Hiring An Accountant To Do Your Taxes Vs Using Turbo Tax Or Tax Cut

This is part 1 of a 2 part series on hiring an accountant versus using Turbo Tax or Tax Cut. The second part of hiring an accountant versus using Turbo Tax or Tax Cut can be found by clicking here.

This year marks the first year that my wife and I are hiring an accountant to do our taxes for us and I’m pretty nervous about our decision. Even though I absolutely hate doing them, I’ve filed my own taxes for well over a decade now and I’ve done so because I prefer keeping my financial data private. I also like the feeling of control I get from being able to see how all of the numbers are calculated. That’s not to say that I don’t trust my accountant but while we’ve had an accountant for quite some time now, we’ve only used him as an advisor and never for any actual work.

Photo by Nick See

I’m especially nervous because by having someone else file our taxes for us, we are essentially turning over all of our sensitive financial data to a stranger and paying him to file a crucial document that could have a big effect on our finances. So yes, my wife and I are making this decision with a few reservations.

Since I’m a bit apprehensive about the whole thing, I thought I’d document some of my thought processes about our decision to use an accountant over Turbo Tax. I’m also going to conduct an experiment to see whether having an accountant really makes a difference in terms of tax savings. BTW, I’m sure some of my readers have their own accountants do their taxes for them with no issues. For those of you who do, please feel free to chime in at anytime.

Why Do We Need An Accountant?

With the birth of our second child, our business, this blog and the book that I’m working on, my wife and I have very little time to spare. Every free moment that we have, we would prefer to be hanging out and relaxing as a family rather than crunching numbers. It typically takes us a good solid weekend to put our taxes together so ideally, we’d rather not be devoting our brain power towards something we hate doing. Plus, we aren’t experts on taxation by any means.

Filing our taxes in the past has been relatively straightforward. We use Turbo Tax, and in theory Turbo Tax should calculate the numbers the same way that any accountant would. But deep down, I wonder whether a human accountant could find us more deductions than a computer program. For those of you with accountants, does your accountant find deductions that Turbo Tax can’t? I’m curious to find out.

What Does An Accountant Buy You Exactly?

Our accountant charges $200 an hour. This year, filing our taxes will cost us approximately $500 which includes our LLC. Compare that to the $75 that we usually spend on Turbo Tax and we’re blowing an extra $425. So what does this extra $425 buy us?

The accountant will prepare and file all of our taxes for us. All we have to do is provide him with all of the necessary data. Everything sounds pretty straightforward except for one thing. The accountant typically does not audit the data we provide and we are the ones responsible for any writeoffs we make with our business. While he will alert us of any red flags, by default he will not challenge or check up on our business deductions and will only do so if we ask. Needless to say, at $200/hr his time can really add up if we just hand him a bunch of receipts. That being said, it is nice to be able to ask an actual human questions regarding any borderline deductions that we might be taking which could trigger an audit.

I was also under the impression that our accountant was responsible for filing our taxes correctly. In other words, our accountant would be on the hook if we ever got audited. While this is true to a certain extent, it turns out that we are ultimately responsible for providing the correct numbers for the tax calculations.

In the event of an audit, the accountant is responsible for only the calculations and not the actual baseline data. For example, even if our accountant advises us to take a borderline tax deduction, we are still responsible for proving that the deduction is legit despite his advice. In addition, in the event of an audit, it costs extra money for the accountant to respond if he is not at fault.

The good thing about having an accountant is that in theory, he is supposed to file your taxes optimally based on your numbers and your current tax situation. He may be aware of obscure tax rules that could save you money and you don’t have to lift a finger. If you trust your accountant, everything should be taken care of correctly with no worrying on your part.

What About Turbo Tax?

Good ole Turbo Tax is super cheap. It costs us $75 only because we buy the home business deluxe version. The base version I believe is free for the federal filing. In theory, Turbo Tax should be aware of all of the latest deductions and ask you the right questions so you can take advantage of all of the tax breaks much like an actual accountant would.

