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Smartphone apps to help with taxes

By Jodi Helmer and Michelle Crouch

Pay Uncle Sam with your thumbs? You can, thanks to a flood of new and improved tax apps for your smartphone.

You can estimate your taxes, track charitable donations, check the status of your refund, access standard mileage rates and retirement plan limits and, yes, even file a tax return from your smartphone.

"Users can save time and costly data-entry errors by taking photos of their tax forms and importing the numbers through [an] app," says Sandee Astrachan, lead product manager at H&R Block.

Smartphone apps to help with taxes

As the number of U.S. mobile subscribers with smartphones continues to increase -- almost 70 percent of U.S. mobile subscribers own smartphones, according to a 2014 comScore report -- so do the options to use tech to manage personal finances. In fact, 33 percent of consumers have used their phones for mobile banking, according to a 2014 report by the U.S. Federal Reserve.

H&R Block and TurboTax are targeting these tech-savvy smartphone users with apps that allow them to use their mobile network to file their taxes.

Here are a few tax-time tasks you can do with your smartphone and a sampling of apps that can help:

1. File your taxes

The apps from TurboTax, H&R Block and TaxAct are free to download (you may pay an e-filing fee). When first introduced a few years ago, the tax-filing apps were limited to 1040EZ returns, which excluded people with high incomes, lots of deductions or other financial complexities. But that's gradually changing. For example, TurboTax this year expanded its app to accommodate taxpayers filing all types of returns, giving you the flexibility to file from your phone no matter how intricate your return.

TurboTax and H&R Block's apps also let you snap a photo of your W-2 and then use it to auto-fill much of the information on your tax form. The tool can be a little finicky, though, so make sure you double-check the details it enters. Then answer a few questions, pay the filing fee if necessary, push a button and -- voila! -- you've filed your taxes.

TurboTax mobile TurboTax Mobile App
Cost:
It's free to file a 1040EZ, otherwise the fee is based on the type of return filed. TurboTax raised the ire of taxpayers earlier this year when it changed its software for 2014 returns. Filers who want to itemize deductions such as mortgage interest or charitable donations on a Schedule A need to upgrade from TurboTax Basic to TurboTax Deluxe; filers who need to file a Schedule C for businesses, Schedule D for capital gains or Schedule E for rental property must upgrade from TurboTax Deluxe to the Premier or Home and Business versions of the software program.
Platform: iPhone, Android.
Details: The app, just like the desktop version, asks specific questions to help you complete a tax return. You can snap a photo of your W-2 or 1099 and the information is synced to your online account and entered into your tax return. It's possible to move between devices, starting a return on your desktop and completing it on your smartphone, for example. New this year: Users can also complete their returns in Spanish.

H&R Block 1040EZ H&R Block 1040EZ 2014
Cost:
Cost: Free to file a 1040EZ, state returns start at $9.99
Platform: iPhone, Android.
Details: Designed for filers with W-2, interest or unemployment income, who do not own a home or claim dependents and earned less than $100,000. The app asks you a few qualifying questions and then walks you through the process, pulling information from the photo of your W-2 into your return. If you don't qualify to use the app, you'll be directed to the firm's website, where you can find an H&R Block office and make an appointment or use the online software. All returns filed with the 1040EZ app are backed by the worry-free audit guarantee.

TaxAct Express TaxAct Express
Cost:
The app is free to download; it's free to file federal and state returns.
Platform: iPhone, Android
Details: Although the app, which was introduced in 2014, is designed for filers with simple returns, it accommodates a greater number of tax situations than the 1040EZ. For example, taxpayers claiming dependents, education credits and retirement savings contributions can file using the app. If you start filing a return and encounter situations not covered by the app, the information can be transferred to the online or tablet versions of the software for filing more complex returns. The app also allows users to track the status of their federal refund.

2. Estimate your taxes or refund
If you're wondering how big your refund will be or how much you'll owe this year, several apps can give you a ballpark estimate. Before you start, make sure you know the amount of tax withheld from your pay, which you can find on your W-2 form or your final pay stub of the year.

TaxCaster by TurboTax TaxCaster by Intuit
Cost:
Free
Platform:
iPhone, Android
Details:
Reviewers have found this app's estimates to be pretty accurate, and it's also among the easiest to use. The app is made by TurboTax, and will recommend an appropriate version of TurboTax's tax software.  

