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Leah: Absolutely file your tax return, and the IRS will work with you to get you on a payment plan if you owe money, but don’t hide from the IRS. That’s probably the worst thing that you could do. (Chuckle.)
Chris: This is the Penny Forward podcast, a show about blind people building bright futures one penny at a time. I’m Chris Peterson.
Liz: And I’m Liz Bottner.
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Chris: Our guest this week is Leah Hassler. Leah is a certified public accountant, and a professional tax preparer. And it’s important to know right off that not all CPA’S are good tax preparers. But some tax preparers are CPA’S. We’ll talk more about that, and we’ll also learn about why we do our taxes, why some of us get a big refund and some of us owe a lot of money at the end of the year, and what we might be able to do about that, what some key concepts are like tax credits, tax deductions, and so forth, and how you can go about doing your taxes, and what the pros and cons of those might be. Hope you enjoy it. Let’s get started.
Liz: Hey, Leah. Thank you for being here today.
Leah: Hi, Liz. Hi, Chris. Glad to be here.
Liz: Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Leah: Well, my name is Leah Hassler, I am a CPA, I do work for a public accounting firm in the twin cities in Minnesota. I am a wife, and a mom of two kids, and I do taxes. And, amongst other things in my profession, but taxes is definitely one of the things that I specialize in. So I’m really glad to come on and talk to people today about, about the big thing that nobody likes, which is paying their taxes. (Chuckle.)
Chris: Yeah, and that’s actually such a emotional topic for people, because everybody hates it.
Chris: I don’t think anyone likes doing their taxes. So why do we have to do it anyway?
Leah: So, taxes, the tax system, is basically put in place to benefit society as a whole. Our society, our government, pays for things that people can’t pay for at the individual level. So, things like clean water, police and fire departments, schools, roads, health care, and the military. Individual people cannot take on those expenses, but as a collective, we absolutely can do that, and that’s where all of your tax dollars are going. As a side note, government spending can be a very big political issue, per your point, Chris, so, you know, we definitely could get off on a side topic on that, but as a broad topic, taxes do benefit us in our every-day lives.
Liz: So, we know why we pay taxes, we know what they … we have an idea, a little bit, of what they pay for, how do we pay them?
Leah: Sure. So, we pay our tax code, our tax system, is based on income earned. So, the more you earn, the more as a percent you will pay in taxes. So, that means, if you’re making a smaller amount, you’ll pay in a smaller percent. If you’re making a lot of money, you’ll pay in a higher percent. We don’t have a flat rate for everyone. So that’s, maybe not exactly answering your question, but if you are a W2 employee, which means you have an employer, your employer will withhold, out of your paycheck, a certain amount, and pay the government every time you get paid.
Chris: So, they’re taking that money out of your paycheck then, why is it that sometimes people get a tax refund and sometimes we don’t?
Leah: That is a super good question. So, when you have money withheld from every paycheck, that is basically, the amount, the actual amount that you have withheld is kind of like an estimate of how much your tax liability is going to be. And it’s a best guess, and so, when you file your taxes every year, it’s kind of a way to reconcile what you actually owe, based on a number of factors, which would be income, various things that you’re allowed to deduct off of that income, etc., so you’re reconciling the amount, the actual tax liability that you calculate on your tax return, against what you actually had withheld. And I know there’s a, kind of like a lot of big words and stuff, but it’s saying, “Okay, I see that you actually owe x amount of dollars, and if you had this much withheld, so if you had more than that withheld, whatever the difference is, we’re gonna give back to you.”
Liz: What exactly is a tax credit?
