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Tax preparation: 4 ways to get it for free

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(Read caption) Customers are helped at an H & R Block office in April 2012 in Nashville, Tenn. Tuesday is the deadline for filing personal 2011 federal income taxes.

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Tax season is finally here – the IRS began accepting returns on Jan. 30. But before you rush to make an expensive appointment, check out cheaper options.

Estimates suggest Americans spend more than $100 billion a year on tax preparation. But according to the IRS,  70 percent of Americans are eligible for free professional tax preparation and filing software. If you wouldn’t pass up an easy deduction, why would you overpay to file?

There are different options depending on your age and income level – but practically everybody has some option cheaper than a tax pro…

2012 income below $51,000? Free in-person help

Check out the IRS’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, or VITA. They offer free preparation from trained volunteers, complete with information on tax credits you might qualify for. Most include free electronic filing as well.

There are thousands of locations across the country in schools, libraries, malls, and community centers. You can look up free tax prep locations by ZIP code – there were five within as many miles in my area, and only one required appointments. You can also call 1-800-906-9887 to find a location.

Although many take walk-ins – providing they show up with all their paperwork – it’s probably a good idea to make an appointment just in case. The closer to Tax Day (April 15) we get, the more hectic things will be.

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Free in-person help for people 60-plus

If you’re over 60 years old, and have low to mid-income, you’re eligible for the Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE) program. These preparers provided through the AARP have special knowledge of tax issues related to retirement and pension plans.

You don’t have to be an AARP member to qualify – just use their website and find an AARP Tax Aide near you, or call 1-888-227-7669.

When I did a check for locations near me, I found three within 15 miles of my home.

Free online prep and filing for incomes $57,000 or less

If you’re too young or make too much, you’re not out of luck. Make $57,000 or less and you can use IRS Free File tax software. Answer a few basic questions and the site will help you pick one of several free tax preparation options.

While these sites will help you prepare and file free, there’s often a fee for filing a state return, amending your federal return, or pulling up a previous year’s return. Fees vary, but often run between $10 and $40 for each of these snags. So shop around, do things right the first time, and keep both digital and hard copies when you file.

Free online filing and tax help for everybody else

There are two components to the IRS free file system – the preparation help is only for those with gross incomes at or below $57,000. But the online filing part is free for everyone. So if you’re ready to fill out your own forms, use the IRS’s Free File Fillable Forms instead of mailing in a pen-and-paper version.

While using the Fillable Forms doesn’t provide the step-by-step guidance of software or the personal touch of human volunteers, you’re still not out in the cold. If you get stumped you can always get free help from the IRS by visiting a local office or calling them at 1-800-829-1040.

Another option is hitting IRS.gov. They have every tax publication online and a searchable tax FAQ. Not the simplest thing to navigate, perhaps, but you can’t beat the price.

Finally, there’s us! We’ll be continuing our series of tax hacks over the next few weeks, so look for a lot more tips and tricks to save you time, money, and the risk of an audit. On Wednesday, we’ll talk about how to find the best tax pro.

Brandon Ballenger is a writer for Money Talks News, where this column first appeared.

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