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Tax software by the numbers

If you find paying your taxes to be about as much fun as root-canal surgery, you are probably on the lookout for something that can numb the pain a bit.

If you find paying your taxes to be about as much fun as root-canal surgery, you’re probably on the lookout for something that can numb the pain a bit. The right tax software package can do just that. The best ones can not only make the whole process simpler and less time-consuming, but they can also point you toward ways to hang on to a few dollars that might otherwise go to Uncle Sam.

Of course, there’s no substitute for a capable, real-life tax accountant, and if your personal or business finances are at all complicated, you should at least keep on one retainer. But do-it-yourselfers have plenty of options when it comes to doing their taxes via computer.

— Intuit Quicken TurboTax: We might as well start with the granddaddy of tax software programs and his various offspring. TurboTax comes in four forms–1040EZ, Basic, Premier, and Business–that range in price from $5.95 for the online 1040EZ edition to $100 for the boxed Business edition.

The TurboTax site is a helpful resource for figuring out which of its products might be right for you, based on a number of variables such as whether you file state taxes, own rental property, whether you cashed in investments in 2004, and so on.

— Microsoft Money Deluxe 2005: This product (street price: about $35) is a solid all-in-one personal finance product that includes Tax Estimator and Tax Deduction Finder functions along with an array of other financial tools.

While not as in-depth as other dedicated tax programs, Microsoft Money Deluxe could be a valuable resource for users whose tax issues aren’t overly complicated.

— CFS Tax Software Tax Tools 2005: This $189 program is aimed at professional tax accountants, but it’s too impressive not to mention here. It imports client databases from a number of other programs, provides a five-year tax planner with several “what-if” scenarios, provides automatic tax-law updates, and basically does everything but sharpen your pencil.

— If you’re interested in the no-fuss, no-muss approach, hop over to RedTaxFrog, which promises to prepare and e-file your short-form or long-form return online for $24.95 without requiring you to, ahem, leave your pad.

One nice thing about the site is that you can begin your tax preparation for free, find out what your refund amount will be, and bail out from there–you don’t pay unless you decide to hire RedTaxFrog. And, if you have them do your federal return, your state return is done free.

— Denver Tax Software: While not as heavy a hitter as Tax Tools, Denver Tax offers specialized software that zeroes in on particular segments of tax accounting, such as Alternative Minimum Tax Planner, S Corporation Planner, and IRS/State Interest and Penalty Calculator. Other Denver programs, such as Lease vs. Buy Analyzer, are suited to the consumer. All of Denver’s software titles are available in free trial versions, too.

— H&R Block TaxCut Premium: TaxCut comes in a number of flavors, including a state-tax edition, but the Premium package might be the most impressive. Available as a $40 download, the program comes with a wealth of exclusive advice and extras, including tools to help you manage home ownership, investments and retirement concerns.

— Intuit QuickBooks: This is one of the few tax programs aimed squarely at small-business owners. A good jumping-off point is the $100 Simple Start edition, which helps you keep pace with your finances not just at tax time, but year ’round as your finances change.

The QuickBooks: Premier edition, while considerably more pricey, includes an array of inventory templates, business-planning features and tools specific to your industry.

— TaxACT Home & Business 1065 Bundle: This $30 package is tailor-made for businesses that file using Form 1065. The 1065 is made for business partnerships in which all partners are equally and personally liable for the business’s finances (as opposed to a limited partner, which generally are protected from financial liability).

A lot of small businesses (such as those run by married couples) are set up as 1065s, and programs like TaxACT and 1065 Accountant should provide everything such businesses need at tax time.

— CCH CompleteTax: CompleteTax isn’t a software package as such; it’s an online filing service, and its trademark is a bare-bones, no-nonsense approach.

For $33, CompleteTax has you answer a few general questions about your work and finances, has you plug in the pertinent income and deduction numbers, and takes it from there. They perform all calculations, keeps up-to-date on federal tax laws, double-checks for errors and omissions, and e-files your return. All you have to do is sit back and await your refund.

— Trustfile: The narrow-but-deep award in the small-business tax software category goes to Trustfile. It automatically performs form calculations conforming to state requirements, contains a built-in archiving feature that keeps your past tax data at your fingertips, and can import financial material from virtually any spreadsheet application.

Unfortunately, Trustfile only works with state returns, and only in a handful of states. And, it ain’t cheap, with the basic package going for $129. But within those confines, it does what it does better than anyone.

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