Only two things that are certain in life: death and taxes. But for many, this list is missing a third: stressing over taxes. A lot of us reach mid-April exhausted by the idea of filing our taxes. It’s such a big problem that efforts to ease the pain constitute an entire industry. DIY tax-prep products like TurboTax vow to turn filing into a cinch — just plug in a few numbers and click the button.
But some find that process tedious. That’s why there are alternatives to this restrictive type of software. Let’s unpack why you should consider theses TurboTax alternatives.
6 TurboTax Alternatives
Once you have a sense of your own needs, you’ll have a better idea of what solution to choose. Here are six alternatives to tax-prep software that could be a good match for you.
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2. Other DIY software
TurboTax is not the only game in town when it comes to automated tax tools. Other options like H&R Block, TaxSlayer, and Tax Act offer their software versions to help transform you into your CPA. Like TurboTax, these all have a free version and offer more robust options at differing price points. They all come with live support and audit support, but they all still share the same problem that TurboTax presents: They’re best suited for those with simple taxes or those who know what they’re doing.
3. Hire a pro on your own
If you prefer to vet the individual you hire personally or if you already know a great CPA, then a good option is to hire your tax preparer to do your filing. This person may be a solo practitioner or part of a practice, but it’s a good idea to speak to some references before signing on the dotted line regardless of how they work.
4. Use assistance programs
Some may not have the cash or the language skills to hire a tax preparer or service or complete the return independently. These taxpayers can turn to programs like the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, which relies on trained volunteers to help taxpayers complete basic returns. To qualify, you must earn less than $56,000 per year/have limited English-language ability. Another program, Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE), helps taxpayers 60 and above, emphasizing pensions and retirement-related nuances.
5. Use IRS Free File
The IRS Free File program is a partnership between the IRS and various commercial tax-preparation software companies that allows taxpayers to file their taxes using online services. Depending on your income, you may be eligible to use these services for free and to have guidance and help in filing. These services are all reasonably similar to TurboTax, so those with complex situations may want to opt for a more robust solution instead.
6. Do it yourself … with a pen!
If you’ve ever visited a public library around tax time, you’ve probably seen the stacks of tax forms just waiting for Luddites to grab them. You, too, can fill out your tax return by hand, whether you get the form at the library or print it off the web. Just be forewarned that this method has a lot of the same problems as TurboTax, such as the need to know what you’re doing and get everything right, and it is tedious and annoying to boot. Have fun!
Whichever way you choose to do your taxes, think of it as an exercise in keeping as much of your hair — and sanity — as possible.
Drawbacks of DIY Software Like TurboTax
These products are billed as intuitive and straightforward DIY tax-preparation solutions that save taxpayers time and money. But if you’ve ever used one for anything more than the simplest of tax returns, you’ve likely experienced another reality.
To have a smooth experience using TurboTax and end up with an accurate filing, you generally have to meet the following non-trivial conditions.
Your taxes are simple
Tax software is a good fit for the most basic tax cases — and that’s about it. For example, if you’re single, have no assets and minimal debt, and have a single source of W-2 income, then TurboTax could be your jam. But if you have assets, investments, multiple sources of income, are self-employed, own a small business, or qualify for lots of deductions and credits, the software’s pre-programmed model probably won’t cut it.
You can be extremely careful
Tax forms are, of course, full of numbers. This means the quality of the tax return is only equal to the accuracy of those digits. And since you won’t have a tax professional to check things over for you, you need to make sure all your numbers are spot-on. While the software will flag obvious errors like incomplete sections or mathematical mistakes, it will assume any data you plug in is correct. Small mistakes can add up to big trouble later.
You know tax law fairly well
The way to get the best tax outcome is to apply all the appropriate legal rules to your particular situation. But unless you’ve studied tax law, you might not know that you qualify for certain deductions or credits. You’ll end up leaving money on the table. There’s also the possibility that you’ll file the wrong deductions or credits, which could land you in hot water. And if you miss deductions or credits you’re entitled to, you may actually be losing money using a free software by missing out on your full return.
You’re ready to do research
You may have plenty of questions as you prepare your return, and unless you’re going to pay a professional to advise you, figuring out the answers is up to you. IRS forms come with thorough instructions, but these can confuse the non-CPA as much as they clarify. Pouring over Q&A forms, message boards, and Google searches can gobble up your time, leave you tired out, lead you to incorrect or outdated information, and may not even provide the certainty you’re looking for.
You’re willing to be liable for mistakes
Tax professionals take on liability for any mistakes they make in filing their clients’ forms, but as a tax-prep software user, you’re on the hook for what you submit. Most mistakes resulting from the use of software are input errors, which means the taxpayer is responsible. The software company will only be accountable for mistakes when it has a glitch or malfunctions, which isn’t expected.
While TurboTax and similar products may seem like a neat way to file taxes painlessly, it’s evident that there’s too much risk and not enough reward for the average individual to use a DIY product like this confidently.
Figuring Out Your Tax Needs
With TurboTax off the table as a one-size-fits-all tax-prep solution, you’ll need to consider your circumstances when selecting what option to use. Begin by thinking about whether your tax situation is simple, moderately complex, or very complex.
You’re an unmarried, child-free professional with a single source of predictable income, little debt, and no side hustle. You’re taking the standard deduction. You can use any method, including TurboTax.
You’ve gotten married and had a child in the last year, and your spouse is self-employed. You also have a little side hustle that earns a bit of income. You may want to stay away from DIY software and instead consider an option that involves a professional tax preparer.
You’re recently divorced, just bought a house, own your own business, and generate a lot of income from stocks and real estate investments. There are a lot of moving pieces in your finances. Trying to handle your taxes will probably result in missed opportunities and unforced errors.
Not only does complexity matter, so does context. Ask yourself some crucial questions:
- Have you been audited in a previous tax year?
- Do you feel like you’re at risk of being audited in the future?
- How much does it scare you to face an audit without a professional to turn to for help?
- How much time do you have to devote to tax filing?
- How involved do you want to be in the process?
While you may assume you won’t be audited, think about what you’d do if you were. Also, think about how much time you can spare to work on your taxes — it can take far longer than you may think.
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