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Getting the most from tax software

Got around 14 hours to work on your tax return? That's what the Internal Revenue Service estimates it will take the average taxpayer to complete Form 1040.

Sure, that includes the time it takes to pull together records, learn about the form, decipher tax laws, copy the return and send it in. But even discounting these ancillary duties, the agency figures it still will take about three hours just to fill out its most popular income tax form. If you have additional schedules or tax credits to file, you might be measuring your tax time by the calendar instead of the clock.   Watch: "Filing taxes - software vs. accountant"

Don't want to spend that much time with your 1040? Then tax-preparation software may be the answer. These packages promise time as well as cash savings. And some tax-prep devotees contend they can even save your sanity during tax season.

Tax software
Last filing season, more than half of us turned to computer tax software to fill out our forms. If you decide to join the PC instead of paper crowd, here are some ways to make the process go more smoothly.
10 ways to spend your tax refund
  1. Determine your needs
  2. Comparison shop
  3. Start at the beginning
  4. Find the help link
  5. Run the final form check
  6. Save your work
  7. Check out other options

Determine your needs

Not too long ago, there were only a few choices when it came to doing your taxes by computer. But nowadays, a new tax-prep package seems to appear daily between Jan. 1 and the filing deadline. That means you must do some homework before you pick a program.

First, evaluate your personal situation. Are your taxes relatively simple or do you have a lot of considerations, such as a freelance job on the side, that could add to or cut your tax bill and filing requirements? Not exactly sure? Then look for a program with lots of explanations that walk you through the process step by step.

If, however, you're an old hand at tax filing but want the software calculators that double-check your math, look for a package that lets you easily skip over sections.

And don't forget the technical requirements. Make sure your computer can handle the software: it has enough memory, the proper operating system, etc. Nothing's more frustrating than getting a product home and finding out you can't use it.

Comparison shop

Once you've decided what you need from a tax-prep package, shop around. Don't waste any potential tax savings by overpaying upfront. Look not only at the software's base price, but also at any costs for options and upgrades.

Do you have state forms to file? Are they included in the package or do they cost extra? Will the product let you complete more than one return, say the joint one you file with your wife and your son's 1040EZ? Does it support electronic filing? If so, is it free or is there a fee?


Be sure that as you evaluate the costs of different packages, you examine comparable options.

Start at the beginning

You've loaded the perfect program onto your PC and are ready to knock out that pesky return. Stop! Read the introduction. Even if you're an experienced filer and have used the same program in past tax years, companies invariably tweak their products. They also usually offer tips on ways to more easily maneuver the new features. By taking a few minutes to familiarize yourself with the program, you'll likely save yourself some frustration later in the process.


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