Published on 03/04/10

UGA Extension helping citizens with taxes

By April Reese Sorrow

The April 15 tax deadline is nearing, and many people have already filed their returns for free with help from the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension. And they received some financial education during the process.

Using a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, UGA Extension partnered with the Internal Revenue Service Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program this year. Tax returns have been filed in Athens (350), Dalton (125) and Moultrie (64), all free of charge. And the program is still offering its services.

“The grant was to increase financial education,” said Lance Palmer, assistant professor of financial planning in the UGA Department of Housing and Consumer Economics. “Tax filing creates a teachable moment for people, and we are able to implement some basic financial training.”

Two-thirds of low- to moderate-income households have their taxes prepared by someone else, Palmer said.

“This program is a way for us to fill a need and provide them with an education on ways to increase their refund through saving and planning,” Palmer said.

Students majoring in family financial planning at UGA help to prepare the returns, along with students from Dalton State College and Moultrie Technical College.

Andrea Scarrow, a UGA Extension agent in Colquitt County, focuses on financial literacy in her county and wanted the program offered there.

“I knew if we could do something practical to get some money in people’s pockets we could reach a big portion of our community,” Scarrow said.

She saw a cycle of people depending on refund anticipation loans to get through November and December. These loans typically have high finance charges, leaving less refund for the taxpayer.

“I wanted to help break that cycle of poverty and offer some tax assistance,” Scarrow said. “We focused on the earned income tax credit, which is a great credit, encouraging and rewarding work.”

The earned income tax credit offers as much as $3,043 in credits to families with at least one child. It is just one of many such credits available, said Joan Koonce, a UGA Extension financial specialist. Other credits include the child tax credit, childcare tax credit and retirement savers’ credit.

“There are lots of new credits, and we want to help people get all the deductions and credits they can,” Koonce said. “Everyone should get all of the deductions and credits they are legally allowed.”

Koonce prepared taxes in Moultrie and helped get a grant to partly fund the effort there. For eight days in February, volunteers prepared tax returns at a Moultrie community center and YMCA. Local banks shared financial planning information with people at each site and Extension publications were available on investing, insurance and using credit wisely.

“There was a man whose grandson wasn’t receiving much of a refund, but it was his,” Koonce said. “In years past, the refund had been given back to the tax preparer. Those are the stories you like to hear.”

“We had people sitting across from us with tears in their eyes. They were so grateful to have this service and actually took home all of their refund,” Scarrow said. “We were so happy to be there and help those that need it most.”

If you haven’t filed your 2009 return, yet, Koonce says to:

  • Save money and do it yourself if you can.
  • Read the forms and refer to the IRS Web site to take advantage of all deductions and credits available.
  • Prepare for next year by putting money in a retirement account and be sure to keep financial files organized and accessible.

“If you are unsure if you need a receipt, keep it just in case,” Koonce said.

Some people look forward to a big tax refund and use the income to splurge on a vacation or home-improvement project. Koonce says it is better to breakeven or to get a small refund at the end of the year.

“You are letting the government hold on to your money for months when you could be using it to invest or for necessary expenses throughout the year,” she said.

April R. Sorrow is a science writer with the University of Georgia Public Affairs Office.

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