It might only be January, but the I.R.S. is already gearing up for the tax-filing season — which means you should be, too.
Although the sweeping tax code changes ushered in at the end of 2017 with the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act aim to make filing taxes less of a headache for millions of American taxpayers, that still (unfortunately!) doesn’t mean the process is totally pain-free.
The good news is you don’t have to shell out big bucks and haul a big bag of receipts (or the digital equivalent) to an accountant’s office. There are a bevy of online tools that can put tax solutions at your fingertips — and best of all, these tools might even be free, depending on your eligibility.
We know it’s probably not the most exciting part of your weekly to-do list, but we don’t recommend procrastinating: Fees and penalties for failing to file or pay your taxes on time can be steep. A little proactive prep work now could save your wallet — not to mention your fingernails.
Read on to find out what’s great (and not so great) about the biggest players in the online tax-prep software marketplace, plus an an overview of some of our most commonly-asked tax questions — including how to score tax prep software discounts and even get your taxes done for free.
Tax Prep Software Reviews
Below are our takes on America’s most popular tax preparation software companies. Find out which one is right for you, depending on your budget and tax situation:
Intuit’s TurboTax is probably the best-known of the online tax-prep software providers out there. It also is the most expensive — at least, for users of its paid product tiers.
The TurboTax Free Edition is available to filers who don’t itemize and have W-2 earnings and/or Social Security income (of any amount — TurboTax eliminated an income cap a couple of years ago). It can accommodate taxpayers who qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit and the child tax credit.
The interface is user-friendly and conversational. It starts off by asking, “How are you feeling about doing your taxes?” and walks the user through a fact-finding process (which can be shortened considerably if you upload previous years’ tax info). New customers can upload PDFs from another provider for free, and you can upload your W-2 via a photo using a mobile device.
While the online platform is jargon-free and approachable, TurboTax also offers options for people who want a bit more hand-holding. Filers can (for a fee) upgrade to TurboTax Live, which gives you phone or online chat access to tax experts. This year, Intuit added email and chat support to TurboTax Live; the option of a video call (don’t worry, the tax expert just sees your computer screen, not you personally) is still available.
Another new feature is importing of investing gains and losses from a variety of sources. “There’s been a rise in the amounts of people investing,” says TurboTax tax expert Lisa Greene-Lewis. “Taxpayers had a pain point of inserting all their info for transactions, like stock and cryptocurrency sales,” she says, so now the software facilitates that.
One thing to be aware of is that Intuit was at the center of investigations surrounding how easy it is (or isn’t) for qualified taxpayers to file for free. Last year, ProPublica found that Intuit was burying the free TurboTax offering in online search results and steering taxpayers eligible for free filing to paid products instead.
According to the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, that investigation prompted to I.R.S. to revisit its agreement with the software companies and compel them to make their free offerings easier for taxpayers to find online. “This updated agreement is part of a larger effort by the I.R.S. to help taxpayers meet their tax obligations,” I.R.S. commissioner Chuck Rettig said in a press release. “The improved process will make Free File stronger and give taxpayers another reason to consider this valuable software option.”
Intuit also gives prominent real estate to its refund anticipation loans on the TurboTax website. If you click through, the Refund Advance page makes it sound like you’ll be stuck waiting for your refund for aaages if you don’t sign up for their loan: The webpage has an infographic with three columns. The first says, “Refund Advance,” and below it, “1 hour.” The middle column says “Direct Deposit,” with “21 days” beneath it, and the third column says Paper Check, followed by “28-42 days.”
But if you scroll way, way down and read the fine print, you’ll come across this: “The IRS issues more than 9 out of 10 refunds in less than 21 days.” In other words, you’ve got a better than 90% chance of seeing your refund via direct deposit inside of three weeks.
Who TurboTax is Best for
Contractors and small-business owners (because of integration with Quickbooks) and crypto investors
TurboTax Pricing tiers
What it costs: TurboTax price offered now: $40, list price $60 (+$40, list price $45, per state)
What you get:
Tax breaks/circumstances covered in Free plus: Real Estate taxes and mortgage interest deductions (Schedule A homeowner tax breaks)
What it costs: TurboTax price offered now: $70, list price $90 (+$40, list price $45, per state)
What you get:
Tax breaks/circumstances covered in Deluxe plus: Auto-importing of investing tax data, including stocks, bonds, real estate/rental income and cryptocurrency
What it costs: TurboTax price offered now: $90, list price $120 (+$40, list price $45, per state)
What you get:
Tax breaks/circumstances covered in Premier plus: Industry-specific deductions, along with guidance for deducting mileage, cell phone use, home office/supply expenses; covers 1099-MISC and Schedule C filers
Like its main competitor Intuit, H&R Block also touts its improved ability to import your previous year’s tax return from another provider, along with its free filing option, Under the “Free Online” column, it specifies, “Best if you have a W-2, have kids & education costs.”
For people with more complicated returns, there are three tiers of paid tax-filing software and an add-on option that lets you get help from a tax pro. And like TurboTax, H&R Block also offers a similar hybrid service for DIY filers, Tax Pro Review, which provides filers who want the assurance of an extra (and professional) set of eyes on their burning tax questions.
