NEW YORK (CNN.com/Money) -
You can't put it off any longer. Taxes are due Tuesday.
If you're a procrastinator, don't panic.
While it's always nice to plan ahead, there's no reason why you have to suffer any more than the guys who filed way back in February.
But there are plenty of folks -- some 52 million of them to be exact -- who haven't filed their returns yet. If you're among their ranks, rest assured. There are ways to cut through the clutter without losing your sanity, making dumb mistakes or triggering an audit.
Need a little more incentive to buckle down? Consider this: the average refund for the 2002 tax year has been averaging a cool $1,997; that's $43 more than last year.
Now, before you can grab that cash you need to get to work.
First things first: get an extension
If there's just no way you're going to hit the deadline, and you need a get-out-of-jail free card, you can file for an automatic approval to extend your filing deadline until Aug. 15.
To get this four-month breathing space, you'll need to file Form 4868 which you can download from the IRS web site or call 888-796-1074. You'll be in good company. The IRS expects roughly 8 million filers -- about 6 percent -- to file for an automatic extension this year.
Now for the fine print: If you owe the IRS money your extension will only go so far. That's because the government expects its money by April 15 -- even if you get the automatic extension.
Don't have the cash to pay your taxes? No problem
That said, if you don't have the cash to cover your tab, you can relax -- a little. The IRS is relatively cooperative when it comes to getting paid back.
If you cover 90 percent of your balance, you'll avoid interest late-payment penalties, which run .05 percent of your balance due per month. However, you will owe interest on the unpaid balance. The interest rate is now 5 percent and is changed every quarter.
Filers who can't pay up to 90 percent of their tab will owe both penalties and fees, which can be reduced if they sign up for an installment payment plan. For details on payment plans, see "Dear Uncle Sam: I'm broke."
Work fast -- but avoid common mistakes
For those of you who do plan to file your return on time -- consider filing electronically. The odds of making a mistake increase when we're under pressure, and tax software can catch you when you stray off course. In fact, mistake-rates on paper returns run about 20 percent; e-returns have an error rate of less than 1 percent.
Moreover, be aware that the IRS has a new "free filing program" this year so you may not have to pay for a software program to file your return. In fact, up to 60 percent of American taxpayers, or nearly 78 million people, are eligible for the program, which the IRS runs with partners like H&R Block, TaxBrain and TurboTax. For more information on free services that may be available to help you, see the IRS web site on free filing and click "Guide me to a service."
If technological help isn't an option, be aware of the basics:
- Sign and date your return. Sounds simple, but yes, it's one of the more common mistakes people make.
- Choose the right filing status. You may wish you were married to Mrs. Right (or Prince Charming, as it were) but ticking off the wrong status will hurt you.
- Use your correct name. The name on your 1040 should match the name on your Social Security card. If your name doesn't match, you may lose part of your refund.
Double check your math. You may have aced calculus at age 10 but this is no time to run numbers through that brilliant brain of yours. Use a calculator. Last year, the IRS discovered a whopping 4.2 million math errors on people's returns. And millions more returns contained incomplete information. Some individuals forget to claim deductions they're entitled to, as well.
To avoid common pitfalls, see "Oops! 10 biggest tax blunders."
Avoid an audit
One problem with rushing is that it increases the odds of making the kind of errors that lead to an audit. This year, there's more reason to tread carefully. The IRS, which has typically scrutinized fewer than 1 percent of tax returns, is revving up to audit more returns. Filers who earn $100,000 or more are particularly vulnerable to closer IRS scrutiny.
You can save a lot of hassle by avoiding common traps.
- Make sure you report all your income. Have you reported information listed on every single W-2 wage slip, interest dividend and 1098 mortgage interest form? Make sure you aren't missing anything. In fact, the IRS automatically gets copies of W-2 and 1099 forms, so it knows what you earn.
- If your income isn't reported don't necessarily assume it's safe to leave it off your tax return. Tax experts note that the IRS has been able to track down tax cheats from various sources. Disgruntled spouses have been known to turn in husbands or wives who've been moonlighting on the side without reporting income. Ditto for nosy neighbors, who've turned people in. IRS investigations of, say, shady accountants often yield names of clients who were encouraged to under-pay their tax tab. For more on the perils of cheating, see "Do you cheat on your taxes?"
- Itemized deductions over 30 percent of your adjusted gross income are risky because it will appear like you had little cash left to pay for basics -- like groceries -- so don't be greedy when filling out a Schedule A.
- Back up your Schedule C deductions if you're self-employed or a freelancer. For example, it's going to be a tough sell claiming that you can write off all of your auto costs because the only time you use your car is for work. A mileage log can bolster your case.
For more advice on how to justify your numbers -- and to sidestep pitfalls -- see "5 ways to avoid an audit."
Grab all your deductions
April 15 isn't just the last day to file taxes. It's also the last day to make 2002 contributions into a variety of tax-sheltered accounts, so if you've got extra cash, don't blow the opportunity to invest in your future.
You can put up to $3,000 into a traditional or Roth IRA for 2002 (or $3,500 if you're over age 50). "Don't blow off your IRA" can help you get started if you haven't yet opened up one of these retirement funds.
Coverdell Education Accounts -- formally called Education IRAs -- can be funded up to $2,000 for 2002. What's more, Coverdell earnings can now be spent on elementary and secondary school as well as college. In fact, earnings grow tax free and they can be withdrawn tax-free if used for bona-fide education expenses.
Fund a state-sponsored 529 college savings plan. You can put up to $55,000 in any given tax year without paying gift tax if you don't make subsequent gifts to that account for another four years. And some states, like New York, give their residents state tax breaks for contributing to their plans.
If you aren't sure which college-savings plan to fund, see "Beat the financial aid trap" for help.
Done? Take a bow -- and get ready for next year
Finished? Give yourself a well-deserved pat on the back (or a nap), then take a few minutes to get ready for next year. If you're like most taxpayers, you'll likely get a refund.
You may want to blow it on a trip to Bora Bora, but why not consider options that could end up putting even more money in your pocket? Our story, Turn your refund into gold has more lucrative ideas.
If you really don't want to deal with taxes again, take a look at "How to hire a tax pro."
And don't wait to see an adviser. A real expert will do a lot more than fill out a 1040 on your behalf; he or she will help you strategize so you can take advantage tax breaks to save you money in the coming year.