It’s many people’s least favorite time of year: tax season.
Between frantically searching for your tax forms, organizing your receipts, figuring out how much it’ll cost you to file and trying to remember the most recent updates to the tax code, tax season can be stressful … to say the least.
Thankfully, some smart software companies have made the process way easier — and, in some cases, even free.
Even the tax pros themselves are getting on board.
“I actually informally started my own tax practice using TurboTax to prepare people’s returns from my kitchen table,” said Ben Rugg, CPA.
So you can rest assured your taxes are in good hands with online tax filing services — and save yourself a boatload of money and stress.
Best Tax Software 2021: At a Glance
The three best online tax programs with paid plans are undoubtedly TurboTax, H&R Block and TaxAct. Here’s a quick look at how they stack up.
Note: The prices below are accurate as of Jan. 27, 2021 but may fluctuate throughout tax season.
Each of these three tax prep services offers a similar suite of options that are split among their free and paid tiers. The details and prices vary among them, so take a look at the features that are important to you to see which product is the right fit.
Tax Software Features, Compared
Each tax preparation service includes a free option for basic filers. What each covers varies, so which is best for you depends on how complex your tax situation is.
- H&R Block: H&R Block’s most basic online version covers earners whose wages come entirely from W-2 income, and also includes deductions for student loan interest and child tax credits.
- TurboTax: The TurboTax Free Edition covers W-2 income, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EIC) and child tax credits.
- TaxAct: This tier covers W-2 income; and tax breaks for dependent deductions, Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and other child tax credits, student loans and education expenses for current students, and retirement income.
Support for Complicated Returns
Each service offers almost identical paid tiers for more complicated tax returns: a “Deluxe” and a “Premier” or “Premium” tier.
These tiers help you prepare your taxes when you have additional deductions and credits to claim, or you have income from anywhere other than an employer.
- H&R Block: Deluxe covers additional deductions related to things like home ownership, charitable donations and Health Savings Accounts (HSAs). You’ll need Premium to cover income from freelancing, contract work, investments or real estate.
- TurboTax: Deluxe covers mortgage and property tax deductions, charitable donations, student loan interest, education expenses and 1099-MISC income from freelancing or contract work. Premier covers investment and rental property income, and refinancing deductions.
- TaxAct: TaxAct Deluxe is more comprehensive than the others; it covers itemized deductions, mortgage interest, real estate taxes, student loan interest, Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) and adoption credits. Premier adds options for investors, people earning royalties or K-1 income, rental property owners and foreign bank account holders.
Each service includes support for self-employment income in less expensive tiers.
But if the majority of your income comes from self-employment of any kind — as a freelancer, independent contractor or small business owner — you’ll benefit from tax prep support specifically tailored for self-employment and small business owners.
These versions are the most expensive of the basic online filing options, but they cost significantly less than paying an individual accountant to prepare your taxes. They’re a budget-friendly way to tackle your complicated paperwork and ensure you don’t miss out on vital tax breaks.
All three services provide the same basic support for self-employed filers, but here are some highlights that could help you choose:
- H&R Block: An interview-style process walks you through industry-specific expenses and deductions you might miss on your own, and you’ll have access to tools covering asset depreciation.
- TurboTax: Get a host of perks designed specifically for freelancers, including deductions for your line of work, ability to import your 1099-MISC with a photo, free access to Quickbooks Self Employed and access to a year-round tax estimator after filing.
- TaxAct: Gain the ability to calculate personalized business deductions, calculate depreciation and access year-round planning resources.
Live Tax Assistance
All three companies offer tax help from real, live tax professionals — and this option is where they differ the most. Pay attention to these options if live tax support is important to you!
- H&R Block: This is the only of the three that runs brick-and-mortar locations, where you can meet with a tax pro face-to-face. It also lets you upload documents online or drop off paperwork to let them prepare everything for you. Like the others, H&R Block also offers online assistance; you can pay an additional fee to get on-demand access from a tax professional while you prepare your returns through the DIY software.
