Hard Times Inspire Early Tax Filings

Small business owner Basia Christ of Orange County, Calif., admits she was once among the tens of millions of procrastinating Americans who wait until the last minute and beyond to file their taxes.

But this year she's the early bird.

"I am going to be hitting the send button at 12:01 Jan.16, which is the first moment that I can file my taxes," she says.

After being laid off in 2008, her expected $7,000 refund is more than just a bonus -- it's a lifeline.

"I am in the same boat as many other people in the country … it's called the Titanic," Christ says. "I got very behind in my bills, so this tax money is very important to me."

An estimated 2.6 million Americans lost their jobs last year, and the stock market fell 40 percent, so tax preparers are getting ready for an onslaught of early filers who can't wait for the spring to get their refunds.

For that reason H&R Block, the country's largest tax preparer, is expecting a surge of online returns this year. E-filing can yield a refund in as few as 10 days.

"The quickest way to file this year and get your money into your account is to e-file with the IRS and then have the IRS do a direct deposit into a savings or a checking account," says Wilma Hayes, a tax associate with H&R Block in New York City.

Bad financial news during the year can be good news when you're adding up your deductions at tax time. Hayes says up to $3,000 in stock losses can be written off and additional losses can be rolled over. "When you have a taxable account and you have stocks in it, if you sold a lot of stock and you sold it at a loss you could write off up to $3,000 of just ordinary income," she says.

Many job hunting expenses and Cobra health insurance may also be deductible, and there are special tax breaks this year for homeowners who were forced into foreclosure.

"There were a lot of foreclosures last year, so the tax law this year allows you to write off or at least not get hit with taxes on up to 2 million dollars of forgivable mortgage principals," says Hayes.

"Another thing people may want to be aware of is the recovery rebate credit, they may not have been eligible for it last year because their income was too high but because of the unemployment rate skyrocketing this year you may be eligible for it and it would come in the form of a credit," she says. "This is a bad economy and there are a lot of tax law changes and you just cannot take the chance of missing out on these deductions."

And Hayes reminds tax payers that unemployment benefits must be declared in their filings.

Economist Ron Van Winkle warns against moving too fast, explaining that some companies offer so-called instant refunds, but these are really loans against your expected refund and should be avoided.

"Those loans are expensive," he says. "Although they're available out there, you should not tempt yourself by doing that. Be a little frugal for a few weeks and wait for that check to come."

Experts also caution against using pay stubs instead of waiting for your W-2, pointing out that you could end up having to amend your filing or lose out on some extra money.

Basia Christ had to borrow from friends after losing her job, so her refund will pay off her debts.

"Knowing that I can pay the people back who helped me last year," she says, talking about the value of her tax refund. "Getting this money as fast as I can is my way of thanking them."

She stands to gain a peace of mind she may never have dreamed would come from filing her taxes.