TurboTax Review 2020-2021: Honest Review by a CPAPersonal Taxes
We may receive a commission if you sign up or purchase through links on this page. Here's more information.
- Basics: TurboTax is the "household name" of do-it-yourself tax preparation software, and for good reason.
- Pros: The product itself provides an unmatched user experience, a quality app, and the ability to seamlessly handle complex tax situations.
- Cons: TurboTax is expensive and has a habit of upselling its customers on products and services they may or may not need. Also, its free version is lacking compared to competitor products.
As a CPA, I’ve used countless types of tax return preparation software over the years, so I love digging into the details whenever a new edition is released as well as sharing with my readers my take on it.
In this article, I am reviewing the TurboTax software for use in preparing 2020 tax returns (due in 2021).
Many of you know that TurboTax is generally viewed as the “cream of the crop” of do-it-yourself tax software — with the price point to prove it.
And in my opinion TurboTax truly does offer a bit more streamlined tax return preparation process than its less expensive competitors, but of course it’s not without its drawbacks.
In this TurboTax review I will give a general overview of the TurboTax software as well as the pros and cons of using it so you can decide for yourself whether TurboTax is the tax software for you.
TurboTax Free Edition
I like to start my tax software reviews by discussing the free version of the software since I know that this piece of information is all some of my readers want to know about.
The good thing about the TurboTax Free Edition is that it’s truly free.
Unlike some tax software that gives you a free federal return but then makes you pay to file your state return, the TurboTax Free Edition is free for both your federal and state returns.
TurboTax Live: If you would like a real CPA or EA to review your “free” return through TurboTax Live, you will have to pay $50 for federal review and $40 per state review. If you would otherwise qualify to have your return prepared for free, this TurboTax Live service is specifically called TurboTax Basic. However, if you qualify for a free return through TurboTax Free Edition, I’m not really sure if you need a professional to look over your return because your return is likely quite simple.
Very Simple Returns Only
The only problem is that your tax return has to be extremely simple for you to qualify to use the Free Edition. And by extremely simple, I mean someone:
- whose only income is reported on a W-2,
- who has a small amount of interest and dividends,
- who claims the standard deduction, and
- who may have children.
If your tax situation is more complicated than that, you’ll need to use one of the paid editions.
TurboTax Free vs. H&R Block Free
In fact, the TurboTax Free Edition is quite limited compared to the H&R Block Free Online Edition. Below is a table comparing what you get with the TurboTax Free Edition with what you get with H&R Block Free Online.
|Plan:||TurboTax Free Edition||H&R Block Free Online|
|Interest and Dividend Income||Yes, if $1,500 or less||Yes|
|Earned Income Credit (EIC)||Yes||Yes|
|Child Tax Credits||Yes||Yes|
|Student Loan Interest Deduction||No||Yes|
|Childcare Expenses Credit||No||Yes|
|Retirement Savings Credit||No||Yes|
As you can see, the H&R Block Free Online Edition provides support for far many tax situations than the TurboTax Free Edition.
TurboTax Paid Editions
If you have any semblance of complexity in your tax situation whatsoever, you’ll likely need to pony up for one of TurboTax’s paid editions, be it the Deluxe, Premier, or Self-Employed.
I’ll get into the details of each of these plans later, but for now let’s touch on pricing.
TurboTax is many things, but cheap isn’t one of them. As you can see in the table below, the least expensive paid edition will set you back $80 and the most expensive $130.
Compared to H&R Block’s range of about $60 for the lowest price point and $97 for the highest price point, TurboTax definitely comes at a premium.
|Best For:||Simple Tax Returns||Maximizing Deductions and Credits||Investments and Rental Property||Small Business Owners, Including Freelancers|
Next I’ll give an overview of each of the TurboTax plans followed by another table, this one showing what’s covered and what’s not in all of them.
TurboTax Deluxe Edition
The Deluxe Edition is the most popular paid TurboTax plan since it accommodates taxpayers with a typical middle-class tax situation but doesn’t necessarily have all the bells and whistles associated with the more expensive plans.
Among other things, this edition allows you to take the following tax deductions and credits:
- Itemized deductions on Schedule A such as the mortgage interest deduction, property tax deduction, state income taxes deduction, and charitable contributions deduction.
