Eight top tax return tips

CalculatorIf you want to file a paper self-assessment tax return you have until the end of October to send it in to HMRC.

If you're not sure where to start, these eight trouble-shooting tips should help. Hopefully you can learn from my mistakes!

1. Decide whether you need professional help
Many of us are confident enough to fill out our self-assessment forms, but if you have complicated tax affairs or you're worried you might make a mistake, you could get an accountant to do it for you. Charges can vary massively, so shop around and make sure you understand what you're getting for your money.

2. Find your P45/P60
If you were employed (rather than self-employed) for any part of the tax year in question, you'll need to use your P45 or P60 to fill in sections of the self-assessment form.

In our household, there seems to be some sort of black hole into which all P45/P60 forms go; I'm sure I've been sent them in the past, but I can never, ever find them when I need them.

If it turns out you don't have the relevant P45/P60, you'll have to contact your previous employer (usually the payroll department) and get the relevant information from them.

In my experience, this can be a very long-winded process, with replacement documentation trailing sluggishly through the post. So, it's not a good idea to start hunting for these documents the day before the deadline!

3. Make sure you have all the relevant information
Filling in my self-assessment form took about half an hour. Simple, right? Unfortunately, pulling together all the information I needed to include in that form took about three days. Virtually every piece of financial documentation you own somehow turns out to be relevant.

So, sort all your paperwork into manageable, date-ordered sections well in advance. Here's an HMRC guide to the basic records you should keep for self-assessment purposes.

4. Get hard copies
If your invoices, bank statements and so on are stored electronically, you may find it useful to print off hard copies as well.

These papers can be laid out in front of you, clipped together in handy groupings and arranged in date order. That way, you won't need to scour electronic folders and files every time you need to find a piece of information.

5. Clear some space in your diary
Try to find a time to complete your return when kids or partners aren't around. In my experience, any distractions can make the process seem even more unmanageable!

Many people complete their tax returns during weekends. However, I find it easier to devote a couple of weekdays to it, when I've got the house to myself.

Another good reason to tackle your return during working hours is that all the people you might need to get in touch with (like that old payroll department) are actually sitting at their desks and able to take your slightly panicky call.

6. Clear some space on your desk
Give yourself plenty of physical, as well as mental room in which to complete those forms.
With each category of paperwork in its own pile (even if it's on the living room carpet) you're less likely to lose documents and get everything mixed up.

7. Learn from your mistakes
If your tax return is nightmarish this year, try to pinpoint why that is and approach next year's return armed with that knowledge.

For example, I discovered that many of the receipts in my 'expenses' folder were very vague, and looking back, I had no idea what they were actually for. I'll be making a note on each one from now on!

8. Need more help?
If you get stuck, HMRC Self Assessment assistance is available online here.

If you'd rather hear a human voice, you can call the Self Assessment helpline on 0845 9000 444. It's open from 8am to 8pm Monday to Friday and 8am to 4pm on Saturdays.

For identification purposes, just make sure you have your Unique Taxpayer Reference (UTR) and your National Insurance number ready.