Even if you’re expecting a sizable refund or have a simple tax situation that doesn’t require you to fill out a ton of forms, you probably don’t love filling out your taxes. There are plenty of more enjoyable ways to spend your time: playing with your kids, going on a hike, even shopping online in anticipation of your tax refund.
This year, it took me a lot longer than I would have liked to complete my tax return. But, to be fair, that’s because I sampled several different online tax preparation options and evaluated each on its merits. My tax prep marathon covered three of the most popular programs: TurboTax, TaxACT, and H&R Block. Here’s how my experience went with each.
My Tax Situation
To ensure that my experience was consistent across the board, I used a modified version of my actual tax situation for all three of these tax prep programs. The highlights:
- No dependents
- Moved across state lines (so two state returns)
- Taking the standard deduction
- Using the married filing separately option
- No W-2s
- Schedule B (interest and ordinary dividends)
- Schedule C (profit or loss from a business)
- Schedule D (capital gains and losses)
- Accounting for quarterly estimated tax payments made throughout the year
TurboTax, H&R Block, and TaxACT all have a maximum refund/minimum tax liability guarantee or your fees are waived. Luckily for them, my federal and state tax liabilities were identical at all three. However, there were significant differences in the cost of the services I used at each, as well as differences in the amount of time it took to prepare my taxes with each.
Free Edition: $0 federal, $9.99 per state; Basic Edition: $0 federal, $0 per state ($36.99 state when filed using the mobile app); Deluxe Edition: $24.99 federal, $36.99 per state; Premium Edition: $44.99 federal, $36.99 per state.
- Time Spent Preparing: 93 minutes
- Version Used: Premium. After beginning with the Free version, I was prompted to upgrade to this package while completing the Income section, after indicating all the forms I’d need to complete my return. H&R Block recognized the complexity of my situation and showed me the upgrade screen, advising that my return couldn’t be completed with a lower-priced plan.
- Total Cost: $118.97
- Cost to Pay for Service With Your Refund: $34.99 to pay with your federal refund, $13 to pay for each state with your refund
H&R Block is one of the most popular online tax preparation programs around. Plus, it’s backed up by a network of more than 10,000 brick-and-mortar tax prep locations. But filing online may be more convenient than schlepping down to the local office, and it’s almost certain to be cheaper. The software uses an interview-style process that takes you through your taxes step by step, ensuring that you don’t miss any important forms or schedules.
Before I even began my return, I noticed a couple positive things about H&R Block’s online tax filing program. First, I didn’t have to create an account to begin my return – and I later discovered that I could complete my entire return without creating an account, though I couldn’t actually file it or save it for completion at a later date.
Also, I was immediately struck by H&R Block’s refund bonus, which boosts your federal refund’s size by up to 10% (5% for Free and Basic plans, and 10% for Deluxe and Premium plans) when you accept it as one or more gift cards to well-known retailers such as Target, Kohl’s, and Best Buy.
However, upon beginning my return, I found some questions and information to be confusing, relative to the clear, simplified explanations offered by TurboTax. For instance, when I indicated that I had gotten married during the tax year, I was shown a filing options chart with these explanations:
Instead of auto-selecting your filing status based on your answers to a series of questions (like TurboTax), H&R Block requires you to interpret this information and make your own decision. While many filers probably wouldn’t have a problem doing so, that extra step could make some novices uncomfortable.
Along those lines, the income section is particularly challenging, and definitely could be overwhelming for a novice filer. It simply listed every IRS income form and asked me to select the ones that applied to my situation, and “if you’re not sure if one applies to you, check the box anyway and we’ll work on it together.” Yes-or-no questions about each type of income would be smarter and less time-consuming, potentially preventing inexperienced users from selecting inapplicable forms.
On the bright side, the last page of each section included a succinct, clear summary of the information I’d entered in it. If anything looked amiss, I could go back to the appropriate page and edit the erroneous information with one click. Since I started as a guest, each section also ended with a request to create an account, which I was able to decline each time.
Though I never hit a major snag during the preparation process, I was impressed by the “Help” button on the left sidebar. When clicked, it produces a popup window that lists popular help topics in question form and featured a search bar for less common items. This makes it easy to get clarification without having to exit the return or open a new window.
Once the program checked my federal return for accuracy, it immediately whisked me into the state section, automatically importing all relevant information from the federal return. The preparation process unfolded in similar fashion to the federal return, except with state-specific questions.