- Adjustments to income such as the student loan interest deduction and educator expenses.
- Credits such as the Child and Dependent Care Credit and the Retirement Savings Credit.
TurboTax Live: If you would like a real CPA or EA to review your Deluxe Edition return through TurboTax Live, your total cost is $90 for your federal return and $50 per state return.
TurboTax and Self-Employment Income
You can also report self-employment income on Schedule C using TurboTax Deluxe Edition, but there’s a catch: you can’t report expenses. This is true for the Premier Edition as well. Maybe this is okay if you just picked up one or two freelancing assignments during the year, but if you’re truly running a small business with many expenses, I would recommend that you pony up and go for the Self-Employed Edition since your tax deductions will likely put far more cash back into your pocket than the $50 spread between the Deluxe Edition and the Self-Employed Edition.
TurboTax Premier Edition
The Premier Edition opens up Schedule D and Schedule E, which are used for capital gains and losses (such as stock sales) and rental income and loss, respectively.
In my opinion, the price jump is more than worth it since TurboTax can automatically import your stock gains and losses from most major online brokerages.
Also, if you’re a landlord, you’ll obviously want to go with this option unless you need the Self-Employed Edition as well.
TurboTax Live: If you would like a real CPA or EA to review your Premier Edition return through TurboTax Live, your total cost is $140 for your federal return and $50 per state return.
TurboTax Self-Employed Edition
Finally we have the Self-Employed Edition, which accommodates even the most complicated self-employment situations reported on Schedule C. And yes, you now have the ability to report business expenses.
TurboTax Live: If you would like a real CPA or EA to review your Self-Employed Edition return through TurboTax Live, your total cost is $170 for your federal return and $50 per state return.
|Interest and Dividend Income||Yes, if $1,500 or less||Yes, even if more than $1,500||Yes, even if more than $1,500||Yes, even if more than $1,500|
|Earned Income Credit (EIC)||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Child Tax Credits||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Student Loan Interest Deduction||No||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Childcare Expenses Credit||No||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Retirement Savings Credit||No||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|State and Local Taxes Paid||No||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Home Mortgage Interest||No||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Self-Employment Income||No||Yes, but not expenses||Yes, but not expenses||Yes, including expenses|
TurboTax User Experience
Where TurboTax really shines is in its user-friendly interface.
Overall, I found each section of the TurboTax walkthrough that I detail below very user-friendly and easy-to-understand.
Another aspect of the TurboTax user experience that I appreciated was that my tax due / refund amounts were ever-present in the upper-left-hand corner of my screen. These amounts would update as I provided more data to the software. I did not find this feature when testing H&R Block, though H&R Block did periodically let me know my tentative refund amount.
Really the only slightly annoying part of my TurboTax user experience was the ubiquitous upsells, so I’m going to talk about this up-front to get it out of the way.
I did a few test tax returns in putting together this review, and I was surprised to find that the upsells actually varied from return to return.
Were they annoying? Yes.
But is it a dealbreaker? No. I understand that TurboTax is providing a valuable product — sometimes for free — and they need to increase margins any way they can.
I just wish that these upsells weren’t being pushed on people who would derive little benefit from them. I explain what I mean below.
The upsell I was shown during my first test return was for TurboTax Max audit protection. This service costs an additional $50.
I honestly can’t give an accurate review of this audit protection because I have no experience with it.
That said, if your return is pretty much comprised of documents that others prepared for you — such as your W-2 or a 1099-DIV from your brokerage — your chance of being audited is extremely small. And even if you are “audited,” the IRS will probably just be asking for tax forms to verify the items on your return. In other words, if your tax return is simple, you probably don’t need this audit protection.
Because the test tax return I was preparing at the time was a very simple return — just W-2 income — I found this offer for audit protection pretty distasteful.
The other upsell I saw was to upgrade to TurboTax +Plus.
This provides — for a flat $30 fee — the following services:
- One-on-one support specialist who can video chat with you to help you prepare your tax return
- Personalized tax tips based on your tax return
- Amended return support
- Tax document storage
- Audit support
- Identity theft support
I was preparing a test return using the Free Edition when I got this upsell — and I didn’t like that.
