Tax Prep Guide 2013: TurboTax vs. TaxACT vs. H&R Block Online

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According to an informal 2012 poll, 86% of blog readers prepared their own taxes using software with a breakdown of 60% TurboTax, 21% TaxACT, and 16% H&R Block at Home. This nearly matches the findings of analytics firm Comscore, which found that of online filers 60% used TurboTax, 18% used TaxACT, and 15% used H&R Block at Home.

I’ve used all three programs over the years and each has their clear strengths and weaknesses. The NY Times recently did their own 3-way comparison with very similar experiences to my own. They actually called in for help and reported the results, so I’ve added this factor into my lightning review:

The major differentiating factors are price, time-saving features, audit support, and ability to answer specific tax questions. In terms of accuracy, I think all three are nearly identical. All three offer a “Maximum Refund Guarantee” (relative to competing software) as well as an “Accuracy Guarantee” (relative to your tax liability) that says that they will pay any penalty and interest assessed by the IRS or your state due to calculation errors on their part (though H&R Block limits this to $10,000). Actual cost can vary widely with sales and discounts, listed here are just the everyday prices.

tt180TurboTax Online

  • Most expensive. Federal Deluxe regular price is $29.99 w/ e-file. However, you now need Premier at $49.99 if you have an investment gains or losses. State return price is $36.99.
  • Best import support from payroll providers and financial institutions for automatic import of W-2 and 1099 forms. Works with free “ItsDeductible” program to help with recording charitable donations.
  • Moderate audit support (you get help, but no in-person representation)
  • Specific tax advice – Free online chat included. Did not provide definitive answer to NYT reporter’s question.

Bottom line: The time-saving choice if you have a lot of brokerage transactions, W-2s, or other 1099 forms to electronically import this year. Also if you have a lot of details to import from last year’s return with TurboTax. It may be worth the extra cost to avoid tedious data entry.

ta200TaxACT Online

  • Cheapest overall with Federal Deluxe regular price at $12.99 w/ e-file. Federal + State return combined including e-file at $17.99.
  • Limited import support (worst of the three).
  • Limited audit support (worst of the three).
  • Specific tax advice – Phone support only, online chat not available. Did not provide definitive answer to NYT reporter’s question.

Bottom line: The value choice if you just want accurate DIY tax return software and don’t need any extra assistance.

hr160H&R Block at Home Online

  • Middle-of-road pricing. Federal Deluxe regular price is $29.99, but includes investments. State return price is $36.99.
  • Moderate import support for 1099s and W-2 (not as broad at TurboTax, better than TaxACT)
  • Best free audit support. Only product that includes an H&R Block Enrolled Agent actually attending your audit in-person. However, consider whether you would hire your own representative in the actual event of an IRS audit.
  • Specific tax advice – Free online chat included, only one to provide definitive answer to NYT reporter’s question.

Bottom line: The got-your-back choice if you want the assurance that a federally-authorized enrolled agent will guide you for free through a potential albeit unlikely audit. Anecdotally the one most likely to provide answers if you have harder tax questions.

Vanguard Total International Stock Index Fund Review (VGTSX, VTIAX, VXUS)

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(See also: Vanguard Total Stock Index Fund Review)

The Vanguard Total International Stock Index Fund is available both as a mutual fund (VGTSX, VTIAX) and an ETF (VXUS). Across all shares classes, there is currently around $90 billion dollars invested in this fund, making it one of the top 10 largest funds in the world. As the name suggests, this fund attempts to include all the investable companies from every single country in the world outside the US. From Indonesia to Morocco, from Luxembourg to Hong Kong. It also includes small-cap, mid-cap, and large-cap companies, unlike many other “total international” index funds. Such a wide coverage area makes this fund very fascinating. Let’s take a look inside.

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LikeAssets Review: A Reality Check For Your Portfolio

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Over the years, I’ve noticed that people tend to overestimate their own stock-picking prowess – myself included. Especially over longer periods of time, if you’re not tracking things carefully you probably don’t know how well you’re doing on a relative basis. We all tend to remember the winners and forget the losers. The sooner you figure out you’re not Buffett, the sooner you can improve your returns. (Otherwise, the sooner you can start your own hedge fund.)

