(USA Today)-- The holiday bills are landing. Winter roads could send you spinning on a patch of black ice. So why not add a tad more stress in January and start thinking about doing your taxes, too?
Like it or not, the official opening of income tax season is upon us. One cannot turn on a TV without a tax-related ad. We have H&R Block's commercials for what $1 billion looks like, money the tax service claims is left on the table when people miss tax breaks. And TurboTax kicked off its "The Year of the You" ads during the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day.
This year, the Internal Revenue Service will start accepting federal income tax returns for individuals electronically on Jan. 31. That's about 10 days later than normal. But the delay is only one day later than last year, which also faced delays.
The IRS already began accepting business tax returns on Jan. 13.
Yes, a delayed start means families won't receive refunds as quickly, either. Some tax experts say consumers who budget with the idea of getting a refund in early February should realize that the money won't show up until maybe mid-February. The IRS said 9 out of 10 taxpayers will receive their refund in 21 days or less if they electronically file a return.
But it is possible to prepare that return now through various services and hold off filing until Jan. 31.
The "Free File" program offered via the Internal Revenue Service web site is already up and running. Individuals do not have to pay a dime for tax software, if they go through www.irs.gov and pick a company participating in the "Free File" program.
"Doing your taxes may not be the most exciting thing to look forward to, but at least you can do it for free," said Luis D. Garcia, a spokesperson for the IRS in Detroit.
This year, 14 tax preparation services are participating via "Free File." Taxpayers need to go directly through www.irs.gov. Then, click on "Free File" and use a "Help Me" tool to filter out which company would be best for a given tax filer to use. Tax software programs listed in "Free File" can set limits as to who can use their services for free. Some might only work with certain income limits, for example.
The "Free File" program overall is only open to taxpayers with an adjusted gross income of $58,000 or less. But even with that income limit, the IRS said "Free File" could be used by up to 70% of all individual taxpayers.
Right now, not even half of the people who could use "Free File" take advantage of that freebie.
In Michigan, 116,282 taxpayers took part in the IRS "Free File" program last year. It's smaller than a speck of dust when you consider that more than 4.7 million federal returns typically are filed in Michigan.
Nationwide, the number who used the "Free File" program was 2.97 million.
But the taxpayers can easily save $30 or $40 if they can use brand name software online for free, instead of buying that software. They'd save even more money if they're paying hundreds of dollars to have returns prepared by someone else.
The step-by-step process available online via "Free File" is easier than doing taxes by pencil and paper. It's fast to e-file and can be done by many, especially if they do not have a complicated return.
Tax preparers participating in "Free File" will allow you to complete your return online now and then will hold back filing the return until Jan. 31.
The IRS said the new Jan. 31 opening date for individuals to file 2013 tax returns gives the IRS time to program and test its tax processing systems. The process for updating IRS systems saw significant delays in October following the 16-day federal government shutdown.
Sure, many of us do not want to even think about taxes this early. But it makes sense to get going on some of the ground work.
To prepare a return early, you would, of course, need all of your paperwork, including any W-2 forms and 1099s.
Do-it-yourself tax preparers who don't qualify for Free File can find plenty of sales now on tax software or online tax preparation services.
Some sites also offer access to extra mail-in rebate programs, coupons and cash back from some stores.
"This time of year, early bird e-filers can buy the latest software for 50% off or more, like Intuit Quickbooks 2014 and Turbotax Deluxe2014 on sale with FatWallet cash back," said Brent Shelton, a spokesperson for FatWallet and eBates.
For example, Newegg had an offer listed on FatWallet.com in mid-January for Intuit TurboTax Federal & State 2013 software plus Quicken Deluxe 2014 for $63.94 after a $40 rebate. It also included a 1% FatWallet cash back offer.
If you're looking for someone to prepare your taxes, many of the bricks-and-mortar locations are open already, too.
Gene King, a spokesperson for H&R Block, said offices are preparing returns now and will release them on Jan. 31 when the IRS begins processing returns.
H&R Block estimates that overall about 18 million taxpayers typically file in the month of January.
"There really is no reason to wait to prepare the return if they have all of their paperwork," King said. H&R Block also offers a W-2 Early Access service where taxpayers may be able to access their W-2s electronically before their employer sends them via mail.
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