Here's a guaranteed tip for saving money at tax time.
Swap the income tax software or online service you bought last year for one of the growing number of free products you can download to your computer, or use online via computer or mobile device. Free tax software used to be a fringe thing. Now, even big players such as TurboTax and H&R Block are in the market.
TurboTax and UFile are still selling a lot of tax software in stores and online at prices ranging from $10 for a very basic product to $70 for something more high end. But as of midweek, the Canada Revenue Agency had certified seven different products that help you file your taxes for free via its Netfile program.
All are available with no restrictions, a welcome twist on the long-standing practice of offering free returns only to select groups such as people with low incomes, postsecondary students and people with ultra-simple returns.
The most surprising name in free tax software may be H&R Block, which has about 1,200 retail locations in Canada where humans prepare tax returns for a fee. Last year, the firm offered a single desktop or online return for free until March 31 (after that, or if you had more returns, there was a charge). For the 2014 tax year, H&R Block is offering free downloads as well as free CDs through 800 Canada Post outlets.
Todd McCallum, vice-president of digital tax business development at H&R Block, explained the change by noting that there are 11 million do-it-yourselfers among the 28 million total tax filers in Canada. "We're really excited about the DIY market," he said. "It's a significant opportunity for us to serve customers that in the past we haven't been able to reach."
The most popular tax-filing product in Canada is TurboTax, which offers a wide lineup of paid products to suit various levels of tax complexity. But TurboTax is increasingly getting into free tax filing as well. New for the 2014 tax year is TurboTax Free Forms, which is suitable for all returns but offers much less guidance than traditional TurboTax versions.
"Most customers are using a paid version of our offering," said Jeff Cates, president of Intuit Canada, the company behind TurboTax. "It's usually because they're looking for additional guidance – the checking of things like whether you have maximized your RRSPs."
TurboTax also offers free filing options for people earning less than $20,000, members of the military, students and people with basic returns. College and university students are served through a free TurboTax offshoot called SnapTax, which is designed for iPhones and iPads. Mr. Cates said a lot of parents of students are using it to file returns for their children.
Other products listed by CRA as being free with no restrictions include SimpleTax, GenuTax, AdvTax and StudioTax (check which products are Netfile-certified here; links are provided to websites for the various offerings).
What's in it for providers of free tax software? H&R Block gets a chance to sell DIY tax filers a consultation with its tax preparers, while TurboTax is keeping customers close at hand for when they need the extra support provided by its paid products. SimpleTax doesn't actually consider itself a free product. "We try to put forward the idea of pay what you want," said founder Jonathan Suter. "People are giving us a wide variety of amounts. Some give as little as $2, some give as high as $50."
Can a pay-what-you-want service compete in a world where there are some big-name players offering freebies? Mr. Suter said more of its customers are choosing to pay something today than when the product was launched a few years ago.
Netfile and its twin, the Efile service used by professional tax preparers, accounted for 87 per cent of returns received through March 1 for the 2014 tax year, the rest being paper returns. With electronic filing, you gather up your tax slips, open the app, software or website you've chosen, complete your return and then file your return via Netfile service. Compared with this, filing a paper return is like digging a trench with a spoon.
And yet, there's a stubborn remnant of paper tax filers. If their main objection is the cost of using an electronic service, it's time to reconsider.
Globe app users please click here for chart