If you like the idea of my Beat The Market Experiment but don’t want to expend too much effort in tracking your own performance, you should check out LikeAssets.com. This new portfolio tracking site recently became the backend for the Wall Street Journal’s Portfolio tool (paid subscribers only), but the direct site is free to all. I’ve been playing around with it for a few days, and here’s my review.

LikeAssets is similar to a Mint.com, SigFig, or Personal Capital (review) in that you hand over your login information and they automatically sync with your brokerage accounts to pull in your holdings. However, their key differentiator is that they automatically choose the appropriate benchmark ETFs based on your holdings in order to determine your “alpha” (excess return above benchmark). You don’t have to do anything. So if you’re holding a bunch of big dividend-paying companies, you’ll probably be matched up with a large-cap value index ETF. The custom benchmark goes even further to match your trades in real-time, not just your current asset allocation:

How is the LikeAssets custom benchmark calculated?
A benchmark portfolio is constructed based on the types of securities in your portfolio. When you make a trade, your custom benchmark portfolio mirrors the trade using an appropriate ETF or set of ETFs.

Once you sign up, you can either choose to import your data electronically from a supported brokerage firm, or manually input your trades. Supported firms include Fidelity, Vanguard, TD Ameritrade, Schwab, E-Trade, Scottrade, and OptionsXpress. Below is a screenshot of my linked TD Ameritrade benchmark portfolio. I would expect my “alpha” here to be close to zero as they are already passive investments, and that is indeed the case.


(click to enlarge)

Unfortunately LikeAssets only works with about 50 brokers right now, and my TradeKing speculative portfolio is currently not supported. Typing in the trades manually is somewhat of a pain as you’d expect, although the software does automatically fill in your buy/sell price based on the market’s closing price that day (not exact, but a good estimate and you can edit it). In addition, dividend distributions are automatically calculated for you (any reinvestment of dividends still must be input manually). Here’s a screenshot of my manually-input TradeKing account:

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TurboTax vs. TaxACT vs. H&R Block at Home: 2012 Lightning Review

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According to a MyMoneyBlog.com reader poll taken last year, 52% used TurboTax, 18% used TaxACT, and 14% used H&R Block at Home to prepare their tax returns, which agreed with the most popular software overall in the US. The remaining 16% either used an accountant (10%), filed on paper (4%), or used another software (2%).

Last year, I used each of “The Big 3″ to do my taxes in order to compare and contract in detail the three software programs. (As an example, my TurboTax 2011 review talks about comma-insertion as a feature…) I plan to do the same thing this year, but to help you early-birds, here’s the highly-condensed version of my reviews:

Accuracy and Maximum Refund Guarantees
In terms of accuracy and interview style, I think all three are comparable if not nearly identical. In fact, I’m certain they all dissect each other’s products annually to ensure this. As such, all three offer a “Maximum Refund Guarantee” as well as a “Accuracy Guarantee” that states that they will pay any penalty and interest assessed by the IRS or your state due to calculation errors on their part (though H&R Block limits this to $10,000).

In my opinion, the remaining major differentiating factors are price, time-saving features, and audit support. Now, there are various discounts and sales that pop up, but here I’m just comparing regular sticker prices.

TurboTax Online

  • The most popular and most polished-looking user interface.
  • Federal Deluxe regular price is $29.99. State return price is $36.99.
  • Best import support from payroll providers and financial institutions for automatic import of W-2 and 1099 forms.
  • Moderate audit support (you get help, but no in-person representation)

Bottom line: The time-saving choice if you have a lot of brokerage and/or bank 1099s to electronically import, or a lot of details to import from last year’s return and you used them last year. For those like me that would pay extra to avoid all that tax lot data entry.

TaxACT Online

  • Cheapest overall with Federal Deluxe regular price at $9.99. Many can get by with Federal Free version. Cheapest state return at $8.00.
  • Again, just as accurate as the others.
  • Limited import support (worst of the three).
  • Limited audit support (worst of the three).

Bottom line: The value choice if you just want reliable DIY tax return software and don’t need any extras.

