Tax time tips: How to rock your return


Mallory Knight / Advance-Titan

Kristi Cutts, Guest Columnist

Filing your taxes, like any formal interaction with the government, can feel intimidating, but it really doesn’t have to be! This tax season, take steps ahead of time to make filing your taxes as painless as possible. 

First, determine whether you need to file taxes at all. If you’re unemployed or made less than $6,000, you may not have to file federal taxes. Check with your tax professional if you’re uncertain. 

If you do have to file taxes, keep an eye on your mailbox. In January, you’ll start to receive documents that you’ll need to complete your return. You’ll want to keep an eye out for W-2s, which are wage statements from your employer(s) that break down your earnings from the year. You should receive a W-2 from each employer that paid you a wage during the whole year – so keep that in mind if you only worked over the summer, if you switched jobs or if you work multiple jobs. 

Another document you’ll want to keep an eye out for is Form 1099, which comes from each financial institution that paid you interest during the year. Generally, these are brokerage firms where you have earnings or losses, or any corporations or mutual funds in which you own shares. 

Once you receive your documents, keep them in a safe place until you’re ready to fill out your tax return. Once you’re ready, you can file your taxes any time before the April 15 deadline. The earlier you file, the earlier you can receive your tax refund, if you’re owed one. Remember though, not everyone will receive a tax refund, and depending on your situation you may end up owing money to the government. A few quick calculations beforehand can help you to at least understand whether to expect a refund, or to prepare to pay Uncle Sam. 

When you’re ready to file, it’s important to understand a few key things:

Gross income: This is all of your taxable income from a particular year. It includes things such as your salary, wages and tips, sick pay, unemployment wages and strike benefits. In addition, any investment income, interest and dividends should be included here. Farm income, rent payments from tenants, gambling earnings, retirement and Social Security payments may also be included. Some financial information can be excluded from your tax return, including workers compensation benefits, veterans’ disability benefits, welfare income, Supplemental Security Income, child support payments, life insurance payouts and – importantly — scholarships for college tuition. 

When to itemize: When you’re determining your taxable income, taxpayers will apply certain exemptions and deductions and subtract them from their gross income. For many taxpayers, the standard deduction, a fixed dollar amount, is what you’ll use. However, if you own a home on which you pay interest, it’s worth checking whether the amount of interest you pay is larger than the standard deduction. If so, it’s in your best interest to itemize – or to add up all of your qualifying payments and deduct the sum total. 

When to ask for help: Filing your federal return is fairly straightforward in most cases, but questions can still arise and it’s certainly possible to get stuck. Resources available online – including from the IRS itself at – can help answer questions and provide additional sources for more hands-on assistance.

This content is intended for general education about tax returns and should not be considered as professional advice. Contact a qualified tax advisor for personal advice tailored to your unique situation. 

Note: Financial Corner is a direct response to student requests for more information on navigating money matters. The tips are provided by Kristi Cutts, branch manager of UW Credit Union’s UW-Oshkosh branch.