TurboTax Sucks or: How I Got a Bigger Refund with SimpleTax

‘Tis that time of the year again, when a weekend is spent by the entire nation in frantically trying to scrape all receipts, invoices and slips together in order to file ones taxes on time. With the deadline fast approaching, I decided on doing just that this past weekend, and began by doing what I always did first when filing taxes, fire up the tax program.

Advertising had gotten the better of me, and over the years, without much consideration, I had been enslaved to the only tax program that I thought existed, TurboTax from Intuit. When I first started filing taxes, the free version of TurboTax worked out just fine for my simplistic needs. Even though the privacy invasion detector and security concern meter inside me went off every time I punched all my personal information into their website, it got the job done, and I never gave it much thought afterwards. But over the years, as my returns became increasingly complex, I began to notice the increased cost in using the various features of the program. But being a programmer myself, I presumed this was only fair, and albeit slightly grudgingly, coughed up $50 last year before I could download my .tax file.

So I figured this year wouldn’t be any different, and mindlessly started punching my information into the the website. Everything was going great, until I tried entering my line 369. The first thing that happened when I selected this option was, **drum-roll**, a box popped up prompting me to ‘upgrade’ to the ‘standard’ version. It was at this point that I realized I had been subconsciously waiting all along for this to happen as I ticked each box and clicked each button, for that annoying little pop up to come up saying “Aha! It looks like you will be getting some money back here matey, and we want a slice of that pie!”. But the worst part was when I clicked OK and the program seemed to simply fail to take my line 369 into consideration. There was a small bump, but nothing near what I was expecting. I tried clicking the back and next buttons, toggling the various boxes, logging out and logging back in, all to no avail. The refund counter simply would not budge thereafter.

Then I decided to see if I could simply take it off, and get bumped back to the free version. Thats when I hit the second snag. Once you “upgrade” to the paid version, there is no straightforward way to go back to the free version. A bit of Googling around found me a page on their support forums which suggested sending an email to their support team, who would then consider my case, and decice on if they would bump me down or not. I figured I didn’t have time for this BS, and just continued on with entering the rest of my information.

It was only when I got to the end, to the point where you can’t go past without paying up, that I figured what was actually going on with the unbudging refund meter. The program was failing to distinguish T4’s from multiple provinces, and was applying the rules for one province or the other to all of them. Try as I might, I simply could not get it to recognize that the slips were from different provinces, even though this information had been entered into the page which recorded the T4’s under box 10.

I started contemplating my options here, and started Googling around again to see if others had the same problem. This was when I hit upon this gem of an article from arstechnica, How the maker of TurboTax fought free, simple tax filing.

This article opened my mind to a world of truth, on how TurboTax and their moles had spent millions in lobbying to effectively prevent the government from implementing an idea known as “return-free filing”. The idea is simple. Instead of hiring someone to do your taxes, or paying up to use tax software like TurboTax, the government would prepare your return and send it to you stating how much they thought you owed them. You make needed changes if any, and send it back. If you did not like the one they prepared for you for some reason, you were free to hire your own accountant to do it for you. This idea, when put to practice, would save an estimated $2 Billion (with a B) and 225 million hours of taxpayer’s time and money. Since this would essentially put companies like them out of business, they were flexing their lobbying muscle with bogus arguments, which as one commenter puts it:

the government would do a shitty job of this and we do a great job of it, so don’t let people have the option of letting the government do it, because that wouldn’t be fair to our clearly superior product and service.

As I have a personal policy to not support companies that engage in such practices, for the first time ever, I started to look around for an alternative to TurboTax. I soon stumbled upon this page on the CRA website, which lists all software certified by them for the current tax year. Looking down the list under the “online” section, the third option down caught my eye: SimpleTax. Frustrated by how much of my weekend was being wasted on finding glitches with TurboTax, the name felt refreshing and sounded like exactly what I needed. As a bonus, it was also listed as “Free for everyone”. Sweet.

And refreshing it was. The first thing that impressed me was their privacy policy:

Your email address is the only personally identifiable information that we can access without your password. All other information you provide is encrypted.

Your email address will never be sold and will only be used to inform you of product updates and future versions. We will never send you third-party marketing emails. We hate spam just as much as you do.

Exactly what I had wanted to hear. I also read how the program had been developed by a startup of 3, who had themselves been frustrated with TurboTax. How poetic. I quickly started entering my information and found the program an absolute joy to use. The interface was quick, responsive and uncluttered, and I was done entering all my information in less than 10 minutes. The refund numbers finally started to look right, and I sent a small donation their way to show my appreciation for their awesome work in putting the software together.

Whenever I come across a web application that I really like, the first thing that crosses my mind is “I wonder what they built this with”. From a quick glance at the interface, it was obvious that Twitter Bootstrap had been employed extensively to create the attractive, sleek and intuitive interface. What wasn’t quite obvious was the the server-side technology being used to drive the interface. BuiltWith listed jQuery, nginx and TypeKit, but not much else. My curiosity was satisfied when I sent a short thank you note to the developers, commending them for their excellent work. They got back to me almost instantaneously, and with a simple hint in my email that I was a developer, they read my mind, asked if I was curious, and linked me to their humans.txt file which lists all technologies they had employed to build the program.

If you haven’t done your taxes yet, I would definitely recommend checking SimpleTax out and saving yourself time and money, and also possibly get a bigger refund, that other tax programs might have botched up. They had mentioned in their parting email that they had some exciting features planned for next year, and I am excited to see what they have in the works. Strange but true, I am actually looking forward to doing my taxes next year.

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