H&R Block at Home Online

  • Federal Deluxe regular price is $29.95. State return price is $34.95.
  • Moderate import support for 1099s and W-2 (not as broad at TurboTax, better than TaxACT)
  • Best free audit support, as it includes an H&R Block Enrolled Agent actually attending your audit in-person. Neither TurboTax and TaxAct not offer representation. However, you must think about whether you would hire your own representative in the actual event of an IRS audit (probably depends on severity).

Bottom line: The sleep-well-at-night choice if you want the assurance that a federally-authorized enrolled agent will guide you for free through a potential albeit unlikely audit.

Capital One 360 Savings Account Review

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Capital One bought ING Direct USA back in early 2012, and has finally completed their transition and re-branding. Their new savings account product is called Capital One 360 Savings. Since I’ve had an account with them for over a decade (September 2001, as they remind me every time I log in), here’s an updated review of my 2nd oldest bank account meant for both new and existing customers.

User Interface

At first glance, the only thing that really changed was that the primary colors went from orange and blue to Capital One’s red and blue. However, there are a few other tweaks that I noticed were different from the ole’ ING Direct days.

Login. This is still a little unique amongst online savings accounts. You login with either a username/account number and a PIN number (not an alphanumeric pA$sW0rd). If you have an old 4-digit PIN, they’ll ask you to change the PIN to a 6-digit number for better security. In addition, while the default entry method is via mouse clicks to avoid keystroke loggers stealing your password, you can also use a keyboard to enter the PIN with a creative key-to-number conversion that changes each time. See screenshot below:

Main account screen. The home screen is simple and straightforward, as always. There is better integration with their brokerage arm, Sharebuilder, with your balance automatically showing and the ability to perform same-day transfers between accounts. So if you have a Sharebuilder account, you essentially have a high-interest sweep option instead of a money market fund paying zero interest. Screenshot:
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Fidelity Freedom Funds Review: Avoid High Cost Target Date Retirement Funds

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Updated and revised. Fidelity Investments does a lot of things well, but their Fidelity Freedom series of target-date retirement funds is not one of them. I’ve been warning people about these funds since 2006, although recently they’ve been getting some heat due to their overall underperformance. Assets in the Freedom funds have been dropping, while the assets in Vanguard’s Target Retirement funds have been increasing quickly. Here’s why the underperformance is not about the glide path, but about the structure and fees.

This post is a bit long, so here’s a roadmap of what I’m going to try and show:

(1) The goal of owning actively-managed mutual funds is to beat their passive benchmark. Pick the winners and not the losers. The problem is that Fidelity Freedom funds hold so many different funds with overlapping holdings, that in the end they basically own everything. It’s exceedingly difficult for them to accomplish such outperformance. Thus, over time their performance before fees is likely to simply match that of their benchmark.

(2) Due to their higher expenses, this means that their net performance after fees (what investors actually get) will be very likely to underperform the their benchmark. Over long periods of time, the amount of underperformance will closely match the amount of management fees charged.

(3) This expected underperformance is confirmed by looking at their historical performance over the past 3, 5, and 10 years.

(4) Instead, investors should look for low-cost index funds to replicate the benchmark give the best chance of higher performance. Options are explored.

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Jemstep Portfolio Manager Review

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When I first reviewed JemStep in 2011, it analyzed your current portfolio and made customized mutual fund rankings. Flash forward to 2013, and they’ve moved into the portfolio management and advice space, similar to previously-reviewed sites like Betterment or Personal Capital. Now it’s called Jemstep Portfolio Manager.

After signing into my old account and looking around at the new features, I was happy to see they’ve actually gotten pretty close to my wishlist:

  • Import my existing portfolio directly from broker. Check.
  • Track asset allocation across entire portfolio. Check.
  • Customized rebalancing alerts. Not quite. They do give rebalancing alerts, but only customized to their portfolio recommendations, not my personal chosen preferences. See below.
  • Detailed performance stats vs. benchmarks. Incomplete? I don’t see this, but I haven’t be able to get past the trade recommendations.
  • Reasonable cost. During their initial beta, the service will be free for everyone until March 1st, 2013. After that, the service remains free for those with assets of $25,000 or less. Otherwise see fee schedule discussion below.

