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How to estimate your tax refund

Before filing your taxes, get an estimate of how big a refund you will receive or how much you owe.

With the calendar soon turning to April, it's time for all procrastinators to start thinking about filing their taxes.

This year, you have until Monday, April 18 to submit your tax return, thanks to Emancipation Day, a Washington DC holiday that falls on Friday, April 15 this year. And residents of Maine and Massachusetts have until Tuesday, April 19 to get in their returns, thanks to Patriots Day on April 18.

First, find out what your tax bracket is

You can get a rough estimate by just finding out what tax bracket you fall into. There are a number of free calculators available online that can give you a quick ballpark figure of your federal tax return or liability based on that bracket.

The IRS lists federal tax rates for 2015, along with personal exemptions and standard deductions. If you know what the tax rate is for your taxable income, you will have a general idea of the amount of taxes you are required to pay.

Calculate your tax refund

Once you determine your tax bracket you can start accounting for deductions and exemptions. Or you can let an online calculator do that for you. Check out one of the many online tax calculators available online, from H&R Block, TurboTax and others.

Screenshot by Matt Elliott/CNET

To get the most accurate tax refund estimate, grab your W-2s and other tax documents. You should have these files organized and at the ready anyway, with tax day approaching.

Info you'll need for an accurate estimate

To get the most accurate estimate, you'll need to enter the following information. The more you enter, the more accurate your estimate will be.

  • Filing Status: whether you are filing individually, married filing jointly or otherwise.
  • Age or date of birth and if someone can claim you as a dependent.
  • Your income, likely starting with the figure in Box 1 of your W-2, your taxable wages. Look to Box 2 of your W-2 when asked for your total federal withholding.
  • Income earned from other sources, including interest and dividends from any investments
  • Business expenses from last year, plus deductions, credits and exemptions.
  • Extras like tuition payments, mortgage interest and real estate taxes, medical expenses, charitable donations and retirement contributions.

I played around with a handful of tax calculators and found those from H&R Block and TurboTax to be the most thorough and easy to use. And both seemed to be fairly accurate; their estimates were within $1,000 of one another and also close to what I paid last year in taxes.

If I had to point you to one tax calculator, I'd go with TurboTax for the sliders its calculator provides for easy data entry. TurboTax also offers its TaxCaster, a free tax refund calculator app for iOS and for Android.