- TurboTax: In place of the DIY products, you can purchase TurboTax Live in similar tiers for on-demand answers to your questions and a line-by-line review of your returns by a CPA or EA.
- TaxAct: TaxAct builds live assistance into its tiers. You can’t get it with the free version. Deluxe includes live phone support. Premier and Self-Employed include live phone support plus screen sharing.
H&R Block or TurboTax should be your go-to services if you’re concerned about a complicated tax audit. TaxAct doesn’t provide audit support for most customers.
- H&R Block: The company’s Peace of Mind Extended Service Plan lets you take in any notification from the IRS to figure out what it means and get access to representation by an H&R Block enrolled agent if you need it.
- TurboTax: Through its Audit Support Center, TurboTax customers get access to live, one-on-one guidance online in case of an audit.
- TaxAct: TaxAct does NOT provide audit support itself. It gives TaxAct Professional users (tax pros filing taxes for clients) access to third-party service Protection Plus Audit Defense.
H&R Block, TurboTax and TaxAct all have mobile apps available for both iOS and Android. All three offer comparable functionality, though TaxAct’s apps are rated a little lower in their respective app stores than the other two.
Need money now? H&R Block and TurboTax both offer a tax refund advance, while TaxAct does not. An advance from H&R Block will cost you a lot more than one from TurboTax.
- H&R Block: The Emerald Advance line of advance credit to put up to $1,000 of your tax refund in your pocket before you file through a Mastercard debit card with a $45 annual fee and 36% interest rate.
- TurboTax: The service offers an advance up to $3,000 (typically around 50%) of your expected federal tax refund with 0% interest and $0 loan fees. Eligible customers get access to funds within a few hours via Visa debit card.
- TaxAct: TaxAct doesn’t offer a tax refund advance.
Pay with Your Refund
All three services let you use your tax refund to pay for product and filing fees, so you never see an out-of-pocket cost for your tax preparation. The competition is in the fees.
- TaxAct: $17.99 if you’re receiving your refund by direct deposit or $9.99 if you’re receiving it on a PayPower reloadable debit card.
The companies offer different levels of peace of mind for using their products.
- H&R Block: If there’s an error in your tax return, H&R Block will reimburse you for up to $6,000 in additional taxes owed due to its mistake.
- TurboTax: If you tally up a larger refund (or similar tax liability) with another tax preparation service, TurboTax will refund your fee (or pay you $30 if you used the Free edition).
- TaxAct: If there’s an error on your tax return, TaxAct will reimburse you for up to $100,000 in additional taxes owed dues to its mistake, plus refund your TaxAct fees. If you’re not totally satisfied with TaxAct for any reason, you can discontinue using it before completing your return and paying the fee.
To prepare and file your taxes online with each service, you’ll pay a product fee, filing fees for state returns, and — depending on the company — fees for live tax professional assistance.
Here’s how they compare.
Alternatively, you can download tax preparation software from each company, so you can save your tax information on your own computer. Software products are tiered similar to online tiers and include a one-time download fee and filing fees.
H&R Block vs. TurboTax vs. TaxAct: Which Is Best for You?
Any of these popular, tested tax preparation services are a good fit for you if you want to DIY your tax returns this year and file online — with added assurance from software or tax pros that you’re doing everything right.
Here are a few standout differences among H&R Block, TurboTax and TaxAct that might help you pick the best product for your situation.
H&R Block is best for you if…
- You want access to in-person tax pros. H&R Block is the only of these three services that runs brick-and-mortar offices where you can work with tax pros face-to-face.
- You’re concerned about a complicated audit. Both TurboTax and H&R Block provide audit assistance, but H&R Block’s service offers a better user experience and is available in-person — which could be comforting in a stressful situation.
- You own a small business. All three services provide ample support for self-employed filers, but H&R Block has the most robust suite of services for year-round tax support.
TurboTax is best for you if…
- You want live, online help. TurboTax offers online assistance with tax pros comparable to H&R Block’s service at a lower price, and Free filers get free online assistance.
