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What to know about tax refund products

Getting a tax refund as quickly as possible is what taxpayers filing returns over the next two months are looking for. And why not: The average refund this year is expected to be about $3,200.

The fastest way to get your refund is to prepare and file your return electronically and elect to have your refund directly deposited into your bank account. You'll have your money in two to three weeks. Or you could wait four weeks or more to get your refund by paper check.

If you also want to be sure of getting the biggest refund you're entitled to, you could benefit from using a tax professional. A tax pro can help identify and claim additional deductions and credits, significantly boosting your tax refund.

But automatic deposit of a tax refund is a problem for those who don't have a bank account. Also, some people who would like to use a tax pro don't have the several hundred dollars to pay for these services up-front.

Companies offering tax prep services and software, such as Intuit (INTU), H&R Block (HRB) and Jackson Hewitt all offer products aimed at those without a bank account or the money to pay for tax prep fees. But while these products have some benefits, they also come with fees and other features that might mean you don't really get your money any sooner.

Here's a brief rundown of these products.

Intuit's TurboTax software offers to have your tax refund directly deposited onto Intuit's NetSpend Premier Visa Prepaid Card. According to its website, there's no fees to set one up, but fees do apply when you use the card for purchases, withdrawals or reloading card with additional cash. You'll also have to fork over $9.95 to replace a lost or stolen card. The NetSpend card targets those who don't have a bank account and don't want to wait a month or more for a paper check.

TurboTax users can also elect to have the TurboTax fees deducted from their federal tax refund, but beware that a "refund processing service fee applies ... and prices are subject to change."

H&R Block also offers to direct deposit your tax refund onto a debit card, its Emerald Card MasterCard. There's no fee for this service, but Block clearly states that it doesn't result in faster delivery of your refund.

In response to the problem of not having the money up-front to pay for the tax prep fee, Block offers a Refund Anticipation Check, which deducts the fee from your federal tax refund. You'll pay an additional $34.95 for your federal tax refund and $13 for your state refund.

If you elect to have your RAC sent via paper, an additional $25 fee applies. Block says you can expect to get your RAC in about 21 days -- no faster than having a tax refund directly deposited from the IRS.

Jackson Hewitt recently announced it has teamed up with American Express (AXP) to give clients the option to receive their tax refund on an American Express Serve Card, which also has no setup fee. Jackson Hewitt is offering to add $50 on the Serve Card the same day you file your taxes with the firm -- but only for users paying tax prep fees of $150 or more.

Finally, Jackson Hewitt claims you can get your tax refund money deposited on the Serve Card up to two days faster than with automatic deposit into your bank account. That's because American Express adds the money to the card when it gets notification of the pending IRS refund deposit. Just be mindful that if you go this route, you'll want to use the card quickly -- it carries a $3 fee for every month it's active.

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