True confession time! I am one of the 10 million or so tax filers that the IRS probably hates. Why? I continue to file my taxes on paper. It’s not that I haven’t tried to use fillable forms. I have. But the process is cumbersome and it is so much easier for me- as an admitted frugal tax geek- to fill out paper forms, double check my math, and priority mail my tax return.
Yes, I could hire someone or buy $100 software to complete my tax return but, as I said, I actually like filling out tax forms. It is like piecing together a quilt. I'm also frugal. So why spend the money? By preparing my own tax return, I also help keep personal information private (although nothing is foolproof, as noted below). In addition, there is no better insight (other than a net worth statement) into a person’s finances than preparing your own tax return. Free e-filing or assistance from a VITA volunteer who could e-file forms is not an option for me.
The IRS is encouraging e-filing this year and I seriously considered it to help out a beleaguered federal government agency with a backlog of some 6 million unprocessed tax returns from last year. My original plan was to do a paper return, as I usually do, and then transfer the numbers to forms required for e-filing. When I started reading the e-file instructions, however, my eyes glazed over. I thought, “why go through hours of additional work when my taxes are already done?” I have no refund to process quickly or get stolen so, once again, I am paper filing.
Based on my experiences as a life-long paper tax filer and a review of articles about different tax-filing methods, below is a brief summary of some of the pros and cons of paper and electronic income tax return filing:
Paper Filing Advantages
¨ It is (Almost) Free- Paper tax filing does not require the purchase of any software or tax preparation services. The only cost is paper and ink to print out downloaded tax forms and postage for mailing the tax return, preferably using priority mail with a tracking number. Of course, current knowledge of tax laws and tax forms is a pre-requisite.
¨ It Feels “Comfortable”- Paper tax forms are familiar to many long-time “do-it-yourselfers” and don’t require computer access (other than downloading forms), e-filing expenses, or a “learning curve” to figure out how to use software or e-file IRS forms.
Paper Filing Disadvantages
¨ Refunds Take Longer- The IRS says refunds take around 3 weeks for electronic returns and two months for paper returns, if there are no issues that delay processing. Of course, this is a moot point if someone owes additional tax and there is no refund to wait for. About 75% of Americans get refunds so this means that about one in four do not so wait time is a non-issue.
¨ Security and Privacy Issues- There are risks of exposing personal data during the mailing process and the handling of paper returns received by the IRS. However, personal data could also be compromised by dishonest tax preparers who e-file someone’s tax returns or via a computer hacking. Bottom line: no tax-filing method is 100% secure.
Electronic Filing Advantages
¨ Processing Speed and Accuracy- Electronic tax returns are more likely (than paper returns) to be processed by the IRS before an identity thief can steal someone’s refund. Again, a moot point if a taxpayer owes the IRS additional tax and there is no refund (at least, the victim’s own money) for fraudsters to steal. Software used for e-filing can catch data entry errors that paper filers might make mistakes with. IRS data transcribers can also make mistakes that taxpayers cannot control. Keep a copy of your paper return.
¨ Immediate Confirmation- When e-filers hit the submit button, they receive a message that their tax return has been received by the IRS. Paper filers, on the other hand, can only confirm IRS receipt of their tax return through a USPS tracking number (if priority mailed), when their check (if they owe tax) has cleared, or via the IRS website “Where’s My Refund?” tool.
Electronic Filing Disadvantages
¨ Cost- Many taxpayers can e-file for free but software (e.g., H&R Block Tax Software, TurboTax®, TaxSlayer®, TaxAct®) costs money. Prices vary among vendors and the complexity of users’ taxes (e.g., capital gains, business income) but are often $50 to $100. Similarly, tax preparers with e-filing capabilities charge according to the complexity of someone's taxes.
¨ Limitations- Certain tax situations require paper returns (e.g., amended tax returns, rejected e-filed returns, and identity theft victims). Completing a paper tax return can be intimidating to taxpayers who always have e-filed.
Bottom Line: Use the tax filing method that works best for you. Key factors to consider are time availability, knowledge of federal and state tax laws, cost, security concerns, access to free tax-filing programs and/or community resources, and tax preparation experience. Reach out for help, when needed.
This post provides general personal finance information and does not address all the variables that apply to an individual’s unique situation. It does not endorse specific products or services and should not be construed as legal or financial advice. If professional assistance is required, the services of a competent professional should be sought.