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IRS Free File program eases your way to a refund

The holiday bills are landing. Winter roads could send you spinning on a patch of black ice. So why not add a tad more stress in January and start thinking about doing your taxes, too?

Like it or not, the official opening of income tax season is upon us. One cannot turn on a TV without a tax-related ad. We have H&R Block's commercials for what $1 billion looks like, money the tax service claims is left on the table when people miss tax breaks. And TurboTax kicked off its "The Year of the You" ads during the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day.

This year, the Internal Revenue Service started accepting federal income tax returns for individuals electronically on Jan. 31. That's about 10 days later than normal, but only one day later than last year, which also saw a delayed start for filing.

The IRS began accepting business tax returns on Jan. 13.

A delayed start means families won't receive refunds as quickly, either. Some tax experts say consumers who budget with the idea of getting a refund in early February should realize that the money won't show up until maybe mid-February. The IRS said 9 out of 10 taxpayers will receive their refund in 21 days or less if they file a return electronically.

Filing services can ease the way for you.

The Free File program offered via the Internal Revenue Service website is up and running already. Individuals do not have to pay a dime for tax software, if they go through IRS.gov and pick a company participating in the program.

"Doing your taxes may not be the most exciting thing to look forward to, but at least you can do it for free," said Luis D. Garcia, a spokesman for the IRS in Detroit.

This year, 14 tax preparation services are participating in Free File. Taxpayers need to go directly through IRS.gov. Then click on "Free File" and use a "Help Me" tool to filter out which company would be best for a given tax filer to use. Tax software programs listed in Free File can set limits as to who can use their services for free. Some might work only with certain income limits, for example.

The Free File program overall is open only to taxpayers with an adjusted gross income of $58,000 or less. Even with that income limit, the IRS said Free File could be used by up to 70 percent of all individual taxpayers.

Right now, not even half of the people who could use Free File take advantage of that freebie.

Nationwide, the number who used the Free File program was 2.97 million.

Taxpayers can save $30 or $40 easily if they can use brand name software online for free, instead of buying that software. They'd save even more money if they use Free File instead of paying hundreds of dollars to have returns prepared by someone else.

The step-by-step process available online via Free File is easier than doing taxes by pencil and paper. It's fast to e-file and many people can do it, especially if they do not have a complicated return.

Do-it-yourself tax preparers who don't qualify for Free File can find plenty of sales now on tax software or online tax preparation services.

Some sites also offer access to extra mail-in rebate programs, coupons and cash back from some stores.

Susan Tompor is the personal finance columnist for the Detroit Free Press.