Going back to fill out my second state return was easy – I had specified that I moved during the tax year, so the software automatically brought me back to the beginning of the state return process after completing the first. Just prior to filing, H&R Block checked my return for accuracy again. I was able to view my federal and state returns, print my estimated tax vouchers for the coming year, and specify how I wanted to pay the tax I owed. (Had I been eligible for a refund, this is where I would have been asked how I wanted to receive it.) All in all, the process ended smoothly, and in less time than the other two options here.
- Juicy Refund Bonus. H&R Block has the best refund bonus of any product reviewed here: up to 5% of your refund for Free and Basic users, and up to 10% for users of higher-priced plans. The only catch is that you have to get part or all of your federal refund as a gift card. However, the number of choices – including general merchandisers like Target – means that for most, this probably isn’t much of a drawback.
- Try Before You Buy. H&R Block allows you to begin to complete your return (though you cannot file) without creating an account, saving time and hassle at the beginning of the process. I was able to complete my entire return without creating an account – though if I hadn’t been able to do it all in one sitting, I would have been forced to create an account to save my partially completed return. TurboTax and TaxACT require you to create an account immediately.
- In-Person Support During and After Filing. H&R Block has a network of more than 10,000 branches across the United States, making it easy to switch from online to in-person preparation if needed. TurboTax and TaxACT don’t have such support. H&R Block also offers free, in-person audit support for all online filers, a key perk for folks who worry that they might be audited. TurboTax and TaxACT make you pay for audit support and don’t offer it in person.
- Low-Priced Plans Aren’t Great for Complex Situations. H&R Block’s free and basic versions are suitable for very simple tax situations, such as filers who earn most or all of their income through traditional employment. However, they cannot support self-employed people and folks with capital gains income, among others. I don’t have the most complicated tax situation in the world, and I still had to upgrade to the most expensive H&R Block plan to take care of everything I needed to. The obvious contrast here is TaxACT, which allowed me to complete my entire return with the free version.
- Limited Importing Capabilities. Though it didn’t directly affect my experience, I was disappointed by H&R Block’s limited importing capabilities. You can only import your prior year return from TurboTax and TaxACT. If you used one of the many other online tax prep programs, you’re out of luck. This limitation is surprising in light of H&R Block’s high profile – you’d think they’d want to consolidate their competitive advantage by poaching customers from as many smaller rivals as possible.
- Inflexible Navigation During Preparation. H&R Block requires you to complete your return in order and doesn’t let you jump past uncompleted sections if they don’t apply to your situation. Several times during the process, I found myself clicking through multiple irrelevant questions. By contrast, TaxACT lets you skip inapplicable questions right away.
4.2 out of 5 stars: I like H&R Block’s relative ease of use, moderate pricing, and robust customer support. My experience was generally straightforward, with none of the bugs that plagued my TurboTax return, and none of the overwhelming detail inherent in TaxACT’s interview process.
However, it would be nice if H&R Block could streamline its internal navigation to allow users to jump back and forth within their return, and perhaps take a page from TurboTax and implement a more intuitive interview process. More importing compatibility would help too. In general, H&R Block is suitable for people who have some tax filing experience and comfort with the basic contours of the process, including choosing the appropriate filing status and selecting the right forms.
See our H&R Block Review for more information.
Federal Free Edition: $0 federal, $0 state; PLUS Edition (only available as upgrade from Free): $29.99 federal, $36.99 per state; Deluxe Edition: $34.99 federal, $36.99 per state; Premier Edition: $54.99 federal, $36.99 per state; Home & Business: $79.99 federal, $36.99 per state.
- Time Spent Preparing: 95 minutes
- Version Used: Home & Business. I begin with the Federal Free version, which quickly proved insufficient for my needs. I actually upgraded in steps: Each time I provided an interview answer that couldn’t be handled with my current version (for instance, indicating that I had received a 1099-MISC and thus had self-employment income), TurboTax prompted me to upgrade to the cheapest version that could handle it. I was eventually shepherded into the most expensive plan.
- Total Cost: $153.97
- Cost to Pay for Service With Your Refund: $34.99 federal (no option to pay with state refund)
TurboTax is another extremely popular online tax filing program. Though it doesn’t have a dense network of physical branches to back it up, TurboTax is owned by Intuit, one of the country’s best-known financial software firms. TurboTax’s plans are a bit more expensive than H&R Block’s, despite a free version that’s appropriate for relatively simple tax situations. Though I started with the free version, I ended up having to upgrade to Home & Business, the priciest plan.
