NEW YORK -- If you're like me, you waited until the final days of the tax season to file your returns. And if you're like me, you're thinking there ought to be ways to keep your finances organized throughout the year to avoid the mad scramble as April 15 approaches.
As I procrastinated on doing my taxes, I researched several Web services that can help make tax season smoother next year. These aren't services that help you prepare and file your tax returns. Rather, they're designed to help you track expenses, charitable contributions, investments and other financial data you'll need to enter on tax forms.
Although there's no shortage of websites and mobile apps that will do the job, I haven't found a single service that will do everything I was looking for. But I was able to piece together a collection of four services to do all that. In my research, I gravitated toward the cheaper or free services, as well as those that work on multiple systems, including Android, iPhones and personal computers. I rejected a few simply because they work on just the iPhone or Android, but not both. I also tried to recommend services that do multiple things, so you won't have to keep track of too many accounts and passwords.
You'll still need to keep your W-2, bank and investment tax forms handy. Store them in a shoebox or large envelope as you get them. With that in mind, here's a collection of services that will help you organize the rest of your financial data.
A good starting point is this free service from Intuit Inc., which also makes the TurboTax software for preparing returns. You're free to use a competitor to file taxes, though, as there's no syncing between the two beyond links trying to get you to use TurboTax. Mint doesn't make it easy to export data to any tax service, including Intuit's own. But Mint will keep track of the information, which you'll then have to retype into the tax software.
After creating a Mint account, you simply need to add your financial accounts, such as credit card, mutual fund and PayPal. Mint will automatically pull transactions from those accounts. Credit card transactions often will have a category already assigned, based on the merchant. You can change that or add tags such as "taxes" and "charity." You can also manually add transactions paid in cash.
Let's start with investments. Your investment firms should provide you with 1099-DIV and 1099-B forms that summarize dividends earned and sales of any stocks and mutual funds. There may be some cases where you'll need more details on when and how much you bought stocks for. Unfortunately, many banks offer records going only a few months back. But once you add them to Mint, those transactions will stay in the system. So if you use Mint long enough, you'll have all your key information right there.
Banks will also provide 1099-INT forms to summarize interest earned, which you must report as income. But those forms won't be sent if you've earned less than $10 -- not uncommon in these days of low interest rates. With Mint, simply type "interest" into the search box under transactions. You can choose to search specific accounts or all of them.
For me, the most time-consuming aspect of tax returns is gathering the records for deductions. Mint can help, as long as you do some work throughout the year.
• Medical and work expenses. Tag credit card and check payments as "medical" or "work" throughout the year. Add those you pay by cash. Then when tax time comes, you have the records right there. If you get money back from your insurer or employer, tag those payments as well. You can calculate the net spending when you prepare your returns. If you're not sure whether a particular item is deductible, tag it anyway. You can figure it out come tax time. The idea initially is to help you quickly find those records to review.
• State and local taxes. Tag these "taxes," whether they are quarterly estimated payments or taxes you pay or get back in refunds with this year's return.
• Interest payments on mortgage. You can search Mint for payments to your mortgage company. Or if there are multiple companies, tag payments as "mortgage" throughout the year.
• Charitable contributions. Tag credit card and check payments as "charity" throughout the year. Add those you pay by cash. Keep in mind that the IRS requires receipts from the nonprofit organization in some circumstances. Keep those records in a shoebox, or use one of the options I'll describe below. You'll need another app -- described below -- to track donations of goods.
• Other. You may be eligible for other deductions. Tag them "miscellaneous" for now.
Mint offers free apps for the iPhone, iPad and Android devices so you can tag these items on the go. Even if you don't itemize your deductions, doing all this might help you determine next year whether you'll get more by itemizing than by claiming the standard deduction.
One thing Mint isn't good with is keeping track of cash payments. You need to enter those manually. Expensify can supplement Mint if you often pay with cash. Like Mint, Expensify can grab data from your bank, credit card and PayPal accounts. It doesn't handle investments, though, so you'll still need Mint for that.
Expensify goes beyond Mint by letting you submit cash transactions simply by photographing a receipt with a camera phone, uploading a scanned image from a computer or emailing a receipt to a supplied address. Expensify will then automatically pull relevant data, such as the date, merchant and amount. If the receipt matches a credit card transaction in the system, the two will be linked. That way, you can have the itemized receipt from the drug store handy when you go through your deductions.
Expensify has tagging like Mint, so you can stay organized using the sample tags above.
The service is free for the first 10 receipts automatically processed. After that, it's 20 cents each. To avoid the fee, you can manually enter data. Free apps are available for Apple, Android, Windows Phone and BlackBerry devices.
If you have stacks of paper receipts, consider Shoeboxed. It doesn't pull data from your financial accounts, but it lets you mail in receipts for scanning. Like Expensify, the important data get pulled in the processing. But the service can get expensive -- starting at $99 a year for plans with mail-in options.
The iDonatedIt app is good for tracking your non-cash donations to goodwill. You add items one by one and say whether it's in "good," "better" or "best" condition. The app then estimates the fair-market value of that item and calculates a total.
You can also enter the address and other important details on the nonprofit organization receiving your donations. You may need that information for your tax returns. You can also attach an image of your donation receipt, though the Android version of the app won't take the picture for you.
The $2.99 app comes from the BMG accounting firm. Versions are available for the iPhone, iPad and Android devices. Don't expect much from the Android version, though. Many of the features beyond the basics didn't work properly or caused the app to crash on multiple Android phones and tablets.
There's also no Web-based version. Intuit's free ItsDeductible service works on the Web, but has no mobile app. Non-cash donations might be something you'll want to record on the go -- as you browse through the thrift shop to estimate the value of goods the app doesn't have information on.
If you're on the road a lot of work, consider MileBug to keep track of your mileage and related expenses. The $2.99 app is available for the iPhone, iPad, Android and Windows Phone devices. There's no version for regular computers, but these are things better handled from a mobile device as you travel.
To use it, simply add the odometer readings at the start and end of your trip. Or you can have your phone track that using GPS as you drive, but be careful about draining your phone's battery and data plan. Either way, MileBug calculates the costs, based on the IRS' published rates. There's room to add expenses for parking, tolls, lodging and meals.
Expensify's app lets you do some of it, but MileBug is worth getting if you travel a lot.
For some people, Mint will be enough to keep you organized. Expensify is better for tracking cash payments and paper receipts, iDonatedIt will help with non-cash donations and MileBug is ideal for those on the road for work a lot.
• Anick Jesdanun, the deputy technology editor for The Associated Press, has prepared his own tax returns since college -- a long, long time ago.