Healthcare FSA $500 Rollover and Open Enrollment

rxbottleIn October of last year, the government announced that administrators of Healthcare Flexible Spending Accounts (FSA) could allow employees to roll over up to $500 of unspent FSA money into the following year’s balance . This change was designed up help address the (stupid in my opinion) use-it-or-lose-it nature of these accounts. Per this Reuters article, given the short notice only 8% of U.S. companies adopted this rollover policy in 2014.

As Open Enrollment season for benefits starts for 2015, keep your eyes out for mention of this rollover option. Adoption rates could jump up to 50% now that they’ve had a year to prepare, according to benefits administrator Alegeus Technologies.

If your company does offer a $500 carryover (and your job is stable), then it would be much more appealing to contribute at last $500 even if you are unsure of your future expenses. If you don’t spend all (or any) of it, you can simply roll it over year after year.

Despite the potential tax savings, we stopped contributing to our FSA last year because the company switched to a new (likely cheaper) FSA administrator that made you do everything online while also repeatedly rejecting half our claims without clear explanations as to why. So painful! Thankfully it sounds like everyone else hated them too, as they are back to processing FSA claims in-house.

Mortgage Interest Tax Deduction Doesn’t Help Homeownership?

The mortgage interest tax deduction primarily helps the wealthy buy bigger houses rather than increase homeownership rates, according to a new study quoted by this WSJ article. The study found that such tax benefits have help increase the size of house by as much as 18% in affluent areas. Here is a graphic of the average annual tax savings from 10 major metro areas, broken down into households earning over and under $100,000 a year.

wsjbigben

My non-political thoughts:

Don’t overestimate the benefit of the mortgage tax deduction. It is easy to simply take your marginal tax bracket (say, 28%) and say that you’re saving 28% on all your mortgage interest. But mortgage interest is only tax-deductible if you itemize, which encompasses just 30-40% of Americans. Even then, you should consider the incremental savings above the standard deduction.

Everyone can take the standard deduction, which in 2014 is $12,400 for married filing joints and $6,200 for single filers. Let’s say your mortgage is for $250,000 and the interest rate is 4%. That’s $10,000 in interest annually. So far, the married folks have no tax benefit at all! You would need a lot of other deductions like state income tax, property tax, and charitable contributions to push you over the hump. For example if you have $7,400 in other deductions, then only half of your mortgage interest ($5,000 out of $10,000) is actually saving you anything extra in taxes.

Accordingly, the study quoted above also found that homeowners with incomes above $100,000 were between three and four times as likely to claim the tax benefit as those earning less than $100,000.

Even if you do itemize and have a high income (~$254k for single, ~$305k for married filing joint), look up the new Pease Limitation which reduces the value of various deductions including mortgage interest, state/local taxes, and charitable contributions.

Be prepared that the mortgage interest tax deduction may go away. I’m not going to talk about whether or not it should go away, but realistically there is a chance that it will. If it does disappear, it think it would be done gradually to prevent a shock to housing prices. However, I wouldn’t buy a house where I am depending on the tax deduction to maintain affordability. Tax laws change.

My prediction is that the mortgage interest tax deduction is still too popular to be completely nuked. Most likely there will be more legislation that nibbles around the edges like the mentioned Pease limitation that does a income phase-out or the total loan amount allowed will be reduced from the current $1,000,000 cap.

Tax Guide 2013 for LendingClub and Prosper 1099 Forms

Updated 2014. I’ve gotten a few tax-filing questions regarding P2P lenders Prosper Lending and Lending Club. For tax year 2013, LendingClub provided individual investors extra guidance with their Tax Guide for Retail Investors [pdf]. Using this information, I have updated this post.

Don’t file too early. My first recommendation is to not print out or download any of your 1099s until mid-March. Both Prosper and LendingClub seem to regularly issue corrected and/or amended 1099 forms with new numbers late in February. If you already printed them out earlier, go back and make sure they haven’t been changed. After having to file an amended return a few years ago, I always wait until after mid-March to gather all my tax documents.

Where to find your tax documents. I don’t think either Prosper or Lendingclub sends you 1099 forms in the mail. The easiest way for me to direct you to these documents is for you to cut-and-paste the following URLs into your web browser and then log into your accounts. Here are screenshots of what the pages should look like for Prosper and LendingClub.

https://www.prosper.com/secure/account/common/statements.aspx

https://www.lendingclub.com/account/taxDocuments.action

Tax disclaimer. I am not a tax professional. The following is based on my best attempt at understanding the fuzzy world of P2P lending taxes. I am simply sharing how I’m going to do my personal tax return, but you should consult a tax professional for an expert opinion. You may not get all or most of these forms.