Test Drive

The first step is to set a goal. They want things like age, income, target retirement age, risk tolerance, etc. You have provide a preference of mutual funds or ETFs. Given their previous support of actively-managed funds with high recent risk-adjusted returns, I was surprised to see the following:

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FreedomPop Review: Unboxing, Download Speeds, Size Comparisons

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I ended up ordering a FreedomPop mobile hotspot last week for the 500 mb in free wireless internet each money, and have been playing with it for a couple of days. Here’s a review including what came in the box, hotspot size comparison, download speed test results, and my overall initial impressions of the service.

Unboxing. The mobile hotspot “hockey puck” shipped the next day after ordering, and arrived a few days after that. Inside the box was the hotspot, a USB charging cable, and a USB AC adapter. The charging cable port appears to be the micro-USB standard size. I included a credit card for size comparison.

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SaveUp.com Review: Using Lottery Prizes To Encourage Saving?

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Another startup designed to encourage people to save more is SaveUp.com. The inspiration came from a new economics idea called “Prize-Linked Savings”. People tend to like lotteries, even though they are mostly a losing proposition. So what if you effectively gave out lottery tickets in exchange for saving money instead? If you think it sounds like a Freakonomics idea you’d be right.

First, you have to link up your financial accounts like banks, credit cards, and student loans (yep, usernames and passwords). Next, whenever you perform a positive activity, you earn credits towards prize drawings for $100 gift cards up to a $2 million prize. For example, every time you increase your savings account balance by $1 earns you one credit, and every $1 that you lower your debt earns you one credit. There are also various small challenges:

How does SaveUp make money then? Here’s a snippet from their press release:

SaveUp’s prizes are furnished through advertising and sponsorships with top consumer brands, including Virgin America and others. SaveUp’s brand partners receive significant exposure to a highly aspirational audience through frequent brand placements, exclusive content or category ownership, social media linkage, and the ability to offer coupons, promotions and other exclusive deals to SaveUp users on the site.

Data aggregation service is provided by Intuit (owners of TurboTax and the popular Mint.com). SaveUp.com is currently offering 100 bonus credits to My Money Blog readers for joining (it’s something, but don’t get too excited as it’s not that much). I opened an account and have been playing with it… the overall user experience is smooth and I do get a little “scratch-off ticket” buzz. I’ve put all my credits towards the drawing for the $100 Home Depot gift card. Daddy needs a new Makita hammer drill… but I’m afraid if I don’t win anything in a couple weeks I’ll probably get bored. :/

ImpulseSave.com Review: Making Saving As Easy As Spending

Even though the economic news is shaky, I still see a lot of new startups in the personal finance arena. I’m constantly running behind in keeping up with all of them, but here’s one that reader MF sent over.

ImpulseSave.com tries to making saving as easy as spending. Their intro video throws out the stat that 20% of take-home pay is spent on impulse purchases. So first, you set a goal like “student loan” or “Roth IRA” or “vacation fund”. With ImpulseSave, just sending a text message like “10 to student loan” will move $10 from your checking account to your savings account. At first I thought “Umm… that’s it?”, but here are a couple of ways I see it working:

  • Converting discounts to real-world saving. Many times during the month you’ll “save” money by getting a discount or doing something frugal, but by the end of the month you’re still not ahead because you just spent the money elsewhere. Now, let’s say you brown bag your lunch. With one text message or e-mail, you can shoot $10 into your vacation fund. Went for the $1 DVD rental date at RedBox instead of $20 at the theaters? Move $20 out of your checking account.
  • Match spending with savings. Think 401k matching, but for yourself. Create a barrier to spending by making yourself save an amount equal to whatever frivolous purchase you make. Bought $20 of clothes you didn’t need? Well, match it instantly with a $20 savings transfer. You still got your little buying high, but you saved as well.

These are all behavioral tricks to saving, but let’s face it, that’s what a lot of us need. My main issue is that the service requires you to open up a new bank account at their partner bank, Massachusetts-based Leader Bank. I don’t want to open up yet another bank account just for this service (especially if it only pays 0.40% APY). I hope they keep the central idea but allow you to link your existing checking and savings accounts like Capital One 360. I asked for an invite and got it within 24 hours, but didn’t end up opening an account since I didn’t want to provide my SSN and full personal info for the bank account.

