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Users rev up a turbo tirade

Tax season officially has opened, which means folks will soon be getting cranky. On the other hand, Girl Scout cookies just went on sale, so we've got Tagalongs and Do- si-dos to soothe our tax-jangled nerves.

And when it comes to high-carbohydrate comfort good, you'd better stock up if you're a long-time user of TurboTax.

Fans of the tax-preparation program are angry over a change by parent company Intuit that forces them to buy more expensive versions of TurboTax software than they've used for years if they want to file schedules A, C, D or E which, respectively, cover itemized deductions, business income, capital gains and losses, or rental property. So, if you've got a moonlighting gig that pays you on the up-and-up -- and sends a 1099 statement about you to the Internal Revenue Service -- you can't use the $39.99 Deluxe edition of TurboTax, as in years past. Instead, you'll have to cough up $79.99 for the Home and Business version.

To put it in practical terms: That forced upgrade costs you the equivalent of 10 boxes of Savannah Smiles.

Users rev up a turbo tirade

That price hike isn't going down easy with faithful TurboTax users. Over at Amazon.com, reviews of the software have been flooded with one-star ratings and comments from users. According to one post as Mike: "If TurboTax does not reverse this policy of limiting the filing of forms -- to force unnecessary upgrades -- I will never use or have TurboTax on my computer again."

Intuit points out that the change affects only us fossils who still use desktop software. Online TurboTax users -- who make up 80 percent of the service's 29 million annual customers -- already made the forced switch to higher-priced versions last year. Julie Miller, Intuit's Vice President of Communications, also points out that the upgrades come with enhanced instructions to maximize deductions. (On Thursday, Intuit announced it will rebate $25 to customers who bought the Deluxe version last year and had to upgrade to Premier or Home and Business this year.)

"We believe the added value isn't just by producing tax forms, but by the step- by-step interview to guide you through the return," Miller says.

Maybe, maybe not. As a grudging long-time user of Intuit's financial management software, Quicken, I don't buy it. I've endured far too many obviously cynical "upgrades" couched in corporate weasel- speak that destroyed my old software's functionality and forced me to buy new versions. I personally feel this constitutes an "upgrade" in the same way that Chrysler might sneak into the garage, pour sugar into my gas tank and then offer to "upgrade" me to a new car.

But beyond Intuit's possible cupidity, the bigger question is: Why pay for tax software at all?

If you're in one of the 70 percent of U.S. households with an income of less than $60,000 you can file your federal return for free through the IRS Free File program -- which includes software from the makers of TurboTax. More than 3 million taxpayers Free Filed last year, and the program supports nearly all tax forms, including schedules A, C, D and E, but maybe not Schedule PP-49 which, I believe, covers certain retirement benefits to left-handed Baptist pickle-packers born after 1948.

Additionally, several states offer free e-filing on their own tax returns. My home state of Michigan, for example, offers nine options, but some are restricted to lower-income filers, veterans and the elderly.

And what about the lucky duckies with household incomes of more than $60,000? You, too, can get free or nearly free tax services from the IRS by using Free File Fillable Forms. That application doesn't give you the step-by-step guidance offered by Free File or paid services, but it does handle all the calculations, which eliminates all the very common math mistakes.

One way to use Fillable Forms is to simply refer to your 2013 return to walk you through your 2014 taxes. If your tax situation has changed, then pop for a professionally prepared return this year, or pay for tax software or online services, and use that return as your guide next year. That way, you'll be forced to pay for the privilege of paying your taxes only every few years.

Now, instead of paying an extra $40 for TurboTax, I don't even have to pay the $39.99 I shelled out last year. That's frees up a lot of cash for this year's order of Thin Mints. And here's the best part: Just like the IRS, the Girl Scouts let you go online -- for free.


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