Leah: So there’s two different ways to look at, you know, how we’re figuring our taxes. There’s deductions, and there are credits. And so, if you take nothing away from this, if you’re trying to remember those two concepts, credits are better than deductions, and so, if you think about your tax return, just, you know, a very, very broad, like thirty thousand foot view, you take your income, and then you kind of manipulate it in a certain way, and then get down to your taxable income, and then, whatever your taxable income is, that’s how they’re figuring that percentage or that amount that you’re gonna pay in taxes. And so once they get that amount, which is usually a percentage of your income, a credit will reduce the actual tax liability, and then that is the amount you owe. And so, in the tax world, we like to call those, the difference between a deduction and a credit, things that are above the line, and things that are below the line. So the line, if we’re talking, if you can visualize that, the line is, you know, that actual percent, that actual tax liability. So, let’s say, for example, you earn ten thousand dollars in income. And at the ten percent tax rate, that means that you owe a thousand dollars in taxes. So, if you had a two hundred dollar deduction, a deduction is above the line, which means your ten thousand dollar income would be reduced to ninety-eight hundred dollars, and then you take ten percent of that, which means you owe nine hundred and eighty dollars in taxes. Now, a credit, on the flip side of that, if we back it all back up, you take your ten thousand dollars of income, at your ten percent tax rate, and you owed a thousand dollars in taxes, a credit takes two hundred dollars off of that thousand dollars. And so, now, the credit reduces your tax liability to eight hundred. So, if we compare, the deduction reduced your tax liability to nine hundred and eighty dollars. The credit reduced your tax liability to eight hundred dollars. So, if you can see the difference, credits are much more valuable, because they reduce your tax liability dollar for dollar. The deduction will reduce your tax liability by whatever your tax rate is. So in this example, it was ten percent. So the two hundred dollar deduction reduced your tax liability by twenty dollars. The two hundred dollar credit reduced your tax liability by two hundred dollars. Is that clear? (Chuckle.) Clear as mud, maybe? (Laugh.)
Leah: Yeah. (Laugh.)
Chris: Yes. That’s … that’s … that’s very clear. So, …
Chris: So, in other words, a deduction reduces the amount of money that you are taxed on, …
Chris: And a credit reduces the amount of taxes that you actually have to pay.
Leah: Correct. Yup. So, at the most boiled down level, credits are better than deductions. For sure. But they’re both valuable. You know, taking money off of your taxable income is absolutely a great idea, but credits are kind of where it’s at. You know, you want to take advantage of all the credits that you … I mean you want to take advantage of all the different ways that you can reduce your tax liability anyway, but yeah. Credits are way more fun than deductions. (Chuckle.)
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Chris: So I’m curious, I know this changes from year to year, and …
Chris: And there aren’t as many things that we can get credits on or deductions on after the tax cuts and jobs act of 2018, but what are some examples of credits that we might be able to claim, or deductions that we might be able to claim, and then, how would we go about finding out what those are in any particular year?
Leah: Sure. So, generally speaking, from year to year, the credits and deductions don’t really change. The only thing that changes from year to year are the income limits, for those who can take advantage of them. So, if you’ve heard of something like the standard deduction going up every year, that’s just like standard of living kind of increases that they’re allowing for people. It’s a good thing that they’re increasing those deductions, and it’s kind of backwards to think about, so when you say they’re increasing the deduction, that’s really beneficial to us, because that means when they increase the deduction, we are reducing our taxable income. Right? So when you think about a subtraction problem, like, you take your top line, and you subtract more, then it makes the bottom line even smaller. If that makes sense. The things that we can take advantage of as far as deductions, so this is kind of getting more into the nitty gritty, but there’s the standard deduction, and itemized deductions, and so those are terms that get thrown around a lot. So, let’s add some verbiage around those. What does that mean? From the tax cuts and jobs act, like you mentioned, Chris, they increased the standard deduction, and that kind of forced most people to be able to take advantage of the standard deduction, so what’s the difference? So, basically, if there’s a way for you to add up all your costs, and the things that you’re allowed to deduct, and it’s more than the standard deduction, by all means, that’s the way that you want to go, because you’re trying to reduce your taxable income as much as possible. But most people, and when I say “most,” it’s like 90 percent of people, take the standard deduction. Most people cannot itemize enough to exceed the standard deduction, and