8 Biggest Mistakes Young People Should Avoid During the Federal Tax Extension
First-time filers may be leaving money on the table.
Federal tax filing and payments have been pushed to July 15. (State deadlines may vary.) But if you’re expecting a refund, there’s good reason to file now.
For seasoned filers, the process may not be fun, but at least it’s familiar. If you’re new to it, the countless forms can make your stomach drop and head spin.
Also: Tax mistakes can be costly.
To help first-time filers navigate tax season, we spoke to tax professionals about the most common mistakes that young people make when doing their taxes. More importantly, we asked for recommendations about how to dodge the kind of errors that leave money on the table or prompt a stern letter from the IRS.
Here are eight of the biggest mistakes first-time filers may make — and how to avoid them.
Mistake No. 1: Filling out incorrect withholdings
The most common mistake happens long before tax season. When you start a new job, you must complete and submit Form W-4. One spelling mistake or wrong number and you’ll pay for it come tax time.
A W-4 form lets your employer know how much in taxes to withhold from your paycheck. The amount you choose to withhold is then sent to the IRS. When you go to file your tax return, you will be given a credit for the amount you paid during the tax year.
This is where human error can happen.
“If you don’t complete the W4 correctly, you could end up owing a lot of taxes when you go to file – a very unpleasant surprise that could have been avoided if the W-4 was properly completed,” said Brad Paladini, owner of Paladini Law.
How to avoid it: Enter every piece of information on your Form W-4 carefully. Income, including wages, dividends, and interest, must be reported in full. Double- and triple-check your information at every point in the process.
Mistake No. 2: Forgetting to file as a dependent
Are you a dependent? A change to this filing status affects the way you file taxes – if you even need to file.
A dependent is defined as a qualifying child or relative of a taxpayer who the taxpayer can claim for a dependency exemption. Each exemption decreases the income that is subject to tax. For example, if a parent has a child who is a college graduate and living at home, the parent can claim that child as a dependent in order to receive a tax deduction. That college graduate then has a few options for how to file their own taxes.
“Most people filing for the first time make the major mistake of claiming themselves when their parents are still taking them as a dependent,” said Paul Miller, the founder of Miller & Company, a full-service CPA firm. “We then have to amend more returns for this error.”
How to avoid it: If your parents can claim you as a dependent on their tax return, you may still want or need to file your own taxes in order to receive a refund. Check the IRS to see if you qualify as a dependent and if you need to file a tax return. Typically, your earned or unearned income must exceed certain limits to do so. If you are filing taxes, make sure to clearly state that you are a dependent.
Mistake No. 3: Claiming the wrong filing status
Often the first step to filing taxes is selecting your marital status:
- Married and filing jointly
- Married and filing separately
- Head of the household
- Qualifying widow or widower with a dependent child
“One of the common mistakes is not knowing your filing status when preparing tax returns,” said Chayim Kessler, who runs Miami Beach CPA. “There are qualifying rules to be able to file as head of household — which is advantageous — or a single taxpayer.”
If you’re single without kids, the correct filing status is clear. Add in other factors, and it becomes less so.
How to avoid it: Filing status determines nearly everything else. Select the correct status at the beginning to make the rest of the process run smoothly. Need help determining your filing status? Use the interactive tax assistant on the IRS website.
Mistake No. 4: Not claiming all streams of income
All income is fully taxable and must be reported, unless it’s specifically excluded by law. Yes, even money earned from a side gig.
“A common mistake among young and first-time filers is not including all of their income,” said Krystal Pino, founder of Nomad Tax.
Money earned through a full-time job isn’t the only income that you need to report. Pino suggests including other small earnings, too.
“Doing work for cash, debt forgiveness, and even prizes are considered taxable income, and if the payer reports it to the IRS, the receiving party (in this case, the filer) better include it as well,” Pino said.
If you under-report income — whether intentionally or out of oversight — the IRS will likely send you a mail audit. They’ll ask you about the discrepancy in reported income. No need to panic. Provide receipts and explain your circumstances. Worst case scenario, you’ll end up owing more taxes.
How to avoid it: When you file, make sure to include all streams of income. Organize all of your financial documents and report every item.
Mistake No. 5: Filing too early
When it comes to taxes, patience is key. Filing too early may cause you to leave out crucial information.
“Far too often, young people expecting a tax refund want to get their money back as quickly as possible,” said Brandon Pfaff, a CPA who serves on the advisory board for Wealthy Living Today. “When you file your tax return before you receive all your documents, you will need to file an amended return to correct for the missing forms.”
It doesn’t cost any money to amend taxes as far as three years back, as long as you file yourself. Once a tax professional is involved, they will likely charge a fee.
Avoid the time and energy of refiling. File correctly the first time by gathering all of your financial documents. Every taxpayer’s situation is unique, but there are a few documents that most first-time filers will need, including:
- Federal and state tax return copies from the last three years
- Personal information, such as Social Security number or ITIN number
- Dependent information, such as childcare or alimony payments
- Income statements, including W-2, 1098, 1099, and/or schedule K-1 forms
- Deductions, including mortgage interest, charity donations, or moving expenses
- Investments, such as stocks
- Education information, such as scholarships or fellowships
- Retirement contributions, such as to a 401(k), IRA, or HSA account
How to avoid it: Wait until you have all your tax documents to file.
Mistake No. 6: Filing too late
Sending in tax returns late is another mistake filers should avoid. July 15, 2020, is this year’s deadline to file federal tax returns or to request an extension. State deadlines may vary.
