There are lots of confusing things about living abroad, but doing anything government related (e.g., doing taxes, getting a driver’s license) has to be the most daunting. Admittedly, since I moved to Germany directly after finishing my bachelor’s degree, I also had approximately zero experience doing taxes in general since my lovely mother always took care of this for me. Doing taxes is one of those things that I cannot grasp how people did without the Internet. It’s all so complicated and should be 100 percent included in school curriculums.
As an au pair in Germany, I didn’t have to pay taxes as I did not actually earn income as au pair because the compensation is considered pocket money (literally, sad days). As soon as I started working my student jobs, it was time to take on the task of filing my German tax return. Actually, filing my tax return is optional (don’t legally hold me to that – this is only in some cases) as the taxes are all automatically withdrawn from my paycheck, so there is no need to pay in additionally. Nevertheless, you can usually get a little something back, and I am in no place to turn down cash, so it is worth putting in the effort. In the past, I was able to continue avoiding tax returns as I my boyfriend at the time did it for me using ELSTER, the software provided by the German tax authority. I always got a bit of cash back (~€30), but it was so minimal it was almost not worth it.
Finally, at age 27, I was scrolling through Instagram and saw an ad for Studentensteuererklärung. I bookmarked the site and on productive Saturday, I filed my own tax return – and you know what – it was easy! Not only was it easy, I got way more money back than ever before. I was elated when I received the €510 statement in the mail, which is exactly why I am sharing this service with you. I am not getting paid to talk about this service, it is just that good and easy (although, I did ask them to provide me a referral and they did not respond 😐 ).
Studentensteuererklärung translates to student tax declaration. The service also has a form for graduates. However, if you are investing, a property owner, etc., you may need some more heavy duty tax software as this website has a clear focus. What is cool about Studentensteuererklärung is that it is all online, so no download required, and it is even partially available in English. You just sign in and get going.
In order to get started, you will need your Lohnsteuerbescheinigung für das Kalendarjahr 20XX. This form is the equivalent of what is a W-2 in the US. If you have an employer, this form is mailed to your home and contains a summary of all earnings and taxes paid on these earnings in the calendar year. It also denotes your tax class (Steuerklasse) and your identification number (Identifikationsnummer*). These forms are job based, so if you had two different employers during the year, you will have two different Lohnsteueerbescheinigungen. If you have not filed in the past, you can even file returns past years.
*If you do not have an identification number from the tax authority (Finanzamt), you should request one from your local tax authority.
The form asks for the following information
- Personal data (Name, address, tax year, tax office, religion)
- Study costs (University, program, fees, Internet and telephone fees, transportation fees)
- Computer & co. (claims for payments related to studies, including computer, calculators, eReaders, books, cell phone, printer)
- Trips (you can claim time and money spent on commuting, the form provides an estimate of travel distance based on where your home, work, and university are located)
- Bank account (so you can get your money back)
- Several other optional fields based on your activities in the previous year
After filling out all of the necessary information, you will receive an estimate for what you will get back from the tax authority. I found the estimate hard to believe based upon my last tax returns, but decided that if it was indeed true, the €30 fee for using Studentensteuererklärung was easily worth it.
There are a few final steps
- Proofread and approve your Steuererklärung.
- Collect all original receipts and documents proving your stated claims (e.g., school enrollment certificates) (don’t worry, they will mail them back).
- Print and sign their pre-written letters (Musterschreiben) to state why you are claiming these expenses.
- Download final documents and mail to the address of your tax authority, which they provide.
Finally, in approximately one month, you will receive your tax return in the mail, confirming that you filed taxes that year and stating the amount you will receive, which is deposited directly into your bank account.
- When moving to Germany, if you are not working for an employer, be sure that you understand your tax obligations. For example, freelancers are required to file differently and report income quarterly.
- There is a religious tax in Germany, which is how the churches, etc. are funded. If you do not want to pay this tax, be sure when you register your new address with the city to state no religion. Otherwise, the tax will automatically be deducted from your paycheck. Once you have stated a religion, it is kind of a mess to get out as you are then leaving the church.
- Keep all receipts (or just shop online as you will then always have them in your email).
How do you do your taxes? Do you do it alone, ask for help, use software, or pay for help?