Come tax time, it may feel like trying to figure out where to get your taxes done is even more complicated than actually doing them yourself. You’ll find a wide variety of tax preparation software both on store shelves and online, with many online programs offering you access to a free version of their software.

Free tax preparation sounds like a pretty sweet deal. Unfortunately, it’s hard to know who to trust. Adding to this dilemma is the fact that many companies don’t tell you until you’re halfway through your return that their “free” version isn’t going to be free after all — leaving you with the option of opening your wallet or starting over again with a different tax software vendor.

But we’re here to save you from all of that wasted time and disappointment by outlining the best choices for you and your tax situation.

Best Alternative for Students Paying Tuition or Student Loans

tax deductions for students

H&R Block Free File

If you have student loan debt or are paying college tuition, we recommend using H&R Block software to file. The H&R Block free file system is one of the few designed to handle tuition and student loan interest, both of which can provide big savings for college students and their parents.

This platform can’t handle complicated forms and its help screens and explanations leave a bit to be desired, especially if taxes are completely foreign territory to you. Upon occasion, it also likes to add tax forms you don’t need and then make you hunt them down and delete them before you proceed with your return. Overall, however, the system is fairly easy to use and filing a federal return truly is free for most users. The H&R Block system also offers state filing for a fee, which can save you from having to input all of your tax data twice.

Best Alternatives For Simple W2 Only Returns

TurboTax Free

If you have a very simple tax return with only a W-2, or if you have a lot of experience with taxes, you have two alternatives. One is to make a beeline for Intuit’s TurboTax. TurboTax is well-known, trusted and easy to use. TurboTax has a free version that works great for basic tax returns. Be warned, however, that this software will frequently prompt you and try to upsell you to the premium version, even if you don’t need it.

If, however, you are in a position where going beyond the basics will benefit you, the software will tell you and makes it very easy to upgrade to the paid software package. The program is clean, polished and offers helpful descriptions and information that can nudge you in the right direction if you get stuck.

IRS Free File

You can also try using the IRS Free File system. Again, we remind you that this option is best for very simple returns and experienced tax filers only. The IRS system does not directly file tax returns for you. Instead, it offers a list of TurboTax alternatives and software vendors who will let you use their programs to file your taxes for free.

The IRS provides two opinions. If your income is below $72,000, they will direct you to a list of software programs you can use. You’ll need to read each option carefully as all have different criteria for free filing and each one may or may not include filing a state return. Current IRS Free File partners include Free Tax USA, 1040NOW, TaxAct and TaxSlayer.

Each option is an IRS partner, however, so you can rest assured that any of the programs offered should be able to complete your return properly, and all will do the math for you based on the numbers you provide.

If your income exceeds $72,000, things get a lot more complicated. In this case, the IRS is happy to provide you with all of the free tax forms you need to file your taxes on your own, some of which will do the math for you. When you’re done, you’ll be able to file your taxes electronically and print a copy of your return. But that’s it.

The IRS won’t help you decide which forms you need, won’t check your work for mistakes and offers no assistance other than access to the official form instructions. If you don’t already have an excellent understanding of the tax code and its related forms, this is not the filing method for you.

Best Alternative for Elderly or Non-English Speakers

tax counseling for the elderly tce

Income tax filing can prove especially, ahem, “taxing” for the elderly and those with a language barrier. (We just can’t resist a good tax pun, no matter how “calculated.” We could do this all day.) Fortunately, the IRS has some special programs that can help the elderly and non-native English speakers get their taxes done without added stress.

Volunteer Income Tax Assistance

The first is the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, commonly known as VITA. Operating for more than 50 years, VITA assists people who make $57,000 or less, those with disabilities and those who speak only limited English with their taxes. Although managed by the IRS, VITA volunteers set up offices all across the United States so that those in need of assistance can acquire it locally and in person.

Tax Counseling for the Elderly

The IRS also manages Tax Counseling for the Elderly, or TCE programs. The TCE program focuses on the tax needs of those over 60. As such, volunteers of the TCE program focus on retirement, pensions and other tax issues unique to senior citizens. Like VITA, TCE programs are established nationwide to provide local assistance.

Both VITA and TCA volunteers receive tax training and must pass their training courses in order to help prepare tax returns. In addition to the training, every return undergoes a quality review before it’s filed. Along with tax law training, these volunteers receive training on privacy standards and confidentiality.

Best Alternative for the Self Employed, Contractors and Investors

We get it. You want to get your taxes done as affordably as possible, and it’s hard to beat free. But if you’re self employed, invest in the stock market or have other complicating tax matters to deal with, you may ultimately end up paying dearly for your free tax return. Sometimes the best tax software is no software at all.

Hire A CPA

Yes, you’ll have to pay for a CPA. Unlike computer software, however, a human being can deal with any unexpected twists or turns that may come up along the way. A CPA can not only help make sure your taxes are done right but can explain the process to you along the way. If something does go wrong, you can count on a CPA to have your back and help explain the situation to the IRS and work it out in the best possible way.

It’s probably not what you want to hear, but in some circumstances, the best advice we can give you is to pay a CPA, even if it’s not us. If you do choose us, we can put you in touch with one of our highly-rated professional CPAs. They’ll walk with you every step of the way, preparing a tax return that you can submit without any fear that there is a problem or that you paid too much.

Best TurboTax Alternative for You

Sometimes, the decision about how best to prepare your taxes comes down to more than just the ease of your return. There are a couple of other things to consider in the debate between CPA, tax software or IRS Free File.

How Much Research Are You Willing To Do?

The first is how much research you’re willing to do. Even a veteran tax preparer can run into a tax snag that leaves them scratching their head. When they do, finding the answer isn’t always as simple as a quick Google. Sometimes it means a deep dive into multiple IRS publications and tax law analysis. We live for these moments, but most people find this type of research to be incredibly dry and often confusing. If you’re going to go it alone, be willing to do a little digging if you must.

Need Protection From Audits?

Doing your taxes yourself also means the buck stops with you. Getting tax help from an IRS-approved vendor or CPA can provide you with a layer of protection you won’t have if you go it alone. No matter what, of course, you’re responsible for providing accurate numbers and truthful information. But DIY tax software is only on the hook for a problem if it glitches, which is a rarity. If you want backup in the event of an audit, you want a CPA.

Are You Meticulous With Calculations?

You must also consider whether or not you’re good with details. If you’re more of a big-picture person, you may frequently find that you transpose numbers or make simple arithmetic mistakes often when dealing with numbers. While we can appreciate the perks of not dwelling on minutia, you may not want to do your own taxes if precision isn’t your thing.

Do You Have Time To Do Your Own Taxes?

Finally, consider your time. The Tax Cuts and Job Act of 2017 revamped many tax forms, and it abolished the Form 1040-EZ in the process. This delightfully simple form allowed some taxpayer to complete their taxes in as few as 15 or 20 minutes. But that form is long gone, making it increasingly important to weigh your time. If you just can’t fathom when you’re going to find uninterrupted quiet time to sit down and work on your taxes, maybe the best thing you can do is hand them off to a CPA or professional tax preparation service.

Conclusion

Everybody makes mistakes now and then, even when it comes to filing taxes. The IRS knows this and does make some allowance for honest mistakes and arithmetic errors. Depending on the nature of the mistake, however, they’re sometimes less forgiving than others. In these instances, mistakes can come with costly penalties, fees and interest that can cause financial hardship.

If your taxes are complicated, or if you’re facing a new tax issue that you’re not sure how to handle, please consider letting us help. Our professional CPAs stand ready to help you as much — or as little — as you like.