LendingClub

LendingClub 1099-OID. OID stands for original issue discount. The total of Box 1 is basically what LendingClub is reporting as the interest earned on your loans, net of fees. This interest should be reported on Schedule B and taxed as ordinary interest income (similar to interest from bank accounts).

LendingClub 1099-B (Recoveries for Charge-offs). If you had any loans charged-off*, but they still recovered some money later on, that will be reported here. It should be broken down into either short-term or long-term capital gains. Because it already tells me short-term or long-term, I will simply report the totals with acquisition and sell date(s) as “various”.

LendingClub 1099-B (Folio secondary market). If you sold any loans on the secondary Folio market, then the sales should be reported here. It should also be broken down into either short-term or long-term gains or losses. I will simply report the totals on Schedule D, using my acquisition and sell date(s) as “various”.

LendingClub 1099-MISC. I would just type this form into TurboTax box-by-box or submit directly to your accountant, usually under “Other Income”. Box 7 amounts will be subject to self-employment taxes, Box 3 amounts will not.

Prosper Lending

Prosper 1099-OID. Similar story to the LendingClub 1099-OID above, except they just give you the total from all your loans. Again, I have all zeros except for Box 1, which I will report as ordinary interest income on Schedule B.

Prosper 1099-B (Recoveries for Charge-offs). Again, anything listed here should be broken down into either short-term or long-term capital gains/losses and recorded on Schedule D. Prosper includes loan charge-offs on this form.

Prosper 1099-B (Folio secondary market). Again, anything listed here should also be broken down into either short-term or long-term gains or losses.

Prosper 1099-MISC. I would just type this form into TurboTax box-by-box or submit directly to your accountant, and it should be pretty straightforward. Box 7 amounts will be subject to self-employment taxes, Box 3 amounts will not.

*Reporting Charge-offs

If you have loans that were charged-off in 2013 (loan is very late and attempts to collect have failed, so they give up), you can write them off as a non-business bad debt. You can find these in either your year-end statements (LendingClub) or your 1099-B form (Prosper). These are all treated as short-term capital losses, which you can use to offset short-term capital gains from other investments or you can deduct against up to $3,000 in ordinary income per year (with the balance carrying forward to the next year).

More resources: Let me also recommend Peter Renton’s post at LendAcademy, the follow-up comments on that post, and this forum post by AmCap as good references for an intelligent discussion on the topic. Also see the LendingClub and Prosper tax pages, even though they aren’t especially helpful.

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

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.

Free TurboTax Deluxe Online with State Farm Bank Account

Works again for Tax Year 2013. State Farm is again offering their bank and credit card customers TurboTax tax-prep software at a significant discount. TurboTax Federal Deluxe Online is free, Premier is $20, Home & Business is $30, and State is also included free with e-File for all versions. Software downloads are also available (Deluxe $20, Premier $30, Home & Business $40). I ran an experiment last year and found it only took a one-time $25 deposit and a week’s time to obtain this valuable perk. Details below.

(Side note: TurboTax Deluxe 2013 no longer supports stock and mutual fund sales reported on Schedule D. You must now pay for the $20 Premier version in order to get this feature. Rather disappointing feature reduction, Intuit!)

According to my blog archives, from 2006-2009 State Farm offered TurboTax Deluxe for free to all customers including insurance policyholders. Starting in 2010 or 2011, they started offering it only to bank and credit card customers. I recommend opening a “Free Checking” bank account instead of a new credit card account, as many other credit cards are offering $500+ value in sign-up bonuses while the State Farm one does not. I’d much rather get $500 for a credit check and just put $25 in a State Farm bank account indefinitely while earning the same perks. Think of it as earning 50% APY interest every year on that $25! I did not get hit with a credit check for opening the State Farm bank account.

New Bank Account Application Process Details

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IRS Estimated Taxes Due Date Calendar 2013

Reminder for last quarter of 2013. If you’ll earn income outside of your W-2 paycheck this year, you may need to send the IRS some money before the usual tax-filing time. Here are the due dates for paying quarterly estimated taxes in 2013; they are supposed to be in four equal installments. This is for federal taxes only, state and local tax due dates may be different.

