Earlier this month, I mentioned that I haven’t prepared my own taxes since 2001. I pay somebody else to do them. I did them on my own for fourteen years before they became too much for me to handle. This comment prompted several GRS readers to write for advice about finding a good accountant. Here’s an amalgamation of recent questions:

I’ve never looked into having an accountant prepare my return — what’s reasonable to pay someone to do your taxes? Is it best/easiest to go with the Big Guys like H&R Block, or to find somebody independent? How exactly do you find a good accountant? Also, does anyone know if the tax software out there is any good?

I’ve never used software to prepare my taxes, so I can’t vouch for its accuracy or its ease-of-use. Some people love it.

Last spring, Matt Haughey at Fortuitous wrote about how to pick an accountant for your online business. Though the article is aimed specifically at entrepreneurs, his advice is applicable to everyone who is searching for help. His conclusion? Software and elbow grease are a killer combination:

After doing my taxes online for eight years, and going through six accountants in the past four years, I’ve come to a few conclusions:

  • TurboTax Online is pretty dang good and can get you 80% of the way. All but the best accountants I’ve worked with didn’t do any better than me using TurboTax on my own.
  • If you have time to do research and read up on tax info, TurboTax and your knowledge is probably equal to most accountants. This is a big “if”, but if you have the time and you won’t be satisfied unless you handle it yourself, a few books and a lot of reading at The Motley Fool can get you pretty close to the best advice you’ll find in the wild.

Then again, if you’re dealing with thousands of dollars and you’re busy, it’s best to try out an expert instead.

The more complicated your taxes are, the more likely it is you need a tax professional. Though I did my own taxes for a long time, I gave up in frustration soon after starting my own business. I have a friend who is an excellent CPA, and am pleased to pay him to do the work for me now.

From my experience — and this may not be true for everyone — having an accountant prepare my taxes has paid for itself. Though I’m a smart guy and follow directions well, there are things I miss when I do them on my myself.

My advice? First try to do your taxes on your own. If you find it’s too difficult, or if you feel like you’re making mistakes, seek out a local preparer. (But give yourself plenty of time! Don’t wait until April 1st to begin looking.)

What’s your experience? Have you found tax preparation software to be effective? What about online options? Do you prepare your own taxes? If so, can you recommend any books? If you use an accountant, how did you find her?

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