Free ways to file your taxes

vita tax prep
For people with incomes under $60,000, the Free File Alliance, a coalition of 14 leading tax software providers, as well as Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) centers, like the one above, provide free tax return preparation and e-filing.

Filing your tax return is not only time consuming, it can be expensive.

But you may be able to get your taxes done for free. Here's how:

You make less than $60,000 a year: If your household income is $60,000 or less, you're eligible for free tax preparation and free e-filing of your federal return. And in some cases you may be allowed to file your state tax return gratis, too.

For federal returns, the IRS has partnered with the Free File Alliance, a nonprofit coalition of 14 leading tax preparation software companies, including H&R Block, Jackson Hewitt, TurboTax, Liberty Tax and Tax Slayer.

To make sure you're getting the brand-name online software for the Free File program, go through the IRS portal.

Some -- like H&R Block and Liberty Tax -- may even offer you help over the phone or in their offices if you have questions using their programs. Others like Jackson Hewitt will let you to submit a question and get a response within 24 hours.

Each Alliance member applies its own sub-criteria for who qualifies. For instance, some will accept all filers with AGIs of $60,000 or less, while others may only accept those making $53,500 or less. Some also set age requirements or only work with filers in certain states. (Look up the companies' criteria.)

Be aware, too, that you may be charged a "convenience" fee if you end up owing federal taxes and use a credit card to make your payment.

Related: Don't want to file your taxes? Get ready to pay ... a lot

Also, the "free file" principle may not automatically extend to your state tax return. But Free File Alliance members have struck individual agreements with 20 states and the District of Columbia that do allow for free filing. (See if your state is among them.)

There's another way to get your taxes done for free if you make less than $60,000.

The IRS runs both a Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program (VITA) and a Tax Counseling for the Elderly program (TCE). Offices for both can be found in local-area schools, libraries, shopping centers and other community centers. (Find a VITA or TCE site near you.)

IRS-certified volunteers staff the programs and can help you prepare and e-file your returns. VITA is geared toward anyone making $53,000 or less, the disabled, the elderly and people who don't speak English fluently. TCE is intended for people 60 and older, who may have tax-specific questions regarding their retirement and pensions.

One example, the Food Bank for New York City, has one of the largest VITA programs in the country, with 120 sites across the city.

You're a DIYer: If you make more than $60,000, you also have a free-filing option if you're willing to forgo the hand-holding of a tax preparer or the paint-by-numbers simplicity of consumer tax software.

You can go old school and do your own taxes -- either on paper or online, filling out the e-file forms that the IRS -- and in many cases states -- provide online. But you have to be willing to do the legwork and you should have a strong handle on your tax situation.

Whatever your income, however, it would be a costly mistake not to file if you know you'll owe money since the IRS will hit you with a steep failure-to-file penalty.

The good news, though, most Americans -- especially those making $60,000 or less -- typically get a refund.

How much are you paying to get your taxes done this year? Let us know here for a future story. Your name and comments will not be published without your permission.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the Food Bank of New York City runs a TCE program, which it does not.

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