While Turbo Tax is supposed to act like a virtual accountant, I personally find myself always erring on the side of extreme conservativism when it comes to taking deductions with Turbo Tax. Sometimes the descriptions are obscure and not well explained so I’d rather not take the risk. The thing I hate about Turbo Tax is that I’m always afraid that I’m leaving money on the table by not taking deductions that I’m entitled to because I don’t understand the deduction thoroughly.

That being said, one of the things that I like about Turbo Tax is that they offer this program called Audit Defense. For an extra $40, an accountant or an account representative will take care of dealing with the IRS for you in the event of an audit. One of my friends was audited last year and “Audit Defense” took care of everything. In the end, they discovered that he made a typo on his filing that was easily correctable and he didn’t have to pay anything extra. There was no hassle at all because Audit Defense took care of everything.

The other thing that I like about Turbo Tax is that you get to keep an electronic version of all of the worksheets that can easily be imported into Turbo Tax the following year. You can also try different scenarios to see what effects certain deductions and filing options have on your bottom line. In other words, you have complete visibility over your taxes and it’s dirt cheap. Ultimately, Turbo Tax is great for control freaks like myself who like to do everything themselves.

The Experiment

Since I’m a skeptic, I’m going to be conducting an experiment with our accountant. Even though we are going to pay him $500 to file our taxes, I’m going to go ahead and prepare my tax return with Turbo Tax and compare the two to see if there’s a difference.

If the accountant can save me more than $425, then it’s a no brainer to use him again. For my wife and I, it’s less about the money as it is about time savings so if he is on par or a little better than Turbo Tax, we’ll be satisfied. In any case, I’ll post the results of my accountant vs Turbo Tax results come tax time once I’ve completed the filing.

How many of you use an accountant vs filing taxes yourself? Has your accountant saved you money that you otherwise wouldn’t have been able to save?

Click Here To Find Out Whether Hiring Our Accountant Was Worth The Money

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50 thoughts on “Hiring An Accountant To Do Your Taxes Vs Using Turbo Tax Or Tax Cut”

  1. I stopped filing my own taxes when I started the business and had way to many documents to file every year including my W-2s from my employer and at least 10 other misc documents. I need someone who knows tax laws etc, especially now since I am filing for two states for ’09 (California and Oregon). I do my own business bookkeeping to save money and keep tracking of my expenses, income, etc, but an accountant does everything else.

    I honestly don’t know if an accountant has helped me saved money in the past or not since I’ve never really taken the time (hours and hours I suspect) to really learn about business tax laws, and not risk getting audited; especially while working full-time and running the business. In my case, it was a time factor.

    1. @Carla
      It sounds like your tax situation is more complicated than mine. I just have a W2, a bunch of 1099′s and the Schedule C to worry about. My wife takes care of the books so it’s not a big deal. The knowledge I have of taxes is from books but as you probably know, there are a lot of gray areas in the tax law that books just don’t do justice.

  2. We have also used Turbotax for years and I have had many of the same questions you have. I would love to know, after the accountant finishes for you if you see any significant difference in what you owe/don’t owe. Will you write a follow up? I hope so!

    1. @Carmen
      There will definitely be a follow up. I’m secretly hoping that my accountant will come out better to justify the costs.

      @Julie
      You got it! I’ve been using Turbo Tax for years. It’s a great piece of software

  3. julie from turbotax says:

    Julie from TurboTax. We LOVE a challenge! Will check back to see how the comparison goes.

  4. I think that handing my taxes over to an accountant has been — long-term — one of the better decisions I’ve made. I’ve got plenty of borderline deductions and having someone who can advise me on the specifics of my business has been incredibly helpful.

    On top of my taxes, having an accountant has helped me to both grow my business and handle personal matters more effectively. For instance, when my husband and I bought our house, having the accountant prepare a letter setting out how much income my business produced and how much I could easily put towards the mortgage each month helped make the mortgage process a lot easier to manage.

    1. @Thursday
      We’ve had an accountant as an advisor for quite some time so it will be interesting if he can give more specific advice once the numbers are all in front of him. I hadn’t really considered having an accountant for other purposes like with your mortgage as I like figuring out and planning our finances myself. If this goes well, perhaps I will use him for other purposes as well.