so they take the standard deduction, which is a number that the IRS says, “Whatever your income is, take this generic amount off, just, you know, reduce it by this standard amount, and then that’s what we’ll take as your income to determine your tax liability.” And so that’s different, depending on if you’re a single person, if you’re married, if you are not married but you support children, that’s called “Head of Household,” and then there are other standard deductions which is very relevant for your audience, for people who are blind, and for people who are over the age of 65. So, the standard deduction is a big deal, so that’s one avenue that you can take. If you can itemize more than the standard deduction, then you go down that route, and the things that play into that are medical expenses, and there’s a certain calculation to figure out what’s allowed for that. You can’t just take a hundred percent of your medical expenses. They only allow so much, over seven and a half percent of your AGI, but that’s complicated, like, tax theory. So some medical expenses are allowed, if you have excessive medical expenses for the itemized deductions. Taxes, up to ten thousand dollars. So what does that include? That includes, like for us, who … we live in the state of Minnesota. Chris and I. If your car tabs are based on the value of your car, you could deduct that. Real estate taxes if you own a home, and any money you had withheld for income taxes paid to your state. So, we’re mostly talking about the federal form right now, but you pay state taxes as well. Several people pay income taxes to state. For those of you who live in states who, you don’t have an income tax, then you can deduct sales tax. And they have a generic formula for you, based on your income, what they guestimate you paid in sales tax throughout the year. Or, if you have a bucket full of receipts, you can certainly add it up that way as well. So, things that you can itemize. Medical expenses. Your taxes. So, we just touched on that. Mortgage interest paid. That can be a big one for those who are owning a home. And then charitable contributions. So, donations that you make to qualified charitable organizations. Those are also deductible. So if you add all those four categories up, like I mentioned, so, the four categories again, just to repeat, medical, taxes, mortgage, and charitable expenses. If you add those all up, and they exceed the standard deductions, then you take the itemized deduction. Those are the big ones. Those are the big deductions that you can take. Other ones that you can take are if you’re an educator, you can deduct up to two hundred and fifty dollars of expenses that you incurred for your job, and so, you know, I’m thinking about, like I have elementary age kids. I’m thinking about all of our wonderful teachers who supply markers, and, you know, they bring in, like snacks for fun days at school. And all those costs that they incurred, I am assuming they spend way more than two hundred and fifty dollars, ’cause I don’t know about you guys, but my teachers for our kids are awesome. But they can deduct up to two hundred and fifty dollars, which is what the tax law allows. If you pay student lone interest, you can deduct some of that. So those are deductions. We can move over to credits, which, as we had just mentioned, credits are like the big daddy, those are the ones that we really, really like. So things that we can take as a credit, well, the child tax credit, that’s kind of a hot topic that we can get into if you’d like. Because this past year, they started, it’s for those who have children. They started sending out advanced child tax credit. So, if you have kids, absolutely take advantage of that. That should be something that pretty much everybody’s able to take advantage of, up until, I think if you make four hundred thousand dollars. So it should be the vast majority of people are able to capture that. If you have kids in college, you can take what’s called the American Opportunity credit. It’s basically taking into consideration the tuition and whatnot that you paid. That’s a big credit. Those are two of the really common credits that I see a lot of. There’s … there’s certainly other ones out there, but they’re a little bit more obscure.
Chris: Yeah, and have those changed from year to year? Like I think I remember I had to replace my furnace once and I got either a deduction or a credit for that.
Leah: Yup, that’s an energy credit. So, absolutely not, that is certainly something that’s in the news. Because with all the talk about climate change and whatnot, I know that they are trying to incentivize people to upgrade to more energy efficient things in their home. People who are putting solar panels on their homes can get credits for that. There’s credits for … I think it’s doors, and insolation. Certainly, depending on what type of vehicle you get, there are some credits that you can take advantage of for electric vehicles. That’s kind of getting phased out just because of the way that the credit was structured, but they’re talking about increasing that, but you know, as you guys all know, … people are aware that whatever the government says and what they actually do are two totally different things. So once they actually implement that kind of stuff, (Chuckle.) Then, we can have that conversation when it comes. (Chuckle.)
