by Catherine Breese
Today is the last day of February 2016. If you have completed your 2015 tax return at this point, one of three things must be true about you: you are expecting a refund and need the money to buy something, (say, a set of aperitif glasses or new oven), you are a tremendously type-A person, or you are required to complete the FAFSA because you have college-aged children. I am that third kind of tax preparer. And I can assure you that if the FAFSA were not hanging over my head, I would not have even begun to gather up receipts and 1099 forms. I am the kind of US citizen who so despises doing her taxes that she puts it off until the last conceivable moment to begin. I would prefer many other unpleasantries above doing our taxes: going to the gynecologist, grouting my shower, listening to a Donald Trump speech. etc. But like death, doing taxes is compulsory.
I am not really qualified to do my own taxes–to be honest. I end up guessing on some of the questions that my H&R Block software asks me, and I pretend to understand the explanations when I really don’t. And, to fully uncover my incompetency, I have also to admit that I avoid anything to do with my retirement account savings because I have exactly no understanding of the tax laws surrounding those accounts. Apparently, I was supposed to be keeping track of my contributions for the last 20 years and documenting that for the federal government? I don’t know. I didn’t do it. And when I asked my money-man, Edward J., for the documentation, he sent me an 84 page .pdf that appears to be written in Swahili. I don’t really have a plan for dealing with this, except that I’m pretty sure I can’t ever retire, so I guess my children will just inherit my financial squirrel’s nest.
In the past I have paid others to do my taxes for me. But, if I have to sit there with the professional tax preparer and answer all of the questions, it seems silly not to do them myself for the cost savings. Not to mention that several years ago we took our taxes to a preparer who made a $5000 mistake. We had to go back three times to get the thing corrected. Frankly, I can do that kind of shoddy work myself, at no charge.
So, every year, I clear off the dining room table, get out a bunch of file folders from previous tax years, set up the laptop, and then walk away for about 5 weeks until the whole scene becomes tiresome and naggy. Then I finally sit down, cocktail in hand, and launch into the world of the IRS. In this world, you have to put aside any desire you have for the clean and precise use of the English language. You must immerse yourself in a pile of gobbledygook that reads something like this: “The adjusted basis is calculated with original cost of property, plus certain additions and improvements, minus certain deductions such as depreciation allowed or allowable and casualty losses.” I don’t know what that means, and neither do you. I get the gist, sort of, and that’s all I expect of myself. I mean I do actually have a university degree, in English, so I should be adequate in the reading department. My point here is that no one really understands the language of the tax code, and thus, we are all inferring our way through filling out this mandatory menace. If we find out we have erred, well, no one should be surprised.
Luckily…your odds of being audited are way down. Apparently, the budget of the IRS has been so drastically reduced that they don’t have the ability to audit many of us taxpayers. The overall audit rate for individuals is less than 1%. You odds are higher if you make over $200,000 or claim the earned income tax credit. Owning your own business also puts you at better odds for audit, but only slightly. This knowledge does offer a small comfort to me, although I still feel some version of mild disgrace in the face of my inferior tax preparation skills.
So, as of today, my 1040 is complete and I have already received my refund. In fact we have already spent it—two new tires and our AAA membership fee–not a beach vacation, sadly. But even worse news: I have yet to complete the FAFSA. So, off to the liquor store. What cocktail goes best with the FAFSA, you ask? If it’s your first FAFSA, I recommend the Old Fashioned. You’re going to need its dark brown goodness to get to the end. If you’re a FAFSA regular, the classic vodka Martini is an ideal choice. Chin up. You can do this; you have to. Cheers.
 The FAFSA is a form you have to fill out you have a child who is in college or going to college next year. It is used by colleges to determine the type and amount of financial aid for which your child qualifies. It is the second-most annoying and difficult electronic form that you will complete during your lifetime. It will involve you screaming utterances such as “I don’t know my daughter’s effing PIN!” and “Nooooooo! Not back to the start page!”