How to rebound from a massive, unexpected tax bill

So, you owe the IRS more than you expected? Don't panic. This is manageable.

Tax surprise.
(Image credit: DragonImages/iStock)

"You're not going to like this," my husband said to me as he completed the final tally on our tax bill. When I took a peek at the computer screen, I was so shocked, I had to sit down. I knew that when we traded our full-time jobs for a life in the gig economy, we'd left the days of getting money back from the IRS. But I wasn't prepared to owe thousands.

We didn't know how to dig ourselves out of our tax debt, but we managed to do it, and we learned some valuable lessons along the way. If you're overwhelmed by the amount you owe, here are some tips to help you rebound from a surprise tax bill.

1. Get a second opinion

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First thing's first: Assess the situation and get a second opinion. This could make a substantial difference in how much you owe, regardless of whether you're filing yourself or have consulted a tax professional. When our CPA looked at the total we owed the IRS, he realized he could save us $2,000 on the spot. Nobody's perfect. Getting a second opinion won't hurt. Even if the experience only confirms the amount you owe, reaching out will give you the peace of mind that you are doing the right thing and nix any "what if?" feelings you may have down the road.

2. File for an extension

If you need more time to file your return or to research your options, consider filing for a tax extension. This can be done through IRS Form 4868 for individual taxpayers. Extensions can be filed online, and this will generate a confirmation code so you'll immediately know the IRS received your forms. While a tax extension doesn't get you out of having to pay, it can soften the blow of the late-file penalty fee, which amounts to 5 percent a month until you pay 25 percent of what you owe. After that, you'll be charged interest until you settle your account. An extension can help reduce your penalties if you cannot afford to pay in full by the deadline.

3. Choose the best method for paying it off

If your return is ready to go but you are lacking the funds you owe, there are several ways you can go about paying off your tax debt.

The first option is to make a payment plan and chip away at your debt in monthly installments. To do this, you must file an Installment Agreement Request (Form 9465) and suggest your own terms, like how much you'll pay per month and on which day. If you can pay off your debt in under three years, and you owe less than $10,000, you'll most likely be automatically approved. You'll have to pay a setup fee and will be charged interest each month for the remainder of your balance.

The second option is to put it on a credit card. The IRS accepts Visa, MasterCard, Discover, and American Express as payment methods for your federal income tax bill. If you decide to pay off your debt by a credit card payment, you'll be subject to a transaction fee from the IRS in addition to the interest rate on your credit card. Depending on your credit card interest rates, you may not be able to save money through this route.

The other option is to just pay what you can. If you know your funds are coming, but you don't have them on Tax Day, file on time and pay what you're able to pay. Within a month, the IRS will bill you for the balance with interest attached. If you can pay it off when you receive the balance, you'll only be charged for one month's worth of interest.

4. Make some extra cash

If your wallet is feeling thin, and you have a tax bill to settle, now may be the right time to find additional streams of income. Picking up a side job can help. Numerous companies like rideshares or food delivery services can help you earn more cash on a flexible schedule. If you're pressed for time or can't possibly take on another job, consider cleaning out your home. Most likely, you'll have more than enough items you're no longer using that are in good enough shape to sell. Hold a yard sale or opt to sell some stuff online. Funnel your extra funds into paying off your tax debt while cleaning out your home at the same time.

5. Plan ahead

Now that you're on your way to climbing out of your tax hole, you probably don't want to repeat the experience. Set a monthly budget that accounts for saving. Form a stash of cash that is meant for emergencies, so if you happen to fall into this situation again, you're ready. If you're a freelancer doing your own taxes without the help of a tax professional, be sure to set aside the recommended third of your income in a specific bank account for your taxes and consider seeking outside help when it comes time to file. With proper planning, rebounding from your tax woes is not as hard as it may seem.

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