On the other hand, TurboTax’s interview-style preparation process is extremely intuitive, demystifying tax issues for novice filers. TurboTax also has a clean, mobile-friendly layout and a great mobile app, not to mention excellent customer support and a dynamic, user-supported knowledge base known as the AnswerXchange.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I’ve used TurboTax’s online tax prep software for several years and was already quite familiar with it before conducting this comparison. However, my experience this year was a little different – and not always in a positive way. Had I not used TurboTax in the past, I wouldn’t have been able to complete my return as quickly due to persistent bugs and functionality issues. These included HTML errors when attempting to upgrade and randomly being signed out of my account (though fortunately not losing already-completed forms) while actively working on my return – not due to an inactivity timeout.
Upon beginning my return, I noticed that I could import prior-year returns from any tax prep service, as long as the return was in PDF format. This would have been nice had I not used TurboTax last year. Early on, I was accosted by a smattering of helpful popup windows that explained key features of the platform, such as the help bar and internal navigation tools.
I easily navigated through the early stages of my return. TurboTax’s questions were more pointed and easy to understand than H&R Block’s, and the platform never presented confusing or vague information. At the beginning of each section, TurboTax took care to call out “less common” situations and forms, subtly directing me towards items that were more likely to apply to me.
The platform also places “Learn More” buttons next to items that may require explanations, such as schedules and types of income. Clicking on the button calls up a popup window that explains the topic in detail – a somewhat less confusing solution than H&R Block’s searchable popup help windows. For filers in a rush, this is a time-saving alternative to searching the AnswerXchange.
I was also happy that TurboTax waited until I was done with my state taxes to review everything, a marginal time-saver relative to H&R Block’s federal-only and state-only reviews. However, when I attempted to move backward in my federal return to check something manually, I was stymied by an HTML error – a frustrating reminder of TurboTax’s functionality issues.
As with H&R Block, TurboTax automatically transferred all the information from my federal return to my two state returns. The process for adding a second state was slightly more cumbersome, requiring me to navigate an additional drop-down menu. I was also asked again if I had earned income in a third state after indicating that I hadn’t. But these were pretty minor issues.
After completing my two state returns, TurboTax reviewed my entire package and assessed my audit risk with a handy thermometer graphic. This did include a pitch for the company’s Audit Defense package, an optional add-on that costs $39.99.
Prior to filing, I was asked how I wanted to pay my taxes and file my returns. I was also given a choice of which returns to file. Though the review and filing process dragged on a bit, I appreciated TurboTax’s thoroughness.
- Extremely User-Friendly. TurboTax is probably the most user-friendly of these three programs. Its design and aesthetic are intuitive and easy on the eyes, unlike the more cluttered, less intuitive TaxACT. Its questions are both simply worded and logical, whereas H&R Block’s interview questions and explanations can be confusing. And in addition to offering a powerful app, TurboTax’s regular version is very mobile-friendly.
- Impressive Importing Capabilities. TurboTax lets you import your prior year’s tax return and supported forms from any other online tax prep system, as long as you can convert the return to PDF format beforehand. That’s better than TaxACT and H&R Block, both of which limit importing to a few choice programs and cut out many lesser-known options.
- Good Customer Service and Help Functions. TurboTax has some useful support features, including a customer service hotline that’s staffed 5am to 9pm Pacific, and a comprehensive knowledge base called the AnswerXchange. I referred to the AnswerXchange several times during this year’s filing process and always had my questions answered to my satisfaction. Though I haven’t personally done it, TurboTax users can actually answer questions in the AnswerXchange, allowing fellow users to share collective knowledge.
- Plans Are Pricey. Though it’s arguably the easiest to use, bugs notwithstanding, TurboTax is the highest-priced option of the three. I paid $79.99 to file my federal taxes with the Home & Business plan, compared to $44.99 with H&R Block Premium and nothing with TaxACT. For filers without razor-thin budgets, TurboTax’s other features may outweigh its steep price tag, but it could be disqualifying for more cost-conscious folks.
- Lots of Apparent Bugs in the System. My personal TurboTax experience was rife with annoying bugs and functionality issues this year, which is surprising given that I’ve used it with no problems in the past. While it’s impossible to know for sure how others experience the platform, my experience could well have been representative. By contrast, H&R Block and TaxACT didn’t have any obvious software problems.
- Low-Priced Plans Only Good for Straightforward Tax Situations. Like H&R Block, TurboTax’s lower-priced plans are only ideal for filers with simple tax situations. If you have capital gains income, you need to upgrade to the Premier plan, while self-employed people need to purchase the Home & Business plan, which costs $79.99. TaxACT’s free plan can handle virtually everything TurboTax Home & Business can for a small fraction of the cost (assuming you need to file a state return – if not, TurboTax Home & Business literally costs infinitely more than TaxACT’s free version).
