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By Martha C. White and Julia Glum
January 22, 2021
Money

This tax filing season, much like every other aspect of the past year, will be anything but normal thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. With Tax Day 2021 looming, many are trying to find the easiest and most effective way to file their taxes from home.

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.

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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/TurboTax

Intuit’s TurboTax is probably the best-known of the online tax-prep software providers out there. It also is one of 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 benefits. It can accommodate taxpayers who qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit, who plan to claim the child tax credit and who received unemployment income.

The interface is user-friendly and conversational. It starts off by asking you to “Tell us about your year” 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. TurboTax Live also allows you to share your screen with an expert.

Another feature is the ability to import 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 has been at the center of investigations surrounding how easy it is (or isn’t) for qualified taxpayers to file for free. In 2019, 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 the IRS 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 IRS to help taxpayers meet their tax obligations,” IRS commissioner Chuck Rettig said in a news 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 ages 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, “3 hours.” 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)
  • crypto investors
  • military — TurboTax offers free federal and state tax filing to active duty and reserve military members, including the National Guard, with E1-E9 classifications. TurboTax Free, Deluxe, Premier and Self-Employed products are available. Filers go through the regular TurboTax portal; they will be prompted to enter their rank, and the discount for free filing will be applied.

TurboTax pricing tiers

Deluxe

What it costs: TurboTax price offered now: $40, list price $60 (+ $40, list price $50, per state)

What you get: Everything covered in Free, plus a search of more than 350 tax deductions and credits, including mortgage and property tax deductions for homeowners

Premier

What it costs: TurboTax price offered now: $70, list price $90 (+ $40, list price $50, 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

Self-employed

What it costs: TurboTax price offered now: $90, list price $120 (+ $40, list price $50, 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

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H&R Block

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 Online” filing option.

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 returns.

H&R Block 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. “File with an H&R Block tax pro and you could get a Refund Advance loan of up to $3,500, with 0% interest,” it says.

“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.

Who H&R Block Is Best for

  • people willing to pay for an expert to check behind them
  • those with HSAs
  • gig workers

H&R Block pricing tiers

Deluxe Online

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, including the Earned Income Tax Credit, deduction of tuition and such, as well as retirement income, plus real estate taxes and mortgage interest deductions, contract income and Health Savings Accounts

Premium Online

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 reporting of stocks, bonds and investment income, as well as rental income and small business expenses

Self-Employed Online

What it costs: H&R Block price offered now: $84.99, list price $109.99 (+ $36.99 per state)

What you get: Tax breaks/circumstances covered in Premium, plus small business including home office and vehicle expenses and Uber driver info


TaxAct

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 $64.95. 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
  • people with a lot of different income streams
  • military — TaxAct offers Free federal and state filing for all active duty military members via the https://taxact.com/military landing page, which gives access to all of TaxAct’s online products. (The offer will be applied once you enter your eligible Employer ID Number during filing.)

TaxAct pricing tiers

Deluxe

What it costs: $24.95 (+ $44.95 per state)

What you get: Tax breaks/circumstances covered in Free, plus itemized deductions, credits for child/dependent care and adoption, mortgage interest and real estate tax deduction, student loan interest and Health Savings Accounts

Premier

What it costs: $34.95 (+ $44.95 per state)

What you get: Tax breaks/circumstances covered in Deluxe, plus stock, real estate and other investment gains/losses as well as rental property income, royalty/Schedule K-1 income, investment income expenses and foreign financial accounts

Self-employed

What it costs: $64.95 (+ $44.95 per state)

What you get: Tax breaks/circumstances covered in Premier, plus business and farm income, freelance income (including 1099-NEC), depreciation calculations and other resources.

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Jackson Hewitt

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. The pitch for a refund anticipation loan, on the other hand, is at the top of the first screen you see — and it steers you towards pricier in-person services if you click on it.

Jackson Hewitt offers one option for online DIY filers, in addition to three more expensive tiers for people who want the help of virtual tax pros.

