Tax Preparer vs. Software: How to Choose

These tips can help you decide what's right for you this year

A majority of Americans pay someone else to prepare their tax returns. But increasing numbers are turning to tax software and doing their taxes themselves. Which option will be best for you depends on your situation. Here are some of the factors to consider.

Key Takeaways

  • Tax software has made it easier for people to prepare their own taxes, but there are still situations where it's smart to bring in a pro.
  • Depending on your income, you may be able to prepare and file your taxes at no cost through the government's FreeFile program.
  • Tax software generally costs $20 and up. The more complex your situation, the more expensive a package you may need.

Deciding Point: The Complexity of Your Finances

As a general rule, the more complicated your tax situation is, the more advantageous it might be for you to bring in a tax professional. What constitutes complexity? If you have any of the following situations:

  • You own a business. Whether your business is a full-time endeavor or simply a side job, there are some special rules that you may want to discuss with a tax pro. For example, if your business purchased equipment, there are several ways to write off the cost; the best way to do this depends on your current tax situation as well as your prospects for the future. You can, of course, handle many of these situations with appropriate tax software (TurboTax Self-Employed, for example, will help you prepare a Schedule C for a sole proprietorship), but you won’t get personalized advice.
  • You had a major life event this year. For example, if you started or sold a business, went through a divorce, bought or sold a home, or had any other major life change, a tax preparer can alert you to the relevant rules you'll have to follow and the breaks to which you may be entitled.
  • You were busy, busy, busy in the market. Software can automatically input the data from documents such as Form 1099-B, which brokers use to report your securities transactions. However, a tax pro can help make sure you have all the other information that's required for your return, such as your tax basis, which may not be listed on the 1099-B.
  • You want to itemize. Again, software lets you feed this information into the mix, but a tax preparer can provide strategic advice about deductions you're entitled to, the substantiation you need, and other matters that could help you reduce your tax bill while avoiding problems with the IRS.

Deciding Point: Your Tax Proficiency

For some people, the very idea of numbers, taxes, and the process of preparing and filing a return is daunting. For others, taxes have become a routine chore that just needs to be done each year, grudgingly or otherwise.

If you’ve been doing your taxes year after year and not much has changed in your financial or personal situation, you’ll likely be more than able to handle your next tax return. But make sure you're familiar with any relevant changes in the rules, such as those brought about by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, the massive tax bill that went into effect in 2018. For example, the standard deduction basically doubled, the personal exemption went away, and there were new limitations placed on the deductibility of mortgage interest and state and local taxes (SALT).

If you’ve never done a tax return before, decide whether you’re up to the task. Recognize that you don’t have to be a math wizard, because the software or online preparation site will do the calculations for you. And you don’t need to be a tax expert either, because you’ll be prompted to supply the necessary information to complete your return.

Deciding Point: Your Schedule

Time is always an important factor in deciding whether to do something yourself or hire somebody else to do it. In the case of taxes, you’ll spend the same amount of time either way gathering the documentation that's needed to prepare your return. That includes W-2 forms from employers; 1099 forms from banks, brokers, and other income sources; and canceled checks, credit card statements, and online banking records to substantiate your deductible expenses.

So the difference is in the time spent doing the actual return. Depending on your situation, that could be modest (an hour or so) or lengthy (six hours or more). If you don’t have the time to spare, using a preparer is the better choice.

Tax preparation fees vary widely, depending on the preparer's credentials, the complexity of your return, and the part of the country you live in.

Deciding Point: The Cost

Cost may also influence your decision. According to a 2019 study by the National Association of Tax Professionals, the average fee for preparing a tax return was about $203. But fees can vary widely, depending on the qualifications of the preparer, the complexity of the return, and the region of the country.

You can do your own return for little or nothing. If your adjusted gross income is $72,000 or less (for the 2020 tax year in tax filing season 2021), you can use FreeFile, the IRS’s no-cost service that lets you prepare your return online and submit it electronically.

If your income is too high for FreeFile, you can buy software or use a tax-preparation website; prices start around $20 and go up from there depending on your needs. If you need specialized software for self-employment income, rental income, farming income, or other more complex situations, the cost will increase. Some companies also offer free, stripped-down versions of their software, which can be suitable for very simple returns.

Article Sources

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  4. Internal Revenue Service. "About Form 1099-B, Proceeds from Broker and Barter Exchange Transactions." Accessed Dec. 8, 2020.

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