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April and the tax-filing season may seem far away, but it’s not too early to start getting ready. It’s important not to wait until the last minute to gather your paperwork and settle up with the Internal Revenue Service. You can use a tax prep checklist to make sure you are prepared by the time the tax deadline comes around.

1. Gather Your Personal & Income Information

Even if you plan on using your usual tax preparer, it’s important to have current identification ready. Make sure you know where your Social Security card is, as well as those of your spouse and dependents. You will also need proof of all your income for your tax return. This includes Social Security, retirement benefits, real estate profits, investments, bank interest, wages and anything else you have received over the year. Don’t forget about unemployment, income from hobbies, tax deductions and credits as well.

2. Organize Proof of Expenses & Losses

On top of proof of income, it’s a good idea to bring proof of expenses and losses to the tax preparer. These can be employment expenses, certain education expenses relevant to your job, medical expenses, charitable donations, mortgage interest, retirement contributions and union dues. Losses are typically related to fire, theft and other natural disasters. Bring along proof of these with police or fire reports, insurance claims and other documentation.

3. Figure Out How You Will Pay

If you expect you’ll owe taxes, you will need to decide how to cover the bill if you plan to pay it in full when you file. You can mail a check, pay online through your bank account or even charge it to your debit or credit card (there are extra processing fees for that though). If you think you are going to be short on cash, you can work with Uncle Sam to come up with a payment plan. You can organize this online as long as you owe less than $50,000 in taxes, penalties and interest. You can apply on paper if you owe more than that — just be prepared to provide more detailed financial statements. Some of these sources will be recorded in your W-2s while others need to be reported on a 1099 or other form. The consequences if you ignore your tax bill? A tax lien can be filed against you and it will appear on your credit report, making a major dent in your credit scores. You can check your credit scores for free on Credit.com to see where you stand.

Understanding how to file taxes and starting your preparation early will help you minimize what you have to pay (and begin figuring out how you’ll pay) or maximize what you’ll get back.

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