Tax Preparer vs. Software: How To Choose

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

Slightly fewer than half of e-filed tax returns are self-prepared; paid tax preparers complete the rest. Of course, many taxpayers who complete their own returns do so with the help of tax software, such as Intuit TurboTax, TaxSlayer, and H&R Block Online.

Whether you’re better off with a software package or a tax pro depends on your situation. Here are some factors to help you decide.

Key Takeaways

  • Tax software makes it easier for people to prepare their own taxes, but there are still situations where it’s wise to bring in a pro.
  • Depending on your income, you may be able to prepare and file your taxes at no cost through the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Free File program.
  • Tax software generally costs $20 and up. The more complex your situation, the more expensive the package you may need.

Deciding Point: The Complexity of Your Finances

As a general rule, the more complicated your tax situation, 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 method depends on your current tax situation and your prospects for the future. You can, of course, handle many of these situations with appropriate tax software (TurboTax Self-Employed, for example, helps you prepare a Schedule C for a sole proprietorship), but you won’t get personalized advice.
  • You had a major life event this year. If you started or sold a business, went through a divorce, bought or sold a home, rented out your property, or had any other significant life change, a tax pro can alert you to the relevant rules that you’ll have to follow and the tax breaks to which you may be entitled.
  • You were busy, busy, busy in the market. Tax software can automatically input the data from documents such as Form 1099-B, which brokers use to report your securities transactions. However, a tax specialist can help ensure that you have all the other information required for your return, such as your tax basis, which may not appear on the 1099-B. Additionally, a tax pro can help you report and handle activities related to employee stock options or restricted stock.
  • You want to itemize. Again, tax software lets you feed this information into the mix. Still, a tax preparer can provide strategic advice about the deductions to which you’re entitled, the substantiation you need, and other matters that could help you reduce your tax bill while avoiding problems with the Internal Revenue Service (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 you need to do 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.

Take these examples: The standard deduction basically doubled, the personal exemption went away, and new limitations apply to mortgage interest deductions 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—the software or online preparation site will do the calculations for you. And you don’t need to be a tax expert—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 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 a few hours or a couple of days. The IRS says it takes the average person about 13 hours to file Form 1040 or 1040-SR. If you don’t have the time to spare, then using a preparer is the better choice.

Tax preparation fees vary widely, depending on the preparer’s credentials, the complexity of your return, and your geographic location.

Deciding Point: The Cost

Cost may also influence your decision. According to the IRS, it costs an average of $240 to file a return (including all associated forms and schedules across all tax return preparation methods). But fees for tax pros vary widely, depending on the preparer’s qualifications, the complexity of your return, the type of software used by the tax preparer, and the geographic location.

You can do your own return for little or nothing. If your adjusted gross income (AGI) is $73,000 or less (for the 2022 tax year in tax filing season 2023), you can use Free File, the IRS’s no-cost service that lets you prepare your return online and submit it electronically.

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

How Long Does It Take to File Taxes?

It takes the average person about 13 hours to file Form 1040 or 1040-SR. The 13 hours include six hours of recordkeeping, two hours of tax planning, four hours to complete and submit the form, and one hour for other tasks. Business taxpayers can expect to spend an average of 22 hours on their returns. This breaks down (but doesn’t total 22 due to rounding) to 12 hours of recordkeeping, four hours of tax planning, five hours to complete and submit forms, and two hours for other tasks.

How Much Does Tax Software Cost?

Tax software costs depend on the specific software that you choose and its features. Most software providers have a free online version suitable for taxpayers with simple returns and incomes below a certain threshold (note that you may still have to pay to file your state return). If you can’t use the free version, you can expect to pay from $20 to $200 for the paid version. In general, the more features and capabilities, the higher the cost.

How Much Does a Tax Preparer Cost?

According to the National Society of Accountants, the average fee in 2020 (the most recently available data) to prepare Form 1040 with itemizing on Schedule A was $323, including the state return. The average fee for Form 1040 with the standard deduction was $220 (again, with the state return). The amount you pay increases as you add schedules. For instance, the average additional fee was $42 for Schedule B, $192 for Schedule C, $118 for Schedule D, and $145 for Schedule E.

The Bottom Line

The complexity of your tax situation—and how much you are willing to spend—are two key factors in whether you should rely on tax software or pay for a tax preparer to handle your income tax returns. If you meet the income qualifications, you can get free software through the IRS. Otherwise, the software package that works best will depend on how complex your tax situation is.

If you want to itemize, own a business, had a major life event, or did a lot of trading in the market this year, you might want to invest in using a tax preparer. These experts will help you strategize, plan for next year, and not miss tax breaks you might not know about.

Article Sources
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  1. Internal Revenue Service. “Filing Season Statistics for Week Ending December 3, 2021.”

  2. Internal Revenue Service. “Free File: Do Your Taxes for Free.”

  3. Internal Revenue Service. “Publication 535 (2021), Business Expenses.”

  4. TurboTax. “Reporting Self-Employment Business Income and Deductions.”

  5. Internal Revenue Service. “About Form 1099-B, Proceeds from Broker and Barter Exchange Transactions.”

  6. “H.R.1 — An Act to Provide for Reconciliation Pursuant to Titles II and V of the Concurrent Resolution on the Budget for Fiscal Year 2018.

  7. Internal Revenue Service. “Be Tax Ready — Understanding Tax Reform Changes Affecting Individuals and Families.”

  8. Internal Revenue Service. “1040 (2021): Instructions.”

  9. National Society of Accountants. “2020–2021 Income and Fees of Accountants and Tax Preparers in Public Practice,” Page 19.

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