4.1 out of 5 stars: As my go-to tax filing program for the past several years, TurboTax has built up a lot of goodwill with me. Unfortunately, the program seemed out of sorts this year, with bugs and functionality issues that tested my patience. Plus, it’s significantly more expensive than competitors, and its free plan seems little more than an afterthought.
That said, you do get what you pay for: an intuitive interview process, a great (and mobile-friendly) layout, and lots of support. It’s nice to be able to import from so many sources too. In general, TurboTax is ideal for novice tax filers as well as more experienced filers for whom affordability isn’t a top concern.
See our TurboTax Review for more information.
- Time Spent Preparing: 130 minutes
- Version Used: Free Federal. Since it supported most major forms, I knew I could complete my return without upgrading, and wasn’t prompted to do so at any point in the preparation process. However, I found out later that upgrading to Deluxe offered significant benefits, such as being able to choose which sections of your return to work on. If I could do my TaxACT return over again, I’d probably use Deluxe, which you can upgrade to manually at any point during the preparation process.
- Total Cost: $28.98
- Cost to Pay for Service With Your Refund: $17.99 federal (no option to pay with your state refund)
I hadn’t used TaxACT before this year and wasn’t really familiar with the software, so I didn’t know what to expect when I started. All in all, I was pleasantly surprised. TaxACT’s free version uses interview-style questions that are similar, though more exhaustive and less responsive to user answers (the system may ask you questions about specific situations that don’t apply to you, based on previous answers, whereas TurboTax and H&R Block seem to learn better from earlier responses).
By covering just about every topic that could possibly apply to you, TaxACT’s free version can be tedious and time-consuming. Exhaustive questions, coupled with a somewhat less user-friendly interface, were the main reasons it took me more than 30 minutes longer to file with TaxACT than with TurboTax and H&R Block.
However, the Deluxe version offers a different, and potentially helpful, approach: You can choose which sections to work on, when you want to work on them, without having to complete prior sections first. If you know that a particular section doesn’t apply to you, you don’t have to do anything with it. By comparison, H&R Block lets you select specific forms to work on, but you can’t go on to the next section without fully completing the one you’re currently working on.
TaxACT’s free version includes the vast majority of available tax forms. However, the biggest omission is Form 1041, which is only available through TaxACT’s $29.99 Estates & Trusts plan. But the ability to choose your sections and skip around is likely the biggest single reason to upgrade to Deluxe.
I tried both the Free and Deluxe versions of TaxACT, but was ultimately able to complete my return with Free. My tax situation hasn’t been simple enough to qualify for free federal filing with TurboTax in some years, so it was a great feeling to do everything I needed to do without upgrading to a paid plan.
However, of these three programs, TaxACT was somewhat less user-friendly. For starters, its questions were presented in small, plain-font text that would have looked tiny on a small screen. And since I began and nearly completed my return with the Free version, only later going back to the Deluxe version to see how its features differed, I wasn’t able to choose which sections to work on. Instead, I had to submit to a series of detailed, sometimes redundant questions, often accompanied by exhaustive explanations that I felt could overwhelm or confuse novice filers.
Questions like these definitely lengthened my preparation process and were a big part of why my TaxACT federal (and state) return took by far the longest of the three programs. I could have saved all that hassle simply by upgrading, but TaxACT’s information pages didn’t make it clear that the Deluxe version allowed you to pick and choose your sections.
Bottom line: If you have a simple tax situation or are confident enough to know which items pertain to you, I’d recommend upgrading to Deluxe (despite the cost) and choosing your own topics. However, if you don’t know enough about taxes – for instance, you’re not comfortable choosing your own forms, or deciding on your own whether you need to itemize deductions – you may find the plodding pace of the interview redundant or even confusing.
Another TaxACT feature that I didn’t get to use during this year’s preparation process is DocVault, an app that lets you take smartphone photos throughout the year of bills, forms, receipts, and other paper items that you might need to complete your taxes, then upload them to a secure server for reference at tax time. If I use TaxACT to file next year’s taxes, I’ll surely use DocVault to keep track of my stuff this year.
TaxACT’s state return section is similar to the other two services’, with automatically imported information and thorough, state-specific questions. (As with TaxACT’s federal return, sometimes too thorough.) However, there’s an extra dropdown menu to navigate – even though TaxACT has your personal information and thus knows where you live, you still have to specify the state for your first state return.
