As an independent contractor, navigating my taxes is a nightmare without some assistance. Most of us can’t afford a personal accountant or financial advisor. But we can afford some at-home software.
There are an overwhelming number of tax software options on the market. What should you look for? Where do you even start?
Take a deep breath: these things are designed to make tax season less stressful, not add to your panic. So here’s what you need to know about some of the top-rated tax systems if you want to start maximizing tax returns and find the best way to do taxes:
Easily the most popular and highly-rated systems for doing taxes, TurboTax is incredibly user-friendly. I used it to file my taxes last year, and it spotted hidden tax deductions that I would have never caught on my own.
It does the math as you go along, so you can watch how much money you’re going to get back (or owe). It walks you through a seemingly never-ending series of questions, but every question is important if you want to maximize tax refunds and find more tax deductions. You can save that info and use it for the next time you file taxes, so you won’t have to start from scratch again next year; saving you even more time.
Most users say that they didn’t notice if it missed any deductions unless they took it to a professional tax consultant and had them re-review TurboTax’s findings. Because both people and software can make errors, there are usually one or two minor missed deductions, but never anything major.
State taxes are a feature that costs extra, which is annoying. But TurboTax does an exceptional job at going through those state taxes to pick out easy tax deductions that you might’ve otherwise missed.
TurboTax has a Federal Free Edition that’s (you guessed it) available online for free. The other online products range from $34.99 to $79.99, and they have tons of other available products for you to choose from based on your filing needs.
TurboTax is the most expensive option, but it’s the most frequently purchased for good reason.
The IRS themselves have a free online method for you to file your federal taxes. While yes; it’s free, you can’t expect it to have all the bells and whistles of the purchased packages that you’d have access to with any of the for-profit at-home tax systems.
Free File is a great way to file simple taxes if you’re single and you’re not too worried about picking out hard-to-find deductions. You may not receive quite as much on your tax return as you would with the purchased software options, but then again; you won’t be spending money on a tax filing system, right?
The IRS’ Free File system only has two options: one downloadable software program for if you make more than $62,000 a year, and the other is if you make less than $62,000 a year. So while it seems more bare-bones than any of the other tax filing companies, (because it is) the important thing is: it gets the job done.
Obviously there aren’t a lot of help options. Just a few read-through pdfs to help explain what you need and how to get started on filing your federal tax forms. But again, if you aren’t too worried about your taxes and you know that your deductions won’t be very complex, then Free File might be your best option. It does the job, and most importantly, it doesn’t cost anything.
If you just want a basic (but better) way to file your taxes, just stick with the IRS’ Free File program.
H&R Block at Home
The second most popular system and positively-reviewed as one of the easiest way to file taxes, H&R Block at Home is another overall great system. They also offer free online filing.
H&R Block at Home also features tax audit protection and support. The system itself isn’t quite as user-friendly as TurboTax, but it offers more live support options. You can even receive professional audit defense and professional tax consultation services, which many online systems neglect to provide.
You can get in touch with their professionals via phone, email, live chat, and has plenty of tutorials and FAQ help for the financially confused, such as myself. One of H&R Block at Home’s coolest features is their mobile version. You know you’re living in the future when you automatically file your taxes from your smartphone!
There’s also a federal return bonus of up to 10% which can be used towards buying e-gift cards from stores like Target, Amazon, restaurants, retail stores, and more. When you use the Federal Free or Basic editions of the program, you can get an additional 5% on each of those gift cards, while using anything above the Deluxe version will earn you an extra 10%.
Good news: H&R Block has discounted everything for the 2016 tax season. (Basic was $24.99, but it’s now $21.24. Deluxe was $34.99, but it’s now $29.74, etc.) Click here to get those discounts.
H&R Block at Home boasts almost all of the same features as TurboTax, but has a slightly gentler price tag.
One of the cheapest (but still consistently praised) tax filing systems, Tax Act also offers the free federal version, but it’s Basic package starts at only $9.99. It’s most popular option, Tax Act Plus, is priced at $14.99, and the Premium at $21.99.
So if cost is a concern for you when you’re trying to find the best tax refund company, this is a good option. It has several handy features, though not as many as some of the more expensive filing systems. One of those is a helpful Donation Assistant to deduct your charitable contributions; something that often gets overlooked when you file yourself.
Tax Act doesn’t offer as much customer support as H&R Block at Home, but you can always email them for assistance. But their direct deposit way of getting your tax refund to you is cool enough to make up for their lack of customer support. You can have your refund directly put into your hands through their partnership with American Express Serve® Card. TaxAct also features a mobile version.
They feature some gimmicks like entering you in sweepstakes and such when you file your taxes through them, but that’s to be expected when they’re trying to compete with larger companies.
Tax Act offers plenty of features that you’ll probably never use, but the price is good and the system is thorough.
The main drawbacks of eSmartTax are their lack of larger business filing options and their nonexistent downloadable software version. But otherwise, they offer many of the same features as other tax filing systems.
They allow up to five years of saving your past tax returns, so you can keep track of your taxes through the years. You can also import your return from last year, even if you filed it through a competitor.
eSmartTax offers a 100% guarantee for accuracy on your tax deductions, the biggest return possible, and your overall satisfaction. And despite its lack of options for bigger businesses, eSmartTax makes up for it with the best range of options for mid-level businesses out of all the other tax systems competitors.
Unlike most of the other tax filing systems, eSmartTax’s state forms are included in the package purchase. Their Free version is best for simple returns, the Basic is good for families at $14.95, Deluxe is intended for investors at $19.95, and the Premium is the ideal option for small- to mid-level business owners at $34.95.
Business-owners should pass on eSmartTax, but they offer well-priced options for people looking to reorganize their prior tax returns.
Tax Slayer may have some of the best prices, but they do cut corners on some of the features that you might be looking for. For example, they don’t have any kind of audit defense protection, no customer support, and no options for larger businesses.
Unlike most of the other tax filing systems, Tax Slayer doesn’t give you the ability to import your W-2, 1099, or other documentation that would otherwise expedite the process. Sure; none of those things are critically necessary to filing your taxes and finding hidden deductions that you would have missed by yourself, but it doesn’t hold up to the competitors, despite the good price.
They do offer a 100% guarantee, as well as package options for discounted Military tax returns, Amended Returns, and Prior Year Returns in their online product lineup. They also have a downloadable Payroll package, but again; it’s only intended for small businesses. Other than the Free online edition, the Basic federal version starts at $12.99, with the Amended Return capping out the online products at $41.99.
Tax Slayer offers one of the biggest discounts for Military tax returns, but the low prices may not be worth the lack of features for many users.
Choosing the Best Tax Refund Company
Ultimately, it comes down to your own individual tax needs. If you’re filing for yourself, you’re not a freelancer, and you know that this year’s taxes will be a relatively simple affair, then you probably don’t need an expensive package to help you find the maximum deductions.
If you’re filing for a family with multiple sources of income, plenty of potential deductions, or you think you’ll need some tax audit protection for your small business, then you should consider upping your tax filing standards. Assess your own financial and tax-related needs; there’s an option that’s ideal for you.