The 79 boxes on the Form 1040—along with all the worksheets and other forms a taxpayer has to wrangle—are intimidating. They’re so scary, in fact, that the majority of Americans don’t do their own taxes.
While the IRS’s own stats do a great job of showing how unappetizing it is for an average citizen to interact with tax forms one-on-one, I thought there might be a better way to illustrate the problem.
So I asked editorial staffers at a certain personal finance publication how they do their taxes.
Of the 24 personal finance writers and editors at Money I could reach today, only two did their taxes all by themselves—that is, filled them out the old-fashioned, artisanal way, box by box, without the assistance of computer software, an accountant, or someone else. (Two youthful reporters got help from their parents.)
An 8% DIY record amongst personal finance nerds is pretty damning for our system’s user-friendliness. If these people can’t do their own taxes without paying for outside help through software or a CPA, what hope does someone not working for a personal finance publication have for a quick and easy tax experience?
Software from TurboTax and H&R Block led the polls, just edging out an accountant’s help. Multiple staffers cited the ease of the process, including the automatic importing of W-2s from employers and 1099s from financial institutions.
“It never occurred to me not to use software,” said one writer, “because it’s just way easier, and I don’t want to screw it up.” When asked how long it would take without the software, she responded, “Forever.”
“Tax forms are like mortgages: Nobody reads them,” said another writer, inadvertently delving into the cause of the financial crisis. “I’ve never done my taxes by hand because it would have been too annoying, time sucking, confounding—not to mention I hate the post office.”
One Money editor used H&R Block’s software, but had to prepare two state returns by hand for his sons. “I felt very old-school,” he said.
In recent years, there have been growing calls for tax simplification, especially since ProPublica outed TurboTax’s parent company Intuit for its lobbying efforts to fight an easier tax system—which would hurt its bottom line. Vox’s Dylan Matthews even proposed a boycott of TurboTax and H&R Block for their roles in making taxes hard to do.
“It seems silly that I’m paying tax software companies while they are standing in the way of making taxes easier to do,” said one writer. When asked how the reports of the lobbying make her feel, another writer said, “Very angry.”
While most of the software users elected to go that route to save time or because a few forms were unintelligible, the staffers who elected to use accountants generally did so because they have more complicated financial situations.
Multiple Money staffers were strong believers in their preparers’ abilities to sniff out special deductions and handle complex tax situations involving real estate, kids, and investments. For them, the cost of an accountant can save money in the long run, in addition to the bother of wrestling with the Form 1040 alone.
“It can be penny-wise and pound foolish to do your own taxes if they’re complex,” said one writer with a complicated financial situation. Accountants “understand all those deductions better than me.” A nearby editor agreed, vigorously.
The software/CPA disconnect wasn’t just on proletarian/bourgeois lines between writers and editors. One writer, who now has the privilege of using the aspirational possessive “my accountant,” had to file in three states. “I don’t even know where to start,” she said. “It would be overwhelming to do them; forms and I are not friends.”
On the other end of things, the two mutant staffers who didn’t get help seemed impressively casual. One had a very simple return and could use the Form 1040EZ, which took about three hours, and the other was outed as a mutant and/or sorcerer. She did the full, standard Form 1040 “in about an hour.” In the general population, she literally may be one in a million.