When it comes to taxes, does it make sense to go DIY or should you call in an expert? Karen Carr Brady, CFP®, weighs in on whether you should do your taxes yourself or hire a CPA.
Taxes can be a real pain in the a$$. They’re complicated: Why are there so many forms, anyway? They’re full of grey areas: If my side hustle is cat photography, can I deduct my cat as a business expense? And your return can be a real drag to file by the April 15 deadline.
You have two choices: Soldier on and figure your taxes out yourself, or outsource.
As a financial planner, I tell clients it’s important to recognize what we don’t know. From there, you can either go find the answer or hire a professional who can help. That’s why financial planners have jobs, after all! (In fact, that’s also why electricians, doctors, interior decorators, and plumbers have jobs, too.)
We don’t hire professionals because we aren’t smart enough to figure things out for ourselves, but because we don’t have the time, interest, or knowledge in a particular area to do the job properly. And that’s OK! We can outsource things that aren’t really in our wheelhouse—taxes included.
How a Financial Planner (Me!) Does Her Taxes
Normally, I file my own return (with a little help from Turbotax). My knowledge, paired with their user-friendly online interface, was usually more than enough to get the job done. But this time last year, I sat down to file my return and found myself completely puzzled by the numbers Turbotax was reflecting back to me.
I had moved from Massachusetts to New York but was still working for the same company. I was issued two W-2s (one for each state) and was getting confused about what the heck was going on with my state tax deductions, the amount I owed to New York State, and the refund I should expect from Massachusetts (or vice versa—who knew?). Could I have dug in my heels, done a bunch of research, and figured it out? Probably. But I was busy (or lazy), and it just didn’t feel like the best use of time.
Instead, I logged on to Thumbtack, an online marketplace that connects professionals with consumers who need a certain job done. I found a few Certified Public Accountants (CPAs) in my area, read their reviews, and gave them a quick rundown of my situation. I requested a quote from each and decided who was the best fit for me. I went with May, a friendly CPA who owned a small accounting firm just a few blocks from my apartment. She charged me $150 to file my federal and both state returns. Done!
Should You Hire a Tax Professional?
My pesky state tax issue last year was my tipping point to outsourcing my taxes, but how do you know if it’s the right time for you? Unfortunately, there’s no right or wrong answer here. Consider it a balancing act between a handful of factors:
- The complexity of your tax situation
- Your desire to do your own taxes (or not!)
- The cost of using a professional
- The potential cost of missing out on a tax deduction/credit/adjustment or making a mistake on your return.
In my case, I had a tax issue I didn’t know how to handle easily, and I was able to find a CPA at a reasonable price. The benefits of outsourcing outweighed the costs of my time, effort, and any potential mistake I might make.
If you find yourself adding a new layer of complexity to your tax situation because you started your own small business, got married, or went through some other life change in the past year, it may be the right time for you to bring in a professional to help.
How Can You Find Someone Reputable?
There are many different ways to find a trustworthy tax professional. Start by asking your family, friends, and coworkers for recommendations. If using your own network isn’t an option for whatever reason, or you want to back up their recommendations, go online. Request quotes on sites like Thumbtack or Angie’s List, browse listings on the IRS Directory, or even check out Yelp reviews to help narrow your options down.
Look for a Certified Public Accountant, better known as a CPA. To hold the CPA designation, professionals must have satisfied an education requirement, passed a series of examinations, and completed an experience requirement. Technically a CPA designation isn’t required to help clients file their returns, but it’s a simple way to gauge whether someone is qualified. If CPAs are too costly, you can consider an Enrolled Agent as well.
Have a conversation with each of your potential tax professionals (here are a few good questions to kick things off), ask for a price quote based on your personal situation, and determine how comfortable you are with each of them. If you find someone is unwilling to answer your questions in a way you can easily understand, move on to the next person on your list!
How Much Will an Accountant Cost?
There’s a misconception that hiring a tax professional is really expensive, and out of reach for most people. For some Grownups, that may be true, but the price tag of a quality tax person can vary wildly. You may be pleasantly surprised.
Costs will vary based on your area, the experience of the professional you work with, what type of firm they’re associated with, and most importantly, how complicated your tax situation is. Some professionals will charge by the hour, while others charge a one-time fee to prepare your return.
I mentioned that I paid $150 in 2016. I shopped around and my situation was pretty straightforward: I was single, had only one employer who issued me a W-2, and didn’t itemize my deductions. Sure, I had to file two state returns, but I was a pretty easy client nonetheless.
Take the time to gather quotes from each professional on your short list based on your personal situation and make your own price comparison. Again, you’ll have to weigh the benefits of professional help with the costs to determine if it makes sense for you.
Which Tax Documents Will You Need?
One way to drive down the cost of professional tax prep service is to come prepared. If you show up with a shoebox full of receipts, that means more work and a higher price tag. Get organized and bring along any of the below documents that pertain to your situation:
- Your return from the previous year
- If you’re an employee: Your W-2 from all of your employers from the previous year
- If you’re an independent contractor: Any 1099s from clients that have paid for your services in the past year
- If you have investment accounts: Any tax forms associated with the income from those investments (i.e., interest, dividends, gains or losses from the sale of investments)
- If you own your own business: Accounting records of your business, including all income and expenses
- If you had other types of income: records of any unemployment, rental, or other income, Social Security benefits you received.
And if you won the lottery last year (congrats!), bring a record of that, too.
This list covers the majority of the income side of the equation, but there’s also the matter of deductions. Check out Turbotax’s Tax Preparation Checklist, especially its “Adjustments to Your Income” and “Itemized Tax Deductions and Credits” sections. This will help you gather any information to bring along to take full advantage of any deductions you may qualify for. (Freelancers, don’t forget about your deductions, too!)
The Bottom Line
Adulthood comes with more than a few responsibilities (hello, taxes, jury duty, and auto maintenance!). Only you can determine whether hiring a tax professional or going it alone is the right move for your finances. The important thing here is that your return gets filed—and you don’t pull all your hair out in the process.
Karen Carr Brady is the founder of Simplie, a financial planning company that offers virtual appointments with CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ professionals. Karen is a former member of the Society of Grownups planning team and is now based in New York City. When she’s not writing about personal finance or meeting with clients, you can find her roaming around NYC looking for the best place to eat.
Any third-party resources or websites referenced above are not under Society of Grownups control. Society of Grownups cannot guarantee and are not responsible for the accuracy of the resources, websites, or any products or services available through such resources or websites.
While Society of Grownups hopes the information is useful, it’s only intended to provide general education. It’s not legal, tax, or investment advice, and may not apply or be useful to your specific financial situation. If you need recommendations geared to your personal financial situation, schedule time with a financial planner.