computercol/20"/mar17/mike1st/mark2nd

T.R. REID and BRIT HUME

Eat your hearts out, gentle readers we've got our income-tax return finished already.

We wish we could say that a talent for organization and iron personal discipline account for our feat of filing Form 1040 a month before the deadline. But the canons of truth-in-journalism prohibit such claims.

No, the reason we breezed through our taxes was that we relied on a terrific tax-preparation program to fill out all the forms and make the calculations. We used the long-time favorite "MacInTax" on a Power Computing Macintosh clone; we also tried out the program's Windows 95 version, TurboTax, which is identical. Both of these programs come from Intuit (800-446-8848).

Tax-preparation software is one of the best uses of a home computer. The programs make it much faster and easier to do your own return. They cost about $40 ($50 if you get the "deluxe" version with more built in tax tips) far less than you'd pay a tax preparer.

These programs fill in every line, compute every total, and print every IRS form you need, so you can either mail the thing or file it by modem. (The latter option costs $10 extra, so why bother? The IRS says it brings a faster refund.) They offer all sorts of instructions and advice. When you've finished your return, you have all your tax records on the hard disk for reference next year.

There used to be a big selection of income tax programs, but the choice now comes down to two major packages: The MacInTax or TurboTax approach from Intuit, or Kiplinger TaxCut, which is actually published not by Kiplinger but by H & R; Block, the McDonald's of tax preparation (1-800-457-9525).

If you have used TaxCut before, or if you're used to the Block method of organizing tax data, you should stick to TaxCut.

Both programs have a lot in common. They give you a choice of how to go about completing your return. You can work directly with on-screen IRS forms, filling them in line-by-line. Or you can submit to an "interview" in which you list your marital status, dependents, salary, dividends, outside income, etc. and the program then puts all the data on the correct lines of the appropriate form. (If you used the same program last year, it will search around your hard disk and pull up all the basic information automatically, a big time-saver).

One thing we liked a lot about the MacInTax -TurboTax program was that it lets you move back and forth from interview to IRS forms at any time. We've gotten pretty skillful over the years at filling out IRS Schedule C, so for us it was faster just to go to the form itself rather than use the program's questionnaire.

In the past, these programs used to natter at you if you left any line of the questionnaires blank; TurboTax doesn't care about that, as long as you eventually get all the information onto the tax return itself.

Hardly anybody can fill out a whole income-tax return in one sitting, and that's another nice aspect of TurboTax. You can stop work any time; the next time you call up the program, it instantly opens to the precise spot where you stopped.

TurboTax always displays a small window at the top of the screen showing how much you owe (or how much of a refund you're due) at that point. This is useful, although the figure can be terrifying if you haven't entered your deductions yet.

The program alerts you with a red flag if some deduction you're claiming might trigger an IRS audit. The program tells how your outside income, deductions, tax payments, etc., compare to the average taxpayer in your bracket.

The MacInTax-TurboTax program has all the IRS instructions, plus various private tax guides and planning tips. The deluxe edition has more tax books built in, plus video "lectures" that put a talking head on the screen for an advisory sound bite. We found these videos generally useless, but the publications were helpful.

There are some good reasons to do your own taxes. For most of us, it may be the only time we take an overall look at our financial situation. It helps you do a better job of tax planning and record keeping for next year's return. It is a lot cheaper than going to a preparer.

And if you are going to do your taxes yourself, this is the best way. Get one of these inexpensive, well-organized tax-prep programs and let your computer do the job of calculating totals and filling out forms. That's what computers are all about to do the mental drudge work for us.

T.R. Reid is Rocky Mountain bureau chief of the Washington Post. Brit Hume is managing editor of Fox News in Washington. You can reach them in care of the Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St., Washington D.C. 20071-9200, or you can e-mail T.R. Reid at trreid@ix.netcom.com, or Brit Hume at 72737.357@compuserve.com.

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