Price: $39.95 (includes E-file)
Ease of use: If you're capable of creating a Facebook account, chances are you won't have a problem with TurboTax Deluxe. This software offered the most hand-holding features with a very intuitive interface that made it easy for first-time filers like myself. Questions were straightforward and conversational without any intimidating legal jargon. The software also does an excellent job of explaining what different forms are used for, so if you're not sure what a 1099-MISC is (or if you're not sure you have one), a pop-up window explains it for you. Alternatively, you can ask the "Live Community." This help option (which works in tandem with the software's extensive FAQ guide) is permanently displayed on the right side of your screen. Type in a question and it'll result in user-generated questions and answers similar to yours. Since this was my first attempt at filing my taxes, I also took advantage of TurboTax's automated feature. Type in your employer's identification number (EIN) and TurboTax gives you the option of automatically importing all of your W-2 information. In addition to my W-2, I also had two 1099-MISC forms. TurboTax made subsequent write-offs/deductions easy to add. However, despite several attempts and reviews, in the end it wasn't able to yield a solid refund and left me with a $2,796 hole in my wallet.
Refund amount: -$2,796
TaxACT 2008 Online
Price: Free (includes E-file)
Ease of use: After my positive experience with TurboTax, I loaded up TaxAct 2008 hoping for a similar experience. Unfortunately, it wasn't. Although it was easy to use, TaxAct wasn't quite as intuitive as TurboTax. In fact, because I was using a free version, the online software kept prompting me to upgrade after every few steps — a very annoying feature. Help was also very limited, and many times clicking on a "help" link resulted in an upgrade prompt. Unlike TurboTax which asked questions in a conversational tone, TaxAct included a few questions which read like they came straight from a legal text book. The online version includes embedded videos which explain what you're doing, but they felt overly simple and didn't answer the real questions I had. Filling in my 1099-MISC forms was also more intimidating than it was with TurboTax, especially since TaxACT didn't explain the purpose of a 1099-MISC as thoroughly as TurboTax. Deductions were also more complicated and not as straightforward as they were with TurboTax. Ultimately, with a little patience (and lots of self-editing), I was able to complete the process and finish my taxes. However, I wound up down $2,177. Less than TurboTax, but still more than what I wanted to pay.
Refund amount: -$2,177
H&R Block (In-person)
Price: $300 (includes E-file)
Ease of use: It may be the fastest and easiest way to file your taxes, but at $300 H&R Block is also the most expensive (when compared to the price of the software mentioned above). If you must go to H&R Block, read everything you sign carefully. I was unknowingly charged $30 for the company's Peace of Mind Extended Service Plan, a guarantee that H&R Block will pay for your taxes (up to $5,000) if an error is spotted. Unfortunately, this sneaky charge is something they've been doing for years. Also, remember to look for coupons (such as this $20 off coupon) which can help bring the total costs down.
Refund amount: -$560
If you've never filed your taxes on your own, or if your taxes are complex, you're better off with an accountant. H&R Block's prices are expensive — the more complicated your taxes are, the more you'll pay — but they also saved me the most money. Even taking into account its $300 fee, H&R Block was able to save me over $1,300 more than the do-it-yourself software options I tried.
On the other hand, if your taxes are simple, one of the software options may be a best bet. Of the two programs I tried, Intuit's TurboTax Deluxe was my favorite by far. The good news, however, is that neither of the programs I used were atrocious. But because my taxes were more complicated than the average person's, an accountant was able to do a better job than I could using these programs.
Louis Ramirez is dealnews' Features editor.