2018 is in full swing, which means that we have now officially reached everyone’s favorite time of the year. That’s right folks, welcome to tax season!

As of January 29, the IRS has begun accepting tax returns for 2017. Now every taxpaying American can begin to fret about how to get their taxes done on time, and how much it’s going to cost them just to figure everything out.

Shouldn’t this all be free?

Sure, you may have seen all sorts of commercials offering free tax prep from various companies, only to go to their website and find out you aren’t eligible. In fact, most of these advertised “free” services are intended primarily to upsell you on paid services, either by offering additional features or by outright telling you that you need to upgrade in order to file.

There is a better way, a truly free way, though you may not know of it.

An estimated 100 million people—more than 70 percent of taxpayers—are eligible for software than will prepare and file your taxes completely for free, without many of the restrictions placed on what you see in television commercials. Anyone with an adjusted gross income less than $66,000 is eligible for free software using IRS Free File, and while most of the advertised free software you see in commercials is limited to simple tax forms like the 1040EZ, software through the Free File program does not have the same limitations. This is despite coming from the same companies, and appearing on the surface to be exactly the same software. The only catch to the program is that to access the free software, you must use the very specific links listed by the IRS. For those who earn too much to be eligible for the program, the IRS offers Free File Fillable Forms, though these come with various limitations and mostly require you to do everything yourself.

While the Free File program is touted as being available for so many people, the reality is that very few people actually know about it!

According to the National Taxpayer Advocates 2016 Annual Report to Congress, fewer than 3 million people actually use the program each year.  And while some portion of people may be getting free returns through different means, it is likely that the vast majority of people are paying for tax preparation that they should be receiving for free. Though $30 for a federal filing may not seem like a high price, especially when the company simply takes it out of your return, it adds up to billions of dollars in unnecessary payments. Given that the IRS currently has no budget to advertise the program, those statistics seem unlikely to change by any significant margin.

So this year, I would like to issue a simple challenge to any reader of this blog, especially if you paid for tax preparation last year. Follow the link, and find out if you are paying for a service that you should be getting for free. Keep in mind that since the program refers to adjusted gross income, you may be eligible even if your official salary is significantly higher than $66,000. Also, make sure to choose a company that provides a free state return as well, for whichever state you are filing. There are plenty of companies that offer a free Maryland return as long as you choose wisely.

Finally, if you are able to take advantage of the program, spread the word! Since the government is not advertising the program, and tax companies have no desire or incentive to do so, it’s up to all of us to save money for our friends and family. And with some luck, maybe they will buy you lunch afterwards.