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How to Fill Out Form 1040: Preparing Your Tax Return

Many people opt to pay a pro to prepare their tax returns for them. Others like to use software. Call me old-fashioned, but I think that preparing one’s own return using the actual forms is an excellent experience for most people. If you’ve never done it before, you can’t help but learn something in the process. Here, I take a look at preparing a Form 1040:

Step 1: Download the Form.

Step 2: Fill-in your personal information.

(Click on any of the images to enlarge.)

The top of the form simply asks for some basic information such as your name, SSN, address, etc. It also asks for your filing status. For the majority of people, this is either “Single” or “Married Filing Jointly.” If you’re unmarried and paying to support a dependent, you may be able to file as “Head of Household,” which will give you some additional benefits.

Step 3: Determine How Many Exemptions You’re Eligible For.

Generally, you are entitled to one exemption for yourself, one for your spouse, and one for each of your dependents. In 2010, each exemption reduces your taxable income by $3,650.

Step 4: Lines 7-22: (Income)


  • For Lines 7-21, list each of your types of income on the appropriate line. Most of this information can be gathered from documents that have already been provided to you. For example, Line 7: Wages, Salaries, and Tips is taken from the W-2 provided to you by your employer.
  • Sum up all of the amounts entered on Lines 7-21, and enter the total on Line 22. This is your “Total Income.”

Step 5: Lines 23-37 (Deductions to Arrive at Your “Adjusted Gross Income”)

  • On Lines 23-35, you’ll enter any of your “above the line” deductions. (Common above the line deductions include the deduction for contributions to a Traditional IRA, the Tuition and Fees Deduction, and the deduction for contributions to a Health Savings Account.)
  • These above the line deductions are particularly valuable, because they save you money regardless of whether or not you choose to itemize your deductions. (More on this in the next section.)
  • On Line 36, enter the sum of all amounts entered on Lines 23-35.
  • Subtract Line 36 from Line 22. Enter the difference on Line 37. This is known as your Adjusted Gross Income. (When people reference above the line and below the line deductions, Line 37–Adjusted Gross Income is “the line” that they’re referring to.)

Step 6: Lines 38-55 (Tax and Credits)

  • For Line 38 (at the top of Page 2) just carry over your Adjusted Gross Income from Line 37.
  • On Line 40, enter the greater of the sum of your itemized deductions (such as home mortgage interest and charitable contributions) or your standard deduction. (The amount for your standard deduction depends upon your Filing Status and is listed in the left margin of the form.)
  • Subtract the amount on Line 410 from the amount on Line 38. Enter the difference on Line 41.
  • Multiply the amount of exemptions you claimed (on Line 6d) by $3,650. Enter the total on Line 42.
  • Subtract Line 42 from Line 41. Enter the difference on Line 43. This amount is known as your Taxable Income.
  • You then use the tax tables in the instruction booklet to determine the corresponding amount of tax for your taxable income. Enter this amount on Line 44.
  • If you’re subject to the Alternative Minimum Tax, enter your AMT amount on Line 45.
  • On Lines 47-53, enter any credits for which you’re eligible. Common credits include the education credits (specifically, the Hope Credit and Lifetime Learning Credit), the Retirement Savings Contribution Credit, and the Credit for child or dependent care expenses.
  • Total your credits, and enter the amount on Line 54.
  • Now subtract Line 54 (Total Credits) from Line 46 (Total Tax). This is the total amount of income tax that you’re responsible for over the course of the year. [Note: As you can see, credits are particularly valuable because they reduce your tax on a dollar-for-dollar basis.]

Step 7: Lines 56-60 (Other Taxes)

In this section, you enter any other taxes for which you’re responsible. (Things such as Self-Employment Tax and the additional 10% tax for early withdrawals from an IRA go here.)

Step 8: Lines 61-76 (Payments, and Refund/Amount Owed)

  • On Lines 61-70, you’ll enter any payments you have already made toward your tax liability for the year. (Most commonly, these payments are in the form of withholding from your wages, or in the form of quarterly estimated tax payments.)
  • If you qualify for the Earned Income Credit, enter your EIC on Line 64a.
  • Sum all of your payments, and enter the total on Line 71.
  • If the sum of your payments was greater than your total tax, enter the difference on Lines 72 and 73a. This will be the amount of your refund.
  • If the sum of your payments was less than your total tax, write the difference on Line 75. This is the amount you still owe. (So go ahead and get out the checkbook. There’s no sense in waiting.)

Step 9: Sign Your Return

Now just sign your return, and you’re all done! Nice job.

For More Information, See My Related Book:

Book6FrontCoverTiltedBlue

Taxes Made Simple: Income Taxes Explained in 100 Pages or Less

Topics Covered in the Book:
  • The difference between deductions, exemptions, and credits,
  • Itemized deductions vs. the standard deduction,
  • Several money-saving deductions and credits and how to make sure you qualify for them,
  • Click here to see the full list.

A testimonial from a reader on Amazon:

"Very easy to read and is a perfect introduction for learning how to do your own taxes. Mike Piper does an excellent job of demystifying complex tax sections and he presents them in an enjoyable and easy to understand way. Highly recommended!"
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