General 5-16-2004

The Column: A Writer’s Journal: Math Class Is Tough, Part I

Jean Sramek recounts the bliss of having someone to blame; here's a piece that will resonate with all the self-employed artists who ever woke up in a cold sweat with thoughts of an audit.

Jean Sramek

This year, I paid a guy. I still can’t believe it. I feel weak and flaccid. Worse: stupid.

Two weeks prior to April 15, 2004, I ate canapés and sipped bargain Australian shiraz at a party and joined the pain circle formed by the partially self-employed. We had drifted over to one corner of the dining room to whine, “Have you done your ****ing taxes yet? I have not done my ****ing taxes yet,” “Every year I have big plans to do my ****ing taxes in February,” “By this time last year, my ****ing taxes were done. Have you done your ****ing taxes yet?” and variations thereof.

Listening more closely, I found out that most of these people weren’t actually going to do their own taxes, but rather compile the forms and information necessary and then pay a guy to do the rest. In my opinion, the compiling is the hard part and the rest is just pocket-calculator math and following directions, so why on earth would you pay a guy?

As of that evening, I had not done my ****ing taxes yet, but I wasn’t worried, because I’ve been doing my own ****ing taxes since I was 18 years old. In fact, I’ve also been doing my husband’s taxes since his job title was boyfriend. We were sitting around his house one sunny spring afternoon (approximately April 14 and 3 / 4 , if I remember correctly) when John confessed that he still hadn’t done his taxes. Coincidentally, every dish and utensil in the kitchen was dirty and it was my turn to wash them. I wagged my finger playfully and tolerantly, as only a non-wife can, and said, “Oh, you procrastinator. Isn’t that cute? Hey, if you do the dishes, I’ll do your taxes.” To my surprise, he said, “Really? Okay.”

Thought balloon over my head: “SUCKER!”
Thought balloon over John’s head: “SUCKER!”

This says more about my revulsion towards housework than it does about my skillful ways with a Schedule A, but I thought I was getting the deal of the century. As it turned out, John has not done his own taxes since that day. It’s not the most romantic thing that’s ever happened to me, but I did get out of doing dishes.

I know some home finance stuff and I’m hip to the whole Roth IRA thing. I can read IRS publications without falling asleep and last year I even did a Schedule C without much fuss. I’ve always thought that paying someone to do a simple tax return was a lazy luxury, like buying frozen pie crust and then saying “I made a pie,” or hiring someone to pull your weeds and plant your tulip bulbs and then saying, “I love gardening.” The shame! On the other hand, I find myself thinking ever more frequently that paying someone to clean my house once in a while would be shame-free. I say this all the time and it’s true: I would rather have oral surgery than clean my bathroom.

I plowed through my 1099’s with ease and was just about to pat myself on the back for using the cheapo tax software instead of paying a guy. Then I got to the home office deduction and I panicked. I followed all the directions and it looked right, but the soundtrack of my life played very loudly the Greatest Hits of the Partially Self-Employed, including the ever-popular “People With Home Offices Get Audited.” The next day I sat in the office of a guy whose son was in a show with me last year and who, more importantly, is a certified tax preparer. He did my taxes and I paid him. He was very nice, even though he couldn’t spell the name of my husband’s profession—“librarian.” I had to show him our tax return from last year so he could copy the word onto this year’s form. I freaked out a little bit at having a guy who couldn’t spell “librarian” doing my very important taxes. Then I realized that if he were able to spell “librarian,” and if everyone in every profession including auto mechanic could, with ease, spell “librarian,” there would be decreased job opportunities for people like me and it would still cost $50 an hour plus parts to install new struts.

This assumes that I have ever been paid for being a good speller. I haven’t. In fact, I suspect many people have been on the verge of paying me to stoppointing out misspellings.

My tax guy patiently listened to my compulsively honest and unnecessarily detailed explanation of everything I listed as a business expense, figured out a way that John and I could funnel a little less into the continuing war effort, saved it all as a bunch of .pdf files, stapled it into a thick mass and sent me on my way.

In the end, the figures I got from using the cheapo tax software were pretty close to the figures he got from using his professional super-duper tax software. I probably didn’t need to pay a guy. But I needed someone to blame. His is the big signature on the tax return and mine is the small one and John’s is the one that says “Yes, honey.” I’m weak and stupid and I paid I guy. Any mistakes on my 2003 taxes are not my fault. Also, the tax guy pointed out that paying someone to clean your house once in a while is deductible as an indirect office expense. In my case it’s more of a medical expense, but I don’t want to argue with the tax guy. I just want to blame him.