Good news. It’s tax season…again. Seems like it happens practically every year, doesn’t it? Whether you’re preparing to owe the government a few bucks, you’re anticipating a nice return, or you’re ultimately expecting a neutral outcome, the fact of the matter is that taxes are rarely fun. They can be complicated and confusing and a little stressful. From gathering your documents and calculating your expenses to navigating the tangled web of rules, regulations, liabilities, credits, deductions, and penalties, there’s a lot to figure out.
That’s where a good tax preparation software program can come into play. The internet is home to countless tax preparation services, whose ultimate purpose is to guide you through the process of filing your taxes while helping you maximize your outcomes and avoid potentially costly mistakes. But there’s a lot riding on your taxes. So how can you be sure you’re using a reputable service with a strong track record for getting good outcomes on behalf of its users?
Well, we’ve done some of the legwork for you. We’ve scoured the web in search of tax preparation services that can help ease the process of filing for you this year. And full disclosure, this author has employed one or two of the tax preparation services in the past and the results have generally been positive (and considerably more affordable than consultation with a live human tax advisor).
But first, let’s get a little background on tax prep software.
What is Tax Preparation Software?
Tax preparation software refers to a wide range of online services designed to help you e-file your federal and state taxes, usually in exchange for a modest fee. Most services offer a sliding fee scale based on the suite of services required by each user. But in the simplest terms, online tax preparation makes what was once an extremely obfuscating task a great deal easier for the average filer.
Of course, In the old days, doing your taxes by yourself involved a lot of hand-written forms, calculators, number crunching, and scrutinizing of the intricate rules applying to your unique situation. Whether that situation made you a 9-to-5 employee, a self-employed freelancer, a small business owner, an independent contractor with a tight crew of also independently contracted craftsmen, or a middle class family who just bought a house and started a college fund, you had to do it all by hand.
Today, doing your taxes ranks pretty high among things that have been made dramatically easier through the magic of the internet. U.S. News & World Report defines tax preparation software as “online tax software through your web browser, as an application downloaded to your computer, or as an app on your cell phone or tablet. You can enter financial information, including your W-2 or self-employment income, to e-file your federal tax return and state tax return.”
And for those with basic to moderate tax filing needs, this avenue may be the most cost-effective and hassle-free way to get ahead of tax day.
What kinds of tax preparation software services are available?
There are numerous tax prep services out there, and many of them are tailored to the unique needs of different filers, from freelancers and small business owners to hourly wage earners and salaried professionals. But before we take a closer look at the top services, we’ll note a few features that are common to most viable tax prep services.
First, you should be aware that there are two basic formats in which tax prep software services are presented:
Interview-based Software, in which the user will be prompted to provide answers to a series of questions which will ultimately be used to auto-fill the forms earmarked for submission to the IRS. This format relieves you of the responsibility of knowing exactly where the information must be applied within a given series of forms, though you will be prompted to review and confirm the information within the electronic form once you’ve completed all stages of the “interview” process.
Form-Based Software, in which you will actually enter the information into a series of electronic forms and tax documents. In most cases, the information here will correspond closely with the information provided to you in tax documents from your employers, clients, and various accounts for which tax reporting is required.
Most of the best tax preparation software programs will employ some combination of both formats. And in cases where the interview method is applied, you will usually also have the option of viewing and revising information using the form itself at any point.
What are the basic features of a tax preparation software service?
Beyond these two format features, most tax preparation software services should include a few basic functionalities, including:
E-filing: Most prep services will package and submit your completed taxes online, cutting down on the time required for submission and typically helping to expedite the process of either paying taxes owed or receiving your return. The vast majority of services will provide e-filing for your federal taxes as well as an option for e-filing your state returns provided this is permissible in your state.
Support: The “Help” function provided by your software service will usually point you to a variety of support options including a glossary of critical terms, answers to Frequently Asked Questions, and some form of live support which may be available by phone, live chat, or both. In many cases, the nature and extent of the live support available to you will depend on the suite of services for which you have paid. The importance of the Help feature provided by your tax prep service may depend on your own experience or knowledge, but is particularly important if you are navigating a new filing situation like the purchase of a new house, the start of a new business, or the addition of a dependent.
Optimal Filing Recommendations: Your tax preparation service should provide helpful recommendations for credits, deductions, and tax relief programs that might apply to your specific situation. Most prep services will bring opportunities to your attention that might ultimately reduce what you owe the IRS or maximize your return. An excellent tax prep service can make you aware of new laws in the tax code that might benefit you, obscure credits relevant to your situation, or deductions to which you’re entitled based on money already spent.
Alerts: Tax preparation services are designed to ensure that you achieve optimal outcomes within the boundaries of proper tax law. This means that a competent service will include alerts designed to identify mistakes, inconsistencies, missing information, redundancies, or other errors in your tax filing that might prevent the processing of a return, obscure money owed to the IRS, or trigger an audit. Some tax prep services will also provide audit protection for an additional charge.
