Jennifer Jolly
 |  Special to USA TODAY

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It may be a new year, but we’re all still dealing with fallout from 2020. One area where this is most apparent right now? Taxes.

It’s that time again, and with stimulus payments, unemployment, home offices, stocks, side gigs and more, it’s kind of a mess.

But while we were all binge-watching “Tiger King” and learning how to make TikTok videos from our kids, several financial tech companies fast-tracked tools to help us get through this horrible, no-good, very-bad tax year. 

Here are a few notable ways the very latest tech can save a whole lot of time, money and headaches when it comes to pandemic-year taxes.

Taxes Q&A: When is the filing deadline for 2020 taxes? Will I owe taxes on stimulus checks?

Stimulus checks and taxes: What you need to know before filing your 2020 income tax returns

Do take advantage of e-file and direct deposit

The IRS is urging people to file electronically and use direct deposit for any refund they might get this year. 

The average tax return for the 2019 tax year was nearly $3,000, according to IRS data. Three out of 4 Americans get a tax refund each year, and it’s the largest single check they receive all year.

You can use IRS Free File to prepare and file your federal income tax online for free. You have until April 15 to get it done. 

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The IRS’ IRS2Go (iOS, Android) is a barebones app that lets you check your refund status and schedule payments if you owe money. It can even connect you with an IRS Volunteer Income Tax Assistant. 

Artificial intelligence and machine learning can help

The IRS is now using AI to catch tax cheats, but you can use that same next-level tech to maximize benefits and clear up confusion. 

New this year, tax-prep giant TurboTax is using AI and data science to match people with their own dedicated tax expert based on their unique situation. The new product, TurboTax Live Full Service, pairs you up with an accountant virtually and in real-time.

“COVID, what it really did was accelerate the desire for people to look for virtual solutions,” Sacha Adam, director of TurboTax Live told USA TODAY.

“It takes the latest tech and gives you a jump-start,” Lisa Greene-Lewis, CPA and tax expert for TurboTax explained. “You sign up on your mobile device or computer, answer a few questions … link to your employer, snap a photo of your W-2’s on your smartphone, and it automatically uploads all of that information. It does all the calculations on the back end so you don’t need to know any of the dozens of new tax provisions. But it also gives you personalization with an expert and the ability to talk with a CPA or enrolled agent in any way you want – video, live chat, email, phone – whatever’s most comfortable for you.”

The price for the service starts around $100 right now, but that might increase closer to the April 15 tax deadline.

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TurboTax’s free coronavirus tax center covers frequently asked questions around stimulus checks, unemployment, home offices and more.

Reviewed: The best tax software of 2021

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Ditch paper, use tech instead

I didn’t realize I was issued a second stimulus check – or that it’s gone missing – until I accidentally stumbled across the IRS Get My Payment page. When you tap that big “Get My Payment” button and fill in a few details, you’ll see the lowdown on when your check will be mailed, if it has been mailed or if you’ll get a direct deposit. 

If like me, you see that a check was mailed to you but you haven’t seen it yet, you can follow-up on the FAQ page with a request for a payment trace. This is important because it impacts your tax returns, too. 

Consumer help site JustAnswer says it’s getting more than 300 tax-related questions a day, which is about 130% higher than this time last year. The most common new questions trending for 2021 include: 

  • Can I deduct my home office expenses? (Not if you’re a W-2 employee)
  • Do I owe taxes on my government stimulus payment? (No)
  • Do I owe taxes on my unemployment payments? (Yes)
  • What if I moved to another state during the pandemic? Will I need to pay income tax in that state or my own? (It depends)

The cost for JustAnswer is $5 for a one-week trial period, then about $50 a month to ask a certified tax expert unlimited questions. 

Beyond tax time

Here are a few tech tools to deal with finances all year round. 

One of my favorite apps for saving money is called Digit (iOS, Android). When you sign-up and connect your bank accounts, it analyzes your spending patterns and then automatically moves small amounts of money (typically $5-$20) into an FDIC-insured savings account. What’s great about it is the “set it and forget it” way it uses both data science and human psychology to deal with something most of us really want to do – save money – but may have a hard time managing on our own. Digit is free for the first 30 days, then $5 a month. 

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For basic budgeting and tracking, Mint (iOS, Android) and You Need a Budget (YNAB) (iOS, Android, web, Alexa) are the two I use all the time. 

Mint is the simplest tool out there. Just plug in your bank information, and it arranges your finances into budgets. It’s also free.

For more heavy-handed help, YNAB is a zero-based budgeting app, which means every dollar in your account gets allocated toward a spending or savings goal every month. It takes more work to manage on your part, but it’s also helped my family save nearly $3,000 in the past six months. Try it for free for 34 days; then pay $11.99 a month, or $83.99 a year.

Jennifer Jolly is an Emmy Award-winning consumer tech columnist and host of USA TODAY’s digital video show TECHNOW. Email her at jj@techish.com. Follow her on Twitter: @JenniferJolly.

The views and opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of USA TODAY.



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