So, for the past few weeks, you’ve probably been seeing those ads from H&R Block. You know, the ones where they tell you breathlessly that Americans who are foolish enough to prepare their own tax returns are missing out on a billion dollars. A BILLION DOLLARS!!
The implication, of course, is that the amount paid to the IRS by people who do their own taxes is a billion (BILLION!!!) dollars more than it would be if they had H&R Block do their taxes.
Let’s assume that’s correct. What does it mean for you, the taxpayer?
According to the IRS, about 145 million income tax forms were filed in 2011. According to Pew Research, about a third of people do their own taxes. That means there are just shy of 50 million self-prepared income tax returns filed every year.
So, that billion (BILLION!!!!!) dollars amounts to about twenty-one (21!!!) dollars per self-prepared return.
According to H&R Block’s 2013 Report to Shareholders, during their fiscal year ending on April 30, they prepared 22 million US returns, for which they brought in $1.7 billion, which is an average of $77 per return (including returns that users prepare using their online tools, at prices ranging from zero to $50, depending on the complexity of the return).
That average is actually on the cheap end overall. According the the National Society of Accountants, the average tax preparation fee for returns without itemized deductions is $152. Nevertheless, speaking in averages, H&R Block’s argument is that you should pay them $77 so that you can pay $21 less to the US government.
There are legitimate reasons to use a tax preparer. For instance, there’s the calculation of how much time you would save by paying someone to do your taxes, and how much your time is worth to you, factoring in how much you like or dislike doing your taxes. What pisses me off is the way these ads exploit the fact that a billion is a large number to imply a big payoff.
It’s like saying, “Americans spend millions of dollars every year on snow shovels. So you should hire me to shovel your driveway. I’m not going to tell you how much I’ll charge you, but you can (probably) safely assume that it will be less than millions of dollars!”
On a related note, keep in mind that, like other corporations that make their money from tax preparation, H&R Block spends millions of dollars every year lobbying congress, much of it to oppose legislation to simplify the tax code.