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Volunteer Income Tax Assistance helps students file taxes

Eighty percent of millennial taxpayers express some sort of concern over filing their taxes, according to a 2016 survey by NerdWallet. This year, they may not have to do it alone.

Accounting majors are putting their income tax knowledge to the test by helping fellow students file their taxes at Cal State Long Beach’s free walk-in Volunteer Income Tax Assistance service. Through March 24, low-income, elderly, disabled and limited English-proficient individuals and students can seek help at the College of Business Administration from an advanced accounting student who has received Federal Tax Law training.

“If you have the resources to go to a paid [income tax] professional, then do it,” recommends Kyla Tamondong, this year’s 23-year-old VITA site coordinator. “But as college students, we’re broke.”

The VITA site, open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday at the College of Business Administration  237 Computer Lab, can be a student’s free alternative. Walk-ins for tax assistance are preferred but appointments can be scheduled online on the College of Business Administration webpage.

“The Financial Aid Office is not trained in federal/state tax law – thus we are unable to provide any guidance or advice to students regarding tax matters,” Director of Financial Aid Nicolas Valdivia said. “However, our general direction is to point them to their tax preparer or professional, who is trained in that area.”

The 59 accounting students who are volunteering at VITA this year to earn course credit were trained by a VITA representative during winter break and have taken the upper-division Federal Tax Law course at CSULB. The Internal Revenue Service supplies informational materials and a tax-filing software.

According to 2015 VITA site co-coordinator Jennifer Mae Formeloza in a video for CSULB News Hub, CSULB’s VITA program is one of the largest – they average around 60 volunteers per year and are often asked to lend volunteers at other sites. In 2014, they filed more than 900 tax returns, according to a video on their website.

NerdWallet’s survey found that millennials file taxes by mail more often than taxpayers 35 years or older.

Tamondong calls mail-in tax filing “tedious” and risky, as sensitive information, including your social security number, can get lost in the mail.

Students would fare better using a user-friendly e-filing source such as Turbotax, or better yet, “taking advantage of these kinds of [volunteer] programs,” she said. “There’s a lot of VITA sites not just at Cal State Long Beach … you just really have to look for them. We’re here for the students.”

According to Tamondong, the best way to make tax filing easier is to keep track of your income, expenses and related documents. You should receive a form that states your income from each job, your tuition statement, scholarship amounts received, investments earned and other sources of income. Receipts that show you paid for textbooks, mandatory school supplies or work uniforms will also be useful to getting a higher tax return.

Some mistakes begin when a student is hired at a job and are required to fill out a W-4 form.

“That form is asking you how many dependents you have, how many exemptions you have,” said Tamondong. “That will tell the employer how much taxes they should take from your paycheck.”

When students claim fewer exemptions than necessary, more money will be taken from each paycheck. When they claim more exemptions than necessary, less money will be taken out each paycheck, but they may end up owing money come tax season.

“I guess it’s a matter of: do you want them to take out your money now or accumulate it and take it all later?” Tamondong said. “We’ve seen that [situation] a lot … so I suggest literally reading [the W-4 form] and understanding what those forms say.”

Another mistake occurs when a student is claimed as a dependent on two separate tax returns.

“Let’s say for me, I want to claim myself, but my mom claims me [too],” Tamondong said. “[One] return is going to be rejected and you have to go through that hassle of … amending your return and you don’t wanna go through that hassle – college students, we’re all busy. So know if your parent is going to claim you or not and really, really make sure if you want them to claim you or not.”

Filers should bring all necessary documentation including a driver’s license or I.D., their original Social Security card, any relevant income and expense documents and a routing and account number if they wish to receive their refund through direct deposit.

“You’re providing a service for people,” Tamondong said about her job. “And it feels good.”

This year a client whose taxes she helped file last year walked in asking for her by name. It’s these little moments, she says, that remind her that this small service can mean a lot to some people.

“We should change the VITA slogan!” she adds to fellow site coordinator Phillip Nguyen. “‘Changing the world, one tax return at a time’!”

One Comment

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    Wow this is a great article. Amazing writing, and that VITA site coordinator sounds like a very intelligent woman.

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