Tax Year / Quarter Due Date
2013 First Quarter April 15, 2013 (Monday)
2013 Second Quarter June 17, 2013 (Monday)
2013 Third Quarter September 16, 2013 (Monday)
2013 Fourth Quarter January 15, 2014* (Wednesday)

* You do not have to make the Q4 payment due January 15, 2014, if you file your 2013 tax return by January 31, 2014.

Who needs to pay estimated taxes?
In general, you must pay estimated tax for 2013 if both of the following apply:

  1. You expect to owe at least $1,000 in tax for 2013, after subtracting your withholding and credits.
  2. You expect your withholding and credits to be less than the smaller of
    • 90% of the tax to be shown on your 2013 tax return, or
    • 100% of the tax shown on your 2012 tax return. Your 2012 tax return must cover all 12 months.

If you forget to pay (like I’ve done before), then you should make a payment as soon as possible even though it is late. This will minimize any penalty assessed. This is all taken from IRS Form 1040-ES [pdf].

How do I pay?

  • By check. Fill out the appropriate 1040-ES voucher (last page) and send to the indicated address. If it is postmarked by the due date, the date of the U.S. postmark is considered the date of payment.
  • By online bank transfer. You can link your bank account and pay via electronic funds transfer at EFTPS.gov or call 1-800-555-4477. No convenience fees. It takes a little while to set up an online account, so plan ahead.
  • By debit or credit card. Here is page of IRS-approved payment processors. Pay by phone or online. Fees will apply.

I usually pay online at EFTPS.gov for both convenience and to avoid fees. In rare cases with the right credit card promotion, it can be worth it to pay the credit card processing fee. For example, last year I paid taxes with my Chase Ink Bold card. I paid $189 in fees, but earned $500 of bonus points.

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

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.

2013 401k, 403b, 457, TSP Contribution Limit Increases – Historical Chart

The IRS recently announced increased contribution limits for various qualified retirement plans for tax year 2013. The limitations are indexed to increases in cost-of-living (inflation) as per section 415 of the tax code. In particular, the elective deferral (contribution) limit for employees who participate in 401(k), 403(b), most 457 plans, and the federal government’s Thrift Savings Plan is increased from $17,000 to $17,500. However, the additional catch-up contribution allowed for those age 50 and higher remains $5,500.

The limits are the same for both Roth and “Traditional” pre-tax 401k plans, although the effective after-tax amounts can be quite different. Employer match contributions do not count towards the $17,000 elective deferral limit. (Although technically the total annual defined contribution limit is $51,000 for 2013… let me know if you have an employer that is so generous!) Curiously, some employer plans set their own limit on contributions. A former employer of mine had a 20% deferral limit, so if your income was $50,000 the most you could put away was $10,000 a year.

Here’s a historical chart and table of recent contribution limit increases:

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2013 IRA Contribution Limit Increases – Historical Chart

The IRS recently announced the Traditional and Roth IRA contribution limits for tax year 2013. The limitations are indexed to inflation, but only in $500 increments (as of 2010) which are triggered when the cost-of-living calculation reaches a certain threshold. The threshold was finally met, so the limit on annual contributions to an Individual Retirement Arrangement (IRA) increases to $5,500, up from $5,000. However, the additional catch-up contribution allowed for those age 50 and higher remains $1,000.

The limits are the same for both Roth and Traditional IRAs, but each one has their own unique set of eligibility requirements. IRAs are “individual” accounts by definition, so the limits are per person. The deadline for 2012 tax year contributions is the same as the 2012 tax return filing deadline: Monday, April 15, 2013. Tax return extensions won’t apply to this cutoff.

Since I like visual aides, here’s a historical chart and table of recent contribution limits. I’m proud to say that we’ve both done the max since 2004. Have you been taking advantage of your potential IRA tax break?

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Your Job Search Expenses May Be Tax-Deductible

Help Wanted Sign; image credit: underbid.comHere’s a friendly reminder for those on the hunt for a new job. Many job-search expenses may be tax-deductible, so knowing the rules can save you money at tax time. As you might expect from the IRS, the rules aren’t straightforward:

  • You have to be looking for a new job in your present occupation, even if you never get one.
  • There cannot be a “substantial break” between the ending of your last job and your looking for a new one. Vague? Yep.
  • You cannot be looking for a job for the first time. Sorry, recent graduates.
  • Job search expenses are lumped in with many other “miscellaneous deductions”, such as the home-office deduction, union dues, work-related education expenses, bad business debt, tax prep fees. These are only deductible from your income if you itemize deductions and only to the extent that taken together they exceed 2% of your adjusted gross income. But if you’re out of work, 2% may not be a very high hurdle.
  • If you get reimbursed for any your expenses, then it’s no longer deductible. At least that one makes sense.