TaxSlayer Free Refund Calculator TaxSlayer Free Refund Calculator
Cost:
Free
Platform:
iPhone, Android
Details:
Provide basic information about your income, withholdings, deductions and tax credits and the app provides an estimate of your refund. While reviewers rave about its accuracy, it's best applied to simple tax situations (it doesn't take 1099 income, mortgage interest or retirement contributions into account, for example). 

3. Track your refund
After asking a few basic questions, different apps can keep you posted on the status of your tax return and predict when you can have that cash in hand.

IRS2Go IRS2Go
Cost: Free
Platform:
iPhone, Android
Details:
The official app of the Internal Revenue Service. You'll need your Social Security number, ZIP code, filing status and the anticipated amount of your refund. The newest version includes a status tracker to monitor where your return is in the process; for e-filed returns, you can check your status within 24 hours of filing (it takes up to four weeks to check the status of a paper return). You can also use the app to have your tax return transcript mailed to you, or to get tax tips and the latest IRS news.  

MyTaxRefund MyTaxRefund -- Track Your Refund Status
Cost:
Free
Platform:
iPhone, Android
Details: Another app from TurboTax. You can use it even if you didn't use their software to file your taxes. Connect it to your online Intuit Mint account to be alerted when your refund check is deposited at your bank.

TaxAct Tax Return Status TaxAct Tax Return Status
Cost:
Free
Platform:
iPhone, Android
Details: After filing your tax return, download this app and enter some basic information, including your SSN, anticipated refund amount and filing status and the app notifies you when the IRS has received your tax return, when the refund has been approved and an estimated date when the refund will be received.

4. Find an answer
Get instant answers to thousands of tax-related questions organized by category.

BNA Quick Tax Reference BNA Quick Tax Reference
Cost: Free
Platform:
iPhone, Android
Details:
Bloomberg created this handy reference app to put information about standard mileage rates, standard deductions/personal exemptions, retirement plan limits, capital gains and more at your fingertips. In addition to current tax rates, the app also includes rates going back to 2011.

5. Track your expenses

The IRS requires you to keep business receipts for at least three years, but that can add up to a lot of paper -- not to mention a mess to dig through at tax time. Instead, try an app that lets you use your smartphone's camera to take photos of receipts and create an organized digital record.

N2F Expense Report N2F Expense Report
Cost:
$1.99 (a free trial is available).
Platform: Android
Details:
Track business expenses such as receipts and mileage and create a PDF expense report that can be exported to the cloud or shared via email. The app allows you to classify and track expenses by month, project or client. You can also track the status of pending payments.

Expensify Expensify
Cost:
Free for up to 10 receipts per month; then 20 cents each
Platform:
iPhone, Android, Windows Phone and BlackBerry
Details:
In addition to scanning and digitally storing your receipts, this app also lets you track miles and hours worked. You can then email yourself or a tax professional a report of your expenses right from your phone or upload everything to QuickBooks.

6. Track and value charitable donations
Need help tracking the donations you make throughout the year? Apps can streamline the process, making it easier to itemize your charitable contributions on your tax return.

It's Deductible Donation Tracker It's Deductible Donation Tracker
Cost:
Free
Platform:
iPhone
Details: The app, created by TurboTax, allows you to track all of your charitable contributions, including donated items, cash donations and mileage related to volunteer work. If you're not sure how to value the bag of clothes or kitchen gadgets you donated, the app provides resale values of similar items. At tax time, information about your donations can be exported into TurboTax to complete your return.

USING TAX APPS: 4 TIPS

Winn Schwartau, founder and CEO of The Security Awareness Co., a smartphone security company in Atlanta, shares the following tips on protecting your information and reducing errors when using tax apps:

  1. Buy or download apps from a reputable store. Imposters may try to spoof a brand name such as TurboTax or H&R Block to mislead you into downloading an app that will steal your data.
  2. Password protect your smartphone, and never store financial information or login details on your device.
  3. Don't enter personal information or access your tax app when your phone is connected to a public Wi-Fi hot spot, where it's easy for your data to be intercepted. Connect to your carrier's network instead.
  4. Double- and triple-check all information before you file, since it's easy to make fat-finger mistakes when you're using a touch screen. Camera tools that pull information from a photo can also introduce errors.    

See related: Pros and cons of paying taxes with a credit card

Updated: March 6, 2015


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Updated: 07-29-2015


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