  5. Hi Steve,

    My first response was that the accountant is worth it because he is going to save you way more than $500. But when I saw you are going to do the challenge, that is just brilliant! Can’t wait to see the results!

    1. @George
      Thanks! I’ll keep you posted.

      @Kamal
      Sounds like you made the right decision. If taxes and bookkeeping aren’t your core competency, then you should outsource. Our situation is a bit different since my wife worked in finance for some Fortune 500 companies for over a decade. She knows what she’s doing when it comes to bookkeeping and I know a good deal about taxes from reading as well. Even still, having someone who does this for a living should make a difference. At least we’ll find out:)

  6. I started using a CPA for my taxes several years ago and I’ll never try to do mine again. I do tech consulting and I’m about as lost when it comes to taxes as are most of my clients when it comes to software. Since I’m a consultant I have no problem paying another to do something I myself am horrible at. Also, I just wouldn’t even do my taxes because I literally hated it. My CPA saved me! $500 is a decent price, mine is about the same. Also, after getting my taxes in check I work with a Bookkeeper/Quickbooks Consultant and meet with her every month to balance the books. She charges around $70/mo and I find this invaluable! Believe me I will rack up so many late fees if I didn’t have this help so it pays for itself in dollars but more in peace of mind. I allow my bookkeeper to remotely access my computer so that we work over the phone and neither her nor I need to leave our houses which is nice.

    One of my favorite books “Think and Grow Rich” has a chapter on creating a “Master Mind” of business colleagues as your team to help propel you to success. I feel knowing your own weaknesses and limitations and allowing others more talented in these areas do this for you is the best way to move forward, and the only way to go beyond personal limitations. The best leaders are those that surround themselves with people that are more talented than they are :-) And my CPA kicks my but when it comes to taxes

  7. Allie says:

    We used to go to a CPA. I thought it was too complicated for me to do. After twice checking it over and making him do our return over because he included EE bond interest in my state income tax form I decided to do the taxes my self. The CPA said you are going to make me do it over for less than $100 more in your refund. I said that is what you get paid for. I would ask for you to do it over for $1. I am paying for your ability to do taxes and if you can’t do it correctly you should not be in business. I never went back.

    My sister and husband goes to an accountant. He made a mistake by combining her inherited IRA distribution with her traditonal IRA with a basis in figuring out her taxable amount on that distribution. That also is incorrect. When I went back to him with her he said after about 30 minutes looking up the information you are right but it is not worth my time doing it over.

    We are now retired with a lot of investments, rent our land out for corn and my biggest problem, is finding Schedule E on Turbo Tax. I trust myself, Turbo Tax, Publication 17 and 1-800-829-1040 to answer any questions I might have. Received letters twice from IRS. Had to contact the taxpayer advocate. It had to do with Social Security checks from the 1970′s and 1980′s that my in-laws had not cashed for years. After they passed and we found the checks while cleaning out the house we took them to the SS office got receipts and waited for 2 years to get them replaced for probate. The SS office also lost about 30 of the checks. They said they did not and then we show them our receipts. Well SS sent a 1099R that the 3 children owed income tax on those funds. Income tax was not owed on SS during those years and even if it was owed the parents would have paid the tax whether they cashed the checks or not. The taxpayer advocate showed me how to find the law in the internet and print it out to bring to SS to get them to change the 1099R’s and Mr. Payne said “I said you are going to pay tax on those funds so live with it. IRS is not our boss.” Well I went to my congressman and he sent all of our information to Chicago and the next day we had a letter from SS that no taxes were owed. IRS is always very helpful. I retired in 2008 and when I called and gave a date that I wanted my tradional 401K rolled over and my Roth 401K rolled over they said you called today and today I have to put thru the paper work. I said forget that I called that I want the interest that will post to my account in 2 weeks. She said no. It is too late once I answered the phone. Well I was in an account like a high interest money market and they closed the account on a Friday 2 weeks after I called and before the Monday when interest would have been posted. I called them and they said that I could not have the interest cuz the account was closed. Well I contacted Washington and 1 year later the interest was in my account and I received the money 2 months later. But then the 1099′s started to come. So far I have received 2. Both are incorect. Now I have 4 and only 1 is correct and when I called this BIG BANK that I used to work for the girl says just write void on 3 of them and check the corrected box yourself on the one you want to use. I called IRS and she gave me her badge number and said if you don’t get this fixed in 48 hours you call me and I will make a few phone calls. I trust myself and Turbo Tax, Publication 17 and 1-800-829-1040 anytime over a CPA or bookkeeper.