Chris: Yeah. It’s hard to predict the future, isn’t it?
Chris: So, is there some master list of deductions and credits that I can just go and look up, or how do we find these things?
Leah: Sure. (Laugh.) Well, that would just be way too easy, wouldn’t it? (Chuckle.) You can definitely on
and I will say, I know we may get talking about this a little bit later, but the IRS, on that website, they provide pretty much all the information that you could possibly think of to need to learn about all this stuff. And, you know, so, speaking about myself personally, the reason I even got into filing taxes in the first place was through my own situation. In college, I was just way too cheap to pay anybody to do my taxes, and so I stubbornly decided I would do it on my own. And so I went down to my local library, and I picked up the 1040 packet, which I know they offer in braille as well, and it’s literally the instructions for how to do it. And it’s spelled out very plainly. Now, the packet is thick, so you have to spend some time doing it, but for those who are interested in tackling this for themselves, and maybe they find themselves in a situation where I was, where I was just too stubborn to pay anybody to do it or even buy software for it, it’s great to learn about. Especially if you have a more simple situation, like for me, like when I was in college, I just was a W2 person, and, you know, when your situation is simple and easy, you can kind of get into how to do it, and where to look for answers, and it’s all spelled out very nicely on the IRS website.
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Liz: Well, that was a fantastic Segway into the next question, which is, we know we need to file our taxes, how do we do that?
Leah: Yeah. That’s a great question. So, the way you phrased your question just sparked a little comment that I wanted to make. You absolutely need to file your tax return, because they will slap you with a worse fine, and you’ll get in bigger trouble if you just flat out don’t file your tax return than if you don’t pay the taxes that you owe. And that sounds kind of crazy, but it’s like, you think about kids who find themselves in a lie, and then they … (Chuckle.) I’m speaking on the behalf of like being a mom. You know, it’s like, “I’d rather that you just tell me that you lied, and own up to it, and then we’ll be happy about that.” You know, like, … (Laugh.) If we’re talking about, you know, analogies or whatever, but, yeah. Absolutely file your tax return, and the IRS will work with you to get you on a payment plan if you owe money, but don’t hide from the IRS. That’s probably the worst thing that you could do. File your tax return. So that’s, that’s … that’s my soap box statement. Going back to your original question. How do we file a tax return? So, really, it boils down to two different ways that you can file. You can either do it the old-fashioned way, which is printing out the forms, filling them in, you can fill them in on the computer or by hand with a pen, and then mailing them off to the IRS and the state that you live in if you’re required to file income tax in that state. So that’s the paper way to file, or, you can electronically file. So, what’s the difference? Like, how do we choose which way to file? So, if you’re like me, as I explained earlier, when I was in college, I absolutely refused to pay any money to do anything that had to do with me filing my taxes. I just wanted to get my money back that I had withheld above my tax liability, as we talked about. I printed off the forms, I filled them all out, I mailed them in, and that certainly is, by far, the cheapest way to file your tax return. Because all you’re basically paying for is if you have printing costs, and the stamps that go on your tax return. And then you just wait. So what’s the drawback to that? Is, it takes a lot longer for the IRS, or your state department of revenue to process your return. And, under normal circumstances, if you are owed a refund, you can expect about four to six weeks for your refund to come if you’ve mailed in your return. Now I say “under normal circumstances” because we are not living under normal circumstances. (Chuckle.) After Covid, the IRS basically shut down their mail center, and they’ve been struggling to play catch up ever since. So, I think I saw that in January, that they are still just desperately behind. Which means, and I have had clients who have been waiting for refunds. They’re just so delayed. If you can, file electronically. You’re gonna put yourself in the best situation to get your refund as soon as possible. So why does it take so