Remember, the TurboTax Free Edition is for people with incredibly simple tax situations, so I don’t really think they need this kind of support for an extra $30.
For many taxpayers, the TurboTax paid editions are worth it because your tax situation simply merits it.
Other taxpayers, however, may not be well-served by, say, upgrading from the Free Edition to the Premium Edition.
I discuss an example of an edition upgrade in the walkthrough below under the Deductions & Credits section.
TurboTax is a top-of-the-line tax software, but it doesn't come cheap and tends to upsell users on various services.
Choosing Your Edition
The first thing you’ll see after you sign up for TurboTax is a screen with twelve options that you can select.
TurboTax uses your selections to funnel you into one of the editions.
Note that if you choose anything other than “I have a job (received W-2)” and “I have children or dependents” TurboTax will steer you toward one of the paid options rather than the free option.
If you’re truly not sure which one edition or the other best fits your situation, I would recommend going with the cheaper option.
If it turns out you need the more expensive edition, you can just upgrade as you prepare your returns. And remember, TurboTax doesn’t take any payment up-front; you simply pay when you file your taxes.
Share Tax Information
Next you’ll be prompted to share your tax information with Intuit, TurboTax’s parent company.
The reason Intuit wants you to do this is so that they can show you offers from their partners.
For example, if on your tax return Intuit sees that based on the mortgage information you input that you may be able to qualify for a lower interest rate on your mortgage, Intuit will provide you with mortgage refinance offers.
This could be helpful to you, but I personally don’t like the idea of giving even more entities my most-sensitive financial and personal data.
If you’re not comfortable with this, simply click “No Thanks” at the bottom of the second screen. This will not affect your tax return in any way.
The next few screens will ask you for your personal information.
This section is pretty basic and self-explanatory, so I’m not going to elaborate on it other than that you will be sharing with TurboTax basic information such as your:
- Social Security Number
- Marital Status
Although sharing this kind of information, especially your social security number, over the Internet can feel a bit strange, know that this is completely normal and necessary to completing your tax return.
You’ll also be asked how you filed your tax returns last year and how you feel about doing your taxes.
On another screen, you’ll be asked whether or not certain tax events happened in your life during the year (or example, whether or not you had a child). Be sure to click “Show More” at the bottom to be sure you don’t miss anything.
As you work through the interface, you’ll be shown a summary screen and also given the option to view the list of documents TurboTax thinks you’ll need to prepare your return based on the information you provided. I would recommend viewing this list to make sure you have everything you need.
At the end of it all, TurboTax will tell you what filing status it thinks would be best for you.
Wages & Income
Next up is the Wages & Income section, where you — you guessed it — tell TurboTax about all the money you made during the year.
TurboTax has a pretty cool W-2 import feature.
After you input your employer’s EIN in the W-2 input screen, TurboTax will see if your W-2 qualifies for automatic import.
If it does, great!
If not, no worries — you can simply input your W-2 information the good old-fashioned way i.e. using your keyboard.
After your W-2 information is complete, you move on to your other income.
TurboTax asks you a series of self-explanatory questions such as:
- Did you make any money outside the United States?
- Did you receive any retirement income?
- Did you receive any interest payments?
- Did you sell any investments?
- Did you receive any dividend payments?
- Did you own or control a foreign bank account, trust, or financial asset?
For kicks, I indicated that I received interest payments during the year, which triggered on the next screen a button where I could “start” telling TurboTax about the interest income earned during the year.
The interest income input screen was very self-explanatory and followed the flow of Form 1099-INT rather well.
Deductions & Credits
After you’ve told TurboTax about all your income items, it’s time to get to the good stuff — deductions and credits.
Here’s where you can tell TurboTax about your:
- Estimated tax payments
- HSA or MSA
- Traditional or Roth IRA
- Student loan payments
- Foreign taxes paid
I indicated that I made student loan payments during the year, which triggered on the next screen a button where I could “start” telling TurboTax about the student loan interest I paid during the year.
Deluxe Edition Upgrade
I input that I paid $100 in student loan interest during the year.
And guess what happened? TurboTax tried to upsell me to the Deluxe Edition, which costs $40 for federal and an additional $40 for state for a total filing cost of $80! Strong language was used, such as the word “need.”
