Many taxpayers stress about the size of their tax bills this time of year, but many more may be stressing about the size of the bill to calculate their tax bills. For many people, the struggle to find affordable, high-quality tax preparers is real, but experts said five things can help rein in the cost.

See if you can get free help

The IRS programs — Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) and Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE) — provide free tax-prep services generally to people who make $54,000 or less, have disabilities, are older than 60 or speak limited English. This can be a huge money-saver if you qualify. To find locations in your area, go to

irs.treasury.gov/freetaxprep

Shop around (but thoughtfully)

Comparison shopping for tax preparers can save money, but it can be tricky, too. Not all tax preparers charge by the form — some charge by the hour and some charge per return, said Christine Freeland, president of the National Society of Accountants. It’s OK to ask a preparer for an upfront estimate.

And if the final bill is significantly higher than what you were quoted, ask why. Read the contract

A contract will help you understand how the preparer’s fees work, and it may give you a clue on whether there will be charges for things such as extra copies of your return. Preparers can’t base their fees on a percentage of your tax refund amount, Freeland said, and they can’t charge you a separate fee for having the IRS direct-deposit your refund.

Ask for a break if you need it

Negotiating tax-prep fees isn’t very common, but sometimes it’s OK to ask for a discount, Freeland said.

“If you’re having a bad year and you’ve been with somebody for a long time and something’s happened, somebody’s lost a job, you’ve lost a spouse, you’ve had something that’s out of the ordinary, I think there’s nothing wrong with calling your preparer and saying, Is there anything you can do for me?’”

Start early, get organized

Tax preparers often charge more as the April filing deadline nears, so the earlier you get your documents to them, the more you could save. Many preparers draw a line in the sand somewhere around the last week of March, Freeland says. After that, fees often start rising.