. If they don’t claim you, then you could take the tax credit. So how do you know if you are a dependent? If you are 24 or younger, enrolled in school full-time, or someone else provides more than half of your financial support, you could be claimed as a dependent. Make sure you know if anyone else is claiming you before you fill out your tax return.

Prepare in advance. Gather your documents.

When you file a tax return, you’ll need to provide certain personal information that you probably already know, like your Social Security number. Other information will have to come from your employer, your school, even your bank.

  • If you work as an employee, you should receive a Form W-2 in January from your employer. If you work multiple jobs, you will have more than one W-2. You will need to collect all of them before you begin filling out your tax return.
  • If you have a side hustle and you are paid as a contractor, you will get a Form 1099 that includes your income information.
  • If you have student loans, your bank (or other financial institution) should send you a Form 1098-E with your necessary tax information.
  • If you make payments to your school, they should give you a Form 1098-T with a list of the expenses that are related to your coursework. You can use this information to determine if you are eligible for the Lifetime Learning Credit or American Opportunity Tax Credit.

E-filing your taxes is simple and secure.

If you can believe it, the IRS would prefer that everyone file their taxes online. When you e-file, your return is submitted instantly; there is no risk it will be lost in the mail, and there are fewer simple errors because the program does your math for you. When you e-file with TaxSlayer for the first time, you’ll enter all your current tax information. When you come back to file the next year, your prior year details will still be saved in your account. That’s easy! And you don’t need to be a tax genius to do your taxes correctly. TaxSlayer’s products guide you every step of the way, so you can feel confident even the first time around.

Avoid making simple mistakes

One of the most common mistakes people make when they file their taxes is forgetting to sign and date their return. It’s not the end of the world, but it will take longer for you to get your refund. If you mail your return but you forgot to sign it first, the IRS will send you a letter requesting your signature. They can’t process your return without it.

You read correctly: if the IRS needs to contact you, most likely they will send a letter through the U.S. Postal Service. They’re not going to email, text, or reach out to you on social media. Falling for an IRS scam is another—potentially big—mistake. Be aware, be diligent, and be confident that you can slay your taxes.

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