long? What’s the difference? So, they use computers. They, all their stuff goes into computers, and they’ll cross check all of your income, and make sure your eligible for all the deductions, and they definitely utilize software. So if you paper file your return, they’re gonna have to somehow, get your return into their system. So they have somebody opening the mail, they have somebody feeding it in the computer, they have to have actual like bodies and people processing your return. That is why it takes so much longer. Now, if you file electronically, then it electronically goes straight into their system, and it kind of fast tracks beyond, you know, all that other stuff with the mail room and the people and whatnot. So, that’s the time difference. So, going over then to talk about how to electronically file, there’s a couple of different ways that you can take advantage of that. There’s certainly free software that’s available, and you can find links to those on
which is for the federal return, and there might be resources through your state, so I know if you just go into your search browser and type in, like we live in Minnesota, so I would say Minnesota DOR, which stands for Department of Revenue, and there should be resources right on the on the front page of those websites where you can find ways to free file your return. There are certainly lots of name brand box software that you can purchase. So that would be TurboTax, H and R Block, things like that. Those are going to ask great guiding questions to kind of help you make sure that you’re taking advantage of all those great deductions and credits that we were just talking about, making sure that if … they don’t know you, you know, so they kind of have to ask a lot of questions in order to kind of paint the picture of you, and determine what you can deduct for your tax situation. So those can be a little time consuming, but they are great software programs. And then lastly would be, you know, taking advantage of a tax preparer, which would be somebody like me, and, you know, I would file electronically. So, the benefit of actually going to someone, you know, and so that would maybe be your corner H and R Block, or, you know, whatever tax preparer, you know, you, you find, but they are going to sit down and talk to you, and learn your situation, and then you basically hand over all your documents to them, and they help you, and ask the right questions. So, you know, so I’ve kind of outlined three ways to electronically file, and it certainly depends on your situation. So, you know, going back to the beginning of … of what we were just talking about with ways to electronically file, those free software programs that you can find on
those would be for people who either have a very simple tax return, or maybe somebody who, you know, kind of has a sense about where things go, and what kinds of things they can take advantage, more of a simple, you know, if you just have a W 2. Or, you know, those types of situations. The H and R Blocks and the TurboTaxes, those are for a little bit more complicated situations. So maybe you have multiple sources of income, and so that might look like a W2, and you get interest from your bank account, and maybe you own a home. Maybe you have children. Maybe you own a small business. Those are great places to go, you know, those H and R Blocks and the TurboTaxes. A tax preparer is gonna be, and I’m biased. I think tax preparers are fabulous, and I think that there’s lots of things that they can help you with, outside of even just preparing your taxes. But, you know, they’re gonna have the most specialized, and trained eye to catch things. And, you know, I could tell you stories about things that I’ve found from people who have gone through the TurboTaxes and whatnot that they missed. Because of kind of the rabbit hole of questions that they got down with the TurboTax software, and they just misunderstood the question, and it got them into trouble. So, tax preparer certainly is going to be the most expensive route, but it can end up paying for itself if you’re really unsure, or, about making sure you’ve done it right.
Chris: That brings up an interesting question, and I think I know the answer, and I’m hoping you can confirm it for me.
Chris: So if I make a mistake on filing my tax return, and then I maybe don’t pay as much as I was supposed to, or I’ve paid too much.
Chris: What can I do about that? I think the answer is, is that I can go back and file an amended return.
Chris: And get that fixed, right? So …
Chris: So, how might I identify that something like that’s happened so that I know to do that?
