When I was a kid, I knew it was tax time when my Dad grabbed his calculator and took over the dining room. Today, there's an app for that. Android and iPhone users can download Turbo Tax SnapTax, and with a few taps and clicks, file their taxes by phone.
Neat idea, but does it work? Not for everyone. SnapTax is available to the roughly 22 million households who can use the form 1040EZ. My life is more complicated than that, so I assumed the identity of Carol Howe, a dummy taxpayer provided to me by TurboTax.
Downloading the application through the Android marketplace using my Droid smart phone was easy. And for the most part, the application is straightforward and simple to use. After a series of questions about my filing status, family, and income -- which are answered by tapping multiple choice options -- I was instructed to use my camera phone to snap a picture of my W-2. The program uses technology that transfers the data captured in that picture, and inputs it onto the proper lines on the tax form.
The first photo was too blurry, so I moved to a brighter spot. The second photo was clear, but the program still rejected it. After I snapped a third reject, I called TurboTax spokeswoman Colleen Gatlin. The company hasn't received many complaints about rejected photos, she said, although older model phones may have more difficulties. I logged in and out of the program and my W-2 snapshot was accepted on the fourth try, but the program didn't transfer two of the numbers on the W-2. So I inputted those dollar amounts manually. (I could have entered the entire W-2 that way, if necessary.)
While there were a couple of hitches, and you have to double-check the entries as you would with any tax software, the program was fairly easy to use, and what a nifty idea.
As for security, Gatlin says the program uses the same privacy and security requirements as TurboTax, and the photo of your W-2 is temporary.
You can try SnapTax for free, but when it comes time to e-file, it will cost $14.99 for one federal and one state tax return. Since many taxpayers with simple returns may also qualify for free e-file, I'd check www.irs.gov/efile before going mobile.
This year, the IRS is also promoting its new IRS2Go smart phone application. The free application, which can be downloaded at the Apple Store or Android Marketplace, allows you to look up tax tips and check the status of your tax refund.
Free in-person tax help
If you would prefer face-to-face tax preparation but can't afford an accountant, there are groups that fill the gap. Last year, AccountAbility Minnesota's trained volunteers prepared tax returns for 11,270 households. This year, the nonprofit's executive director, Tracy Fischman, anticipates helping at least 12,000 tax filers. The organization helps individuals who make less than $30,000 per year and families and self-employed people who make $50,000 or less. This year, the organization is piloting tax refunds on debit cards, an alternative to the more expensive storefront check-cashing businesses that many unbanked people use. And at some sites, there are volunteer financial advisers who belong to the Financial Planning Association of Minnesota to answer questions about everything from budgeting to retirement savings. To learn about AccountAbility's tax sites, visit www.accountabilitymn.org or call (651)287-0187. Other organizations offer tax prep sites as well, and the Minnesota Department of Revenue has a list at www.taxes.state.mn.us.
I'm sure all of this tax talk has many of you in a tax filing mood. But tax filers with more complicated returns won't be able hit the "send" button until Feb. 14 because the IRS is still reprogramming its computer to reflect last-minute changes Congress made to the tax law. The delay affects about 9 million households that itemize deductions on Schedule A, have higher education tuition and fees deductions, or take the educator expense deduction. However, most tax software programs are already updated and will hold onto affected returns until the IRS is ready.
Tax day: Later than you think
Now for the procrastinators in the bunch, good news: You have three more days to fulfill your obligation this year. Emancipation Day, a holiday in the District of Columbia, marks April 16, 1862, the day President Lincoln ended slavery in the district. Since the holiday falls on a Saturday this year, it will be celebrated on Friday, April 15, instead. That gives filers until Monday, April 18, to settle up with Uncle Sam.
Kara McGuire • 612-673-7293 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter: @kablog.