It’s tax season but if you're like many Americans, you haven’t yet started preparing the return for your 2016 taxes. If that’s the case, you're likely wondering about how you will file. Will you take the do-it-yourself route or hire somebody to prepare them for you?
If you choose to file on your own, there are several options for programs you can use. Read on for our evaluation of offerings from three popular brands: H&R Block, TurboTax and Jackson Hewitt. (For related reading, see: Tax Tutorials.)
If you’re a Walmart (WMT) customer, you might have seen Jackson Hewitt cubicles in the superstore. The company has more than 6,300 locations; nearly half of them are inside Walmart locations. 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 – something TurboTax doesn’t offer – and get unlimited chat and email support.
If your return is a bit more complex (maybe you have student loan deductions, an earned income tax credit or more than $1,500 in interest income), you pay $19.95 to file your federal return. As your tax situation becomes more complicated, you will need a more expensive software package. For example, 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 packages, filing a state return is an additional $36.95 per state although the free plan offers one free state return.
If you choose to have your refund put on an American Express Serve card, Jackson Hewitt will add $50 to your refund.
TurboTax is pretty popular, not just because of its aggressive ad campaign but also because Intuit (INTU), 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.
What might turn some people off to TurboTax is that its first paid option, the deluxe package, starts at $34.99 (not $19.95 like Jackson Hewitt) and a state return costs an additional $34.99. But TurboTax’s deluxe plan is more comparable to Jackson Hewitt’s deluxe plan at $34.95 because of support for itemized deductions. It also maximizes mortgage 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 $54.99 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 $54.99. 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, a $10 increase from the 2015 version. 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; the Home & Business tier becomes a necessity.
H&R Block is known for having tax offices within driving distance of most Americans. The company’s new 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 like buying and selling a home and home mortgage deductions. It costs $34.99 – $10 more expensive than last year – and includes support for 1099s, free tech support, and a "drag and drop" feature that permits free import of current and past-year data. But the state fee soars to $36.99. The deluxe plan provides investor support at a cheaper price point than Turbo Tax.
The top plan is the Premium tier, coming in at $54.99 – $5 higher than last year. It includes support for the self-employed and rental-property owners. TurboTax offers rental property support in its $54.99 premier plan and Jackson Hewitt’s top plan, also called premium ($54.95), supports rental properties.
The Bottom Line
All of the packages listed above include selling points like 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 W2 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 email support. TurboTax and H&R Block offer community-based support. None of the companies offers 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. TurboTax doesn’t have a plan between its free offering and its more robust $30-plus levels. But you get a lot at that second level. If you’re a middle-class family that doesn’t own a business, TurboTax is comparable, if not better, than H&R Block and Jackson Hewitt.
Comparing deluxe plans. H&R Block ($34.99) and Jackson Hewitt ($34.95) have more extensive offerings than Turbo Tax. Included in their value-priced deluxe plans is support for the sale of stocks, bonds and mutual funds. TurboTax doesn’t offer this capability until you purchase its $54.99 premier plan.
All three brands listed above are solid, so look at your individual tax situation and find the plan that gives you everything you need at the lowest price. (For more on getting ready for your taxes, see 10 Steps to Tax Preparation.)