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Tax advice book review

What's boring?

  • Watching paint dry
  • A big night on C-Span
  • Waiting at the airport for a delayed flight
  • Celine Dion's Behind the Music episode
  • Reading about taxes

It depends on who you ask. Though any of these could be a cure for someone's insomnia, the last one can save you some serious money. So, prop open those eyelids, and prepare to find a book on tax preparation to guide you through this tax season.

An important reminder
Tax books titled "2000" provide information for your 1999 taxes.

To aid you, we reviewed three major tax preparation guides: Taxes for Dummies, 2000 edition; The Ernst & Young Tax Guide 2000; and H&R Block 2000 Income Tax Guide. All the books cost about the same, so we judged them by other criteria:

  • How easy is it to find an answer?
  • Are the answers understandable?
  • What type of taxpayer is this book best for?

Taxes for Dummies

Overview -- Written in simple English, this book gives good advice, provides illustrative examples, and amuses with the Dummies series' usual bad cartoons and goofy icons. It's terrific for those doing their taxes for the first time or those just stepping up to the advanced Form 1040.

Finding an answer? -- The table of contents and index are well organized and understandable. Importantly, they are easy on the eyes. Handy features of this book's format are two sections that break down the forms and the most important schedules into line-by-line descriptions. Hence, in the Table of Contents, you can find the exact line you are stuck on and go directly to an explanation.

Understandable? -- Yes. The book is written in plain English and does a great job of explaining terms and references. The tax lingo is kept to a minimum.

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What type of taxpayer? -- Taxes for Dummies is excellent for the tax-preparationánovice. Even those who've been around the tax block before can find worthwhile information. But the book is shallow. Those with more complicated returns may find it a bit simplistic. In fact, several times, the authors suggest seeing a tax adviser or trying out tax-preparation software.

And, really, if your taxes are beyond the scope of this book, you ought to consider paying for tax-preparation software or the services of a professional. A book that goes into more depth is only going to be more confusing and boring. Thankfully, Taxes for Dummies gives advice on whether you need to hire a pro and questions to ask when doing so.

H&R Block 2000 Income Tax Guide

Overview -- Do taxes give you gray thoughts? This book's dark newsprint and small type will not change that. Sure, it has tons of great info, but good luck with understanding it before it sends you screaming and you throw it against a wall. This book is similar to the textbook given to students of H&R Block's tax preparer course. At least those unfortunate souls have a teacher guiding them through the material.

Finding an answer? -- With all the info crammed into two columns, H&R Block's table of contents is not easy on the eyes, and it takes a while to figure out the format. The tiny print in the index is more useful, but it's just as difficult to read. Readers may find the alternative directory more helpful because it re-categorizes sections of the book into groups of special topics, such as retirement, homeownership and military personnel.

Understandable? -- Sometimes. I had to read (or at least skim) most of a chapter to find an answer about the current rate for short-term capital gains. However, H&R Block gave a clear definition of a household employee -- now I know I don't have to worry about the "nanny tax" for my monthly house cleaner. One of the many useful charts quickly showed that my husband and I get no income adjustment for our IRA contributions.

What type of taxpayer? -- H&R Block's book has good information for the average tax-paying citizen, but it is best for someone who's already familiar with tax talk. If you've used an H&R Block preparer in the past, this book may help you take over that role. On the other hand, if the book doesn't answer all your questions, you can take advantage of the coupon for $10 off an income tax preparation by a local H&R Block office. Doesn't give you much faith in their book, does it?

The Ernst & Young Tax Guide 2000

Overview -- Accountants wrote this guide, and that's clear all too often. It is also written for people with more money than sense, at least the common sense to go get a professional preparer.

Find an answer? -- A reader can understand the format of the table of contents and index pretty quickly. Thanks to the use of a little color and good layout, the pages are easy to read. Ernst & Young also provides a second directory that re-categorizes sections into groups of special topics, such as investors, senior citizens and business executives.

Understandable? -- On the plus side, Ernst & Young provides lots of examples in highlighted, blue boxes throughout the book. On the negative side, these darned boxes got in the way of finding answers. Small subheads make it hard to pinpoint information. Again, the book was written in an accountant's version of plain English -- sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't. The guide confused me about the status of my daughter's day care, but it gave me excellent advice on what to do when I don't have all the proper information about a care provider.

Type of taxpayer? -- The Ernst & Young Tax Guide is clearly for those with a little extra money in the bank. The guide provides in-depth information about reporting income from mutual funds and investments. It also has an entire chapter on "What to do if you employ domestic help." Overall, this book is not good for a first-timer, because it helps to know what you are looking for.

And the winner is ...

My best pick isn't a book at all. I'd save my money and buy tax software.

But if you insist on being old-fashioned, the best book is Taxes for Dummies. It will answer a lot of your questions and teach you a lot about the ins and outs of tax returns. If you're not ready to make the big do-it-yourself leap, study this guide along with your return prepared by a professional or by tax software. You'll be prepared next year.

No matter which volume you select, for less than $16, you'll have the answers at your fingertips -- assuming you can find them all. With time, patience and some lost sleep, you can do your own return, using the forms conveniently located in the back of each book. You can also be confident that you followed the rules and didn't miss a deduction.

That's assuming the book didn't put you into a deep sleep that causes you to miss this year's April 17 deadline. Sweet (audit-free) dreams.

Tax book comparison table
  Taxes for Dummies, 2000 edition (best book) The Ernst & Young Tax Guide 2000 H&R Block 2000 Income Tax Guide
Tax law changes Yes, only 10, but clearly explained Yes, but not well explained. Directs you to relevant chapters to read more. Yes
Audit information Yes and good information about how to fix mistakes Yes Yes, but only two pages
Glossary Yes Yes Yes, and it leads reader to relevant chapters for further information
Overview of taxes Best Yes Yes
Plan for 2000 taxes Yes Yes Yes
Information on organization and record-keeping Yes, a whole chapter Yes, with an individual tax organizer form Yes, a whole chapter, plus a self-interview in the back
List of common missed deductions Yes Yes Yes
Provides forms Yes, but has fewest forms. Yes. Ernst & Young was the only book kind enough to switch from newsprint to clean white pages for the forms. Yes, has the most and includes worksheets, Sadly, it's the only one that does NOT include forms to file an extension or amend a return.
Insomnia factor (on a scale of 1 to 10) 6 9
Number of pages 569 718 574
Suggested retail price $14.99 $15.95 $15.00
What we paid on Amazon.com (shipping is extra) $11.99 $12.76 $12.00

 

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