The 7 Best Tax Software Programs of 2019
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The average cost of hiring a professional to prepare your tax return is about $275, at least if you have anything other than the simplest tax situation. That’s a lot of money to part with and it’s often unnecessary.
You can save yourself some money if you identify your tax-time priorities in advance and find software that will address them for you. Some programs are pricier than others, but they’re still generally cheaper than hiring a professional, and you’ll spare yourself having to cram all those tax documents into your briefcase or a box and head off to your accountant’s office.
These software options have you covered. Some of them are actually free—yes, free, at least for filers with simple returns.
Best Overall: TurboTax
TurboTax is arguably the name in personal tax preparation software, and its developer—Intuit—charges accordingly. You’ll pay top dollar for this one, but users and experts alike seem to think it’s worth it. It scores kudos in almost every category, from user experience to being able to import a good many employer tax IDs. You can take pictures of your W-2s and 1099 forms rather than type in all the information they include, risking typos and mistakes. There’s an “Expense Finder” feature if you’re self-employed and must file Schedule C. It can lift potentially tax-deductible expenditures directly from your bank account and categorize them, add them up, and input them accordingly. The 2019 version will search more than 350 tax deductions and credits for you to see if you qualify after you enter your personal information.
The software engages you much as a professional would with questions and guidance, although some pop-up messages can be a bit chirpy and possibly jarring when you’re concentrating. Think comments like “You’re doing great!” interspersed with questions designed to dig your tax data out of you.
If you get confused or otherwise hit a brick wall, TurboTax offers experts to chat with if you use the online version. It also has a “SmartLook” feature that will put you face-to-face with a tax expert, and it offers audit support. And if TurboTax makes a mathematical goof? They’ll pay all associated IRS penalties on your behalf. They also offer free audit support.
So how much will all this cost you? $79.99 if your tax situation is pretty simple. And if you act fast and file before the 2019 tax season officially gears up in late January, you can shave $30 off that. The actual cost to file is free for both state and federal returns…at least for the time being. You can expect this to increase to $39.99 for federal returns and $36.99 for state when tax season gets underway. And each time you want to do something that falls outside the “simple” range, you’ll be asked to pay for it or upgrade to a different program. Think itemizing deductions, reporting income from investments, or self-employment.
Runner-Up, Best Overall: H&R Block
H&R Block Premium does just about everything that TurboTax does at just slightly less cost. So why does it drop to second place? It’s mostly a matter of opinion. Reviewers and users tend to clap for TurboTax first, but it’s a very close race.
H&R Block is chatty and friendly, too, asking questions and deciphering your answers as you prepare your tax return. But H&R Block isn’t always as efficient at deciphering your answers. You might hit that brick wall more often, but you can either dig for informational answers in the Help window or solicit unlimited live professional tax advice through the website.
You can pay extra to have an expert review your finished return for an added measure of confidence before you file, or just back up your file and head off to one of the thousands of H&R Block offices in the U.S. if you really run into problems. You can then sit down with a professional for free if you’ve purchased the software. When it comes to this sort of handholding, H&R Block is said to be the best. It even offers a “tax prep checklist” to track down the documents you’ll need to prepare your return.
H&R Block also has a free version called More Zero and it’s more accepting than TurboTax’s freebie of slightly complicated tax situations. The Premium version costs $64.95 with all its bells and whistles, but the Basic package for simple returns is just $19.95. A Deluxe version is available for $44.95. Keep in mind that these prices might ratchet up a little when filing season begins.
Best Bargain: TaxAct Premium
TaxAct is often mentioned in the same breath with TurboTax and H&R Block, but it has something going for it that those two competitors don’t share: It’s really inexpensive. Better yet, it offers a price lock guarantee. You can begin your return early in the year with most software, but, as mentioned, TurboTax and H&R Block will begin ratcheting up their costs as you get closer to the tax deadline without actually filing. Not so with TaxAct. You’ll pay the same no matter how long it takes you to finish your return and file: $34.95 in 2019, although this doesn’t include a state return.
TaxAct offers fewer bells and whistles, but it is equipped to handle returns that include self-employment and investment income. It also has a nice feature called Life Events which zeros in on potential changes in your tax situation from last year to this one. The web-based program offers 19 icons relating to situations that might currently apply to you. Maybe you bought a home, or you got married or had a baby. Maybe you lost your job. Whatever happened, you can clink on the corresponding link for extra tips, information, and guidance, although the program won’t incorporate the information into your tax return for you. That part is up to you.
TaxAct offers live customer support, as well as hyperlinked words and phrases that provide explanations and more information. It also has an extremely comprehensive TaxTutor Guidance Center. That said, TaxAct isn’t incredibly efficient with state returns and the interface isn’t as visually pleasing, but you get what you pay for.
