Friday, April 14, 2023

A Less Taxing Time

I may have bought my last copy of TurboTax.

I’ve never really enjoyed the process of paying taxes in the United States. Not that this is uncommon, really, as it is a bit of a shell game when you get down to it. You spend however many hours filling out increasing numbers of forms of intentionally more impenetrable complexity to reach a conclusion that the IRS already knows but won’t do for you and if you guess wrong they can throw you in jail.

Do not mess with the IRS. It was not Eliot Ness who got Al Capone.

The one saving grace of this, if you look carefully, is that the IRS does not actually ask you to swear that your tax returns are accurate. They ask you to swear that they are accurate to the best of your knowledge and ability. This is a crucial distinction and I am happy to play the float on this. I may screw up, but without intent there is no fraud. What can I say? I tried. Sweet dancing monkeys on a stick, I tried.

That said, I have never really had an unpleasant experience with the IRS. I’ve had to call them several times to get things corrected, and other than being on hold for longer than I’d have liked I can’t say the experience was ever as awful as we are led to believe by the political hacks and moneyed interests who would like to see it destroyed so that the wealthy can just keep their hoards and let the little people fend for themselves among the scraps. I haven’t always won those conversations – sometimes yes, sometimes no – but they were always polite and professional and willing to explain clearly why it was This Way and not That Way, and when I was actually right they fixed it right there on the phone with me.

I also don’t have any particular issue with paying taxes in general. The whole “Taxation is theft!” routine that you hear from the single-digit-IQ crowd that dominates the right wing these days is quite possibly the most idiotic bit of twaddle ever foisted off on an unsuspecting world. Taxes are the price of civilization. They pay for infrastructure, services, and all of the things that individuals alone cannot do, which is why governments were invented in the first place. Any time someone introduces the idea that taxation is inherently evil and that cutting taxes is the solution to all political and economic problems into a conversation you know you can just walk away without listening to anything else that person has to say. It will save you grief in the long run.

So it’s not the idea of paying taxes that is so dreary, or even dealing with the bureaucracy. It’s the actual forms.

Way back when in the callow days of my youth I would do the 1040EZ form, which I don’t even know if they have anymore. They must, mustn’t they? I would get a W2 from whatever hapless company had employed me that year and fill in the boxes and usually got every bit of the withheld taxes back since there wasn’t much there to start with.

Then I started to get Real Jobs and had to graduate to the 1040, which wasn’t all that much harder except for the fact that my professional experience has rarely ever been confined to one job or even one state in a year, which means that it could get complicated. And then Kim and I got married and bought a house and had kids and it got more complicated still.

For a while Kim and I had our own business. We made homemade soap and sold it through mail order and the craft show circuit for seven years. It kept us afloat in the summers, since academics don’t get paid in the hot months unless we find summer jobs. We gave that up when the kids were little, though, since having 50lb bags of lye sitting around in a house with toddlers didn’t seem like a bright idea. Having a business complicates taxes immensely, since now there are Schedules to deal with.

But I got by, filling out the forms. It took more time, more vague swearing, and more alcohol as things got more complicated, but it all worked out.

This, by the way, is also the arc of my experience with state tax forms. Pennsylvania’s was dead simple when I lived there. It was literally a 4”x6” postcard and a flat percentage tax, and other than one year where I cashed in some very old and long-since matured savings bonds I never had to pay or receive from them anything. Iowa’s was more complicated. Wisconsin’s is a mess. Don’t even get me started on the various other state forms I’ve had to fill out due to short jobs working there, such as AP grading. I once got a check from Utah for $3. I spent it all in one place. Probably on a cheeseburger.

Along the way I discovered TurboTax, which at least took the guesswork out of the calculations and the forms I needed. You enter the numbers it asks for, pay for whatever extra forms you need, and it spits out tax returns. The problem with this, though, is that you have to know what to enter. What exactly is it asking for here? Where does this number go? Is that number a 401k? A 1028c/j? An 867-5309? An Illudium Pu36 Space Modulator? Who knows. It very quickly gets out of hand trying to figure out what counts as what, and not worth the time.

Honestly, once I was told by two different accountants that if I didn’t want to claim the Education Tax Credit I didn’t have to report anything from the 529 accounts (as long as we actually used that money for education and not, say, tequila, which we can prove so we're good), I stopped bothering with it. It cost me money, but – having played that game the first year Oliver was in college – it saved my sanity. That’s not a bad trade.

But this year was the year where my share of my mother’s estate became part of my taxes and with the benefit of experience my brother just flat out told me, “Get someone else to do your taxes.” So after some diligent research consisting of looking through online reviews of the various financial sorts of people here in Our Little Town, I settled on one and brought over all the various records that I needed and a pile more since I wasn’t entirely sure what I needed.

It was wonderful.

I scheduled an appointment. I sat down with the tax person. We looked over the documents and she asked me a pile of questions.

And then … I went home.

That was it! It was Somebody Else’s Problem and therefore invisible to me. My sanity remains at whatever level it was last month, which may not be ideal but at least was not harmed by the process. And this past week I went back, paid them a sum of money, and was told that we’d be getting a larger sum of money back eventually.

Win all around.

I still get emails from the TurboTax people desperately reminding me that I have only a few days left before taxes are due and won’t I please purchase their product?

Not this year!

And if this year was anything to go on, not likely next year either.


Ewan said...

I genuinely enjoyed doing taxes. Despite having come from the UK, where there is no such process: tax is deducted at source. Or maybe because, not despite. I would do them three different ways to see what worked best.

Numbers are fun, and rules loopholes twice so. Yeah, fine, I am a gamer.

And then maybe ten years ago things got complex enough that I was prevailed upon to have a pro check my work. Happily he confirmed that I had done fine up until then, but noted "this year, I'm thinking you finally qualify for the double Irish shuffle" or whatever it was, and produced a whole new set of forms and loopholes that ended up saving us a few grand. Sigh.

So now he does them. They're getting simpler again, though, so maybe it is time..

David said...

See, I think the UK (and from what I gather most other countries) does it right: take the taxes out right away and don't ask people to do all that work later. Or, since not everything is wage income but all of it is reported eventually, just send me a bill or a check, whichever. I agree that numbers are fun - I did start out as a math major, after all - but I come from a long line of people who have little patience for the game of filling out forms and looking for loopholes.

Maybe this is why I never became a gamer despite being precisely the demographic for it? I don't know. But finding joy in that process definitely would have helped!

I ran a museum for a while - a 501c3 nonprofit. Even 501c3s have to file tax returns - a wad of forms 2cm thick detailing all the taxes we didn't owe. It took me WEEKS.

I'm glad that it is something you enjoy, though, and I wish you well as you get back to it!