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Despite no cost, IRS' Free File option isn't that popular

IRS Free File computer taxpayer

Since its appearance in 2003, around 50 million taxpayers have used Free File.

As the name indicates, this partnership of the Internal Revenue Service and tax software manufacturers known as the Free File Alliance gives most taxpayers the opportunity to do their taxes on their computers and then e-file them at no cost.

But, notes Pro Publica in an article co-published with Quartz, the number of Free Filing taxpayers comes to just around 3 percent of eligible households. That, according to the article by Tik Root, means that folks have spent around $1 billion on tax prep and filing fees that they didn't need to pay.

Why? Pro Publica says the main reason for such sparse participation is that not enough people know about the Free File option.

The search for free filing: Free File is extremely difficult to find, according to the article, which gets this week's Saturday Shout Out. It notes that only one of the Free File Alliance members prominently displays the Free File option on its homepage.

When I first read the piece, my immediate thought was, "That's not right. It's not hard if you go to IRS.gov."

I know Pro Publica et al will argue that my reasoning is biased because I am a part of the tax world and that most people don't regularly visit the IRS' website.

But c'mon. Taxes. Where else would you at least drop in during filing season? There has to be some personal responsibility regarding taxes when you consider home much time people spend online comparing things, say like the price and style of shoes, before they buy.

I do concede, however, that it can take a bit of searching, especially now that we're past the April filing deadline. Even one of the Free File company reps had some difficulty completing the task.

On the online hunt: After reading that, I tried, too, typing IRS.gov into my smartphone's browser.

The mobile friendly site opened up fine, but no Free File link anywhere on the home page. I also checked my laptop, and nope. Not immediately obvious there on that version either.

I tapped the help button at the top of my phone's screen and then scrolled down to the free tax software link. That took me to Free File. It took similar clicks on my laptop after finding the help link at the bottom of the IRS home page.

Of course, the IRS notes that Free File is readily accessible on its IRS2Go app. Perhaps that app tidbit should be on the agency's online home page.

To give the IRS the benefit of the doubt, I've worked digitally for more than a decade, so I know how valuable space on a computer screen is.

I also know that high filing season is over. But millions of taxpayers got extensions to finish filling out their forms and Free File is available to help them do that through that Oct. 15 deadline, so….

Many, and varied, options: One thing I totally agree with is the article's observation that the array of eligibility requirements among the different Free File providers can be confusing.

While the key Free File limit is income, which this year in filing 2017 taxes is $66,000 or less regardless of filing status, the dozen or so tax preparation and e-filing services are allowed to set their own, additional requirements, which vary, for example, by income, age and state of residence.

But again, people, just take the time to be an educated tax paying consumer. Do your tax comparison shopping among the Free File offerings like you do when you're searching for non-tax products.

If you do that, you could end up saving enough tax money to get those fantastic shoes you spent hours finding online.

Spreading the Free File word: For my part, I'm doing what I can to direct folks to Free File.

You can find several Free File links in my June tax moves list over there in the right-hand column of the ol' blog. One of them goes to my story from back in January about the opening this year of the program. Others take you directly to the IRS or Free File Alliance sites.

I'll be doing the same next year when the program opens for 2018 tax return filing.

If you're inclined to share my pieces or the information directly from the IRS and its Free File partners, please do so.

And yes, in many cases, some taxpayers do need professional help to accurately complete their taxes. In those cases, hire a reputable tax preparer. The paid guidance that tax pros can provide generally will offset the taxes you otherwise would have paid, especially this year with all the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act changes.

Or, if you're cash-strapped, check out your local Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) and Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE) location during filing season.

But if you're among those taxpayers who can file just fine with software, there's no need to pay for it if you qualify for Free File.

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"And yes, in many cases, some taxpayers do need professional help to accurately complete their taxes. In those cases, hire a reputable tax preparer."

^ That is what I was going to say, Kay. Filing by yourself may lead to problems with IRS if you do not know what you are doing. I'm glad you mentioned that it does not replace professional help.

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