Making taxes work for you

By Niyati Patel

Like many young adults, Joshua Brumbach did not have a grasp on financial planning until he got to college. 

Joshua Brumbach works at the VITA office, which is located in the Charles Schwab Financial Planning Center. Clients can find the building in the University of Georgia’s south campus. Photo by Niyati Patel

It was in college that Brumbach grew to understand the value of financial literacy after watching how the COVID-19 pandemic affected his parents’ small businesses. Now, having a budget and filing taxes are higher on his priority list.

“It kind of sparked something in me that thought, like, why does this happen,” Brumbach said. “How do people fail to plan for things like this, and how can people kind of come back from an event like this?”

Handling income taxes can be a tricky and expensive process. University of Georgia’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program provides free tax preparation to its students and people across Georgia with a goal of enhancing financial literacy. 

Brumbach, a student in the financial planning master’s program, works as a financial planning graduate assistant for VITA. His role includes research, behind-the-scenes operations and preparing Internal Revenue Service grant approvals and proposals. 

“Being able to actually sit in front of real life people and help them with their money while in school — it’s been a really great opportunity,” he said. 

How VITA works

Tax season, which generally occurs between Jan. 1 and April 15, is the period of time when taxpayers report to the IRS their financial statements and tax returns from the previous year, according to the IRS. It is during this time that VITA runs their tax preparation sessions throughout the country. 

That is where Brumbach comes in. 

The VITA team at UGA is made up of students and faculty of the College of Family and Consumer Sciences. Their mission, Brumbach said, is to bolster the financial health of the Athens community and across Georgia by making a complicated process easier. 

Preparers and managers like Brumbach typically see between six and 12 clients per day, Monday through Friday. Although specifically geared to low to moderate income families, the program is open to anyone and has a wide client range, from students to faculty to residents of Athens-Clarke County.

“It provides a free service for a lot of people who otherwise would have to pay quite a lot out of the refund to get their taxes done,” he said. 

The process consists of two steps. Clients first make an appointment online or walk-in to the VITA office with their ID, social security card, banking information and tax forms. They are then matched with a preparer who inputs the client’s information into the TaxSlayer Pro software. 

The end result is Form 1040, or the individual income tax form that is reviewed by the managers and submitted to the IRS. 

If the taxes are done incorrectly, filers could be arrested or audited by the IRS, which is why VITA site coordinator Jennifer Short said quality reviews are instrumental. 

“And so, we are really, really passionate about getting taxes done but also getting them done correctly,” Short said. 

Through the work of 66 student preparers and 18 student managers, there were 1,619 tax returns prepared in 2023, making it VITA’s most efficient year according to their 2023 Impact Report. 

VITA by the numbers

VITA’s impact spreads beyond Athens, reaching 94 counties in Georgia, many of which are rural, low-wealth areas such as Burke County and Banks County. 

The Cooperative Extension process pairs community members with an extension agent who meets with them virtually. These agents prepare tax returns “correctly and professionally” and free of charge, typically saving clients around $300 in tax-related fees, according to the 2023 Impact Report. 

VITA program manager Wil Golden worked as an extension agent at Auburn University before moving to UGA. He now manages the day-to-day operations, passing his 15 years of program insight on to students like Brumbach and Short. 

“Don’t be scared,” Golden said. “A good tax preparer will walk you through everything, and you’ll be comfortable with it, I think.”

An aspect of tax returns that often goes unclaimed is Earned Income Tax Credit, or a tax break for qualifying filers that come from low-income backgrounds. Five to $10 million dollars of EITC goes unclaimed every year in Athens-Clarke County alone, Golden said. 

Through their services, however, the service was able to increase their numbers in 2023: 154 returns claiming EITC, $212,028 EITC claimed, $647,600 fees saved and an $3,178,752 economic impact. 

“I want people to feel a little bit less of that financial stress,” Short said. “I want them to feel like they really did something and feel productive.”

The benefits of VITA

The benefit of this type of program, Golden said, is the mutualistic relationship between clients and preparers. At the end of the process, both parties can be more financially literate. 

 From a student’s perspective, Brumbach said he thinks the service gives him a glimpse of what income taxes look like in real life. 

“There is no charge, so you know, help a student, and help us prepare tax returns for you and give the student the experiences working one on one with the client on real tax issues,” Golden said. 

Tax literacy also goes beyond the personal benefits of the preparer and client, reaching even a local, state and national scale. 

“So I mean, look at it as not being fearful, but look at it as ‘I’m doing my duty,’ if you will,” Golden said. “Because those tax dollars are going to, you know, services and roads, bridges and you know, don’t be fearful.” 

UGA VITA is a small portion of a bigger picture surrounding tax returns, and students like Brumbach are a part of spreading financial literacy and awareness to young adults on a college campus.

“So if it’s something that really stresses you out, and you don’t really know how to handle your taxes, then I just want as many people as possible to know that we’re a resource on campus for them,” Brumbach said. 

Niyati Patel is a journalism student at the University of Georgia.

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