    PS The taxpayer advocate called me at 10:30 at night. I am a late night person. She said she could not sleep and went to the office and read my note and was fascinated by it she had to call. A very dedicated person.

  8. Steve, the advantage of an accountant probably won’t show on this year’s taxes. The advantage of an accountant is that he / she can tell you where to make changes that will save you taxes and other headaches next year.

    I think you’re right not to take anything questionable. But using an accountant might make some of those corner cases more understandable. It might make one or two deductions less questionable.

    In other words, don’t expect a big savings this year on the accountant. Expect to work with the accountant over the next year to change the way things run so that you qualify for more deductions and are more certain about the ones you do take.

    1. @W^L
      Actually just spoke with our accountant, told him about this challenge and he’s up for it. Hope he doesn’t get me audited though. Overall, I think you are right. Having an accountant makes future tax planning much easier and is one of the value adds.

      @Tyler
      Secretly, I hope our accountant wins as well. We’ve been fairly conservative over the years so we’ll just have to see what happens.

  9. Steve, personally I’m really hoping that your accountant pulls it off and saves you some money! Don’t forget that your time spent preparing your taxes is time that you are not making income on other projects. Also, your accountant spends loads of time learning about tax law, tax planning, and tax compliance, stuff that you probably don’t really care to learn.
    My personal experience is that we save some first time clients money when we prepare their taxes, some break even, and some even pay more in the short run. Pay more?! you ask. Yes, they find out that they were doing it wrong or just plain not doing it and come to us to get on track. Often this happens after an IRS agent gently lets them know that they are over their heads.
    I’ll keep watching for the results (and cheering on your accountant!).

  10. An accountant will pay for themselves 100 times over if you have a complex return at all. I do a better job than Turbo Tax without all of the annoying questions.

  11. Interesting blog!
    I have been using Turbotax for 2 years -this will be my 3rd.
    I have used an accountant for the last 9 years and I think he’s great. The last 2 years I paid him and turbotax to do the same experiment (although my life and taxes are much simpler than yours :)
    I found that I have gotten more back with turbotax and I like it, but I am very cautious of turbotax. I worry about them being a huge company and getting too big to care.
    This year I had a MAJOR problem and it turns out it is a MAJOR problem for MANY other people.. and still hasn’t been fixed by turbotax or the IRS (whoevers prob it is) so major, in fact, that turbo tax has an entire page devoted to the issue- Rejection Code 1132 or 1133: Schedule M – Economic Recovery Payments Received does not match IRS records
    So, this year it turns out I have to file by paper. which is frustrating and I still don’t understand what the problem is.
    The only way to talk to a turbo tax person is to google: turbotax customer service phone number and then you get this fantastic site

    I also found this website with so many negative things about turbotax it will freak you out, but I realize everyone has a critic. (but it seems esp this year there is a lot of negative feedback. I wonder if turbo tax has made some changes lately?)
    And finally, whenever submitting your sensitive data online, here is an old, but good reminder and well written article: “Putting too much trust in TurboTax” http://blogs.computerworld.com/node/5358

    I am also a control freak too and I think I will cont to do both, because I like my accountant and I like knowing there is a professional I can talk to.
    (I will cont to do both unless I get screwed bigtime by turbotax or my accountant retires! :)
    Can’t wait to hear more about the experiment! -Sophia

    1. @Sophia
      I feel exactly the same way about Turbo Tax. I’m always a little skeptical when it comes time to take some of the more obscure deductions. I’m also wary that the software may have bugs from time to time. The good thing though is that the IRS and Intuit seem to work together. If TurboTax has bugs, then the IRS provides a bit of leeway as well. I remember a few years back, Intuit was having server problems so the IRS gave the affected people more time to file and pay their taxes.

