Last week marked the end of the holiday season. So which season is it now?

That's right . . . tax season.

The nation's official Grinch, the Internal Revenue Service, kicked off this year's filing season Thursday, announcing that more than 38 million tax packages and 25 million electronic-filing brochures are in the mail. For those of you who care, this cost the agency $8.2 million for printing and nearly $12.2 million for postage, for an average cost of 32 cents per item mailed.

The IRS estimates that about 132 million individual returns will be filed this year. Some 60 percent of taxpayers will be able to file free electronically, and the IRS hopes they will. Last year, a record 47 million tax returns were filed through IRS e-file, the agency said.

The IRS notes that it has taken some steps to ease the pain of filing, and of course the effects of the big 2001 tax cut bill continue to be felt. Some of the changes most likely to affect taxpayers include the following:

* Only taxpayers with taxable interest or ordinary dividends of more than $1,500 will have to file extra schedules. That's because the threshold for filing Schedule B of Form 1040 and Schedule 1 of Form 1040A has been raised to $1,500. The IRS estimates that 15 million fewer taxpayers will need to file these schedules. The previous threshold, in place since 1974, was $400.

* The new 10 percent tax rate is reflected in the 2002 tax table and rate schedules. This new rate applies to the first $6,000 of taxable income ($10,000 for a head of household; $12,000 for married filing jointly or qualifying widow/er).

* Tax rates above 15 percent have been reduced another half a percentage point, as specified by the 2001 bill. Thus, these rates are 27, 30, 35 and 38.6 percent for 2002.

* The value of the adoption credit, which can be taken for qualified adoption expenses, has doubled to $10,000 for 2002. The income limit was also increased. Now a taxpayer with income up to $150,000 can take the full credit. Qualified adoption expenses include reasonable and necessary adoption fees, court costs, attorney fees, travel expenses and other expenses directly related to the adoption of an eligible child.

* A deduction of up to $2,000 is available for certain hybrid gas-and-electric motor-powered vehicles that have been certified by the IRS as meeting the provisions of the clean-fuel vehicle deduction section of the tax code. Before 2002, taxpayers who purchased such hybrid-motor vehicles were uncertain about the amount of the deduction and whether they qualified. Those who purchased hybrid cars in past years may be eligible to claim the deduction for a prior year by filing an amended return.

* Taxpayers may deduct 36.5 cents a mile for all business miles driven during 2002. Taxpayers may deduct travel related to qualified medical and moving expenses at a rate of 13 cents a mile.

* Interest paid in 2002 on qualified student loans may be deducted regardless of the age of the loan. Before 2002, only payments made in the first 60 months qualified. The modified adjusted gross income limit for this deduction has also increased.

* For 2002, taxpayers may contribute up to $3,000 ($3,500 if age 50 or older at the end of 2002) to either traditional or Roth IRAs. This is up from $2,000, which was the limit for many years. Contributions for 2002 can be made until the due date for filing your return, not including extensions. For most taxpayers, that's April 15.

Have a happy filing season.

It won't be any help with your 2002 taxes, but a new retirement savings break that went into effect last week can help for 2003. It's called the "deemed IRA" or the "sidecar IRA," and it allows workers with a 401(k) and similar employer-sponsored plans to make additional contributions to a separate account inside the plan, to be deemed an IRA.

The deemed IRAs will make things simpler for workers who want to have an IRA as well as a 401(k), and backers hope they will encourage more saving. The accounts don't allow savers to double up -- those already contributing to an IRA don't get to make extra contributions -- but backers hope the convenience of one-stop shopping will be attractive.

The hitch is that these plans require the employer to do a bunch of paperwork, and it's not clear how many will feel it's worth the trouble.

The IRS released a "revenue procedure" last week to provide guidance for employers willing to try it. Included is a model amendment that an employer can use to authorize deemed IRAs within its plan. The tone of the guidance is encouraging, indicating that the agency wants employers to make a good-faith effort to get it right but isn't going to play gotcha with them over the new plans.

For enthusiastic savers, deemed IRAs have appeal. They can be used for Roth IRAs, though they are subject to the same income ceilings as regular Roths. Or, if used for a traditional IRA, contributions are deductible the same way they would have been had the contribution been made in the normal way.

Contribution limits are the same as for regular IRAs -- $3,000 for 2003 ($3,500 for those over age 50) -- but since they are technically IRAs and not employer plans, the annual limits to employer plans don't apply. Thus, if you're already contributing to your 401(k) as much as you are allowed to before taxes -- $12,000 for 2003 ($14,000 if over 50) -- you can put another $3,000 or $3,500 aside without going out and setting up an IRA on your own.