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  New software makes the chore lots easier

    Steve BassBy Steve Bass, Pasadena IBM Users Group

It’s the middle of March and I’m more than a month early on my taxes, a rare occurrence by anyone’s standards, especially mine. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s got nothing to do with me. Heaven forbid I make a deadline. The credit belongs to my tax guy (yeah, that’s how I refer to him. He’s a guy, does my taxes, and has been a tax guy for years).

As tax guys go, he’s even-tempered and patient. But every year he loses his professional cool at the site of me and my shoebox coming into his office. Last year he said, “Go buy a computer tax program, Bass” handing me back my shoebox. “Anything will do,” he said, “just make sure it doesn’t include a shoe box.”

It turns out that once I started using a tax program, I actually enjoyed getting things organized. The process is simple: I just went through and answered the program’s questions. Some programs, such as TurboTax, allowed me to fill in a screen that is a pretty accurate rendition of an IRS tax form (real enough to cause some anxiety).

Other programs are less realistic—you answer questions on screen and move from field to field. And if you’re using an accounting program, there’s a good chance you can export data to a variety of tax programs. For example, Intuit’s TaxCut accepts data from Quicken. By the way, most tax programs will print out IRS approved forms on a laser printer and some even include software for electronic filing.

Give Me Some Help

Every program I tried offered extensive help so even inexperienced users can get some on-line reassurance. At any point you can stop the process and get advice. TurboTax’s chatty, comfortable tone reminded me of my tax guy (it obviously didn’t see the shoe box on my desk). All tax programs let me play “what-if” scenarios to my heart’s content. I was able to see the effect of, say, buying a new car, or adding a new deduction to the family. And TurboTax compares your deductions to the national standard to make sure you’re not out of line, saving you a potential audit.

Of course, there’s a downside to doing my taxes on my own. Every so often I’d get a message suggesting a talk with my, uh, tax guy. I ran into one snag when I tried to figure out if I was able to deduct a unique retirement fund from my state taxes. And here’s where I get a little squirrelly with tax programs because the answer was not forthcoming. My solution? Find a tax preparer who’s willing to answer your questions and double-check your computer generated return.

Here are some recommendations if you decide to use tax preparation software:

If you have a simple return, don’t hesitate to do-it-yourself. Your return will be more accurate, you might have fun, and you’ll likely save some money.

If you have a complicated return, and someone does your taxes, try a tax program and compare the results. Do that for a year or two and if you don’t see much of a difference, consider working exclusively with the software.

To get the best price on tax preparation software, compare the prices of local discount stores to mail order companies Many mail order firms bundle the federal and state versions for a lower price.

Steve Bass is a Contributing Editor with PC World and ran the Pasadena IBM Users Group. He's also a founding member of APCUG. Sign up for the Steve Bass online newsletter at 

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