Like TurboTax, TaxACT waits until all your returns have been completed to review them for accuracy, saving some time on the margins. However, the review process is somewhat more complicated than TurboTax’s and H&R Block’s, with different alert levels (red, yellow, and green) that identify issues of varying severity. TaxACT uses these alerts to assess your overall audit risk, though it doesn’t display this risk in a handy graphic like TurboTax. You can also skip the alerts altogether. Finally, prior to paying, TaxACT pitches you on its Tax Audit Defense service, which costs $39.99.
Once you pay for TaxACT’s prep services, the platform takes care of your refund or tax payments, and walks you through how to prepare for next year’s taxes (including introducing its Donation Assistant app, which can help you track non-cash charitable donations throughout the year).
As with TurboTax, I found that this part of the process dragged on a bit, lengthening an already tedious process. But I finished up without spending $100-plus to file my taxes – and that was something to celebrate.
- No Upgrade Necessary for Complex Tax Situations. TaxACT was the only one of these online tax prep options that didn’t require me to upgrade to complete the process. All the forms I needed, including Schedules B, C, and D, were available with the Free version. Not coincidentally, TaxACT was also my cheapest option by far. Due to my Schedule C filing, H&R Block and TurboTax both required an upgrade to the highest-priced version.
- Option to Skip Ahead Is Useful. I like that TaxACT gives Deluxe users the option to choose which sections of their returns to work on. This cuts out a lot of unnecessary questions, especially for simpler tax situations that don’t involve itemized deductions or multiple schedules.
- Useful Apps Help You Keep Track of Important Forms and Records. TaxACT’s DocVault app is a useful way to keep track of receipts, bills, tax forms, and other important documentation that you may need to complete your return. You can add photographic records to a secure, mobile-accessible storage area throughout the year, potentially eliminating the need to file away tax-related papers for reference at tax time. Meanwhile, TaxACT has a separate app that lets you calculate the fair value of non-cash charitable donations, a potentially lifesaving tool for filers who donate vehicles, furniture, or other valuable items. H&R Block and TurboTax don’t have such user-friendly record-keeping aids.
- Limited Customer Support. TaxACT has a helpful knowledge base and a basic customer support framework, but it lacks the robust human support of H&R Block and the dynamic, user-supported knowledge base of TurboTax. Such resources are useful for inexperienced filers and those with newly complicated tax situations, such as a Schedule C or business tax credits.
- No Refund Bonus. TaxACT doesn’t offer a refund bonus for filers who choose to receive their refund as a gift card. In fact, there isn’t a refund-as-gift-card option here at all. This could be a big drawback for folks who want to wring every last penny out of their tax refund.
- More Time-Consuming Overall. It took me more than half an hour longer to file my taxes with TaxACT than with H&R Block or TurboTax. My process was lengthier for two reasons: One, because I didn’t choose which sections I would work on, and two, because TaxACT asked more (and occasionally less relevant) questions. My filing time would have been a bit shorter had I chosen my sections (which would have required an upgrade), but still longer than H&R Block and TurboTax.
4.3 out of 5 stars: I was pleasantly surprised by my experience with TaxACT. It was by far the cheapest option, a particularly important point given my need to file two state returns. And though I ended up using the free version and thus couldn’t choose which parts of my return to work on, it was nice to see that the Deluxe version offered that option.
That said, my TaxACT return took longer than my TurboTax and H&R Block returns, and by the end I had grown frustrated with its thorough but tedious questions. Also, I wasn’t impressed with the support infrastructure.
In general, TaxACT is great for somewhat more experienced filers who know which forms they need. While I probably wouldn’t have felt comfortable using it the first time I ever filed my taxes, its low cost also makes it suitable for less experienced filers on a very tight budget.
See our TaxACT Review for more information.
TurboTax, TaxACT, and H&R Block might be three of the most popular online tax prep options, but they’re not the only ones out there. A bevy of other options exist, from relatively well-known providers like TaxSlayer and eSmart Tax, to lesser-known options like FreeTaxUSA.
And the federal government can help as well with free tax preparation options, thanks to the Free File Alliance (a consortium of 14 tax prep companies that offer free filing services to filers who meet certain income and residency criteria) and Free Fillable Forms, which are available to filers regardless of income and residency.
The point is, there are plenty of tax preparation options besides these three. Depending on your tax situation, you might find one that’s easier, faster, or simply less stressful to use.
What’s your favorite online tax preparation software?