Why should I use a tax preparation service?
Cost: The most immediate benefit of using a tax preparation service is the reduced price you’ll enjoy as compared to working directly with an actual tax preparation consultant. In either case, your cost will start with a base rate that can increase as you add additional services. However, it is noteworthy that the many online services offer flat-rate packages for filers with different levels of need whereas many tax professionals apply charges for each additional form. This means costs can add up a lot faster when you go the human route. Indeed, according to Investopedia, “the price of tax preparation software ranges from almost zero for basic filers to several hundred dollars for more in-depth service and complicated returns. On the other hand, the least expensive tax preparers will cost at least $100 and a CPA is likely to charge at least twice that amount. The upfront savings of using tax software over an accountant is one of the most attractive benefits of filing your own taxes.”
Convenience: The low cost of filing online is matched by its convenience. The reality is that filing your taxes can rarely be completed in a single sitting. Reviewing your materials, navigating the preponderance of forms, and verifying all of your information can take several sessions. This could mean multiple visits to a physical space where you must meet with your advisor and carefully review your forms and information. By contrast, your online tax service will include an auto-save function that allows you to log out and return to the spot where you left off at any time. This means you can space out the process of filing your taxes at your own convenience. Add to this the simplicity of pushing a “submit” button when you’re ready to file, as opposed to dropping a big envelope of documents into a mailbox, and online tax preparation is far more convenient than the traditional method.
Clarity: Tax preparation services are also designed to be highly navigable and readily understood. That’s why so many of these services employ the interview-based format. This approach will typically present questions to the user in a logically sequenced fashion with accessible explanations and easily used reference information. Tax preparation services often keep the more complex dimensions of tax filing behind the curtain. While you fill out information using a series of straightforward prompts, the software will do the hard work of placing this information into the appropriate forms and boxes.
Are there any drawbacks to using a tax preparation service?
The biggest drawback to using a tax preparation service is that you lose the human touch. While a good tax prep service will walk you through every step of the process and provide access to useful support information as you proceed, there is no replacement for the expertise, knowledge and personal interest of a qualified tax consultant.
This individual can usually provide you with the type of insight that a service may not have the wherewithal to offer. Tax professionals may be able to offer advice based on what they know about you and your personal situation. Investopedia says that “The value of this advice can easily exceed the additional cost of consulting with a professional. For example, a tax accountant can provide you advice on tax-friendly ways to save for your children’s education, or how to reduce taxes on your capital gains.”
An online tax preparation software can’t simulate these benefits. So if your financial profile is complicated, or this year presents a number of new challenges to your filing status, you may wish to speak with an actual tax professional. But for many taxpayers with basic filing needs, this degree of personal attention may cost more than it’s worth, especially when you can receive some level of basic human support through many of the best online tax prep services at a comparatively nominal cost. If you expect a relatively wrinkle-free filing process, save the time, money and effort required for traditional filing and get it done online.
How do I choose the right tax preparation software for my needs?
As noted, every software-based tax prep service offers its own unique set of features and benefits. The type of service you use should be largely based upon the complexity of your filing outlook. According to the New York Times, those with more complicated filing situations—self-employed individuals, rental property owners, or those reporting major gains or losses on investments—should probably get assistance from a real CPA.
Those with more straightforward filing outlooks—such as those simply filing W-2 income and interest payments—would be well-served to utilize the more affordable online filing option. From there, your choice will be based on the compatibility of a given service with your specific filing needs. For instance, a service that offers free filing for student loan interest payments may be preferable if this is part of your filing profile. Or an individual who is seeking deductions for a number of work-from-home expenses might benefit by choosing a service with a suite designed specifically for professionals who telecommute.
The best way to find the right service is to make a checklist of your filing needs (income, expenses, interest payments, investments, etc.), then to seek a service that matches these features with affordability and excellence. The features and price will typically be outlined as you begin the process of filing with any given service. With respect to excellence, we advise beginning with a look at our list, ranked in no particular order, of The 5 Best Software-Based Tax Preparation Services…
(Note: The price points cited here are current as of March 2022. However, some of these prices may reflect early-bird discounts, and may be subject to change, particularly as the annual tax filing deadline approaches.)
This is an extremely popular service because of its easy-to-use interface and its relatively low cost. Powered by Intuit, Turbotax offers multiple price points depending on the nature of your filing status. In fact, for those who file simple returns before March 31st, the basic federal and state e-file packages are entirely free. Additional package levels include Deluxe ($119) for those who want tips on deductions and credits, Premier ($169) for those with investments and rental properties, and Self-Employed ($199) for those who have business income and expenses to file. An additional charge of $49 will apply for each state where e-filing is needed. TurboTax offers a user-friendly format and access to actual human tax specialists for those who pay to access a premium Full Service package called TurboTax Live. But even without these support features, TurboTax uses large, eye-catching icons, an extremely dynamic presentation of supplementary information, and a smartly designed sequence of filing steps to create a highly navigable experience.