Leah: Sure. Really good question. So, first of all, this is just a little snapshot into how the IRS works. Talk about getting audited, you know, that’s kind of everybody’s big fear. Getting audited doesn’t mean you’ve done something wrong, they do randomly pick people to be audited, and that’s just good on their part that they, you know, they’re double checking everybody’s work, but if you get randomly picked and you’re audited and they find that, like your first scenario, where you didn’t pay in enough, they will send you a letter. And they’ll say, “We found this error, and you claimed too much of a credit or something, and you’re gonna have to owe us some money.” And they’ll say, “Do you agree, do you disagree,” you know, so you certainly can explain your side of things, but the IRS is never gonna send you a letter, and, like, it’s very unlikely that they’re gonna be like, “Oh, you forgot to take advantage of this credit that you could have taken advantage of.” Nope, they’re not gonna do that. That’s, the ownness is kind of on you as the tax payer to make sure that you are paying the least amount that is legal to pay. Per the tax code. So, if you realized you didn’t take advantage of the American Opportunity Credit ’cause your child was in school or something, in college, they’re not gonna, like come back to you with a big check and say, “Here you go.” You know. (Laugh.) But they will come after you if you’ve taken too much of a credit, or you took advantage of a credit that you shouldn’t have. And they’ll say “Hey, by the way, you owe us more money.” So, that’s kind of a picture of how the IRS works. But over to your second scenario. If you realize that you made a mistake, and you want to correct that mistake, you know, the IRS, while everybody gets kind of scared of them, they’re pretty reasonable. Even professional tax preparers, and all of the other people, you know, in this country, who pay taxes, they make mistakes. It happens. Like we’re people. And, I mean, this is a long conversation already, but it’s kind of getting to the point that the tax code is complicated. And they know that. So, you know, if you find that you’ve made a mistake, like, absolutely file an amendment. And so, you can do that, again, one of three ways. You have to file it by paper. All amendments have to get mailed in by paper ’cause they have to be looked at by a human being. So you can print out the form, fill it out by paper and pen, kind of the way that we had discussed earlier, or, you can go on like the H and R Blocks or the TurboTaxes, or whatever you utilized to prepare your tax return the first time, and they can guide you through how to do the amendment, you have to print it off, mail it in, or you can go to a tax preparer, and they can help you file an amendment. Amendments, because you’re paper, you’re sending them in in the mail, they take a long time to process, so don’t expect them to be speedy about returning money to you that you are owed. (Laugh.) But it will get processed eventually. Sometimes they’ll give you interest on the back end if it’s been a long time too. (Chuckle.)
Liz: If listeners have questions, would it be okay to contact you? And if so, how can people do that?
Leah: Yeah. Absolutely. So I can be contacted by Email, so my email is
, and I can spell that, it’s l e a h, at h a s s l e r, a n d, a s s o c i a t e s, .com.
I also have a Facebook page called Hassler and Associates, where I’ll be happy to answer any questions that people might have.
Chris: It’s a complicated topic. I hope we’ve been able to shed some light on it. Leah, thanks for being here.
Leah: Yeah. You’re welcome. So glad to talk to you guys about this today. It’s, it’s really important stuff for people to understand.
Chris: Did you enjoy this episode, but the information maybe went a little over your head? We can help with that. I am excited to announce that Penny Forward is releasing its first online course, “Taking On Taxes: a Beginners Guide to the Foreign Language of Taxes.” It was built by the Penny Forward team, including myself, with help from Leah Hassler, who is, as we said before, a certified public accountant. It’s a series of short, easy to digest lessons, with a short quiz at the end of each lesson to make sure that you understand the material, and when you finish the course, you get a downloadable, printable, and frameable certificate that you can use to show off your knowledge about taxes. In order to access the course, you need to join Penny Forward. We offer two ways to pay for membership. You can either pay 9 dollars a month, or 99 dollars a year, which gives you one month free. Either way you pay, you get access to the “Taking on Taxes” course, weekly Members Only Zoom chats where you can discuss the course or any other money matters with instructors and fellow students, and other courses and benefits that we will be adding in the near future. So join Penny Forward today, to get access to “Taking On Taxes: A Beginner’s Guide to the Foreign Language of Taxes,” during the tax season, so that you make sure that you understand as much as you can about what you’re doing, so you do it right.
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