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Save money by shopping for tax services

As tax season rolls around, many people look for help to prepare and file their returns.

While some will prepare their own returns, most will turn to local tax services and pay to have their taxes filed.

All tax preparation services are not alike.

Shopping around for a tax service makes a difference. You will save in terms of the fees you pay and the amount of taxes you end up owing or have due to you in a refund.

First find out if you qualify for free tax assistance.

The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program provides volunteers certified by the Internal Revenue Service to prepare, and in most cases, electronically file returns for free. The VITA program targets working families with household income less than about $45,000.

In Bainbridge, a VITA program will be held every Thursday during tax time (except March 19) from 3:30 to 6:30 p.m. at the Gilbert H. Gragg Library at 301 S. Monroe St. in Bainbridge.

Volunteers will also help file taxes for eligible persons on two more Saturdays—March 7, and April 4—from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., also at the library. You can call (800) 829-1040 for other VITA sites.

Senior citizens can often receive free help preparing and filing their returns through the AARP Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE) program. TCE will usually prepare returns for VITA-eligible filers, too. The IRS can also help you find a TCE site near you.

If you are not a senior citizen and earn too much for VITA, you can do it yourself or pay for assistance. You can even use the Internet to prepare and file your return from the comfort of you own home. Other options range from professional accountants to commercial preparation chains.

The fee charged by paid preparers varies considerably from one provider to another, depending on his or her qualifications, the complexity of your return, the number of forms required, and other services provided.

Electronic filing may be available free or for a fee. More information about free e-filing services is available at the Internal Revenue’s Web site, at www.irs.gov/efile/.

Electronic returns are processed much faster than paper returns. A return with a refund via direct deposit filed on Thursday will generally show up in your account by Friday of the following week unless there is a problem with the return.

Many companies promise to give you your tax refund on the spot. These refund anticipation loans (RALs) sound like a good idea but are an expensive way to get your refund.

With electronic filing and direct deposit, the Internal Revenue Service will deposit your refund into your bank account within seven to 10 days. Spending several hundred dollars to get your refund a few days earlier is not a good idea.

With tax season just around the corner, it is important to think about how you will get your tax returns prepared and filed. Free tax assistance is available for many individuals in most communities. If you can not do it yourself and must pay for tax assistance, be sure to shop around. Choose electronic filing with direct deposit of your refund instead of a high-cost refund anticipation loan.