      I took a look at some of those anti-Turbo Tax websites. I think with any software there will always be problems. Many of the complaints seem to be installation issues which doesn’t concern me as much.

      Thanks for sharing your story. I will definitely be posting the follow up whenever my accountant finishes up.

  12. absolutely LOVE your site and all the great info… extremely helpful, well laid out and nice to know there is a real person behind it all! thank you!

  13. Sri says:

    Hi Steve,
    Thanks for taking this topic. When do you think you will have the result of the comparison? I completed my taxes with turbotax this year. I have IRA, investments, rental property, real estate professional and a full time job. I felt that TurboTax made it pretty simple and optimized my return quite well given the number of possible deduction options it provided. However, I have no basis of comparison with anything else.

    I should ask TurboTax to see if they do these kinds of analysis regularly to ensure that they are at the top of their game.

    sri

  14. Jd says:

    Hello,

    I was curious when you might post the results of your experiment. I find myself in the same predicament and have been using accountants the past 4-5 years but was thinking about switching to Turbotax to save $500.

    Nice blog btw!

  15. Ben says:

    I used to have my taxes done by the accountants and often time I found mistakes. They do the taxes based on what I provide them and if something is missing or does not look right, they would not know or even ask. So, I started to do my own taxes using TT in the past 8 yrs. I did the same experiment like you are doing and went to H&R Block to see if they can get a different result after I have already done my taxes in TT. I also did not understand ISO stock option and HSA account contributions and deductions. It turned out that tax preparer did not know the answer either but she said she will ask and get back to me. In the end, her result turned out exactly like what I had in TT, off by $3. This year, however, I have an issue with TT that I did not understand, needed help and thinking of going to an accountant but I wish I can figure out on my own and cont to do my taxes. The issue is with rental passive losses. At the beginning I have passive losses on my rentals and I did not manage my properties so the losses cannot be deducted against income. However, in the last year, I started to manage my property so the passive losses now become active and I should be able to deduct it against my income according to the IRS to a certain amount based on my income. The problem is, I don’t know how to make that change (from passive to active) in TT. With TT, you put in what they asked and you either get it or not get it. I don’t know where in TT that I can make that change.

  16. Jess says:

    We always have done our taxes with TT and never had any problems. They have always been fairly simple and straightforward. Not much has changed this year, except that we purchased our first house. I decided to to our taxes online with TT and it basically came back with the same refund as last year. I was worried I was doing something wrong, so I decided to go to a CPA to do our taxes and see what he came up with. Well, long story short, he is getting us back 150$ less and charging us 240$.

    I’m not sure what to do from here. Do I have to file them with our CPA? or can I just file them on TT since that would get us more money? Any info would be helpful!

    1. Mike says:

      Most likely the CPA did it right and you are making a mistake that will cost you more in the future than what he charges. CPA’s aren’t paid to get you the biggest refund, they are paid to do your taxes correctly according to the law. It always makes me laugh when someone bases their decision off the size of their refund (which has no relation to level of skill). Do you understand that you might be entering numbers in the wrong boxes and might have done that on your prior year return, which is what you used for comparison? Your starting point assumes that you have already been doing it correctly in the past.

      An example of where DIY software fails: You see a box for auto expenses and determine that you have spent $4,000 in auto expenses this year, however, you don’t know which auto expenses qualify and what percentage of those expenses would apply. Your accountant determines that only $3,200 qualify and you only used your vehicle 50% for business, resulting in a deductible auto expense of $1,600. The correct deduction in this case would lose you money compared to the version you prepared yourself, but cost you thousands if you ever got audited. Your reason “I spent $4,000 on auto and the category said auto expenses” won’t fly with the IRS. Of course, sometimes it goes the other way and you end up getting a larger refund because of a deduction the accountant found. Just remember, the result says nothing about the skill level of the accountant. Your tax return results aren’t going to be the same every year, just like your life events aren’t the same every year. Also, I hope people understand that using an accountant provides the most benefit over years, not one year. Accountants don’t create benefits for you, they only determine if you qualify and prepare you for next year.

      1. Hey Mike,
        In this case, I showed my CPA what Turbo Tax was telling me and he acknowledged his mistake. He missed a deduction that Turbo Tax found and made an egregious error in one of the stock transactions.

