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(Cinders McLeod/The Globe and Mail)
(Cinders McLeod/The Globe and Mail)

Dave McGinn's Mr. Miser

What gives a better return: tax software or a bean counter? Add to ...

This time of year should come with horror-movie music - dun! dun! dun! Or maybe that sad tune that follows Charlie Brown around when he's missed kicking another football and has to walk home in the rain. Yeah, it's tax time.

Sitting down to crunch the numbers, fill out forms and file a tax return is as appealing as cleaning out my garage. I know it's something I should do, but will make up any excuse to get out of it.

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"Clean out the garage? But I've never seen this episode of Golden Girls that just came on the TV," I'll say to myself. Most years, I simply shirk the tax duty and download it onto an accountant. But that costs a few hundred bucks. Is it worth trying to do it myself?

"It really depends on the complexity of the return," says Brian Quinlan, a partner at Campbell Lawless Professional Corporation Chartered Accountants and co-author of 78 Tax Tips for Canadians for Dummies. If all you have is a T4 slip and perhaps an RRSP slip, the return should be basic enough to do it yourself without screwing up. "It would be very difficult to go wrong," Mr. Quinlan says.

Once you pile on such things as rental income or being self-employed, however, the return becomes more complex and doing it yourself means you could be missing some serious moolah.

"There, you really want to focus on hoping they're not missing certain deductions they're entitled to because these are the ones that any tax software won't even jump out at you as a diagnostic," Mr. Quinlan says. "You really have to know what you're doing."

Still, with the cost of hiring an accountant ranging from $200 to nearly 10 times that amount, I'm willing to at least give it a try on my own. Maybe I'll score a huge return. Maybe I'll end up in debtors' prison.

There is more tax software online than there are confusing numbers in the tax code. To simplify matters, I just tried two of the more popular ones, UFile and QuickTax.

Having spent nearly two hours fiddling with UFile, I can report that the best thing about it is it almost allowed me to write off a new computer. That's because it was so frustrating to use, I nearly smashed the machine I have. It was such a headache that I gave up midway through. However much of a return it might have spat out is insignificant compared to the price of my sanity.

QuickTax, which promises a quick and painless experience, proved to be easier at first. Rather than have me clicking through a whole bunch of different screens and getting lost, it let me enter all my information on a single page, and it only took about 20 minutes. This same page also showed a pretty tantalizing refund in bold green numbers. Easy. As. Pie.

But then things got complicated. I did my first run through the software pretending I only had a T4 and my RRSP info. But for about half of last year I was self-employed, which makes things a whole lot messier. Once I tried to figure out my entire tax situation, I was back in hair-pulling mode. Having to dig around looking for explanations of what qualified as an expense and how much I could claim started to make my head hurt. Even after putting in quite a bit of time, I'm still not sure I've covered all my bases. Which means I'm still not sure if I'm getting as high a refund as possible.

"Canadian tax is complicated, and it's getting more complicated all the time," says Dorothy Kelt, who runs the website TaxTips.ca. "The more complicated your income is, and your deductions, the more likely you are going to miss something that could save you tax, in which case going to an accountant could save you money."

If I only had my T4 and RRSP info to deal with, I would definitely do my own taxes, especially since the software to do so costs less than $20. But in the real world - oh, the real world - my tax situation is way too complicated for me to be anything other than a confused, angry, nervous wreck.

Which means that if you're my accountant and you happen to be reading this, get ready for a pile of papers and receipts in the mail any day now. Go ahead and charge me $200. I'm pretty confident at this point that your handiwork is going to offset the cost by a wide margin. And relieving me of the stress is priceless.

Not having to do it all myself, or worry about whether I've done it right, is music to my ears. And not the dun! dun! dun! kind.

 

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