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Last week, my husband and I went to our tax preparer's office hoping we'd be toasting our massive refund over a fancy dinner that night. Instead, five hours later, we trudged out of there feeling totally defeated after finding out we owe a bunch of money.
Last year was a complicated one for us, tax wise. We bought a house and put in significant capital improvements (all good for tax purposes). On the other hand, a job change for me resulted in less withholding (bad for tax purposes).
I discovered some great tools for personal finance in 2012, and if I'd made better use of them consistently throughout the calendar year, we would have had fewer surprises preparing our taxes. Here are three apps I wish I’d have started using sooner.
This tool automatically pulls your financial information into one place, so you can easily get an overview of your finances. (Worry: Mint uses the same security that banks use.) Use it to set budgets and create a plan to reach financial goals, and track your progress online. You can also tag and categorize purchases (for instance "tax related" or "gifts and donations") as you go along, so you can easily reference that data ahead of the April deadline.
It's easy to stuff crumpled receipts into rubber-banded, overflowing envelopes all year and consider yourself organized—but come tax time, one glance at those same envelopes will you make you want to cry. Take the task to a digital platform with Expensify. The tool allows you to take a picture of each receipt, categorize it, and then review it later. The super easy app's free to boot, and available for any smartphone equipped with a camera. I’d say it lives up to its tagline: creating “expense reports that don’t suck.”
As someone who derives part of her income as a freelance writer, I really depend on FreshBooks, a cloud accounting tool that's impressively easy and intuitive. Use it to invoice folks, track your time, and log expenses. And if you invoice just a few clients, it's free. Here's the thing, though: You've got to follow through and input payments manually as your checks come in so you know where you stand.
Alesandra Dubin is a Los Angeles-based writer and the founder of home and travel blog Homebody in Motion. Follow her on Twitter: @alicedubin.