Best Free Software: Credit Karma
Credit Karma used to be the new kid on the block, and it showed in some respects. But that was then and this is now. The company first launched into tax preparation in 2016, and it’s made some significant improvements in time for the 2019 filing season. Both state and federal returns are still 100 percent free.
Some users initially had problems with the handholding and help functions, but Credit Karma took care of that and has upgraded its customer service. Chat help is now available. Phone support is still lacking, but that’s something of a rarity among software providers anyway—at least without an extra fee. The interface has come a long way as well, with some additional help features added, including a searchable “help” database.
Credit Karma isn’t limited to simple 1040EZ and 1040A returns. It can handle all major IRS schedules and forms, including those related to more complex tax situations. Similar to other software programs, it will begin by asking you a series of questions when you click “start,” guiding you to enter your information. It also allows you to import previous years’ returns you completed using a competitor.
Best of all, that “free” price tag includes an audit defense guarantee. Now that’s getting your money’s worth.
Best Wizard: Jackson Hewitt Premium
Jackson Hewitt’s contribution to tax software will cost you a little less than H&R Block and TurboTax, and you’ll get a really efficient and extensive wizard in return—that feature that walks you through a series of questions then spits out a completed tax return based on your answers. The Jackson Hewitt wizard covers just about every conceivable tax situation for personal filers.
Jackson Hewitt Premium can handle complex tax situations, although you can’t count on explanatory popups to tell you why it’s done what it’s done, at least not in every situation. There are help topic links, however, as well as readily available links for live support, something most other tax software developers don’t offer. Then again, Jackson Hewitt has more than 6,000 brick-and-mortar locations, so the company is really positioned to offer this service. And it offers the “No Fee Refund Advance” up to $3,500, even in the face of the 2019 government shutdown.
There’s a free version for easy returns.
Best Simple Data Entry Option: TaxSlayer
TaxSlayer was initially designed for tax professionals, then it branched out to help individuals prepare their personal returns in the 1990s. It’s 100 percent web-based, so you can access it from just about any device.
The neat thing about TaxSlayer is its “Quick File” option. This should particularly appeal to users who cringe at the idea of spending hours inputting their tax information in a sequential order that’s dictated by the program. Some competitors will allow you to jump around to different aspects of your return, tackling whatever you want to tackle next, but TaxSlayer’s Quick File process for this is particularly efficient. It’s cued by simply typing in a keyword rather than hunting through lists of links.
Of course, you can always follow the prescribed, chronological data entry option if you want to. Even this is better than average, offering two choices: “Guide Me” or “Enter Myself.” The latter also lets you jump around a bit, similar to Quick File. The Guide Me option is necessarily slower because it’s more methodical. It’s a wizard that’s on par with those of TaxSlayer’s competitors—with the exception of Jackson Hewitt. The searchable information database is the stuff tax professionals dream of, and the error checker is top of the line, too.
The cost is incredibly reasonable, too, ranging from free for the most basic returns to $17 for the classic edition, $37 for the premium edition, $47 for the self-employed edition, and $57 for the “ultimate” program as of January 2019. The Classic and Premium editions are pretty similar, but Premium has better support options. You can wave a distress flag by email, chat, or by phone if you get confused or otherwise run into complications.
State returns are extra, and these prices might creep upward as tax filing season gears up.
Best for Savvy Tax Filers: Liberty Tax
If this isn’t your first rodeo—you’ve been preparing your own tax returns for years using one method or program or another—Liberty Tax might be for you. It’s more suitable for experienced filers. The interface isn’t pretty. It’s sort of a let’s-just-get-this-job-done display that involves a lot of manual clicks and a bit of searching sometimes, but that’s OK if you know what you’re doing and what you’re looking for.
Liberty Tax also lets you decide what aspects of a return you want to work on when you want to work on them, presented in chronological order, and it offers recommendations. This program will effectively tap you on the shoulder and ask if you want to file this, that or the other tax form to potentially save some tax dollars. It helps if you already understand what those tax forms are. Otherwise, you might be left a little in the dark.
If you enter information that might provide an audit trigger for the IRS, Liberty Tax will warn you. Audit support is included in the price, and you can purchase an upgrade for actual audit representation. Liberty Tax will also email you if you begin your tax return and don’t come back to it for a while, a little ahem! reminder that you’re not quite ready for the filing deadline yet.
The Simple edition is available for $19.95 in January 2019. Plan on spending at least $29.95 for the Basic edition, $49.95 for the Deluxe edition, and $74.95 for the Premium edition. The latter is most appropriate for those who are self-employed.