Ah, the time of the tax return approaches. Hopefully, you are one of nearly 80% of Americans who will receive a tax refund this year. I can tell you from experience, however, that watching your refund get gobbled up by tax preparation fees can be a sad, sad thing indeed.

Here are some alternatives you might check out:

1. Filing Yourself

There are a great number of online services that can help you file your own taxes. Companies like TurboTax, H&R Block, and TaxSlayer have created fairly user-friendly online programs that will walk you through your filing. The cost of your filing will generally depend on how complex your return is. Basic 1040-type returns can be filed for minimal costs, maybe even for free through some providers, but costs might start to add up depending on how many auxiliary forms you require.

Check with your credit union (just click up on that logo up there on the right for contact info). They may offer tax preparation assistance or participate in the Invest in America program which usually offers members a discount on filings through TurboTax.

An estimate by Forbes in 2013 indicated that it may take as many as 16 hours for the average Joe to file his or her own taxes. While hiring a professional may reduce this time commitment, it’s still on you to gather and organize your receipts and tax forms.

2. AARP Tax Aide and VITA

Don’t worry, this service isn’t just for older people. AARP tax aide is available in many places throughout the country, and this free service is open to anyone. You can Google “AARP Tax Aide” to find locations close to you. Keep in mind, this service relies on local volunteers to perform the filings. Despite rigorous volunteer training, if you have a very complicated return, this may or may not be the best service for you.

The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program is a government program that offers tax assistance to people making $54,000 or less. Many credit unions host VITA programs. Check with yours. 

3. File Early

For the past several years, providers like H&R Block have offered to file federal returns for basic 1040s for FREE before a certain date. This is in an effort to encourage more people to file early... instead of waiting until April 13 (let’s not point fingers). Keep in mind that if you live in a state that levies an income tax (all except for AL, FL, NV, SD, TX, WA, WY) you will likely still need to pay to file your state return.

Just remember that whatever you choose, the software or the tax preparation fees you will pay will generally increase with the complexity of your return. If you plan to itemize your deductions or claim capital gains (or losses), or have business expenses, hobby or rental income, you will likely end up paying more—sometimes significantly more—than those filing a basic 1040.

And let me just be captain obvious here—don’t skip out on these more complex forms your lifestyle requires just to lower your fee. IRS audits are even less fun than getting a tooth pulled. Without Novocain. In a dark ally. In a snowstorm. By a clown.

When in doubt, my advice is to stick with a professional. Many offer audit protection for a small additional fee, as well.

Photo credit iStock

(originally published Feb. 23, 2016)