What qualifies as an expense?

  1. Employment and outplacement agency fees. This includes “career consultants” and the like. I don’t know if paying these are necessarily a good idea in the first place, but they can be deducted.
  2. Resume preparation costs.. You can deduct amounts you spend for preparing and mailing copies of your resume to prospective employers. These include paper, postage, envelopes, and printing/copying costs.
  3. Travel and transportation expenses. If you travel to an area to look for a new job in your present occupation, you may be able to deduct travel expenses to and from the area if the trip is “primarily” to look for a new job. In other words, you need to spend more time looking for work than doing any personal activities. Roundtrip airfare, car rental, and hotel stays can add up quickly. If you drive, you can deduct the standard mileage amount (55.5 cents per mile in 2012).

    Keep good records of your efforts and any meetings and/or interviews with prospective employers. Write down the time, date, and place of any event, and keep business cards and food receipts.

Things you can’t deduct include services like residential home phone service, cell phone plans, and high-speed internet.

This is all taken from the notoriously vague IRS Publication 529 – Miscellaneous Deductions. Look under Unreimbursed Employee Expenses > Job Search Expenses. Keeping great records for everything is key. If you have an accountant, be sure to ask them how to best take advantage of this area. Finally, if you do land a new job, don’t forget that you can also deduct moving expenses:

To qualify for the moving expense deduction, you must satisfy two tests. Under the first test, the “distance test”, your new workplace must be at least 50 miles farther from your old home than your old job location was from your old home. If you had no previous workplace, your new job location must be at least 50 miles from your old home.

Save More vs. Earn More: A Dollar Saved Is Two Dollars Earned

Earn more. Save more. Those are the two ways to get out of debt and build wealth. I’m a big proponent of doing both, but for many people it may be easier to cut back on some luxuries rather than land a higher-paying job, start a side business, or become an investing wizard. It’s also more effective due to marginal tax rates. Let’s say you are single resident of California and your (taxable) gross income is $50,000 a year.

If you were to go out and earn another dollar as an employee, here’s how that additional $1 would get broken down:

altext

You’d only keep 58 cents. On top of that, a lot of extra or freelance work is done as an independent contractor. That means you’re self-employed and get the happy task of paying another 7.65% of payroll taxes (the employer share), which brings your total tax hit to 49.6%! So in order to keep $1 in your pocket, you’d have to get someone to pay you $1.99. In that case, your choice becomes:

altext

This relationship helps me visualize the power of spending less. Now when you save $1, you can feel good knowing that you’d have to have earned $2 of income to equal that. But on the flip side, when I get a check from a side project for $500, I know I’ll only keep $250 of it. :(

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TurboTax 2011 Review: My Experience and Comparison With TaxACT

I just finished filing my federal and state income tax returns (again) using TurboTax Deluxe Online edition. This is the 2nd part of my series comparing the three major tax preparation websites: TurboTax, TaxACT.

You can see my TaxACT 2011 review here.

Tax Situation
Again, here’s a quick summary of our personal tax situation.

  • Married filing jointly, subject to state income tax
  • Both with W-2 income, as well as self-employed income (Schedule C).
  • Interest income and dividend income from bank accounts, stocks, and bonds (Schedule B).
  • Contribute to retirement accounts (401ks and IRAs).
  • Capital gains and losses from brokerage accounts (Schedule D).
  • Itemized deductions (Schedule A), including mortgage interest and charitable giving.

Retail Price
Although their website shows a “retail” price of $49.95 for TurboTax Deluxe, anyone who visits the site will at most pay $29.95 for Federal including e-File. TurboTax State is $36.95 including e-file. If you are a Vanguard Flagship Services or Asset Management Services client, you get a TurboTax Online Federal Deluxe + State + efile for free. All other clients get discount of about 25% off; you must log in to get your discount. There is also a free edition available if you have a very simple tax return – no itemized deductions, investment income, but remember that State is $27.95 extra in that case.

TurboTax Premier offers “additional guidance” for investment income from stocks and bonds and also rental income. However, I had the usual stock and bond sales and was able to complete my return without upgrading to Premier. I did not feel I needed any extra guidance, but if you do it will run an extra $20 for a total of $49.95. Finally, TurboTax Home & Business ($74.95) offers “additional guidance” for self-employment income including dealing with business expenses. However, if all you have is a couple of 1099-MISCs to report as I did, you can get by with Deluxe.

