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A 20-Something’s Guide To Filing Taxes For The First Time

When the suffix -teen was dropped from my age and I turned 20, I didn’t truly feel the anguish of becoming an adult wash over me. I still had the same immature humor, waited until the last pair of underwear to do laundry and still ate Cheez-Itz straight out of the box. But then one day in Janurary, a thick manila envelope dropped at my door. Inside it were sheets of fresh 8 x 11 stacks of paper detailed with small-font ink. The text “W-2” was printed in large text in the upper left-hand corner of the packet. It was at that moment that I realized I had officially become an adult.

In my hands was my first set of “W-2” forms. On that form seemed to be all of my financial secrets. From my social security number to the amount of taxes that came out of every paycheck to the total amount I made in the last fiscal year. The only paying job that I had during the year of 2018 was working as a concierge in one of the dorms at UCLA. I had recently quit that job back in September. The late-night hours were crazy and the amount of money that was taken out of my paychecks for taxes was even more heartbreaking. But one thing I learned from an old episode of Futurama, titled “Three Hundred Big Boys” is that everyone with a tax-paying job is potentially entitled to a refund!

In the simplest terms, a federal tax refund is defined as the money that you get back from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) when you have paid more in taxes than you have owed for the year. The amount of money that is taken out of your paycheck is called the withholding tax. Generally, when you get hired, the government entrusts your employer to have you fill out the correct forms that set the precedent for how much money is taken out of your paycheck in the form of taxes. This prevents you from paying too much or too little taxes. Pay too much taxes, and you could get a refund that’s too large. Pay too little, and you could end up owing the IRS money by the next tax season! If you ever feel the need to adjust your withholding tax, you can do so by requesting a W-4 form from your employer. If you’re in your 20’s, don’t have a family with depedents, aren’t married/divorced and don’t owe too much or too little to the IRS, then chances are you don’t need to fill out this form. 

With that being said, it’s really important to have a transparent understanding of your financial situations. That way, if you ever run into issues, you know when and how to address them before it’s too late. My personal journey to filing taxes for the first time was at first rocky, but the more I learned, the easier it became. As mentioned before, I had quit my job almost half a year ago. But there were two things that I was fortunate to have. One being that my job was being a student worker under the University of California. This meant that all of my worker information from employment start dates to the details of each paycheck and even pdf versions of my W-2 forms. Your W-2 forms are simply forms created by the IRS that report the money you made during your employment and the amount in taxes that was withheld from you.

The second fortunate thing in my possession was Reddit. When I have questions that are too specific just for Google, I use Reddit forums to narrow things down to simple answers. From Reddit, I learned that if it’s your first time filing taxes, never use paid services such as HR Block. If you’re making less than $66,000 then there is no reason for you to pay a third party to do your taxes. Instead, you should take advantage of the many free filing programs that the IRS provides. The one that I ended up using was FreeTaxUSA. The title gives you a pretty solid idea of what they offer. You can file your federal taxes for free, and if you want to go the extra mile and file state taxes, then you can do so for the low cost of $12.95.

Now, I’d like to say that I utilized their easy-to-use software to file my taxes immediately and move on with my life. But the anxious part of me didn’t. I had heard horror stories about people running into issues filing and some of them ended up owing the government money at the end of their ordeals. So, as a way of securing my doubts, I decided to utilize yet another free program that the government gives us. It’s called VITA, and UCLA has the program! VITA stands for Volunteer Income Tax Assistance, and it’s a program that offers free federal and state income tax preparation services to people that have low-to-moderate income, are disabled and elderly individuals in the Los Angeles community. The tax site for VITA at UCLA is located in Viewpoint Rooms A and B inside Ackerman Student Union. If you can’t make it to UCLA, there is another tax site held around different spots in Los Angeles. For more information about VITA in the Los Angeles area visit http://www.vitaucla.org/

One thing that I appreciated about my experience with VITA was that no question was too complicated or too embarassing. They make you feel welcome and empower you as you take control of the financial parts of your life. If you’re scared of dealing with taxes for the first time or just curious about tax information in general, then I definitely recommend making an free appointment with VITA. If you’re passionate about helping people in the Los Angeles community with their financial issues, you can look into volunteer opportunities at their website. 

Another thing that I was worried about was how filing my taxes would affect my mother. I wasn’t sure if me being listed as a dependent on her taxes would be affected if I also filed my own taxes. My mother was freaking out when I told her that I planned to file so I could receive my refund, and she was also worried that it would affect my financial aid. The bottom line that I learned is that if your parents still claim you as a dependent you can still file your own taxes. You just need to make sure to mark that you are a dependent when the application asks for it. This will have no effect on the money that you or your parents end up receiving or oweing. In addition, filing your own taxes does not affect your financial aid. Don’t forget the deadline to file for the 2018 – 2018 fiscal year is Monday, April 15th, 2019.

As cheesy as it sounds, my first experience filing taxes felt like a rite of passage into my “semi-adult” life. I’m still dependent on my parents, I still don’t know how to properly fold my laundry, but filing my taxes was a stark and necessary reminder that I’m not going to be a kid forever—and that’s okay. 


If there’s only three things you take from this article, then here they are:

1) Always file your tax return if you’ve had taxes taken out of your paycheck. You’re basically donating money to the IRS if you don’t.

2) Don’t be afraid to ask for help or advice. When it comes to your finances, you don’t want to mess around. Small details can make the world of a difference later on. 

3) If something seems fishy, go with your gut instinct and run. When you’re dealing with finances, there’s a lot of sensitive information about yourself that you don’t want loose out there. Make sure you look into the resources you’re using!

UCLA 2020 Pamela is a Feature Writer for the UCLA Chapter of Her Campus. When Pamela isn't stressing over exams you can find her obsessing over skin care routines, reading POC-centered novels, and attempting to exercise. 
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