H&R Block is unique in that it specifically addresses the growing number of taxpayers who have a Health Savings Account in its product comparison. These “triple tax-exempt” accounts are funded with tax-deductible contributions and deducting these contributions can help you come tax time.
Unfortunately, the pitch for a refund anticipation loan is front and center on H&R Block’s website. “You could get up to $3,500 with a Refund Advance loan within minutes,” it says, touting its offering as having 0% interest.
“The devil is in the details with any kind of tax-time financial product,” said National Consumer Law Center attorney Michael Best. Best says that since the cost of these “no fee” loans are borne by preparers, they have an incentive to try and make up that money elsewhere, such as with hidden fees or by pitching you unnecessary services. “Consumers need to be wary and ask questions about the total cost of any product.”
In the case of H&R Block, you have to wade way into the fine print to find out that the suggested “federal refund transfer” will cost you an additional $39.95.
H&R Block Pricing Tiers
What it costs: H&R Block price offered now: $29.99, list price $49.99 (+$36.99 per state)
What you get:
Tax breaks/circumstances covered in Free plus: Real estate taxes and mortgage interest deductions; Health Savings Accounts
What it costs: H&R Block price offered now: $49.99, list price $69.99 (+$36.99 per state)
What You get:
Tax breaks/circumstances covered in Deluxe Online plus: Freelance/contractor income below $5,000; import expensing and cost basis calculation; stock sale and rental property income
What it costs: H&R Block price offered now: $79.99, list price $104.99 (+$36.99 per state)
What you get:
Tax breaks/circumstances covered in Premium plus: small business including home office and vehicle expenses; Uber driver info
Visitors to the TaxAct website are greeted with a user-friendly, multiple-choice dashboard that quickly funnels you towards one of four options: One free and three paid, ranging from $29.95 to $74.95. What’s more, you don’t have to be in the most expensive tier to access filing options for a variety of income types, including royalties, K-1 (partnership) income, investment and real estate income, along with forms for holders of foreign bank or other financial accounts.
TaxAct offers a fairly robust calculator you can get to by navigating to the drop-down menus along the top set of tabs. If you’re reasonably well-versed in the terminology (if you know the difference between your taxable income versus business income, for example), you can play around with the tool to get a ballpark idea of your estimated taxes without committing to anything.
We appreciate that TaxAct doesn’t bombard site visitors with pitches for a refund anticipation loan.
Who TaxAct is Best for
Entrepreneurs and people with a lot of different income streams
TaxAct Pricing Tiers
What it costs: $29.95 (+$39.95 per state)
What you get: Tax breaks/circumstances covered in Free plus: Itemized deductions for child/dependent care and adoption credit; mortgage interst and real estate tax deduction; student loan interest; Health Savings Accounts
What it costs: $39.95 (+$39.95 per state)
What you get: Tax breaks/circumstances covered in Deluxe+ plus: Stock, real estate and other investment gains/losses; rental property income; Royalty/Schedule K-1 income; investment income expenses; foreign financial accounts; screen-sharing support
What it cost: $74.95 (+$39.95 per state)
What you get:
Tax breaks/circumstances covered in Premier+ plus: business and farm income; depreciation calculations; freelance income
Jackson Hewitt is better known for its pop-up shops and kiosks that sprout up in strip malls and big-box stores during tax season, but the tax preparer also has online software for people who want to file their taxes from the comfort of their own home.
Since Jackson Hewitt’s bread and butter is in-person tax-prep help, you have to scroll a bit down the main webpage to get to the online tools for DIY filers. The pitch for a refund anticipation loan, on the other hand, is smack in the middle of the first screen you see — and it steers you towards pricier in-person services if you click on it.
Unlike the other major software providers, there are only two paid tiers, with the tax situations and deductions in other providers’ middle tier roughly divided between the two.
Who Jackson Hewitt is Best For
Lower-income workers without dependents, confident DIYer (assistance is extra)
Jackson Hewitt Pricing Tiers
What it costs: $29.99 (+$36.99 per state)
What you get:
Tax breaks/circumstances covered in Free plus: Child Tax Credit; other dependents; student loans; retirement income; $100k taxable income cap
What it costs: $49.99 (+$36.99 per state)
What you get: T
ax breaks/circumstances covered in Deluxe plus: taxable income of $100k+, rental property and investment income, real estate taxes, other itemizing
For freelancers or self-employed filers, TaxSlayer’s advantage is clear: It’s roughly $40 cheaper than the other alternatives out there. For $47 — the most expensive of the three online tax-prep cost tiers — you get live chat assistance from tax pros, quarterly estimated tax payment reminders. (The free offering, though, is a bit more no-frills than some other free offerings, best for people with super-simple returns.)
You might be looking at a few less bells and whistles, but TaxSlayer also doesn’t try to lure you in with the pitch of a (potentially pricey) refund anticipation loan, which we appreciate. For small-business owners or self-employed independent contractors with a modicum of confidence in their tax knowledge, TaxSlayer can offer a decent product at an affordable price.