Just to back up here, in this particular test, I indicated that I was a single filer living in California with $50,000 of W-2 wages as my only income and who takes the standard deduction. That puts me in the 22% tax bracket for federal income tax purposes and 8% for California purposes — this comes out to a combined 30% combined tax rate — meaning that a $100 deduction for student loan interest would only result in $30 of tax savings.
So I’d have to pay an additional $80 to TurboTax in order to get a deduction that will result in $30 of tax savings! Now, I have no problem with TurboTax charging what it needs to for its services, but I think TurboTax could really be more transparent here by stating exactly how much one would save in taxes by upgrading.
Note: H&R Block’s Free Online edition does not make you upgrade to a paid version in order to report the student loan interest deduction. See my comparison table between TurboTax Free Edition and H&R Block Free Online.
Standard Deduction vs. Itemized Deductions
After you finish inputting your deductions, TurboTax will let you know whether — based, of course, on the information you provided — taking the standard deduction or itemizing your deductions would make the most sense.
Underneath the graphic, you can click a dropdown that says, “Show me the breakdown of my itemized deductions,” to see the details here.
So before rushing to click the “Continue” button, be sure to review the math here to make sure that you didn’t forget to input something.
Other Tax Situations
The next few screens will ask you various questions to see if your tax situation requires any additional forms.
These are things like:
- Did you hire a live-in nanny or household employee?
- Do you want to apply your refund to next year’s return?
- Do you want to designate $3 to the presidential campaign fund?
- Did you experience identity theft and receive an Identity Protection Pin (IP PIN) from the IRS?
The second, third, and fourth questions are rather self-explanatory, so I won’t focus on them.
And the first question is a rare enough situation that I’m not going to dwell on it, but please let me know in the comments below if you’d like me to review TurboTax’s treatment of household employee filings.
The next few screens will go over your state tax situation.
State Tax Return Data
Most of the information you need for your state tax returns will be transferred over from the previous inputs you made for your federal return.
There may be some additional questions such as :
- Whether you filed a state tax return last year
- Whether you filed a state tax return with a different name last year
- If you’re subject to state electronic payment mandates
- Whether you have dependents for state tax purposes but not federal tax purposes
You will also be asked if you have certain kinds of income or deductions treated differently for state tax purposes than federal tax purposes.
As the State Taxes section is state-specific, I’m not going into detail here other than stating that TurboTax’s approach appears to be quite comprehensive.
Finally, in certain states, you may see a screen about Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT).
Next you’ll be asked about if you purchased items outside your home state on which you weren’t charged sales tax by your home state.
If this is the case, you may be subject to use tax on these purchases.
You’ll also be asked if you think you may qualify for certain state-specific credits and other tax breaks.
Again, this section is to state-specific that I’m not going to go into detail here.
Ability to Handle Complex Returns
Another thing I look at when assessing a tax software is its ability to handle complex returns.
What I Mean by “Complex”
Now, I’m not talking about some billionaire’s tax return with hundreds of K-1s, foreign transactions, and all kinds of disclosures that need to be made. Frankly, people like that shouldn’t be using TurboTax; they should probably be working with a tax professional.
When I say “complex return” in this context I’m describing “middle-class complex,” i.e. a return that involves all of the following:
- Small business reported on Schedule C
- Stock sales reported on Schedule D
- Rental property reported on Schedule E
- A K-1 reported on Schedule E
I actually ran a demo return through TurboTax with all of these items and was pleased with the results.
The interface was easy to follow, somewhat foolproof, and the results were accurate.
See the video below for the walkthrough.
Believe it or not, TurboTax has an app that you can use to file your taxes. It appears that TurboTax blocks screenshots from being taken while in the app.
Almost Identical to Desktop
The interface works much as the same as the desktop version with some key differences:
- The app gives you the option to scan your driver’s license to auto-complete some information for you.
- You can snap a photo of your W-2 to import it.
- You get a pop-up every now and then to rate the TurboTax app (as is common with pretty much any app these days).
But other than that, it’s extremely similar to the desktop version, including the upsells.
Fast and Easy to Use
I was extremely impressed by the app and had no complaints.
It’s fast and easy-to-use, much like the desktop version.
