A couple preparing their taxes using tax prep software

Tax season is just getting underway, but if you start preparing now, you may be able to grab some of the many benefits for early filers.

Perks include money-saving promotions from do-it-yourself software and online services, as well as from storefront tax-prep companies. While some bargains are offered throughout the tax season, others are only offered in the first weeks or months. 

If you want to use tax-prep software, there’s an advantage to moving fast: The prices are lowest now. (You pay when you’re ready to file.) Most DIY tax-prep companies raise their prices around the third week of March. (The exception is TaxAct, which freezes your price at the time you first sign on.)

But before you try to grab a software deal, check to see whether you are eligible to use a free tax-prep service, such as IRS’ Free File portal. (As we explain below, there are income and tax situation restrictions.) 

Below are notable promotions and offerings from the big tax-prep players and from the IRS. 

You Want Free Tax Prep and Filing

Many taxpayers are eligible to prepare and file their tax forms form through the IRS’ Free File portal or with a commercial service’s free offering. These DIY tools are online, not downloads. Choose one based on your income, tax situation, and tax savvy.

• Your 2018 income was $66,000 or less, and you want guidance. IRS Free File lets taxpayers with adjusted gross income (AGI) of $66,000 or less prepare and file their federal returns using a guided service provided by a commercial tax-prep company. (To gauge whether you’re eligible, use your 2017 AGI as a benchmark; find it at the bottom of the first page of your 2017 Form 1040.) The IRS estimates that 70 percent of taxpayers can take advantage of IRS Free File.

More on Taxes

When you enter IRS Free File, you’ll see a list of a dozen online tax-prep companies that participate in the program. While AGI of $66,000 is the income cutoff for guided Free File, each company has its own restrictions, so use the Free File Lookup Tool to find one that can handle your return. 

As with commercial software, Free File asks you a series of questions about your tax situation last year—say, whether you got married or contributed to a retirement account—then moves you to new questions based on your input. When you finish your return, you can file it electronically and arrange how you want to receive your refund—or how to pay.

There are differences, though. On the plus side, Free File programs don’t upsell, says Tim Hugo, executive director of the not-for-profit Free File Alliance, which partners with tax-prep companies and the IRS to provide the service. That means you won’t see ads urging you to upgrade to a paid version or buy products, such as a tax refund advance

The main drawback is that Free File won’t provide some of the bells and whistles you get with paid tax-prep products, such as tax advice or guidance via chat, phone, or one-way videoconferencing.

Free File lets you prepare and file only federal returns. But the IRS notes that 22 states and Washington, D.C., provide a free state tax return in partnership with private software companies. (The states: Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, North Carolina, North Dakota, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Vermont, Virginia, and West Virginia.) As with the federal form, $66,000 AGI is the cutoff to use the state guided Free File tools.

• Your 2018 income exceeded $66,000, and your tax situation is simple. You can prepare and file both federal and state forms free of charge with the guided H&R Block Free Edition. Block supports more tax forms (PDF) in its free edition than competitors support. You must take the standard deduction to use it; H&R Block says it’s best for renters. You can’t use it, for example, if you expect to itemize your mortgage interest or file Schedule C for business income and losses.

• You know your way around a Form 1040. If you don’t need a tax-prep program’s prompts or questions to elicit the right input, you can use the IRS’ unguided, electronic Free File “fillable form.” You type in your numbers, the tool does basic arithmetic calculations for you within your federal form. You can access line-by-line instructions if needed. Taxpayers of any income level and most tax situations can use this tool; check this page for limitations.

You Want Discounted DIY Tax-Prep Tools

Tax-prep companies often partner with other companies or organizations to offer price breaks on their paid products. So check with your employer, bank, investment company, union, or another affinity group to see if you qualify for a deal. 

Fidelity, for one, gives its investors up to $25 on H&R Block tax prep, up to $30 on TaxAct, and up to $20 on TurboTax. USAA is offering TurboTax Deluxe Online Federal free to active duty U.S. military customers until March 15; other USAA clients can get TurboTax discounts of up to $20 through the filing season. Employees of Regions Bank and Shipt can get discounted tax-prep services through TaxSlayer. 

You can also find tax-prep discounts through websites such as Groupon and Offers.com. (In a search engine, type in the name of the product and the word “discount” or “coupon.”) Check online retailers like Amazon as well.

You Want a Bonus (Beyond Your Refund)

• H&R Block. If you buy H&R Block’s online tax prep or H&R Block desktop tax software through Amazon—and direct all or a portion of your tax refund to an Amazon e-gift card—you’re eligible to get an extra 5 percent of your refund applied to the gift card. The offer ends April 15. Check the fine print here (PDF).

• Jackson Hewitt. If the IRS finds that you’re entitled to a larger refund than Jackson Hewitt calculated for you, Jackson Hewitt will give you $100. Referrals of new customers to Jackson Hewitt storefront locations earn you $20 for each person you refer. There’s no maximum or minimum to earn the referral bonus, a spokesperson told us. 

• Liberty Tax. Check with your local Liberty Tax storefront franchise to see exactly which offers it’s participating in. “Franchisees can choose to participate in our promotions or not,” a spokesperson told us. The two below are among several promotions the company offers. Each promotion may include exclusions or limitations. 

Customers who complete their returns at participating Liberty Tax offices by Feb. 16 may be eligible to receive $50. The offer can’t be combined with others.  

Clients who complete their returns at participating Liberty Tax offices can get up to $50 for each person they refer who ends up having their taxes done with Liberty Tax. The new client gets a one-time discount of up to $50 on tax-prep services as well. 

TaxAct. Customers can get up to $100 added to their refund if they file with TaxAct and receive their refund on a gift card option available from various retailers participating in TaxAct’s Refund Marketplace

Customers who refer a friend or family member as a new TaxAct customer can receive a $20 Amazon gift card. The person they refer receives 20 percent off filing fees as well. For both parties to receive their rewards, the new customer must actually file with TaxAct.