Lessons from an accountant: Five things to help you prepare for tax season

by Tracey Jeffreys, Controller, Strassburger McKenna Gutnick & Gefsky; United Way Free Tax Prep volunteer

I have been an accountant for a long, long time. Not a tax accountant mind you, but a corporate accountant with a stint in public accounting. I learned tax accounting in college, but seldom have had the opportunity to use very much of that knowledge before starting my volunteer work with United Way.

Several years ago, I saw a posting from Just Harvest, in partnership with United Way’s Free Tax Prep campaign, looking for tax preparers to support low-income families for the upcoming tax season. On the hunt for a new challenge, I applied.

As I certainly needed a refresher course on tax preparation, I was glad to be put into a classroom with other volunteers and online training sessions through United Way, where I got IRS-certified to prepare taxes for others.

Since then, I’ve spent the last two tax seasons at Robert Morris University’s United Way Free Tax Prep site helping some wonderful local people alongside some very gifted college students and other volunteers. I would encourage anyone with a basic tax knowledge to think about assisting in this program. It’s not rocket science, and while I myself happen to be an accountant, some of the best and most knowledgeable tax prep volunteers aren’t accountants.

Whether you prepare your own taxes, sign up to prepare others’ taxes or have them done by someone else, here are five personal recommendations to keep in mind:

  • PREPARE – Make yourself a checklist in December of everything that you need to do with regard to your taxes: What W2s are you expecting? What charitable donations did you make for which you need a receipt? What documentation will be a problem obtaining? Making this list will help you identify these needs early on, so you’re not scrambling at the last minute.
  • PLAN PAYMENTS – Also in December, identify what deductions are better from one year to the next. For example, it may be better for you to make your January mortgage payment in December if you need additional deductions in one year versus another.
  • DOCUMENTATION – Documentation, documentation, documentation, oh, and did I say documentation? Have solid documentation for everything that you will show on your tax return. This includes last year’s tax return, W2’s, 1099 forms, interest statements from your bank, real estate tax bills, settlement statements from buying a house, tuition bills from your children or yourself, and more. Everything you think you might need, have it ready.
  • TAX FILE FOLDER – Take your documentation and put it in a special folder, drawer or place. Make sure the location of the folder is made known to anyone that might need access to the information. When you receive a document, put it in there. You will thank yourself in January when you are prepared and everything is in one place.
  • ASK FOR HELP – I don’t know anyone who knows the answers to every question. My suggestion is to always ask someone for help if you’re unsure. PA 2-1-1 Southwest is a wonderful resource, it’s a free service for many families, so make use of it.

And for those of you who have a good grasp on tax prep and have the means to either prepare your own or pay someone to help you, consider signing up as a volunteer through United Way’s Free Tax Prep program. We could use your help!