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Even an annual ritual like filing your income tax return is affected by the recession.

File a tax return electronically through the Canada Revenue Agency's Netfile program and your refund can arrive in as little as eight business days. If you need cash, that's one way to get it.

The people at Canada's No. 1 tax software product, QuickTax, are right on this theme. Today, they're announcing free online tax-filing for people with the most basic of basic tax returns, as well as a special free version just for students.

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There's news as well for regular QuickTax users who hold a grudge over the way the product has over the years offered fewer and fewer returns. Eight returns are offered for this year, up from just two last year.

Online tax software products have long been offered free of charge to individuals whose annual income is below $20,000 to $25,000. Now, the online version of QuickTax is available to anyone with a simple return that comprises income from employment or a pension and no deductions (that means no contributions to a registered retirement savings plan) or investment income (that includes interest income from a bank account).

This doesn't sound all that useful, truth be told. But Cameron Moore, product manager for QuickTax, said there's a substantial audience for this free service among people who do their returns with pencil and paper or possibly don't file a tax return at all.

"We don't have exact data, but our internal estimate is that well over one million Canadians would qualify for QuickTax free software," Mr. Moore said.

A product called StudioTax (studiotax.com) has for the past few years been available for free to everyone who files taxes, not just those with rudimentary returns or low incomes. However, QuickTax, Canada's top seller for 15 consecutive years, sets the standard in terms of being easy to use.

"The new version of QuickTax for students is aimed at people who will be claiming tax credits for tuition and textbooks, the student loan interest credit and so on," Mr. Moore said. "It's specifically designed for students so they don't have to wade through all of the other deductions and can get their taxes done really quickly."

You need tax software to benefit from Netfile and you can either buy a desktop version in stores or access it online. The fastest growth in the tax software business is in the online side of things, where you log into a secure website, complete your tax return, pay by credit card and then file your return into the CRA's Netfile system. However, Mr. Moore said the desktop version of QuickTax is still the dominant product for parent Intuit Canada.

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Several years ago, QuickTax's desktop version offered 18 returns per box. That was later reduced to five and then, last year, to just two. If the e-mails that were received here are any indication, customers were furious about the move.

"We listened to our customers and they told us clearly they wanted more value in the desk-top software," Mr. Moore said. "We heard that message loud and clear and we've delivered by offering more returns."

This year's suggested retail price for the standard desktop version of QuickTax is $39.99, the same as last year. However, the software was available last year with a $10 mail-in rebate that isn't being repeated. A stripped-down version of QuickTax, called QuickTax Basic, is available at $19.99 and it should be more than adequate for people who are comfortable completing a tax return and don't need the guidance provided on the standard and platinum QuickTax versions.

QuickTax's main competitor for the desktop market is UFile, which also offers eight returns in its standard version and is being sold by Future Shop for $19.99.

If you're knocking off just a single tax return, then the best values can be found online. QuickTax online costs $14.99 per return this year, down from $19.99 last year, and there are several cheaper options. To find them, go to the Netfile website (Netfile.gc.ca) and click on the "software" link. If you're never used Netfile before, this website will explain how to get started.

Online tax filing has its problems, mind you. Quick aside: Security isn't one of them - online tax filing is as safe as online banking. The real issue is the vulnerability of the online filing infrastructure to failure when coping with high volumes. Netfile was out for nine days during the 2007 tax-filing season, and the QuickTax website crashed on the tax-filing deadline that same year.

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Solution: Avoid the last-minute rush and file as soon as your various tax slips are in hand. The sooner you file, the sooner your refund arrives.

And what if you owe taxes this year? Be sure to file by the deadline of April 30. You have better things to do with your money in a recession than pay it to the taxman as a late-filing penalty.

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