A refund often marks the largest surge of money a low-income taxpayer will receive during the year. Missing a deduction or putting trust in an untrained or uncertified tax preparer can have serious repercussions.
“It is an important community service because there are predatory tax preparation services that charge high rates to prepare simple tax returns, resulting in a large portion of the taxpayers refund being used to pay for tax preparation,” said Kerry Inger, assistant professor in the School of Accountancy, who had 38 students in her Tax 1 class participate.
“It gives them a chance to use their knowledge and interact with clients,” she said. “That’s a valuable learning experience for them.”
Harbert College students are no stranger to the program. Auburn students have participated in SaveFirst each spring semester since 2008. In 2013, SaveFirst helped working families secure $11.7 million in tax refunds while saving them $1.9 million in professional fees.
Emily Espy, a junior in accounting from Albany, Ga., said her work opened clients’ eyes.
“A lot of people don’t realize all of the different types of deductions you can take,” said Espy, who hopes to enroll in the college’s Master in Accountancy program after completing her undergraduate work and eventually become a certified public accountant. “You ask the questions: ‘Did you contribute to a charity? Do you have any medical expenses we can look at?’ They were like, ‘Oh, I didn’t know that.’ I hope that we opened a window where they could see that they could save a bit more money than they thought they could.
“Going into tax accounting, it was great to see that our work pays off and that we are really helping people. Doing the project, the people would get to see the refund amount they were going to receive – and to see the smile on their faces, and even though I wasn’t giving them the money it was great to be part of the process.”
Trevor Nelson, a junior in accounting from Birmingham who also plans to enroll in the Master in Accountancy program and pursue a career in public accounting, echoed Espy’s sentiment.
“Knowing that I can make a difference in someone else’s life gives me a great since of joy,” he said. “There is also so much to gain when serving others. Volunteering with SaveFirst increased my understanding of personal income taxes. It helped improve my problem solving skills as well as gave me a greater understanding about the social issues around Auburn University. Poverty is not desired by anyone, but it is an issue that we need to address. If I can help ease the burden of low income families, by volunteering my time to prepare tax returns, I most definitely will.”
The program also offered students life lessons.
“The biggest thing I took away from the SaveFirst program was a better look into how much money people are really making per year in low-income families,” said Clark Tinsley II, a senior in finance from Birmingham. “There were a few times I reviewed single mothers’ and retirees’ W2s and other financial documents … I really wondered how they were surviving.”
Before the student volunteers combined for more than 500 hours at SaveFirst sites in Opelika, Auburn and Montgomery, they were required to complete eight hours of IRS certification training. The students also received extra credit for their work.
“The skills the students learn in the training and through the process of preparing income tax returns are directly related to the material covered in Income Tax 1,” Inger said. “For example, SaveFirst students are already familiar with filing statuses and the dependency exemption rules when we cover the material in class because they have assisted taxpayers in making filing status and dependency determinations.”
While the students helped others, they gained valuable knowledge.
“I really got to learn the format of the 1040, what all of the different lines mean,” added Espy, whose father, Miles Espy, received his accountancy undergraduate and graduate degrees at Auburn and is a CPA in Albany. “It was interesting to actually learn what all the lines mean, and then to apply it with different scenarios. The people that came in had different types of finances. It was interesting to meet people and use different elements of the 1040.”
Jessica Richards, a junior in finance from Eufaula, Ala., noted that their service came with appreciation.
“We had one taxpayer that was so thankful that we took time out of our day to provide this service to him for free that he bought every volunteer in the room a drink out of the vending machine in the hall,” she said.