Can't pay your taxes? Here's what you can do

In a turbulent economy with constantly changing rules it's no surprise that the bill from Uncle Sam can sneak up on some of us. Whether you changed jobs, sold a house or became self-employed, changes in your life might mean you were caught unexpected this year without enough cash to pay the bill. If you find yourself in this situation, do not panic. Here are some tips to make sure you emerge (mostly) unscathed this April 15.

First, double-check your return. It may sound like wishful thinking, but the most common mistake made on tax returns is bad math. Before you start worrying, double-check your return to make sure that you have to the numbers right.

If you do discover you owe more than you can afford, don't stick your head in the sand. After reviewing your return and assembling all of your documents, carefully consider all of your options for paying off the full balance.

Can you cash out unpaid time off? Do you have a little emergency fund that you have stashed away? These might be able to cover it, and paying in full is really your best option. One option that I want to warn you against is the credit card option. Most of the time, the interest on your credit card will exceed the interest you pay the IRS.

Now, even if you are unable to find all of the cash you need, the first thing you should do is file your return by April 15 and pay as much as you can in order to avoid penalties and interest. Then you should contact the IRS. The IRS has a number of tools at their disposal, so you should be able to find one that is right for you. If you only need a little bit of time -- to get to the next paycheck or next month -- the IRS might be able to provide a short-term extension to pay the balance.

In other instances, if your tax balance is larger, they may suggest that you use an installment agreement that will allow you to pay over time. Finally, while it is rare, the IRS can offer you a compromise. In most circumstances, you will need to prove hardship in order to obtain a compromise, but if you are in a bind this could be an option.

So if you can't pay, first take a deep breath. You will get through this. Just consider your options and make sure you file your return come tax time!

With additional reporting by Colin Buerger

  • Mellody Hobson

    View all articles by Mellody Hobson on CBS MoneyWatch»
    Mellody Hobson is President of Ariel Investments, a Chicago-based money management firm that serves individual investors and retirement plans through its no-load mutual funds and separate accounts. Additionally, she is a regular financial contributor and analyst for CBS News and