It’s “tax time,” when more than 150 million Americans need to begin preparing and filing tax returns for calendar year 2017.
For many, tax preparation can feel like a big task and not necessarily one they relish. But for most, there are ways to make it easier, less time consuming and less expensive. And, despite all the jokes and disparagement about paying taxes, we also believe it’s worth remembering that the annual tax filing ritual has tremendous potential benefits that are often discounted.
All across the country, in churches, libraries, schools, community centers and other public meeting halls, thousands of Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) volunteers turn out each year to provide free tax preparation assistance to people in need.
VITA volunteers are certified by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to help low and moderate-income earners, older Americans, tax filers with disabilities and limited English speaking skills file their taxes electronically. And, since not all taxpayers can get to a VITA site or need the hands-on attention that a VITA site provides, there’s another equally important tax preparation resource known as the Free File Program.
Complementing the IRS VITA program is the IRS Free File program which helps low and moderate-income taxpayers to prepare tax returns on their own by offering taxpayers a choice of free tax preparation software, donated by 12 tax preparation software companies, including Intuit.
Today, both the VITA and Free File programs continue to enjoy broad, bi-partisan support in Congress, as well as with the IRS and virtually all of the tax software industry.
One of the reasons these programs are so important is that they enable Americans to fulfill this important civic responsibility.
In fact, direct citizen engagement in the tax compliance process is more than just an obligation – it is participation in our government and in the civic life of our country – as is the exercise of the right to vote. It is also an empowering opportunity for all Americans to look in the fiscal mirror and to take stock of – and ultimately improve – their personal and family financial lives.
Preparing our taxes can serve as a financial checkup and a way to become more informed and empowered to take positive actions to ensure our own and our families’ financial wellness. Indeed, savings at tax time – even setting aside a portion of refunds – could do a great deal to change the trajectory of the financial future of millions of Americans.
One important finding of “tax time” savings research is that when we encourage taxpayers to directly deposit of a portion of their tax refunds into savings accounts or savings bonds or college 529 savings accounts, they are more likely to do so.
And an increase in personal savings means a greater ability to pay for college educations, start a small business, cover personal emergencies or prepare for a secure retirement.
We recognize that at lower income levels it’s hard enough for families to just make ends meet. For many, saving even a small portion of a small paycheck is huge challenge. But that is also why it’s essential we encourage and support this effort. For our part, Intuit has supported and participated in a number of personal savings initiatives, including one that was developed in collaboration with researchers at Washington University in St. Louis and Duke University. The research is called Refund to Savings, or “R2S”, and a big part of its mission is to apply lessons of behavioral economics to encourage tax filers to save a portion of their refunds at tax time.
For most Americans, especially those at lower income levels, tax refunds are often the biggest single payment they receive all year. What this R2S project has taught us is that the “tax time moment” is an opportune time for these taxpayers to think about setting aside money for the future.
We believe that promoting, encouraging and incentivizing Americans to use the opportunity to better assess their overall financial health and increase their short- and long-term savings is an initiative everyone, regardless of political affiliation or outlook, can and should get behind.