Updated: May 3, 2013 12:14PM
Originally published: February 26, 2004
Twenty million people prepare their own income taxes using pencil and paper forms. Another 79 million use a professional tax preparer. Those pros range from IRS-enrolled agents to seasonal employees of tax services to your brother-in-law the accountant.
And a growing number of people -- an expected 27 million this year -- are using some form of tax preparation software, either desktop or online.
Add me to that list.
While I’ve been writing about tax-preparation software for years, this was one computer program I was unwilling to test. Why? Because what if I made a mistake? It’s obviously a fear shared by many taxpayers. But when the TurboTax people came to demonstrate the latest version of their software, they said something that finally gave me enough courage to tackle the tax job myself, using their software.
This year, TurboTax has the answer to that great fear: Live tax advice.
For an extra fee, TurboTax users have access to TurboTax’s professional staff of experts from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. CST (by phone) and 4 a.m. to 7 p.m. CST (chat room) every day.
Tax experts take the calls
And unlike storefront operations, the TurboTax toll-free advice line is staffed by people who must be certified public accountants, IRS-enrolled agents or who have worked for TurboTax for at least five years. Many of the experts at the other end of the phone line are programmers who have worked to make TurboTax the most accurate and efficient software. Now that this year’s version is in the stores, they’re busy answering your questions.
Bob Meighan, vice president of customer advocacy at TurboTax, explained that this year’s version of TurboTax recognizes that people want validation. So, TurboTax set up a system that allows you to go online and chat with an expert, or call by phone.
There’s a link on every page of the software that lets you hit a button marked “Ask.” So you can stay right at the tax line where your question arises and get your advice.
The cost is $19.95 charged to your credit card, and that buys you 20 minutes of expert time. But TurboTax guarantees to answer your question no matter how long it takes, at no additional charge. And, if necessary, you’ll be transferred to an expert on that particular section of the tax code and the TurboTax program. You can always call back and speak to the same person.
You’re probably wondering what happens to that $19.95 charge if it only takes a minute or two to answer your question. Well, you can ask another question -- or call back in the next few days to use up the balance of your prepaid question time.
Are you still worried about doing it right? TurboTax has another solution.
My CPA is one of my closest friends. So even if I get through this process, you can bet I’m going to send my completed tax form to him to review. TurboTax knows you probably feel the same way: You’re wondering if you’ve done it correctly.
That’s why TurboTax created ProReview, a service that will go over your return, line by line, and then send it back to you in a PDF file (e-mailed securely to you) with marked-up, easy-to-understand comments and suggested changes.
The whole service costs only $39.95 for a 1040 -- probably less than you’d pay to have taxes done at a service. Even including the roughly $39.95 cost of the program (before mail-in rebate of $10), you know you’re probably coming out ahead, not only in dollar terms but in the control over your financial planning that doing your own taxes gives you.
Every year TurboTax (and the competing TaxCut) compete to come up with ways to make online tax preparation simpler. The emphasis this year is for TurboTax to ask you only simple questions to determine which tax-form lines you need to complete in your personal situation.
Go ahead, try it
So if you’ve been putting off filing your taxes using software on your computer, you have a few weeks to try it out.
If you’re really adventurous, you might want to print out a copy of your tax form for your records, and then click to actually file online directly with the IRS.
You’ll get your refund sooner, and you’ll also get a few more good nights’ sleep. That’s the Savage Truth.
Terry Savage is a registered investment adviser and is on the board of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. She appears weekly on WMAQ-Channel 5’s 4:30 p.m. newscast, and can be reached at www.terrysavage.com.