Personal Finance

Who Won the Battle for Cheapest Tax Prep in 2017?

Why it makes sense to seach for the right deal, and when free doesn’t mean free.

Every year, it starts again: the war for your tax return.

The buzzword for 2017 is “free.” TurboTax and H&R Block, which dominate tax preparation, are battling it out with ad campaigns emphasizing their “zero” price points.

The fierce competition has, in fact, made it easier to get your taxes done for free. But you could easily end up paying quite a bit more than zero for online tax preparation this year. 

Taxpayers with investments, for example, can pay more than $90 for a federal and state return from TurboTax's and H&R Block's online services. Discount online tax preparer TaxAct now charges investors $60, double its price at the beginning of last year. Procrastinators should expect the major players' prices to rise further as the tax season goes on.

Sometimes it pays to pay up, like if you have an especially complicated tax situation. And everyone should try to avoid incompetent tax preparers, which is not always easy. (That incompetent preparer could even be you, if you're prone to making costly mistakes doing your own taxes with software.) Whether you use a do-it-yourself online service, a storefront preparer, or a fancy accounting firm, though, your taxes should end up looking more or less the same. That means you want to save on the fee.

Tax preparers promise free work on simple returns to get new customers in the door. That's when taxpayers often feel the pressure to upgrade, with additional fees for important services such as accessing or importing last year’s return and asking questions over the phone.

The bottom line: If you have a simple tax return, you can probably file truly free of charge through any of the major tax preparers online. Seven in 10 Americans can use tax software through the Free File Alliance, a partnership between the IRS and a dozen preparers. The only requirement is an adjusted gross income of $64,000 or less. A new player is also offering a free product: The credit-monitoring website Credit Karma just started offering tax preparation for no charge.

For those with more complicated situations, figuring out the best option—the cheapest tax advice that also suits your needs—can require some digging.

Here’s a review of how the top online players—TurboTax, H&R Block, and TaxAct, now joined by Credit Karma—are positioning themselves in the 2017 tax season.

H&R Block

The big change is with H&R Block, said Wedbush Securities analyst Gil Luria. “This year they’ve decided to be very aggressive,” Luria said. The company made more taxpayers eligible for free tax filing, both online and in its 12,000 storefront offices, and is luring customers with a new refund product.

Why? H&R Block’s chief executive officer is blunt. “We did not have a good year” in 2016, CEO Bill Cobb said in an interview last month. “Everything that could go wrong did go wrong.” 

H&R Block processed almost a million fewer returns in the U.S. in fiscal 2016 than in 2015, a 4.5 percent drop to 19.7 million, according to results reported in June. 

To combat TurboTax’s “absolute zero,” H&R Block’s 2017 strategy is “more zero.” TurboTax and TaxAct will file basic tax returns—the 1040EZ and 1040A forms—for free. Online, H&R Block is matching that while also filing some regular 1040 forms free of charge, including those for homeowners with mortgage interest deductions and real estate taxes.

Block’s biggest line of business is off-line. To attract millions of additional Americans to its offices, where it can charge more by offering one-on-one tax help, it is dangling a few big lures this year. For instance, the company is offering to process 1040EZ forms for free in person, down from about $50 last year. And taxpayers who show up may be eligible for an advance on their returns.

Changes to federal law and IRS procedures mean it could take until late February for early tax filers to get their refunds. That can feel like a long time for low- and middle-income families that depend on large refunds, especially from the earned-income tax credits and additional child tax credits that involve the longest waits. H&R Block’s Refund Advance program offers filers up to $1,250 of their refund in the form of a no-interest loan.

Finally, H&R Block is trying to improve the experience of visiting their storefront preparers. The company hired IBM's Watson artificial intelligence software to tweak the filing process, allowing customers to follow along on a screen as preparers do their taxes on the other side of the desk. 


H&R Block’s pain last year was its archrival’s gain. The division of Intuit decisively won last year’s tax season, with consumer tax revenue up 10 percent in the 2016 fiscal year and U.S. tax filers up 12 percent.