“Often new filers will leave [filing taxes] to the last minute and so they have issues paying the tax, as they are close to the deadline,” said Alistair Bambridge, the founder of Bambridge Accountants.
How to avoid it: Give yourself more time than you think you’ll need. This will make it easier to correct any last-minute issues that arise without missing the deadline.
Mistake No. 7: Structural errors for status and deductions
Your form of business will determine the income tax form you need to file.
A sole proprietorship, partnership, corporation, and S corporation (S Corp) are different business entities. For example, an S corp operates as a corporation, but is taxed on each shareholders’ individual tax form.
The owners of the S corp pay income taxes based on their distributive share of ownership, and report them on their individual Form 1040. The owners of a corporation are shareholders and they receive dividends as a return on their investment. The owners of an S corp pay regular income tax on their distribution, but they are not considered to be self-employed, so they pay no self-employment tax on this distribution.
“The biggest and most common mistake is not electing S corp status and then having to pay excess self-employment taxes, which are over 7%,” said George Birrell, the founder of Taxhub.
Beyond filing for a business status, the industry of the filer may determine how they complete their taxes.
“Another mistake is not knowing what deductions are allowable for their specific industries,” Birrell said. For instance, filers in the media and advertising industry may be eligible for a cable bill deduction. Why? Keeping up with trends is part of the job — and an educational expense, he said.
How to avoid it: Young people who have a side hustle should let a tax professional file their taxes at least once, Birrell said. Catching structural mistakes early on will prevent a headache in the long term. For subsequent years, the filer can confidently follow the template set by their tax professional.
Mistake No. 8: Forgoing professional help
Ensure that your taxes are error free by relying on professional assistance. Tax professionals can eliminate mis-structuring, spelling mistakes, and other errors.
“The biggest mistake young people make when doing their taxes is doing it on their own,” said David DiNardo, the founder of accounting firm Envolta Inc. “The last thing anyone wants to deal with is an audit or tax implication, let alone leave money on the table,” DiNardo said.
If you’re unsure of a tax form answer, don’t guess. Connect with a professional to greatly reduce mistakes and your stress level.
“Trained accountants can provide you with the advice you need on tax planning strategies to minimize the amount of taxes you pay and maximize your deductions,” DiNardo said. “A professional tax consultant can also supervise all your accounts to ensure that you don’t miss important deadlines or make costly mistakes.”
Professional services are also liable for any errors made on their end. In fact, a tax preparer who makes mistakes is subject to an IRS penalty.
How to avoid it: To file on your own, you need a basic understanding of taxes. In the meantime, outsource your return to a professional. Want to compromise? The IRS offers a free file online option.
If this is your first year filing taxes, make sure you do it right — whether you take advantage of the federal extension or not.
Are you ready for tax season? Let us know @OppUniversity.
Alistair Bambridge is a tax advisor and accountant based in New York. He founded Bambridge Accountants — a firm of enrolled agents and accountants specializing in tax advice for those in creative industries and expat tax services for citizens living abroad — with locations in London and New York. Its team of tax advisers provides accurate, efficient, and flat-fee tax services.
George Birrell began his career in public accounting after earning his masters degree in taxation and scoring in the top 10% on his CPA exam. As his career evolved, it was never far from Birrell’s mind that there had to be a better way for consumers to file their taxes. As an innovator, he found that way and the idea behind Taxhub took shape.
David DiNardo is founder of Envolta Inc., a financial advising company that specializes in accounting, bookkeeping, and taxes. DiNardo believed the accounting industry and the way that many firms operate had not changed significantly during the past decades. When he established Envolta, he was determined to do things differently. This meant designing and implementing a stack of apps that would enable his team to drive their clients’ businesses forward while growing his own at the same time.
Chayim Kessler is a CPA and has run accounting firm Miami Beach CPA for more than 20 years. He is a graduate of Northwestern University and obtained a master of accounting degree from Florida International University. He is a member of the Florida Institute of Certified Public Accountants and received special recognition for high achievement by the Institute of Internal Auditors.
Paul Miller is the founder of Miller & Company LLP, a New York City-based CPA firm specializing in accounting, tax planning, tax preparation, and business advisory services. In 1992, Miller earned his CPA and resumed working for Mahoney Cohen (now CBIZ, Inc.), a public accounting firm on the New York Stock Exchange. Five years later, he opened his own accounting office in Little Neck, NY.
Brad Paladini is a tax attorney and the founder of Paladini Law, helping individuals and businesses fix tax problems. He has extensive experience dealing with the IRS and taxing agencies in New Jersey, New York, and California. He’s the co-author of “Surviving an IRS Tax Audit,” and has been quoted in numerous publications.
Brandon Pfaff is a tax expert who serves on the advisory board for Wealthy Living Today. Pfaff is a CPA with nearly a decade of experience working with individuals and small businesses with a hands-on-approach. He has worked for one of the world’s largest public accounting firms as well as several Fortune 500 companies. Pfaff specializes in accounting and tax prep for closely held businesses, tax planning, and international tax compliance and planning.
Krystal Pino founded Nomad Tax in 2018 to help digital nomads navigate their complex tax issues. Pino is a certified public accountant and personal financial specialist with more than 10 years of combined industry experience. She earned a bachelor of arts in accounting and an MBA from University of Alabama at Birmingham. Originally from Buffalo, New York and Birmingham, Alabama, Pino has been traveling internationally and working remotely for more than two years.
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