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What Do I Do If I Can't Afford to Pay My Taxes?

Can’t afford to pay your taxes by Tax Day? The most important advice we can offer you is this: Don’t avoid the problem! You can’t solve it by not filing or by hiding from the IRS. You must pay any taxes owed. Face the issue head on so you can get the mess cleaned up, then make sure you’re never in that position again.

The good news is that it can be done if you just know where to start. Here’s our four-step plan to help you dig out of even the deepest of tax holes, plus some success stories of people who climbed out of their own.

Step 1: File by the regular deadline, even if you can’t afford to pay your taxes on time.

As soon as possible, begin working with an experienced tax professional to fill out your forms. They may be able to find credits and deductions for you that will lower your tax bill. And when you owe the IRS, every dollar counts! Not sure if you really need a tax pro? Take our quiz to find out!

Taxes shouldn't be this complicated. Let us help.

Now listen, if you find yourself out of work, don’t panic. Forget the tax bill (for now). When the going gets tough, you need to focus on the things you really need to survive. Take care of the Four Walls—that’s food, utilities, shelter and transportation—before you do anything else. Once you’ve put food on the table and kept the lights on, then pay Uncle Sam what you can.

What about a tax extension? Keep in mind that filing a tax extension only gives you more time to file your taxes, not more time to pay them. Extension or not, your taxes are still due on Tax Day—so if you pay late, you’ll probably have to pay interest and penalties on any taxes you owe for the year.

With that in mind, you should only file an extension if for some reason you can’t file your return by Tax Day. The penalty for not filing your taxes can be 10 times as much as the penalty for not paying, so make sure you file your return on time!

Step 2: Pay as much as you can by the tax deadline.

When David D. was hit with a $14,000 tax bill, he didn’t have much time to come up with the money. "My wife and I were expecting our first kid so we were trying to save up for that," David explained. Failing to pay the full amount by the deadline meant David would be charged penalties and interest on top of the $14,000. Determined not to be in debt, he decided to sell one of his two cars—which was fully paid for—in order to cover the amount.

Not everyone has the option to sell a vehicle, but you probably have unused items, like clothes or old toys, that could easily be sold for extra cash. If you can’t afford to pay your taxes, this is one instance when we recommend waiting until the deadline to pay so that you can give yourself as much time as possible to save up and earn extra money.

Step 3: Keep paying the taxes you owe even after you file.

Once Tax Day passes, you’ll have a month or two before the IRS contacts you about the rest of your taxes owed. During that time, keep throwing every available dollar at the balance with the goal of paying it off before they ever contact you. If you can’t afford to pay all your taxes by that time, the IRS will likely allow you to pay the rest in monthly installments.

Jennifer M. found the IRS easy to work with when she set up a payment plan. "They were flexible and willing to work with our specific situation. Basically, they asked us what we could afford each month, and we went from there," she explained. Because of the debt snowball plan, Jennifer said she was motivated to get rid of her tax debt as fast as possible. And she did, in less than a year!

Step 4: Correct the problem so you don’t have an unaffordable tax bill again.

Work with a tax expert you can trust to make sure you’re not stuck with taxes you can’t afford again. That may mean setting aside profits from a side business or adjusting the withholding from your paychecks. Whatever the issue, a tax pro will be able to spot the problem and help you fix it going forward.

To save time and hassle, make sure you gather the right paperwork the first time around. Not sure what kind of paperwork you need? Download our free tax preparation checklist.

This isn’t a situation to handle by yourself. You need a qualified tax expert to walk with you through this process. April N. realized this when she was left owing a couple thousand dollars in taxes after underestimating her income. "I messed up last year by not setting aside taxes for my second job or home business." Not wanting to face the same situation the following year, she enlisted the help of a tax expert who set her on the right tax plan. "Now I have a CPA to help organize quarterly payments for this year so it won't happen again!" April said.

Get Your Taxes Done Right

If you’re confident you can handle your own taxes and just want easy-to-use tax software, check out Ramsey SmartTax—we make filing your taxes easy and affordable.

But if you want an expert to handle your taxes, try our Endorsed Local Providers (ELP) program. We can put you in touch with a tax professional in your area who has earned Ramsey’s trust for excellent service and advice.

Find your tax pro today!

Ramsey Solutions

About the author

Ramsey Solutions

Ramsey Solutions has been committed to helping people regain control of their money, build wealth, grow their leadership skills, and enhance their lives through personal development since 1992. Millions of people have used our financial advice through 22 books (including 12 national bestsellers) published by Ramsey Press, as well as two syndicated radio shows and 10 podcasts, which have over 17 million weekly listeners.

Tax Pro or File Your Own?

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Tax Pro or File Your Own?

Use this free quiz to help you decide which tax filing method is right for you.
Take the Quiz

Tax Pro or File Your Own?

Use this free quiz to help you decide which tax filing method is right for you.
Take the Quiz