  17. Terri says:

    My husband and I first had a CPA do our taxes the year we got married. We’d sold two houses that year and bought a third, plus his two sons were living with us a little more than part-time, so we figured a little extra help would be a good idea. That was five years ago, and we are still going to the same CPA each year for our taxes. Why? Because I HATE doing them, because my free time is limited (and thereby very precious), and because I like supporting local businesses.

  18. Hodges says:

    People who go to accountants for simple returns are being robbed. If you have something complex then it’s understandable…

  19. Meredith Thibo says:

    I paid $700.00 to have a CPA do my taxes for me, I also did my own on turbo tax.. I was very pleased with the prompts from turbo tax even for my complicated taxes. Turbo tax came up with $2,000.00 more of a refund for me . The CPA made 2 major errors- I reported as “interest” the dividends on my life insurance , and Roths, which she reported as “income” , which I did not spend and did not generate a tax document, and the company says i do not owe any taxes on this money until I withdraw it. It was useful to work with the CPA who has been doing our taxes for years so that I could be prompted to organize all my paperwork. But i will be using Turbo Tax next year.

  20. jazzi says:

    Good topic. I think about the same thing every year – collect and store receipts better, start taxes in February, but like many, I spend the last 48 hours before the deadline, literally, trying to get through the maze. Collecting the data all year requires discipline, but there is nothing you can do to avoid the confusion of the easy-step maze of questions that the layman mostly will not understand.

    A serious accountant tax preparer deals with tax authorities on a regular basis and therefore (potentially) adds a layer of real world knowledge and interpretation based on practice. You would be surprised to find out what some vague official filing guide info translates to in the real world, including, no, you don’t need to do that etc. although is says to do that on paper.

    Tax preparers have similar auditing software as TT, but I would guess that to have someone actually sit down with you and advise on right and wrong methods, you are looking at 1500-2000 a year if you have any kind of business income.

    Here is the review of TT I submitted to intuit

    A few years ago, you went from poor to slightly better with the interview and guidance, I was hopeful.

    Now, 3 or 4 years on, you have not reached an acceptable level of confusion avoidance.
    - The help info on any topic or line provides closed to zero guidance or useful explanation
    - Through the pages of “easy-step” questions at every step, I have no idea how to answer the questions, TT provides no Guidance on 95% of them (besides the sparse “Guide Me” icons once every 100 pages, yet answering all these questions and understanding if they apply to you is crucial for TT to use the right forms.

    You really NEED to step up your game as tax filing gets more and more confusing, on the pages where you list 15 cryptic questions and “click all that apply to me, you need GUIDE ME on every single one of those questions.

    I have worked in finance, and I am comfortable with numbers, and I pull my hair out every year, so I cannot imagine what someone with no understanding of these accounting and the poorly formulated language of the easy-step questions does…

    Unless you can hire more tax professionals to give real world added-value explanations and interpretations of all these questions, we might as well hire an accountant because 9 times out of 10, repeating the information in the official tax guides is of little or no use the layman.

    accountants will usually tell you “NO, that’s not what that means, and they you realize you have to know the ins and outs of what tax accountant standard approach is to all these things.

    If you do not understand the questions in TT, how can you be sure you are doing it right.

    PROVIDE MORE GUIDANCE, ALSO ON QC QUESTIONS SO WE CAN FIGURE OUT WHAT THEY MEAN IN THE REAL WORLD

    Signed: Confused more and more every year.

    1. Sri says:

      Turbotax is great for the 80% of tax situations out there. For the complex situations, you shouldnt be using TurboTax and you should use a tax professional. Thats the bottom line. THis is true with anything. I have used TT for 5 years now and my situation is pretty typical and I find TT quite intuitive to use. Is it better than a tax accountant ? I dont know but I cant imagine it being a lot better. If my situation was complicated, I am certain a tax accountant would be able to find those hidden deductions but its not.

  21. Accountants are a great help not only for filing income tax but for tax planning as well. Well, I am quite curious and a bit excited on the results of your experiment. Looking forward to reading that here!

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