I Owe More Taxes Than I Expected: Should I Hire An Accountant?

Tax Cat here! Filing your income taxes can be even more unpleasant than going to the vet for shots. Especially if, like reader Fletcher, you dutifully filled out your tax return and discovered an ugly surprise: you owe more money than you expected. A lot more.

He writes:

Here is my question: This is my 3rd year filing taxes; the past two years I have done it online for free, it was easy and I got some $ back from the government. Awesome. This time when I put my info in on sites like h&r block & turbotax, they seem to think I should give the federal government $862, and the state government $386, which seems insane.

I made ~$27,000 last year, I bought a new car, and I definitely don’t have any money (let alone extra,) to fork over. I asked my brother who is older and wiser what to do and he thinks I should go to a private accountant, but I’m worried that I will end up paying for them to tell me that I owe the same amount. What should I do? Sack up and pay them or go to an accountant?

Unfortunately, Fletcher, your situation is all too common. I have the pertinent information from your W-2 here in my paws. As you guessed, you had too little money withheld from each paycheck, and the total federal income tax that the free services tell you that you owe for 2009 (about $1500, including what was already withheld) is appropriate for your income level.

If you rent your home, have no kids or other dependents, have accounted for any student loan interest, and don’t qualify for any other exciting tax credits or deductions, your tax return is relatively simple. Unless your local tax preparation place has a time machine and/or does things that are blatantly illegal, there’s not much they’ll be able to do to help. Save the money you’d spend on an accountant. “Sack up” and put it toward the taxes you owe. Then change your withholding for 2010.

To avoid Fletcher’s fate, if you’re just starting your first job (or just starting your first job where you get paid enough to actually owe taxes) you’ll need to learn how to fill out your paperwork correctly so you’re not stuck coughing up a few grand in the spring. Be sure to check out this classic New York Times article which explains how to fill out your W-4 in order to make sure this won’t happen again.