Who TaxSlayer is Best for
Filers without dependents on a tight budget
Tax Slayer Pricing Tiers
What it costs: $17 (+$29 per state)
What you get:
Tax breaks/circumstances covered in Free plus: Credits including Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit; all income types (not just W-2); mortgage interst and real estate tax deduction; investment income
What it costs: $37 (+$29 per state)
What you get:
Tax breaks/circumstances covered in Classic plus: “Ask a Pro” tax support
What it costs: $47 (+$29 per state)
What you get:
Tax breaks/circumstances covered in Premium plus: Covers 1099 and Schedule C filers; guidance on expense deductions;
What You Need to Know About Tax Season
There’s plenty more you need to know about doing your taxes this year. Here are some tips — including how get your taxes done for free.
How Soon Can I Do My Taxes?
For those of you rare people who actually like doing your taxes (or just like the idea of getting a big refund), you’re in luck: The I.R.S. just announced that it will begin accepting and processing tax returns for the 2019 tax year on January 27, 2020.
While many of us will still procrastinate, there are a couple of good reasons why it pays to file your taxes sooner rather than put it off until the last minute. For one thing, if you’re anticipating a refund, you can get that money faster if you file sooner. If you know you’ll owe taxes this year, waiting might seem like a better idea, but keep in mind: Even if you don’t file your taxes by the deadline (that’s April 15 this year), any back taxes owed are still due on that date — and you can expect to pay penalties and fees if you don’t pay on time.
The other reason taxpayers are encouraged to file early is to avoid scams. The I.R.S. warns about scammers stealing Social Security numbers in order to make off with people’s refunds. If you’ve already claimed your refund, a thief is going to be out of luck.
What Day Are Taxes Due in 2020?
You need to have your 2019 tax paperwork filed by April 15, 2020. Last year, some lucky taxpayers got a couple extra days thanks to the timing of the weekend, a state holiday in Maine and Massachusetts and a Washington, D.C.-specific holiday that landed on April 16 last year.
This year, we’re back to the usual grind — although the growth of online and mobile tax-filing solutions make standing in line at the post office as the clock nears midnight a thing of the past.
What’s New This Year?
After the huge changes to the tax code made in 2017, the differences for filers this year might seem minuscule by comparison.
The good news is that the 2017 overhaul of the tax code doubled the standard deduction, and the elimination of unreimbursed business expenses for filers who earn W-2 income makes itemizing less appealing.
The new standard deduction is now $12,200 for single filers and $24,400 for married couples filing jointly. This means that many taxpayers, especially those who live in areas where housing costs are lower, no longer have to itemize to get the most advantageous tax treatment.
In addition, there are certain groups of filers who might want to take note of a couple of changes this year: In particular, this is the first year that alimony payments are not allowed as a deduction, and alimony payees are not required to list alimony as income. The threshold for deducting medical expenses has been raised from a temporary level of 7.5% back up to 10% of your income.
Can I Get My Taxes Done for Free?
If your income is below $69,000, you can use the I.R.S.’s Free File portal to access name-brand tax-prep software that can help you file your taxes for free. Free File is a public-private initiative between the I.R.S. and big tax-prep companies partnership between the agency and top tax-prep software companies that gives taxpayer access to name-brand (and free) tax software of their choice
The big names in tax prep software do offer free versions, but these aren’t the same thing — and as a ProPublica investigation found, it can be frustrating trying to find the link for Free File offerings on the companies’ websites (which is why we’re suggesting people with incomes under $69,000 access Free File directly via the I.R.S. portal here).
If you itemize your taxes, though, we’ll caution you that you’re not going to have much luck finding a free filing option. In their product-selection funnels, the software providers will push you towards paid products if you have mortgage interest, investment or self-employment income or real estate holdings.
Are There TurboTax Discount Codes or Other Ways to Save Money?
How much does TurboTax cost? The answer depends partly on where you make the purchase. Tax prep software pricing can be very confusing, not only because there are so many different products, but also because you’ll find different prices and deals available from different retailers.
For example, in mid-January, Amazon was offering a TurboTax Premier deal for $55, a discount of $15 off the $70 price currently offered on its website. TurboTax Premier was on sale for the same price ($55) at Target and Costco, among others, and Target said shoppers who are members of the Target Circle rewards program would save an extra 10% in-store on the purchase.
At the same time, while the TurboTax website offers the Premier software for $70, when we clicked through a special TurboTax discount code at RetailMeNot.com, the price dropped to $60.
Your bank or credit card company may also have deals and special discount codes available for TurboTax or other tax-prep software. The upshot: Our reviews take into account prices currently offered on company web sites. (Since there is no way to tell what consumers may be eligible for what discounts.) It may also be worth browsing for deals if you want to save a few bucks.
The Best Tax Prep Software
Who it’s best for: Contractors and small-business owners (because of integration with Quickbooks) and crypto investors
Who it’s best for: People with high-deductible health plans and health savings accounts.
Who it’s best for: Entrepreneurs and people with a lot of different income streams
Who it’s best for: Lower-income workers without dependents, confident DIYer (assistance is extra)
Who it’s best for: Filers without dependents on a tight budget
We’ve included affiliate links into this article. Click here to learn what those are.