Online Help With Your Taxes

BURLINGAME, CALIF. - It's that time of year again. Millions of working Americans will have to hustle in their taxes by April 15.

The stakes are high. The combined tax package -- including federal, state and sales taxes -- amounts to 30.8 percent of all national income, according to the Tax Foundation -- a nonprofit group that monitors U.S. tax policy. That means the paychecks of most workers from Jan. 1 through April 23 go entirely to pay their tax bill.

And that doesn't even include the time taxpayers slave over calculating their taxes or, worse yet, torturing themselves by putting off the whole process.

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Luckily, the Internet is gracefully melding computer technology with online services to turn the inane mathematical and clerical calisthenics built into the tax system into mere data-entry drudgery. The result: new services that blend personalized help and computerized number crunching.

"It's much easier than it used to be," says Gerald Prante, author of the Tax Foundation's Tax Freedom Day Report for 2008. That's good news for anyone who doesn't have a degree in accounting.

And your options? There are many.

Start, for instance, with a familiar choice: H&R Block. H&R Block's latest online effort, dubbed Tango, goes beyond its ubiquitous storefront offices. Tango pairs unlimited help--via phone, chat or e-mail -- with software that walks users through the process, for $70.

Meanwhile Intuit -- known for its best-selling personal finance software -- offers TurboTax Online Personal Pro, which pairs Web-based tax help with the ability to get simple questions answered via e-mail, or complex problems sorted out over the phone, for $90.

Even boxed software, the traditional tool for do-it-yourselfers willing to pay up for technology that can speed them through the process, is now Web-friendly. Both H&R Block's TaxCut and Intuit's TurboTax are, of course, available on the Web. The advantage: the ability to store your tax returns online, so you can work on it from home, the office or (if you're truly desperate) while on vacation.

Of course, if you're a cheapskate who knows his or her way around a tax form, there's good news for you, too. The ubiquity of the Internet has caused tax services to make the process of working with them directly less, um, taxing. The U.S. Internal Revenue Service's Free File service offers referrals to bare-bones online filing services to taxpayers with an adjusted gross income of $54,000 or less in 2007. States are taking similar measures: California, for example, offers a do-it-yourself tool, dubbed CalFile.

To be sure, procrastination is a problem that technology will never solve.

If -- like many -- you break into a cold sweat at the prospect of figuring out a bill you must pay to avoid potential prison time … stop. Make an appointment with a tax preparer, put the relevant forms in a box, show up at the appointed time and write a check for the service. H&R Block does this job for 18 million Americans every year at an average price of $165.