User Review

With all these tax sites you can start your return for free, and only pay when you file. Since I had already input all my tax data into TaxACT.com, I simply opened that up in a web browser tab side-by-side and start filing things out. The Q&A interview questions are in roughly the same order, but there are enough differences to make you jump around a bit.

Import from TaxACT & H&R Block at Home
Last year, I used TurboTax for my tax return. Thus, this time around TurboTax had all my old tax info pulled up immediately. Filing status, dependents, address, DOB, SSN, etc. They also had all my old W-2 and 1099 providers to reduce my data entry needs a little bit more. For example, all my Employer Tax IDs and addresses were pre-filled. This did feel rather convenient, and it helped make sure I didn’t forget any 1099s from old bank accounts.

However, as a result I was never asked if I wanted to import a previous year’s return from another provider like TaxACT or H&R Block. Perhaps someone can shed some light on this in the comments?

W-2 and 1099 Direct Import from Providers
One of the strengths of TurboTax is that you can directly import your W-2 and 1099 information from a number of partner providers. However, the W-2 part didn’t really impress me. Our W-2s came from Ceridian and we had to enter some sort of username and password which I’ve never set up before. It was faster to just type in the 10 numbers and get on with it.

1099s were a different story, at least for me. I was able to provide my Vanguard username and password and have my 1099-INT, 1099-DIV, and 1099-B data imported in seconds. Other partners that I was able to use included Betterment, Chase Bank, Capital One 360 (Sharebuilder), and Pentagon Federal Credit Union. USAA, TD Ameritrade, E-Trade, and Wells Fargo were also available. For those with a lot of transactions, this is a great time-saver.

In addition, after comparing with my TaxACT data, I found that I had made a data entry error of $300 with one wrong digit when manually entering all those capital gains and losses from stock sales. The TurboTax import would have help me avoided that mistake, which I don’t think I would have caught otherwise.

Finally, a cool feature is that if all your accounts are linked to the aggregation site Mint.com, you can simply log into your Mint account and have all your available forms imported with one login (Intuit owns both TurboTax and Mint).

The Small Stuff
This time around, I did notice that TurboTax has something called “Flags” that are the same as Bookmarks with TaxACT that allow you to mark confusing questions to come back to. The icon is small and there is no text, so I probably would have missed it again if I wasn’t looking for it. A minor positive I noticed is that TurboTax automatically enters commas when you reach thousands (ie. 3,459 instead of 3459). It helps with data entry, as I have already shown that I am error-prone!

A minor negative is that TurboTax had many more server delays where the page would not load or would be blank and I had to refresh the page. I did not have any such problems with TaxACT, which I was using simultaneously on the same internet connection and computer.

Foreign Tax Credit
After everything was entered, there was a difference of less than $50 in my total calculated refund between TurboTax and TaxACT. After some research, I found that it was due to my treatment of my foreign taxes paid as a deduction vs. credit. TaxACT appeared to be more aggressive and just allowed me to take it as a credit, while TurboTax seemed to require more information and otherwise steered me towards taking it as a deduction. This was partially my own fault, but the two questionnaires definitely had a different approach. In the end, I got everything to match up between them. (Take the credit if you can.)

Upselling and Price Tricks?
There are some upsell attempts during the tax return to upgrade to Premier or Home & Business, however it was only a couple times and didn’t feel overly pushy. At the end, the price total was as expected with no bogus charges. There was a final pitch for a product call Audit Defense for $39.95, which provides you “professional representation in the event of an audit” and covers both federal and state returns. As before, I am not convinced of the quality of such representation.

Recap
Turbotax showed why it remains the best-known and popular tax software. That is, it covers all of the tax aspects about as equally as well as the others, perhaps with a bit more thoroughness (anality?). However, where it separates itself is the importing of data from financial institutions. It is indeed more expensive – for most people TurboTax will cost $30+ more than TaxACT but if it saves you both time and effort in data entry (and potentially prevents errors), then I can definitely see how people would be willing to pay a premium.

There is also the familiarity factor. I definitely kept feeling the benefit of using it last year and again this year. It compared all my 2010 and 2011 numbers side-by-side, which was nice for us financial geeks. It also remembered little things like my old IRA basis, so I wouldn’t have to look it up again. On the other hand, if my return was simple and would not benefit much from automatic importing, I would probably rather stick with TaxACT.