Who Jackson Hewitt Is Best for

  • lower-income workers without dependents
  • the confident DIYer, because assistance costs

Jackson Hewitt pricing tiers

Online

What it costs: $25 for federal only (or $49 for federal and unlimited state returns)

What you get: “All filers and all situations,” including people with Health Savings Accounts, those who paid off student loans, incurred childcare expenses and sold stock

Standard Tax Pro From Home

What it costs: $69 (plus a state fee)

What you get: Tax Pro help that covers unlimited W-2s as well as unemployment, education credits, student loan interest, IRAs, Social Security income and interest or dividend income up to $1,500

Deluxe Tax Pro From Home

What it costs: $179 (plus a state fee)

What you get: Tax Pro help that includes everything from Standard, plus support for homeowners, those with dependents, itemized deductions as well as capital gains and losses

Premier Tax Pro From Home

What it costs: $249 (plus a state fee)

What you get: Tax Pro help that includes everything from Deluxe, plus coverage for two or more self-employment or gig work


TaxSlayer

For freelancers or self-employed filers, TaxSlayer‘s advantage is clear: It’s cheaper than the other alternatives out there. For $47 — the most expensive of its three paid online tax prep tiers — you get live chat assistance from tax pros as well as 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
  • military — TaxSlayer offers free federal tax filing for active duty military members, including all incomes types, deductions and credits, via the landing page https://www.taxslayer.com/products/taxslayer-military. (State filings cost $32 per state.)

TaxSlayer pricing tiers

Classic

What it costs: $17 (+ $32 per state)

What you get: Everything in Free, plus credits and deductions like the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit, coverage for all income types, IRS inquiry assistance

Premium

What it costs: $37 (+ $32 per state)

What you get: Tax breaks/circumstances covered in Classic, plus extra support that allows you to skip the line via phone and email, IRS audit assistance for three years and live chat

Self-employed

What it costs: $47 (+ $32 per state)

What you get: Tax breaks/circumstances covered in Premium, plus access to a tax pro experienced with self-employed taxpayers, coverage for 1099 income, guidance on work expense deductions for Schedule C filers

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E-file.com

E-file emphasizes speed on its homepage, boasting that “many filers can use our online tax software to electronically file their taxes in less than 15 minutes.” It’s not only fast — it’s also generally less expensive than other tax preparers. E-file has a basic option for federal income taxes, but even its Deluxe Plus and Premium Plus tiers come in under $35. It accepts promo codes, too.

E-file will automatically save your progress as you complete your tax forms. Though the platform is entirely online and promotes electronic filing, it will still let you print out your tax forms to mail in yourself. If you encounter a question before that point, you can pay for phone or email assistance.

Who E-file.com Is Best for

  • budget-conscious filers who need no frills

E-file.com pricing tiers

Deluxe Plus

What it costs: $19.49, list price $25.99 (plus $21 for state returns) if you use coupon code 25OFF

What you get: Everything from the Basic version, plus support for filing with dependents, deducting mortgage interest, reporting income up to $100,000 and dealing with retirement income

Premium Plus

What it costs: $34.49, list price $45.99 (plus $21 for state returns) if you use coupon code 25OFF

What you get: Everything from Deluxe, plus support for itemized deductions, various credit schedules and business income


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, you’re in luck: The IRS announced that it will begin accepting and processing tax returns for the 2020 tax year on Feb. 12.

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 IRS 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.

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What Day Are Taxes Due in 2021?

You need to have your 2020 tax paperwork filed by April 15, 2021.

This is a departure from last year, when the IRS pushed back the tax filing deadline to July 15 due to the coronavirus crisis.

What’s New With Taxes This Year?

The standard deduction for 2020 is $12,400 for single filers and $24,800 for married couples filing jointly. For heads of household, the standard deduction is $18,650.

But perhaps the biggest changes for the 2021 tax season have to do with the ongoing pandemic. For example, thanks to the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, you can deduct charitable donations up to $300 even if you don’t itemize. If you do itemize, you may want to take advantage of the IRS’s decision to suspend limits on the percentage of charitable contributions taxpayers can deduct.

The CARES Act also gave retirees a reprieve from the required minimum distribution for 2020.

This year’s taxes will also accommodate people who didn’t receive the full stimulus check amount they’re owed. If you never received an Economic Impact Payment or believe the amount was wrong, you can claim the Recovery Rebate Credit.

Can I Get My Taxes Done for Free?

If your income is $72,000 or below, you can use the IRS’s Free File portal to — you guessed it — file your taxes for free. Free File is a public-private initiative between the IRS and top tax prep companies that gives taxpayers access to name-brand tax software of their choice. We’re talking TurboTax, TaxAct, 1040Now, FreeTaxUSA and others.

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 $72,000 access Free File directly via the IRS 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 $54.90, a discount of $35 off the $89.99 list price. TurboTax Premier was on sale for the same price at Target and Costco, among others. But at the same time, the TurboTax website was selling the Premier software for $70.

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 because 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

Who it’s best for: Frugal filers who generally know what they’re doing

More from Money:

Is There a ‘Best’ Time to File Your Taxes?

When Does Tax Season Start in 2021?

What to Do if You Haven’t Received Your Second Stimulus Check Yet