Provident Funding Mortgage Refinance Review

We finally signed the closing documents on our most recent mortgage refinance. We ended up going through the same local mortgage broker who linked us up with Provident Funding, which is apparently one of the largest private lenders in the country. Before going through them, I read some reviews online and the main complaint seemed to be that their underwriting was overly strict. I decided to go with them anyway because:

  1. They had the lowest rates at the time for a no-cost refi,
  2. With such high loan volume, I figured I should expect some complaints based just on the numbers (happy people rarely leave lender reviews),
  3. We are very qualified for the loan so it shouldn’t matter anyway. Our loan-to-value ratio was well under 50%, much less than the 80% that most loans require. Great credit score, good income.
  4. We trusted our broker to help guide us through the process.

So how did it go? One reviewer described the loan approval process as “cookie cutter” and a “gauntlet”, and I think that is a very apt description. The underwriting is very robotic and inflexible. For example, my wife already has plenty of stable, W-2 income to support the loan by herself. I decided to keep my name off the application explicitly to keep things simple since I have both W-2 and 1099 income. Yet, Provident still required proof that the “excess” income on our tax returns was connected to me and not my wife. Why would you care where the extra income came from?

Another example is regarding bank statements. I understand the need for historical bank statements, but any deposit or withdrawal over something like $5,000 needed full documentation as to source and reason. Never mind what our total balances were. If they don’t like the reason, it is grounds for denial. This is annoying, especially if you move money around a lot like I do. The really stupid part? I finally discovered that the bank doesn’t even need to be the deposit source for your paycheck. In that case, since they don’t care about long-term balance history but instead want the appearance of blandness, I luckily had lots of bank accounts to choose from and simply chose the “cleanest” one to finally satisfy them.

In addition, the bank account that you submit the statement for is the one that you need to fund closing costs via cashier’s check. I suppose this proves you own it? The only bad news was that my “clean” account was an online bank, so I had to pay for a $30 outgoing wire fee in place of the free cashier’s check I could have gotten from a local bank.

Recap: Provident Funding has very competitive rates, but with strict underwriting requirements that often lack common sense. You should be wary of them if you are a non-standard applicant in any way (self-employed income, recent job change). There are many complaints that people lost the house they had under contract because they were eventually denied their loan or did not close on time. The total time from loan application to closing on our refinance was approximately 45 days. If you have a great credit score and nice, stable W-2 income with good ratios, then go for it if their rates are the best and you’re willing to trade a few headaches for it.

Compare with rate quotes from:

Related mortgage refinance articles:

Scottrade Review: Trading Experience & Tips (Updated 2012)

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I’ve had an account with Scottrade for several years now, and here is an updated, in-depth review for 2012 (last one I did was in 2006!). I will focus on all the little things that make brokers different from each other, from completing your taxes to buying a stock on a moment’s notice. This review will be from the point of view of a casual private investor who does not trade daily but does mostly buy-and-hold ETF investing and also trades some individual stocks with a small portion of his portfolio (less than 5% of overall portfolio).

Unique Characteristics

  • 505 physical branches nationwide. No other discount broker has nearly the same footprint. If you like the feeling of knowing there is a physical branch with friendly humans to interact with nearby, this is the broker for you.
  • Fiercely privately-owned. The current CEO, Rodger Riney, is the same person that founded the company in 1980. He has rebuffed repeated offers to be sold to public corporations like E-Trade or Ameritrade. I kind of like this independence and unwillingness to cash-out. It helps them not have to worry about profits all the time. For example, even during both recent stock market busts, no one has ever been laid off, and no office has ever been closed. Their branch brokers don’t offer advice to customers and do not work on commission.

Commissions and Fees

  • Stock commissions are $7 a trade. No maintenance fees, no minimum balance fees, no inactivity fees. $500 minimum to open the account. Options trades are $7 + $1.25 per contract.
  • Electronic statements and trade confirmations are free, but paper ones are not. Mailed statements are $2 each, mailed trade confirmations are $1 each. It’s easy to download the statements as PDFs and print if necessary.
  • No account closing or transfer-out fee. This is rare, as nearly all the other places charge you $50+ to move your positions away to another broker.
  • No free dividend reinvestment. There is no free dividend re-investment plan (DRIP) at Scottrade. What I do is wait until enough dividends accumulate and then reinvest them along with new money, because I don’t like dealing with many small tax lots with partial shares.

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