Tax season is upon us.
If you’ve decided to file online this year, you aren’t alone. The IRS estimated early on in the 2014 tax season at total of 61,488,000 people filed online.
This tells us that choosing to do your taxes via your computer, phone or tablet is the easy choice. Deciding which tax website to use, though, is an entirely different scenario.
Yet even with the popularity of online filing through companies like Turbo Tax, TaxAct, Tax Slayer and H&R Block, there remain some taxpayers who just don’t like the idea of passing their personal information along through the internet.
As you can see, tax return season isn’t just about getting your refund. How you file in order to get it is just as important.
So, we’re going to spend some time looking at the four major online tax-return companies, find out how they are similar and different, talk about the advantages and disadvantages and then close with our overall observations.
Comparing the Most Popular Tax Prep Websites
Every year, the Internal Revenue Service publishes a list of websites where you can do your taxes for free. This year, the list has 14 websites, but four of them tend to be the most popular – Turbo Tax, TaxAct, Tax Slayer and H & R Block. Of these four, Turbo Tax is pretty much the king: they led the way in 2014 with 29 million users.
Free Filing Comparison
If we’re comparing free filing websites, they’re pretty diverse. For example, Turbo Tax lets you file for free if you are non-military and made $31,000 or less, or are military and made $62,000 or less. As you can see, there’s more leeway for servicemen and servicewomen.
Tax Slayer, H & R Block and TaxAct also have a $62,000 limit for military personnel, with TaxAct being the only one who has a lower cap for civilians ($50,000).
Age is also a factor here for civilian filers. Tax Slayer’s age limit is 52, while TaxAct’s is 56 and H & R Block is 50.
Of these free options, only Tax Slayer and TaxAct let you file for free if you lived in a foreign country for more than 6 months out of the year.
Turbo Tax wins the age category because they have no age limit. H & R Block and Tax Slayer win out on income, allowing civilians and military personnel alike a $62,000 cap. If you’re living overseas, you can go with Tax Slayer or TaxAct.
In our opinion, Tax Slayer is the strongest choice here because it provides the most options. As you probably already know, though, tax season isn’t just about free filing. Many consumers (about 70 million) have more complex situations that required a paid service.
Want to learn more about free filing? Check out our guide to free tax returns, where we talk about who can do it, level of difficulty and what to do if you make a mistake.
Comparing Paid Online Tax Services
Comparing the free versions of the tax sites we mentioned before is a pretty simple affair. There are just a few variables (income limit, age, military status, foreign address) and you can use an IRS app to figure which one is best for you.
Unfortunately, the IRS doesn’t provide a way to narrow down which paid software is the best fit for you. For that, you’ll have to read on.
Before we jump into this discussion, remember that tax sites are going to try and woo you to their software by convincing it’s the easiest to use and will get you the most money on your refund.
And really, isn’t that what we want? The U.S. tax code is pretty confusing and wordy (all 75,000+ pages of it), which is exactly what we don’t want to deal with when we’re DIYing our taxes. Our desire is to have a simple, smooth process that ends with us getting a nice check from the IRS.
To that end, we’ll get started with our comparisons.
Who Gets You the Biggest Return?
This comparison is pretty simple. To get our answer, we talked with Chad Shultz, a Jacksonville CPA who works primarily with startups. Chad told us that no one site can really get you more than another.
“There’s no difference. It’s all in the name and marketing,” Chad said. “Can one tax software get a bigger refund than the other? No. It’s all the same calculations.”
“Can one tax software get a bigger refund than the other? No. It’s all the same calculations.”
We tend to agree with Chad. Though the tax code is pretty complex, the average tax return relies on a set series of addition, multiplication and division. For the most part, those calculations don’t change from site to site. The presentation might be different, but, as Chad pointed out, the math is the same.
If each company gets you the same refund amount, then choosing the best option usually comes down to price and usability.
How Do Prices Compare?
The four big tax sites all offer a free version of their software as well as three to four paid editions intended to handle more complex tax situations. They also charge a fee for state taxes.
For time’s sake, we’ll compare the cheapest editions and the most expensive editions, which are usually touted as the best option for self-employed workers, business owners and freelancers.
Comparing the Cheapest Options
Here’s the breakdown for the pricing on each software’s cheapest version:
- Turbo Tax - $34.99
- TaxAct - $14.99
- Tax Slayer - $12.99
- H&R Block - $24.99
The sites that really stand out to us in this category are Turbo Tax, TaxAct and H&R Block because they offer live tax help at this price point. Turbo Tax’s live help, called SmartLook, is pretty interesting. It connects you to a live, one-way video chat with a Turbo Tax expert. One of those experts could be Lisa Greene-Lewis, a CPA who talked to us about the feature.
