Now that it’s tax season, you must decide whether you will take the do-it-yourself route or hire somebody to prepare your taxes for you. Note that except for medical deductions (now 7.5% instead of 10%, for the 2017 and 2018 tax years), the new tax legislation hasn't changed very much about the 2017 taxes you will file in April 2018.
If you do choose to file your own taxes, there are several tax service programs you can use. Read on for our evaluation of this year's offerings from three popular brands: H&R Block, TurboTax and Jackson Hewitt. (For more, see Taxes Tutorials.)
Tax Services: Jackson Hewitt
If you’re a Walmart customer, you might have seen Jackson Hewitt cubicles in the superstore. The company has nearly 6,000 locations, and almost half of them are inside Walmart stores. The company also offers an online filing platform. If your return is simple – for example, you only have W-2 income, maybe some interest income and no deductions or credits – you can file your federal tax return for free. This free option allows you to download your W-2 form automatically and import last year’s returns from competing tax preparation platforms.
Like the others, Jackson Hewitt offers a free option for simple returns, including state filing. If you claim the standard deduction, make less than $100,000 and only have W-2 income, you will probably qualify for the free service. For more complicated returns, there’s a $34.95 deluxe edition geared to homeowners and parents that also covers investment income. The top tier, aimed at small businesses or those who are self-employed, will cost $54.95. With all paid packages, filing a state return is an additional $36.95 per state.
TurboTax is pretty popular, not just because of its aggressive ad campaign but also because Intuit, the maker of TurboTax, also makes QuickBooks, the accounting software of choice for nearly 80% of the nation’s approximately 29 million small business owners as of 2016. As with its competitors, you can file your simple 1040EZ or 1040A for free, and you can automatically download your W-2s if they’re available online.
TurboTax’s first paid option, the deluxe package, starts at $39.99, and a state return costs an additional $36.99. Though $5 more than Jackson Hewitt’s deluxe plan, it supports itemized deductions, which is only included with Jackson Hewitt’s top tier package of $54.95. Turbo Tax’s deluxe plan also maximizes mortgage-interest and property-tax deductions, offers its ItsDeductible service that helps organize charitable donations and value them correctly and covers freelance and 1099 income along with simple expenses.
The $59.99 premier plan is what you use to handle any investments you may have. If you have stocks, bonds or other investment income, you have no choice but to shell out the $59.99. It also covers rental property and related tax implications.
The upper end of TurboTax’s plans – designed for the small business owner or sole proprietor – costs $89.99. It lets users import data directly from QuickBooks, a significant advantage. As a small business owner you may have asset depreciation and a lot of Schedule C income, which makes the Home & Business tier a necessity. (For more, see Who’s required to fill out a Schedule C IRS form?)
New for the 2017 tax year, TurboTax added TurboTax live, a service that allows you to work with a certified public accountant or enrolled agent throughout your tax preparation experience. The service costs $149.99 and, like all the tiers TurboTax produces, does not include filing of state taxes.
If you used Absolute Zero in the past, you can now import last year’s return instead of starting from scratch. If you’re using TurboTax Self-Employed, the app will help you find industry-specific deductions that you might not have thought about.
H&R Block is known for having tax offices within driving distance of most Americans. The company’s free option, More Zero, now offers support for 1040 Schedule A returns as well as simple returns that require only a 1040EZ or 1040A. Filing a state return with the free option is free, as it is with Jackson Hewitt and TurboTax, and support for the earned income tax credit is free.
The deluxe plan, H&R Block’s next tier, is designed for homeowners or investors with support for stock and other investment sales, retirement income and homeownership considerations, such as buying and selling a home and home-mortgage interest deductions. It costs $34.99 and includes support for 1099s, free tech support and a “drag and drop” feature that permits free import of current and past-year data. As with TurboTax, if you’re filing a state return, you should plan to spend an extra $36.99. The deluxe plan provides investor support at a cheaper price point than TurboTax.
The top plan is the premium tier, coming in at $54.99. It includes support for the self-employed and rental property owners. TurboTax offers rental property support in its $59.99 premier plan, and Jackson Hewitt’s top plan, also called premium ($54.95), supports rental properties.
New for 2018: Like its competitors, H&R Block now offers Tax Pro Review. This is a reinvention of a product the company called “Best of Both.” The service costs $49.99 to $89.99, depending on the complexity of the return.
H&R Block also added a self-employed product to serve the more than 60 million freelancers, independent contractors and other self-employed taxpayers. Among its features are integration with Stride Tax and full support for common tax situations faced by self-employed individuals. The product costs $74.99 plus an additional $36.99 per state taxes filed.
Also, customers who direct a portion of their refund to an Amazon gift card will receive a 5% refund bonus. According to Heather Watts, senior vice president and general manager of digital at H&R Block, “For example, if a client directs $3,000 of their refund to an Amazon gift card, they would receive an additional $150, for a total value of $3,150 to spend on Amazon.com.”
All of the packages listed above include selling points such as maximum refund guarantees, free e-filing of federal returns and 100% accuracy. TurboTax and H&R Block now give you the ability to take a picture of your W-2 for entry into the system. The differences involve how much you have to pay to use the features you need. Each of these packages has its strengths. Here are some more things to consider:
- Least Cost/Simple Taxes – All three offer federal and state returns at no cost for those who can use the 1040EZ or 1040A forms to file. H&R Block’s free plan also supports 1040 Schedule A returns with a free state return.
- Most Help at the Free Federal Tax Level – Jackson Hewitt wins here; it gives you both chat and e-mail support. TurboTax and H&R Block offer community-based support. None of the companies offer phone support until you buy a paid package.
- Best for Small Business Owners – The differences between TurboTax’s top plan ($89.99) and Jackson Hewitt’s ($54.95) are not that apparent, making the $35 savings with Jackson Hewitt worth considering. However, if you use QuickBooks for your accounting system, TurboTax is the only one of these programs that lets you seamlessly import from QuickBooks.
- Best for Middle-Class Families – If you’re a middle-class family who doesn’t own a business, TurboTax’s deluxe plan is comparable, if not better, than those of H&R Block and Jackson Hewitt.
- Comparing Deluxe Plans – However, the deluxe plans of H&R Block ($34.99) and Jackson Hewitt ($34.95) have more extensive offerings than TurboTax. Included is support for the sale of stocks, bonds and mutual funds. TurboTax doesn’t offer this capability until you purchase its $59.99 premier plan.
The Bottom Line
If you’re like most Americans, it’s early enough in tax season that you haven’t yet decided how you will file. If you do decide to go it alone, rest assured that all three brands listed above are solid. Look at your individual tax situation and find the plan that gives you everything you need at the lowest price. (For more, see 10 Steps to Tax Preparation.)