aboard. Fasten your money belt. Observe the no soaking signs. Prepare for
rakeoff. It’s tax time! If you are among those of us who seek clean, safe,
reliable, no-frills air transportation for a necessary trip to an unpleasant
place--or software to calculate your individual income taxes, then U.S.Tax
could be for you.
U.S.Tax is a new entry into a competitive tax preparation software market dominated by Intuit’s TurboTax. I’ve been using Turbo Tax for a decade, so I could either:  be up front with the comparisons, or  try to waffle around them. Check block . I will compare and contrast U.S.Tax 1996 on CD ROM with TurboTax Deluxe 1995 on CD ROM. A tough comparison: established market leader with the new guy. But U.S.Tax holds its own--for some of us.
U.S.Tax pre-release and initial testing was done by professional tax preparers and taxpayers. Even had help from an ex-IRS agent (but doesn’t everyone). U.S. Tax is now in the second year of commercial release. But the 1995 version was closer to an extensive Beta test than a commercial venture. It was distributed free of charge to Total Peripherals resellers and given away at "flea markets." U.S.Tax for 1996 could be considered their debut.
U.S.Tax installs from CD-ROM every bit as easily TurboTax--actually a little faster. With the AutoPlay feature of Windows ’95 enabled, it was simply insert the CD ROM and answer a couple of easy questions. About four minutes later U.S.Tax was up and running. You can put the User’s Manual in the pile with the rest of them. U.S.Tax is completely Inuit(ive). But if you feel more comfortable reading the instructions first, the U.S.Tax User’s Manual is about the same size, content and to the same standard as TurboTax: easy to read, the basics, a few useful tips.
My tax return is taxing--pun intended: Multiple forms, consulting income from multiple clients, multiple states, two sole proprietorships, rentals, investments, IRAs (Individual Retirement Account), SEPs (Simplified Employees Pension), home office, depreciable property--three quarters of a pound of paper including worksheets. My tax timetable is to have enough preliminary work done so I can get my automatic extension request in with a check by April 15th. Either program does a good job of cutting through the maze, allowing me to maintain at least partial sanity.
U.S.Tax was designed for ease of use. It is. Like TurboTax, it has two primary modes of operation: interview and forms or direct. For most of us who only vaguely understand the relationship of the various forms in a tax return, the interview mode is probably best for either product. Total Peripherals takes pride in the clean toggle between interview and forms modes. And it is a clean, fast toggle, using the light switch on the top right menu bar. It is slightly more difficult and a little slower to do the same thing under TurboTax. Otherwise, the interviews progress pretty much the same. Direct questions. A little less fluff and a little more directness with the U.S.Tax questions. Hypertext links to additional information on the required data for both.
U.S.Tax is very fast and responsive under Windows ’95, a Pentium 100, and 40MB of memory--faster than TurboTax. But I did not fully install TurboTax for ’95 on a hard drive, and CD ROM access can be sluggish. Still, some of the relative TurboTax sluggishness is related to trying to give me help I don’t particularly want--at least not when it is offered. Smiling faces and expert advice when I’m trying to get on with the drudgery simply adds to the problem for me. U.S.Tax has none of that, which I prefer.
Still, some of that extra help is valuable later when looking to reduce my tax burden. TurboTax has it there with the Money Income Tax Book, How to Pay Zero Taxes, and highlighting my return against benchmarks. A benchmark might be: itemized deductions out of line with national averages. Benchmarks and advice are directly available or integrated into the final review under TurboTax. Not so under U.S.Tax. With either program, though, what-ifs are practical. For example, if I put more into a SEP, what does it mean for my tax bottom line. U.S.Tax calculates it faster.
In-depth tax help is available on the CD ROM in the form of 51 of the most relevant Internal Revenue Service (IRS) publications--if you consider IRS pubs help. The IRS pubs are not directly accessible from inside U.S.Tax, but work fine under a separate window. The pubs use an Adobe Acrobat (tm) Reader that installs with along with U.S.Tax if necessary. Besides being faster, searching and indexing easier than the paper IRS versions, you can save a few trees.
The main and first personal pub on the CD ROM is IRS Pub 17, Your Federal Income Tax: For Individuals--all 336 spellbinding pages of it. If in doubt, though, it is a good idea to look it up in Pub 17. You could avoid some costly treatments. Align your rational as best you can with that in Pub 17 and your return (and possible audit) will go easier. I know someone who didn’t and they didn’t. He did everything right except what he wrote in his return! Important stuff--details on a tax return. As a precaution, the Pub 17 version is for 1995 returns. Don’t be alarmed though. Pub 17 doesn’t change much or often. And the 1995 version was the only one available from the IRS server in early January 1997.
If you want still more, or the most current information, it is available directly from the IRS. Many frequently asked tax questions (FAQs) are answered in two IRS booklets: Your Federal Income Tax and Tax Guide for Small Business. If you want them plus 104 others, they are available at the IRS site: http://www.irs.ustreas.gov/prod/ Be ready for slow going and timeouts. The IRS server is sluggish in early January. What do you think its gonna be April 14th? Suggest starting early and downloading off hours if you need them from that source.
Unlike TurboTax and some of the more established tax software,
U.S.Tax does not import data from Microsoft Money, Intuit QuickBooks or
the like. A minus for U.S.Tax, but that feature isn’t worth much to me.
The only year I used it with TurboTax (1995), I backed it out and copied
the data manually as I had done in previous years. The main problem, though,
was my own in that my QuickBooks classifications are not set up for one-for-one
transfers. But for those who use the feature, the extra money for TurboTax,
or Kiplinger TaxCut, or one of the other packages could be worth it. Similar
to Intuit, Kiplinger, and others, if U.S.Tax discovers an error, they plan
to make the fix available on their WWW server.
Prices.Inutit raised the price on TurboTax this year and unbundled some of the features. They are looking for about $40 for the basic individual return, plus an additional charge for Schedule C (Profit or Loss from Business), and about $30 for each state. U.S.Tax has come down on their price to $20 for everything. However, only CA, GA, MA, MD, NY, PA are scheduled to be available for downloading from the U.S.Tax web site at no charge this year. And there is an $8 shipping and handling if ordered by mail. Fortunately, not much of a consideration for Texans. Regardless, TurboTax costs two to five times as much as U.S.Tax.
Conclusions. If price makes the difference, or if your return is simple, or if you don’t need integrated tax advice, then U.S.Tax is probably for you.
102 Otis Street
Northboro, MA 01532
If anything significant occurs relative to U.S.Tax before April 15th, I will make it available on the Alamo PC server. If you have any questions on the program, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ray Martin is a consultant in decision making, business development, and information technology. He holds a Ph.D. in management from Cranfield University, United Kingdom. He teaches Organizational Behavior at public and public universities.