It’s painful enough to have to do your taxes. But having to pay for the privilege? If you’re on a tight budget, that just adds insult to injury.
Luckily, there are many ways to file your taxes for free that don’t involve fending for yourself with pen and paper forms. The Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) has a handy list of free tax software that is certified to work with its NETFILE program for filing electronically.
There are also free tax clinics that will assist Canadians with modest incomes and a simple tax situation.
WATCH: Four things you need to know about Canadian taxes this year
Here’s our guide to filing your taxes for free:
You can use various versions of TurboTax Free to file your return online, from your desktop (Windows), or from your Apple or Android device. There are no income restrictions as to who can use the free version of the software, though the company recommends it only for simple tax situations. The free package comes with no phone support, but you can put your questions to an online community that includes both customers and experts. The free software also allows you to use the CRA’s auto-fill feature, which automatically imports your data the agency already has on file (like your T4 slips) into your return. You need to have a CRA My Account for that.
There are no hidden fees, though you’ll have to put up with some upselling. Amending and resubmitting your 2018 return will cost you $5.
The free version of H&R Block Online Tax Software also has no income restrictions. The company says it can handle both simple and complex tax situations. And you can re-file your return for free, if you need to adjust it (two million Canadians need to do that every year, according to H&R Block). If you have questions, you can look up a long list of FAQs, but there is no chat or phone support with the free software.
WATCH: Canadians pay on average 42.5 per cent of their income in taxes, report finds
Rather than being the free version of software you’d normally pay for, SimpleTax uses a pay-what-you-can model. And yes, that includes paying nothing at all.
The default interface is a single page with text boxes to fill out. At the centre of the page, there’s a search box, which you can use to call up whatever part of the return you need to complete. If you have investment income, for example, a search for “investment” will produce a scroll-down menu with options to add your T5 slips or other types of investment income. This can be a very fast way to get through your return if you already know what you’re doing.
If you don’t know what you’re doing, and would like more hand-holding, you can switch to a more traditional questions-based interface. Like TurboTax and H&R Block, SimpleTax also works with the CRA’s auto-fill feature.
While there’s no phone support, the company tries to answer emailed questions within a few hours.
After you’ve filed, the software will ask if you’d like to make a donation. The majority of users don’t, according to co-founder Jonathan Suter. But those who do pay, give enough to keep the company running. SimpleTax has no other sources of revenue, Suter said.
Sometimes, Suter told Global News, they’ll get a bigger cheque as a thank-you from users whose financial situation has improved, but who used SimpleTax to file for free when money was tight.
GenuTax is also an entirely free service. And, here too, donations are welcome. The program handles most tax situations, but you won’t be able to use it for your provincial tax forms if you live in Quebec.
The catch: you’ll need Windows and download the software to run the program.
Customer support is only via email.
StudioTax has been allowing Canadians to DIY their taxes for free since 2004. It works on both Windows and Mac, but the latter version is only available in English and does not support Quebec provincial returns. Also, you’ll have to download and install the program.
It also runs on donations.
In addition to the standard English- and French-language versions, AdvTax also runs in Chinese. It promises that completing a simple tax return will take five to 10 minutes.
You won’t be able to use AdvTax for Quebec provincial returns and returns that involve multiple jurisdictions.
WATCH: A look at how taxes affect your savings outside an RRSP or TFSA
A note about audit protection plans
Filing for free usually means not having something called audit protection, which usually comes with the pricier tax-prep packages.
Audit protection works like insurance against the possibility of a CRA audit, according to Toronto tax lawyer David Rotfleisch.
Most taxpayers will never need it. However, if the CRA does come knocking on your door, audit protection will take care of responding to CRA inquiries and audit requests at a much lower cost than hiring an accountant or tax lawyer.
“The unknown is the level of expertise of the people providing the representation services,” Rotfleisch said. In a complex audit situation, he added, “if the representatives do not have the proper expertise, the taxpayer’s situation may very well be prejudiced.”
WATCH: Carbon tax fuels higher gas prices and plenty of political spin
Free tax clinics
Free tax clinics are staffed by volunteers who will help you complete your tax return. Some clinics operate on a walk-in basis, while others will set up an appointment for you to see a volunteer at a specific time. A third option is dropping off your paperwork and picking up your completed return at a later time.
Tax clinics are only available to Canadians with a modest income — under $35,000 a year for a single individual, and under $50,000 for a family of four, for example.
You can find a free tax clinic in your area here.