WASHINGTON – The frantic ritual of racing to the post office to get tax returns postmarked just in time to satisfy the Internal Revenue Service is giving way to the online age.
Most people file their tax returns electronically now because it's convenient, despite lingering concerns about the security of their most sensitive financial information, according to a new AP-AOL Money & Finance poll.
And they have more time than usual this year to file.
The tax filing deadline is Tuesday, April 17, because April 15 falls on a Sunday this year and April 16 is Emancipation Day, a legal holiday in Washington, D.C. Only 19 percent of the public knew early this month about the two-day grace period, the poll found.
Half of those surveyed said they use a professional tax preparer to file their returns, a quarter use a software program, 15 percent do the returns the old-fashioned way with pen and paper, and 8 percent ask a friend or family member for help, according to the survey conducted by Ipsos, an international polling firm.
And almost half grouse that their taxes are unfair.
"When I look at my paycheck and see how much goes out, it makes me sick," said Kimberly Hahn, a nurse from Bloomington, Ind. "It's like you're paying to charity without deciding where it's going."
Like most people, Hahn wasn't aware of the extra two days past April 15 to file, but she said her husband would be filing their return electronically on time. "He doesn't want to give it to the government until he has to," she said.
Some 54 percent of tax filers say their returns are sent electronically, and that number is rapidly growing. Most say e-filing is "very convenient," but people are less convinced it's "very safe," the poll found.
"As of right now, I still trust doing it the old-fashioned way," said Joe Nichols, a nuclear medicine technician from Memphis. "I hear horror stories about the Internet, people getting your identification numbers."
About 45 percent of returns were filed electronically through the first week of April 2001, according to the IRS. This year, that number was close to 70 percent at the same point. In all, the IRS expects more than half of returns to be filed electronically.
More than six in 10 who were polled April 2-4 said they had already filed their taxes. The average time spent preparing their returns was just over eight hours. Only about one in 10 admitted to being a procrastinator who would barely make the deadline.
Those expecting refunds were much more likely to have filed their returns early.
Some people were pushing the deadline — and admitting to feeling stressed.
"I haven't done my taxes yet for the first year in a long time," said Dianne Smith of Broken Bow, Okla. "I can't handle it. I've always gotten mine done in February or March, but I started a new teaching job ... and it's taken the life out of me. I feel very guilty."
Two-thirds said they expect to get money back.
"We generally apply it to some kind of debt," said Sharon Caughron, a schoolteacher from Kenly, N.C., who has already filed electronically.
The most popular use of tax refunds is to pay off bills or pay down debt, followed by saving the money or investing it.
More than half of those polled, 53 percent, said they think their taxes are fair, according to the poll of 1,000 adults. It had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Middle-income earners were more likely to feel the taxes they pay are fair than those with high incomes and those with low incomes, who were about evenly split on that question.
Ken Weeks, an architectural draftsman from Dayton, Ohio, was generally satisfied.
"I'm one of the people who doesn't mind paying taxes," said Weeks. "I read a lot about what the world is really like. Things aren't great for everybody here, but people in this country are generally doing pretty well."