It's almost March and that means tax day is marching relentlessly closer. As always, the major providers of tax prep software have tweaked their offerings and are competing for your business.
Most of the software from the big three -- Intuit, H&R Block and TaxAct -- looks pretty much like what you'd expect if you've ever used one of those programs. But Intuit has taken one big leap, offering a program called SnapTax that let's you prepare and file your return on an Android or iPhone.
There's a pretty big catch here. SnapTax is designed for the person whose taxes are simple enough to file using the 1040EZ form. If you earned more than $80,000, derive income from anything but a W2-type job, (although interest and unemployment benefits are OK) and have dependents or own property, it's not for you. On the other hand, if you're, say, a student, with a dead simple financial picture and an addiction to your smartphone, SnapTax could be right for you.
Here's how it works. You download and install the free app. When the program launches it asks questions to find out if your taxes are simple enough for SnapTax to compute; if so, it has you create an account. After that, take out the W2 form your employer sent you, take a picture of it with your phone, and you're pretty much done. The data is "read" using optical character recognition, encrypted and uploaded to Intuit's secure servers where it is entered into an electronic version of the 1040EZ. You'll be able to review the form before filing.
It costs a total of $14.99 to file one copy to the feds and another to your state tax collection folks. So far, 315,000 copies of SnapTax have been downloaded, says Intuit spokeswoman Ashley Kirkendall.
PC Tax Prep's Big Three
Intuit's TurboTax has made a number of improvements this year. Most notably, it has doubled to 250,000 the number of institutions -- employers, banks, credit unions, investment banks and so on -- whose data can be imported straight into TurboTax. These companies all have IDs; enter it plus the password you use for that company's Web site, and the data is copied into the corresponding line on your electronic return.
TurboTax can now allows filers to import data from a PDF created by a competing tax program, and if you're a user of Mint (now owned by Intuit) any information you have on that Web site can easily be imported as well. These days, the functions offered by the online and boxed versions of TurboTax are quite similar, says Kirkendall.
Pricing for TurboTax ranges from free (though youd have to pay for filing a state return) to $130 for a business version, with various options for individuals priced in between.
H&R Block at Home comes in four flavors: Basic at $19.95 through Premium & Business at $79.95. You should note that filing a state return with the program costs more.
The company Web site has an interactive questionnaire to help you pick the version that fits your needs the best. One hybrid option, called the Best of Both, costs $79.95 and adds unlimited help via email or phone from a company professional, who will also review and correct your return.
H&R Block guarantees the work of its preparers. I haven't used the company, but a friend recently discovered that her H&R Block preparer had missed an important deduction three years running. When she complained, the company promptly offered to amend the past returns with no additional charges.
TaxACT is the cheapest of the major offerings. It claims that its free version (again, state filing is an extra charge) is powerful enough to use on even complex returns, though one reviewer noted that the paid versions didn't do as well importing data from previous returns or investment accounts as its competitors. The premium version costs $17.95 to use on the Web, and it includes both federal and state returns.
Beware instant refunds
Getting your tax refund almost immediately sounds great. Unfortunately, it can be a high-interest loan in disguise. "So-called 'instant' refunds offered by some tax preparers are usually Refund Anticipation Loans (RALs), which often come with high fees and interest rates that cut deeply into the amount a taxpayer would receive from the IRS," according to New Jersey's Division of Consumer Affairs, which has been cracking down on the scam.
A press release from the agency notes that you can get a full refund in three weeks or less by filing electronically. Good advice.
San Francisco journalist Bill Snyder writes frequently about business and technology. He welcomes your comments and suggestions. Reach him at email@example.com.
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