“You can see the TurboTax expert, but they can’t see you,” Lisa said. “The Turbo Tax expert can draw on your screen and guide you through finishing your return.”
TaxAct’s basic edition gives you access to their support department via email or phone.
While H&R Block lets you have unlimited chat time with in-tax experts, they also feature Refund Reveal. This tool helps you understand why your tax refund amount fluctuates as you fill out your return (this is pretty common across all tax software).
“As the number goes up and down, it explains things in layman’s terms as to why a number is what it is,” H&R Block Senior Product Manage Eric Roebuck said. “Instead of saying, for example, ‘You got a tax credit,’ it will tell you, ‘Your daughter Sara makes you eligible to receive a bigger refund.”
Based on what we’ve learned about each option here, we think seasoned tax filers will probably prefer Tax Slayer because of the competitive price. For those who are a little unsure about their tax knowledge, Turbo Tax’s SmartLook feature may be worth the price of the company’s basic package.
Comparing the Most Expensive Options
- Turbo Tax - $79.99
- TaxAct - $24.99
- Tax Slayer - $34.99
- H & R Block - $49.99
When you get to this point in the tax-return world, you’re getting nearly everything the tax software has to offer: full support, all the tax forms the site can offer and all the tools that the self-employed need to complete their return.
At this level of service, we believe choosing the right tax software is up to your preference. We’ve read various reviews that say Turbo Tax is the easiest site to use, while others say they enjoy TaxAct’s low price, even though it takes more work to get your tax return done.
PC Mag’s recent review of this year’s tax software puts Turbo Tax at the top of the list with a 4.5-star rating, while TaxAct was just behind at 4 stars.
Online or in Person: Is One Better Than the Other?
Let’s face it. Not all of us are comfortable with giving a website all of our personal and income information. And some of us feel more comfortable doing our taxes face-to-face with a real person rather than a laptop or mobile screen.
That’s definitely okay with us. Tax season is stressful and it’s important for you to do what’s most comfortable.
We will say that the four websites we talk about in this article have a pretty solid reputation for keeping information safe. This past year, however, Turbo Tax made headlines because people were using the service to submit fraudulent returns. Many of those fraudulent return, the Wall Street Journal reported, were based on information from 2013 tax return filed through Turbo Tax.
However, Turbo Tax does offer some pretty innovative security measures for users who want to file through mobile apps. They use a fingerprint-identification system called “Touch ID”. It requires your fingerprint to open the app, but it’s only available on the iPhone.
H & R Block, Tax Slayer and TaxAct didn’t experience the same influx of fraudulent returns. We’ve yet to hear of the same thing taking place this year, so it seems like, so far, Turbo Tax has fixed the problem.
If you are concerned about the safety and security of your information, we suggest heading to an H & R Block location near you. Sit down and talk with one of their tax professionals about the safety of their website, and if you aren’t convinced, you can file in their office.
In the meantime, you can check out some pretty in-depth explanations of each website’s security measures:
Our Final Observations About Filing Taxes in 2016
If you’re going to use paid software to file your taxes this year, you’ve got some great choices in front of you. Each of the four filing websites we talked about offer you a wide variety of options in price and capability.
As we look back on the research we’ve talked about in this article, it’s pretty tough for us to say one site is better than the other. Like we said a few minutes ago, try several different versions of tax software to find the one that’s most comfortable to you.
It’s kind of like picking a mattress – it doesn’t hurt to test out a few different models just so you know what you’re getting into.
We will say, however, that there seems to be a general opinion that Turbo Tax gives you the best user experience and their fingerprint verification is a great security feature. However, their security troubles last year could make consumers wary about using them again this year.
If you want to try Turbo Tax but are uneasy, check out the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) suggestions for keeping your tax info safe. A few of their suggestions are file as early as you can and make sure you’re always accessing your online returns through a secure connection.
“There are no guarantees. Nothing is 100% safe” Chad Shultz said, going on to give advice recommended by the FTC. “Really, the only way to make sure everything is safe is to check your credit history. Review it, and review your bank accounts.”
If you’d like to learn more about how you can avoid identity theft, take a look at our guide to protecting yourself. You’ll learn about what your chances are of being hacked, the impact identity theft has on you and others, as well as a few tips on tried-and-true protection techniques.