January tune-up: Your taxes

returnThe IRS started accepting tax returns today. Perhaps some of you already knew that, and were poised with your finger over the “submit” button on your already-completed return when the IRS opened its gate. For the rest of us, though, this is a timely reminder that “Oh, yeah, I’ve gotta get that done”–preferably well before April 15. (If you need motivation, read about how important it is to file early in my Bankrate column, “What you can do now to protect your tax return.”)

Here are a few ways to make tax time less painful now and next year:

Start a file. List your employer(s), your mortgage lender(s), your financial institutions and anyone else likely to send you a tax document this year. Check off the appropriate issuer when the document arrives and keep it in this file. Note: some issuers have moved to an all-electronic system, so you’ll need to log in to your account to download the W-2, 1098, 1099 or whatever. If you have a tax preparer who sends you an annual organizer, fill that out and keep it with your documents in this file.

Eat the frog. Is there one tax-related chore that always seems to take a long time, causing you to put off filing your return every year? Make this the year you tackle it early. We donate a lot of stuff to Goodwill every year, and every year I swear I’m going to assign values to the donations as I go…and every year I don’t, meaning I have to do it all at once. At least this year, I’m knocking it off the to-do list early. (Salvation Army’s donation value guide is pretty helpful.)

Make the appointment. If you use a tax preparer, call now to make your appointment. There’s nothing like a deadline for encouraging you to get your, er, tax stuff together. If you DIY, set a date with yourself on the calendar. Don’t expect to get much help from the IRS this year–the Taxpayer Advocate Service is predicting half of callers won’t be able to connect and average wait times will stretch past 30 minutes. If money is tight, avail yourself of one of the free help services.

Digitize it. I’m hoping you already understand the importance of filing electronically–it’s safer and a faster way to get your refund than using the U.S. mail. You’d also be smart to make scans of your completed tax return and supporting documentation. Knowing you have this electronic backup can help make it easier for you to let go of the paper copies. Once your tax return is done for this year, you can purge your files appropriately.

While cars no longer require traditional tune-ups, your finances still do. This month I’ll be reviewing some areas of your money that deserve some extra scrutiny and offering suggestions for the best moves now. Stay tuned for more posts–and to make sure you don’t miss any, you can sign up for my newsletter using the link on my home page.