With the April 30 tax deadline looming, it’s officially tax season crunch time in Canada.
Most professional tax preparers are swamped at this point. Although some will still accept new clients, you might get some eye-rolls for showing up with your tax paperwork so late in the game.
The good news, though, is that there are a number of options to file your return — and many of them won’t cost you a dime.
If your tax situation is relatively simple but you still need a little hand-holding, there are three main ways to get free tax help.
WATCH: 2018 tax season tips
Free tax software
More and more Canadians are getting comfortable relying on algorithms for help with their taxes. The Canada Revenue Agency has received 36 per cent of the returns sent in so far from Canadians who filed their own return online.
By comparison, 55 per cent of returns were submitted electronically by tax professionals, while nine per cent of Canadian filers used pen and paper.
If you’re filing online, there’s plenty to choose from in terms of free tax software, including from well-known names like TurboTax and H&R Block.
The CRA has a handy list of what’s available. There are options for both Windows and Mac owners, as well as desktop and mobile screens. Most options, although not all of them, let you file previous year returns as well, going back to 2014.
Almost all CRA-certified tax programs also let you use Auto-fill, which will pre-fill your return with information from all your tax slips, like your T4.
Free software generally does the math for you and walks you through your return with simple step-by-step instructions.
“If you were to do it on your own, you’d have to understand the CRA language,” said Julie Smithers at TurboTax.
The paid versions of TurboTax, though, are structured like an interview: You answer a few questions about your situation, and the system automatically sifts through hundreds of deductions and tax credits to identify what you’re eligible for.
With the free software, you usually have to identify tax breaks yourself, although TurboTax Free does suggest “tax saving opportunities” to users, according to Smithers.
Not paying for your tax preparation system also means you probably won’t get to talk to a human being on the phone if you have questions. Still, you’ll normally have access to online help centres with plenty of information about common tax issues. Software providers may also answer user questions through the likes of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, although you shouldn’t use social media to discuss something that requires you to share personal information.
If you get stuck on an issue that does require you to elaborate on your individual situation, you can generally upgrade to a paid option that will get you on the phone with a tax pro.
Still, when considering whether to use any tax software provider, make sure you understand what kind of support — if any — you’ll get in case of an audit.
You should also save an electronic and a paper copy of your return to keep on record for at least six years.
WATCH: Everything you need to know to understand your T4 slip
Free tax clinics
The government also sets up free tax clinics every year for Canadians with limited income and simple returns. Most of these volunteer-led workshops run from February to the end of April, although some stay open year-round. You can locate a clinic near you on the CRA website or using the MyCRA mobile app.
Here are CRA’s income thresholds to determine eligibility in this free government program:
Keep in mind, though, that volunteers won’t handle more complex tax situations, such as those arising from having self-employed, business or rental income. Capital gains or losses or having filed for bankruptcy will also disqualify you from the free service.
Ask a friend or relative
Finally, the other time-tested way to get your taxes done for free is to rely on a relative or trusted friend to do it for you.
If there’s an accountant in the family or some other kind soul with in-depth tax knowledge who offers to take care of your return this year, you need to give them formal permission to handle your affairs. You can do so by using the “Authorize my representative” service through your online CRA account or by sending Form T1013 in the mail to the CRA.
Whatever you do, consider a bottle of wine or home-cooked meal for your volunteer tax preparer. That’s not in the tax code but will likely be much appreciated.