TurboTax Customer Service
Yes, TurboTax is a do-it-yourself tax software, but you aren’t left to the wolves when it comes to technical support.
At the top-right of the TurboTax interface, you’ll see the three icons shown below. Each one of them corresponds to a different level of support that I describe below.
The first line of defense when it comes to TurboTax support is the search function, represented by the magnifying glass.
When you type a question or topic in the search box, TurboTax provides you with one of two things if not both:
- A link to the relevant part of the tax preparation screen to deal with your issue
- A link (or links) to similar questions TurboTax answers have asked of the TurboTax community and the answers they received from others in the community
The first option is self-explanatory but may not be the most helpful since you’re just taken to an input screen.
The second option, on the other hand, can be very helpful, but keep in mind that the answers to these questions are not necessarily from tax professionals (though they could be), and they’re often anonymous.
For example, here’s an answer from someone with the username xmasbaby0 that appeared when I typed, “I lost my W-2 form,” in the search box.
Now, xmasbaby0 actually gave a pretty good answer, but my point is that these answers are oftentimes completely anonymous, and you have no idea of how trustworthy the individual answering actually is.
That said, in my experience, the answers are helpful more often than not, but please don’t take them as professional tax advice.
The next support function is the TurboTax Assistant, which can be accessed by clicking on the question bubble.
This is essentially a chatbox that shows you relevant community answers when you ask it a question.
Finally, you have TurboTax Live, which gives you the ability to livechat with a real CPA or EA directly on your screen.
I must admit that this is a pretty cool feature.
Of course, I can’t fully review this aspect of TurboTax customer service because I have not used it myself, but I do like the idea of users being able to chat with a professional if they feel that they need one.
That said, if you have a relatively straightforward return — or even a moderately complex return — you probably don’t need this level of support to accurately prepare your tax returns.
TurboTax Pros and Cons
TurboTax is a great tax software, but it’s not perfect. Below, I list a summary of the pros as well of the cons of the TurboTax software.
- Great design. The flow of the TurboTax interface is truly premium and feels luxury.
- Accurate. As far as I could tell based on the test returns, TurboTax prepared the returns accurately. That said, it is a tool, and only as useful as the individual using it is knowledgeable.
- App. The TurboTax app is fast and retains the easy interface of the desktop version, making doing your tax returns on your mobile device a breeze.
- Can handle complex returns. TurboTax was able to handle even the more complicated tax scenarios I threw at it.
- Expensive. TurboTax has the highest price point of any major retail tax software.
- Free version is lacking. TurboTax’s free version is not as robust and cannot handle as many tax scenarios as those of its competitors.
- Upsells. You’ll definitely be hit up with various upgrades that you may or may not need as you prepare your tax return in TurboTax.
- Is TurboTax free?
TurboTax offers a free version as well as three paid versions. You only qualify for the free version if your tax return is extremely simple.
- Does TurboTax get you the best refund?
TurboTax is an incredible tool with an interface designed to legally maximize your deductions and credits. But like any tool, it is only as good as the skill and knowledge of the person using it. So yes, TurboTax can get you the largest tax refund to which you are legally obligated -- assuming you use it correctly.
- How long does it take to file taxes on TurboTax?
This depends entirely on your own tax situation. If your tax return can be prepared from just a few documents, then you could be done with the entire process in ten minutes or so. However, if you have multiple tax documents, rental properties, or your own business, the tax return preparation process can take hours.
Should You Use TurboTax?
If you use TurboTax, you can be confident that you will be using a premium, easy-to-use product that will take most of the pain out of preparing your tax return.
That said, it comes at a high price point and has a habit of upselling its more robust features that you may not actually need.
The choice is up to you, but keep in mind that there are other tax preparation options available to you.
FREE GUIDE: 6 Free Apps To Make $1,000
If you aren't using these 6 free cash back apps right now to save money on everything from groceries to gas, you're missing out on a lot of money. Get my guide to these 6 apps today!
Logan is a practicing CPA, Certified Student Loan Professional, and founder of Money Done Right, which he launched in 2017. After spending nearly a decade in the corporate world helping big businesses save money, he launched his blog with the goal of helping everyday Americans earn, save, and invest more money. Learn more about Logan.