Every tax season, we struggle with the same question: do I hire a tax pro or try to find the best free tax software and do it alone? It largely depends on how you need to file (even if you’re lucky enough to reside in a state that doesn't charge income tax).
One very good reason to opt for a DIY tax review is the steep cost of hiring a CPA. According to a study conducted by the National Society of Accountants, taxpayers paid $188 on average to have their simple Form 1040 and state returns filed by pro. If you’re someone whose tax situation is particularly complex— say you own a small business, earn money through a side hustle, or own rental properties—it could cost up to $1,784 on average to hire a pro.
Thankfully, the best free online tax filing services make it easy to get your taxes done and get that refund.
Best free tax software summary:
Best bargain provider: TaxAct
Best for simple returns: H&R Block
Best for self-employed: CreditKarma
Best overall: TurboTax
TurboTax is widely known as the gold standard for DIY tax preparation. With a customer-friendly interface and 24/7 online support, it regularly tops many “best of” lists each tax season. If you’re filing a Form 1040 and intend to use only the standard deductions, TurboTax is 100% free. For 2020, in response to recent changes to the tax code, the TurboTax Free Edition now allows you to file for a few basic deductions and credits, including the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and child tax credit.
Keep in mind that TurboTax is only free for filers whose taxes are very simple. If you’re self-employed, earn 1099 income, or have itemized deductions, you’ll need to upgrade to a paid version such as TurboTax Deluxe (pricing starts at $60).
“Overall, H&R Block offers one of the better tax software programs around,” according to Money Under 30. “The free version is extremely comprehensive; if you need more than a free tax software, H&R Block isn’t the cheapest, but it’ll give you the level of performance and confidence you’ll need to prepare your returns.”
Founded in 1955, H&R Block has become virtually synonymous with individual tax preparation. Like TurboTax, H&R Block offers a basic version for qualifying users. If you plan on filing a Form 1040 with no itemized deductions, you can file your federal and state returns free.
TaxAct is a DIY tax leader. Though it does offer a free version, TaxAct stands out because its paid versions are significantly cheaper than those of its competitors, particularly TurboTax and H&R Block. Josh Patoka of WellKeptWallet says, “The most expensive TaxAct filing option can cost $124.90 if you’re self-employed and also file one state return. To compare, TurboTax charges up to $165 for the same service.” One downside: TaxAct has a more bare-bones, less intuitive interface than many of its competitors. If your top priority is ease of use, it may not be your best option.
Now in its fourth year, Credit Karma Tax is 100% free regardless of your income level—really! Even if you’re self-employed, own a home, or have itemized deductions, you can still use the software at no cost. What’s more, Credit Karma’s software is easy to use, guiding filers through the process and offering simple explanations that demystify confusing tax jargon along the way.
It also offers free Audit Defense, or professional support, if you are audited by the IRS.
TaxSlayer offers the same standard amenities as its competitors for its free package. What sets TaxSlayer apart from other programs is its guided process. For those who want a completely hands-off tax approach, TaxSlayer offers a 'tax wizard.'
TaxSlayer “doesn’t blow competition like TurboTax and H&R Block out of the water, but it’s superior in several important ways. Most notably, it’s cheaper than many better-known alternatives,” says Brian Martucci at Money Crashers. In addition to free federal filing, TaxSlayer includes one free state return.
If your taxes are a bit more complex, you may want to consider purchasing TaxSlayer Classic, which handles all tax situations for just $17.
Jackson Hewitt has been in the tax-prep business for a long time. Their DIY tax program remains a solid choice for filers with simple returns.
They offer online chat support, a helpful wizard that asks you questions, and, if you really get stuck, you could take your return (for a fee) to one of their many brick-and-mortar-offices.
The United States government offers free online filing through a host of partner providers. Your adjusted gross income must be $69,000 or less to use this service.
If you earn more than that, you can still fill out forms online for free, but you won’t get the same guided process offered by many of the best free tax software programs out there.
The Bottom Line
When you’re choosing a DIY tax option, consider how you’ll use the program and where you need help the most. If you’re filing for the first time, a program with a guided wizard may be your best bet to avoid costly mistakes. But if you’re a tax wizard yourself, you could save time (and money) by opting for a simpler option. No matter what method you choose, be sure to pay your taxes to avoid penalties.