Perhaps the most widely recognized name in tax preparation for private individuals, families, and small businesses, H&R Block’s online service is notable for its affordability. Like TurboTax, H&R Block offers free federal and state filing for those with simple returns. From there, prices rise at a more gradual rate, with Deluxe ($29.99), Premium ($49.99), and Self-Employed ($84.99) packages. In each case, the flat fee for adding every additional state is $36.99. And because H&R Block is most noteworthy for its legion of 10,000+ tax specialists nationwide, you could readily make the decision to jump from the online software service to an appointment with an actual tax prep constant. Combined with the low cost, this makes H&R Block a good choice for those who are just making the leap into online filing but who are uncertain that this will ultimately be the best channel for their needs. H&R Block wins points for its financial accessibility, the flexibility it provides filers, and a recognizable brand that evokes a feeling of trust for those who may be first-time online filers.
Whereas TurboTax and H&R Block offer free filing for simple submissions, Jackson Hewitt charges a base fee of $25. However, Jackson Hewitt’s site notes that this fee applies to both simple and complex filing options. Therefore, this could be a more affordable option for those who might otherwise plan on using the Deluxe option provided by the services noted directly above. Moreover, Jackson Hewitt notes no additional charges for state filing at any level, which certainly reduces the price for Deluxe filings relative to its competitors. That said, the experience of finding information and navigating the Jackson Hewitt site is not quite as user-friendly as the user experience on some other competitor sites. Indeed, accessing more than just the basic information about its pricing structure requires the creation of a user account, much to the chagrin of this now-enrolled reviewer. Moreover, the question-answer format used by Jackson Hewitt is presented without much of the helpful imagery and supplementary information offered by its competitors. One of the biggest benefits of using Jackson Hewitt is the ready availability this service can provide to actual live tax professionals. Particularly through its partnership with Walmart, Jackson Hewitt boasts over 5000 locations around the U.S., which means that you can easily make the transition from online filing to in-person appointment should the need arise.
Based on our findings, TaxSlayer wins the prize for the most affordable set of options across the board. Offering free basic federal and state filing to those with simple income and interest filing needs, TaxSlayer’s price points rise far more gradually than do the rates for most of their competitors. The Classic package ($17.95) includes all forms, deductions and credits, the Premium package ($37.95) comes with live chat support, and the Self-Employed package ($47.95) includes support for filing both business and personal income and expenses as well as 1099 and Schedule C forms. An additional charge of $36.95 will apply for each state added to any of these three packages. The last of these packages is considerably more affordable than the options provided by competitors, and this makes TaxSlayer among the very best services for freelancers, self-employed individuals, independent contractors, or sole proprietors. This service also offers discounts to military filers, who, regardless of their tax situation and form requirements, can file their federal return for free with no restrictions. It may not be the most convenient service, however, for those filing for Earned Income Tax Credits, or Child Tax Credits, as these are not included in the TaxSlayer suite of free services.
The TaxAct service positions itself as a more affordable alternative to TurboTax and notes that, for a service that is fairly similar in nature, you can access most of its packages at a cost that is anywhere from 21% to 32% lower than what you’ll pay their most immediate competitor. Like most of the other competitors listed here, TaxAct provides a free basic filing service that includes simple income and interest, unemployment income, and filing for dependents (the last of which contrasts this basic package from that offered by TaxSlayer just above). However, it is noteworthy that TaxAct is the only service of the five noted here which charges basic filers an additional fee for state filing ($39.95). In fact, while TaxAct’s Deluxe ($44.95), Premier ($69.95), and Self-Employed ($79.95) packages are all priced lower than those offered by TurboTax, filers at each of these levels will actually pay the highest rate per state at $54.95. This means that those who must file taxes for multiple states will likely benefit from a different service. That said, TaxAct offers a strong benefit to filers at every level, providing all users, even basic filers, with access to their “Xpert Assistance.” This means TaxAct could be a valuable service for those who anticipate requiring a basic level of human support while filing taxes of low or modest complexity.
As a bonus, we’ll also make note of this IRS-sponsored service. This entirely free service is a great option for taxpayers who make less than $58,000 per year. According to the IRS website, “The IRS’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) and Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE) programs offer free basic tax return preparation to qualified individuals.”
If you are planning to use an online tax preparation service but you feel you could benefit from a little assistance, believe it or not, the IRS is one of your best sources for information. But getting a hold of a helpful human being there may not always be easy. That’s why we offer tips for How to Speak to a Human at the IRS.