How did we let it get like this?
Yesterday, I did my own taxes for the first time in four years.
Understand this: I have a BBA degree in accounting. Having that degree always convinced me that I should do my own taxes. After all, if an accountant can’t do her own taxes, who can?
But back in 2005, my taxes were extremely complex. I sold a rental property and bought a helicopter. There were capital gains and losses and all kinds of weird things. Even though I’d been using TurboTax (and MacInTax) to do my taxes for the previous eight or so years — and doing it manually before that — I didn’t feel up to the task. So I handed it off to my husband’s tax preparer and let him deal with it. I’ve been doing that ever since.
But after last year’s debacle with a new tax preparer who charged me more than $500, I decided to take matters into my own hands again. I bought TurboTax Home & Business. Yesterday, I sat down in front of my computer to do my taxes and my husband’s.
My husband’s taxes were the warm-up exercise. His taxes should be relatively simple, right? After all, he has an employer and gets a W-2 form. He didn’t buy or sell stocks, he doesn’t operate a business. He didn’t purchase or sell any property during the year. Yet even with the software, it took me two hours to prepare his Federal and State return. And when it was done, he didn’t like the answer and said he’d probably take it to a tax preparer anyway.
As we muddled through the process, however, I realized that my husband knows nothing about tax preparation. He didn’t know what any of the forms were and whether he’d filed them in the past. I’m not talking about those weird forms that only tax geeks know about. I’m talking about common schedules like A and C. He was clueless. For his whole life — and he’s in his 50s now, folks — he’d put his trust in a tax preparer, from his dad to local accountants to Hewett-Jackson. Whatever they told him was golden. He write a check or get a refund and be satisfied. After all, he didn’t have to deal with the bullshit of putting together a tax return.
After “completing” Mike’s return, I sat down to do mine. It took 4-1/2 hours. With a computer and software. And it isn’t as if I had to wade through a pile of papers to get the numbers to input. I use Quicken for my personal and business accounting. It does all the math for me. (It can also export to TurboTax, but I admit that I don’t trust them together for that.)
When I was finished, I saw the final numbers. I have to pay — I nearly always do because I’m too stupid to pay estimated taxes like I should — but the numbers weren’t quite as bad as I expected. (Of course, I had no clue what I’d made last year until I actually sat down to do my tax return.) But what’s mind-boggling to me is the forms TurboTax spit out. Here’s this year’s list:
- Form 1040-ES Payment Voucher. There are four of these for my estimated payments, which I’m really going to try to send in this year.
- Form 1040-V Payment Voucher. That’s the one I’m supposed to send in with my big check.
- Form 1040 US Individual Income Tax Return. Yes, it’s the long form. I can’t remember the last time I filed a short form. I may have been a teenager.
- Schedule A Itemized Deductions. I’ve also been filing this one for years, although I’ve never been able to deduct medical expenses. I suppose I should be glad.
- Schedule B Interest and Ordinary Dividends. I have a variety of investments that are not tax deferred.
- Schedule C Profit or Loss from Business. I file two of these: one for my writing and publishing business and one for my helicopter charter business.
- Schedule D Capital Gains and Losses. I sold some stock at a loss.
- Schedule E Supplemental Income and Loss. This is for a rental property I own and my royalties on copyrights.
- Form 8889 Health Savings Accounts. This is one way to deduct medical expenses. Save for them in a special kind of account and deduct your savings, then pay your medical bills with that account.
- Form 8829 Expenses for Business Use of Your Home. I have an entire room in my home that’s dedicated to the mess I call my office.
- Form 4562 Depreciation and Amortization. This is for my helicopter and other assets used by Flying M Air.
- Form 8582 Passive Activity Loss Limitations. Apparently, I can’t deduct the tiny loss on my rental property because I don’t dedicate my life to keeping it occupied. Whatever.
- Arizona Form 140 Resident Personal Income Tax Return. Arizona needs a piece of my pie, too.
- Arizona Schedule A Itemized Deduction Adjustments. At least I can deduct my medical expenses in Arizona.
I should be clear here: it didn’t take me 4-1/2 hours to fill in these forms. It took me 4-1/2 hours to enter the raw data that TurboTax needed to fill in the forms. TurboTax did the job in seconds, completing just the forms it thinks I need and spitting them out of my printer as if they’d been typed by hand.
Frankly, I don’t think it’s humanly possible to prepare a tax return like mine by hand anymore.
And that’s my point. There are rules upon rules upon rules to the U.S. tax law. I remember studying taxes back in the early 1980s — it was a nightmare then. It’s even worse now. How frustrating is it to enter line after line of financial details on a worksheet or form just to discover that it won’t impact your taxes because it didn’t total more than 2% of line 38? Or perform a convoluted calculation just to see what percentage is taxable or deductible? Or answer questions regarding child care, home expenses, foreign transactions — the list goes on and on. Four and a half hours worth of questions and answers.
In this stack of paper I’m sending the IRS this week, there must be over 500 different numbers. What do they all mean? Do they really matter?
There’s an entire industry built on the annual torture of U.S. Citizens required to complete tax returns. I bought tax software to make filing my own return possible. It cost me $80 (discounted). Other people pay $50 or more to tax preparers to do the job for them. Hell, I paid $550 to get my taxes prepared last year! (That’s more than some people pay in taxes!)
And why? Because the tax laws are so complex and confusing that people with basic math skills simply can’t do it on their own.
Hello? IRS? Are you listening? Whatever happened to the Paperwork Reduction Act?