Expert Advice: 8 Tips for Students Filing Taxes for the First Time

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We’ve all grown up hearing our parents and the media complain about the headaches of tax season, a topic that many are quick to ignore. But for working college students on the brink of adulthood, the time to start filing taxes is sooner than they think: It’s now.

Mastering the art of tax filing can be daunting to the uninitiated. To help navigate yet another challenging transition into the real world, NerdWallet asked university experts to share some advice to make things easier for college students filing their first tax returns.

1. Always file if your paychecks have had taxes withheld

It is absolutely crucial to know when to file your taxes and what information will help you to do so. The law states that a dependent who earned income less than $6,300 in the tax year does not have to file a return. Anyone making over this amount by law must file. But “if a student doesn’t have to file a tax return, not filing would still be a mistake if any income taxes were withheld on paychecks,” says John Twombly, an accounting and finance professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology. “That would be tantamount to giving the IRS a donation!” So even if you’re not legally required to file a return, you’ll want to do so because the government may owe you money.

An important first step in filing taxes is obtaining your W-2 form, which is your proof of employment at a company or organization. If you held multiple jobs over the past year, make sure to obtain your W-2 from each of your employers. The company you worked for will typically send you the form by January 31, but contact them if you do not receive it by then.

» MORE: NerdWallet’s roundup of the best tax software

2. You cannot claim tax exemptions if you are a dependent

Knowing your status as a dependent on your parents’ tax returns is vital to understanding the basics of tax filing. In fact, not knowing is one of the worst mistakes a student can make, says Arthur Agulnek, an accounting professor at the University of Texas at Dallas. According to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), a dependent must be either a “qualifying child” or a “qualifying relative” who meets certain conditions, such as age requirements, income, or full-time student status. Dependents cannot claim any exemptions when filing their own taxes, even if their parents do not claim them either. Since most college-age students fall into the dependent category, students cannot claim their own exemption.

3. Take advantage of free tax assistance at your college

A major hindrance to students is their unfamiliarity with the tax process. “If a student finds the irs.gov website, it can be very difficult to navigate and to understand,” Twombly says. “Many universities have self-help student groups and often professors will give guidance to their students” on the process. In particular, many universities participate in the nationwide Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program. This is a free service that students can use for any tax guidance, both on campus and in their community. Taking advantage of the many support avenues available can jump-start tax preparation and make future tax seasons easier.

4. Start preparing early

The deadline to file a tax return is April 18, but it is important to begin the process well in advance. Starting early will give you time to gather the right tax documents and seek advice from your parents and tax professionals, Twombly says. “Don’t just file on your own,” he adds, especially if you are still learning the process.

5. Don’t pay to file taxes

College students, like everyone, are eligible to use the IRS’s Free File program at no cost—assuming your annual household income is less than $64,000.

6. Do not overlook deductions for your education

If you’re going to school—and paying for it—you can opt for certain deductions when filing your tax return. “Be sure to look into education tax credits and the earned income tax credit,” says Agulnek. “New taxpayers,” he says, “should make sure they do not leave money on the table by overlooking tax deductions.” A deduction reduces the amount of tax taken out of your paychecks, and education deductions can save you as much as $4,000.

7. Beware of scams

“Students should be aware of the growing problems of identity theft as many filers have discovered that identity thieves had beaten them to their refunds,” Agulnek says. As tax season arrives, so do the tax scammers, and many of them come by email or over the phone. Be skeptical, and if in doubt follow up with the IRS independently and directly.

8. Don’t forget to sign and date your return

Among the most common tax filing mistakes is forgetting to sign and date your tax return, says Agulnek. “E-filing helps reduce errors by double-checking your return, decreasing the chance of an audit.” Double-check your math and proofread for errors and omissions. As Agulnek points out, “most mistakes from all filers come from not reading the instructions.”

More ways to pad your bank account

A tax refund isn’t the only way to send extra money to your checking account. Once you’ve filed taxes, consider these additional ways to save or earn cash.

Refinance student loans: Graduates with solid income and good credit — generally in the mid-600s or higher — may qualify for student loan refinancing. That means a private lender pays off your current loans and replaces them with a new one at a lower interest rate.

Any federal loans will become private, so you’ll lose access to certain benefits. Consider keeping your federal loans separate if you will work in public service or take advantage of income-driven repayment. Refinancing is an option once you’re out of school, and some lenders require a period of full-time work before applying. But keep it in mind if you’re worried about high interest rates now.

Use an app to make extra money: Work on your own time using the growing number of sharing economy apps. You can walk dogs, drive for a ridesharing service or rent out your car, parking space or bedroom during school breaks. Follow your lease guidelines and check in with your roommates if your side gig will affect your living space.

Stick with your family cell phone plan: There are many ways to assert your independence when you move out of your parents’ house or graduate, but leaving the family plan shouldn’t be one of them. Sticking with it will save you and your parents money. Almost half of cell phone owners with children over 18 have kept their kids on the family plan, which saves $15 to $25 per person per month on average, a NerdWallet survey found.

Gianna Sen-Gupta is a strategic partnerships associate at NerdWallet. Email: gianna@nerdwallet.com.

Updated March 13, 2017.