Not surprisingly, TurboTax is more or less sticking to its 2016 game plan. “We're feeling good about our strategy,” Intuit spokeswoman Julie Miller said this month. For simple filers, the “absolute zero” campaign offers free federal and state 1040EZ and 1040A returns. Those with more complex returns generally will pay more than if they had chosen discount online tax preparers such as TaxAct, though they’ll probably pay a lot less than if they had hired someone to do their taxes for them.

Giving away tax preparation to some customers hasn't hurt revenues overall. TurboTax managed to earn an average of $49 per U.S. return in 2015 and 2016, up from $47 in the years before its “absolute zero” offer began. 

In exchange for higher fees, TurboTax customers get higher technology. “We’re really driving a lot of product innovation,” Miller said, citing features such as video chat with tax experts. The company has also focused on shortening the amount of time it takes customers to prepare their taxes through the TurboTax site and apps. 



TaxAct, TurboTax’s much smaller rival, has said it generally tries to charge at least 50 percent less than Turbo, with pretty basic technology and design. “We’re really focused on delivering the best value for customers,” TaxAct spokeswoman Shaunna Morgan said.

Nonetheless, this year TaxAct has raised prices. Its “plus” product, aimed at taxpayers who itemize or own investments, is now $60 (including both state and federal returns), up $20 from Jan. 20 and double its cost at the beginning of last year. That compares to $72 for TurboTax and H&R Block’s “deluxe” products and $92 for their products aimed at investors. "Even with our recent increase, we are a fraction of the cost of TurboTax and H&R Block," Morgan said. 

Though TaxAct can’t price itself lower than “absolute zero,” it is trying to make its free product more attractive. This year, for example, it’s offering phone support to simple filers at no charge.

TaxAct is also promising an “upfront price” with “no shady fees.” That means disclosing on the opening screen, for example, that its “free” product includes a $10 fee to import last year’s return. TaxAct argues that it’s being more transparent about the final price you'll pay. And if you start a TaxAct return early in the tax season, you lock in that price. That protects you from increases that are common to all online players late in the season.


Credit Karma

One tax preparation service that won’t be charging any hidden fees is Credit Karma, now promising to do Americans’ taxes completely free. The credit-monitoring site makes money through advertising recommended financial products to consumers.

It’s not the first company to try to enter the online tax prep market with a free or very cheap product, and those historical examples show it won’t be easy, Wedbush’s Luria said. It’s hard for an upstart to attract enough customers. “People need to know the product works,” he said. “They need some confidence that the software can handle their taxes.”

Credit Karma founder and CEO Ken Lin is trying to win over skeptics. To launch the product, the company bought a small tax prep outfit and is hiring hundreds of preparers to offer support by online chat, e-mail, and phone.

Still, the product won’t address the needs of about 10 percent of taxpayers, Lin said. The software won’t be able to help people with especially complicated situations, such as those with multi-state tax returns.

And there are trade-offs. Tax filers will have to register for Credit Karma, and while Lin said the company doesn’t sell customer information to advertisers, it does recommend ads to users based on their personal financial data. The site will use your tax information to improve those recommendations, Lin said, though filers with privacy concerns can opt out by declining to "sync up your tax info" early in the process.

One advantage Credit Karma enjoys is its popularity. It has more than 60 million members. Lin said 1.7 million people signed up for a waiting list for tax prep. The tax product was opened to the broader public just as the IRS officially opened for business last month.

Who wins 2017?

So that's how "free" affects you this year. How does it affect the tax prep business?

The trend could hurt profits, said Oppenheimer & Co. analyst Scott Schneeberger. The season is “going to be so hyper-competitive that no one is going to have a great year,” he predicted. 

The big players are also spending heavily on marketing. TurboTax has enlisted David Ortiz, Kathy Bates, and DJ Khaled in its TV ads. H&R Block's Super Bowl ad will feature Jon Hamm touting the IBM Watson initiative. 

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.