- You want to guarantee the biggest refund. TurboTax’s Maximum Refund Guarantee promises to refund your fees if you find a better refund with a different service.
- You’re a freelancer. TurboTax’s self-employed editions offers some of the most user-friendly and robust assistance specifically designed for freelancers and independent contractors.
- You need a refund advance. Eligible customers get access to a larger advance at no added cost, compared with a smaller advance for an annual fee and interest charges at H&R Block.
TaxAct is best for you if…
- You’re shopping for the lowest cost. TaxAct beats its competitors significantly on price at every tier and provides live assistance from a tax professional at no additional cost.
- You’re concerned about accuracy. Every tax service comes with an accuracy guarantee, but TaxAct offers one of the highest reimbursement levels at $100,000.
6 Ways to Get Free Tax Filing & Prep Assistance
In addition to these top options for affordable online filing, you can find tons of free ways to file simple returns online for free.
1. IRS Free File
You can always file your federal taxes for free-free, if you’re eligible, through the IRS Free File portal. This service is available to filers who earned $72,000 or less (in 2020), and the page also links to free fillable forms for earners at all levels.
The IRS doesn’t directly provide this service, but it partners with 13 tax preparation companies — like H&R Block and Jackson Hewitt — to facilitate your process.
2. United Way MyFreeTaxes
If you made less than $66,000 in 2019*, take advantage of United Way’s MyFreeTaxes program to file federal and state taxes online for free.
The site notes that 100 million Americans qualify for this free filing option, powered by H&R Block.
*Information for tax year 2020 wasn’t available as of this writing, but we suspect it’ll continue to be in line with the IRS Free File requirement of $72,000.
If a 1040EZ is all you need to file, TaxSlayer will help you do it online for free. The Simply Free edition offers a deduction finder, and you can add your state returns at no charge.
Active duty military members can file a federal return for free, regardless of your tax situation.
EFile offers free basic federal filing and advises this option if you’re single or married and filing jointly with no dependents. You can get 50% off the state filing fee with the promo code “50eFile.com.”
5. Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program (VITA)
Get help with basic tax prep from an IRS volunteer through the Volunteer Tax Assistance Program (VITA) and Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE) programs. VITA assistance is available to:
- People who “generally make $57,000 or less” (for tax year 2020).
- People with disabilities.
- Limited English-speaking filers.
TCE assistance is available for filers over age 60, and volunteers specialize in questions about pensions and retirement-related issues.
All volunteers are certified by the IRS and many have professional backgrounds in accounting and finance.
6. Credit Karma Tax
Credit Karma provides free federal and state tax filing for the most common tax forms, including those for more complex tax situations, like business income (Schedule C) and itemizing deductions (Schedule A).
Plus, when you create an account to use Credit Karma Tax, you’ll also get access to Credit Karma’s other free services, including a look at your credit scores from TransUnion and Equifax, details from your credit reports and credit score monitoring.
Should You Do Your Own Taxes or Hire a Tax Pro?
So you can file your own taxes from the comfort of your home… but should you?
Rugg told us that some circumstances add new levels of tax considerations you might miss if you don’t bring in a professional eye.
“There are five situations where taxpayers should consider using a professional — when they get married, when they buy a home, when they have a child, when they have investments and/or when they are self-employed,” he said.
One of these events might trigger you to work with a tax pro every year after. Or you might just want to bring in help for the tax year when the change happens so you can get a better understanding of your situation, the forms you’ll need; and the deductions, credits and additional tax liabilities you should know about.
You probably don’t need to work with a tax expert if you’re a single W-2 employee with no dependents or property. You should be able to easily find free a tax software/platform, instead of paying for guidance from a real person or pricy software.
We hope with the best online tax preparation software at hand, April 15 doesn’t seem so ominous anymore.
Just don’t wait until April 14 to file your taxes, and you’ll be fine.
Dana Sitar (@danasitar) has been writing and editing since 2011, covering personal finance, careers and digital media.