I’ve been busy, very busy. I had been writing and sharing a story each and every Sunday for more than three years. For the past many months though, my focus has been against a couple other more pressing priorities; namely, getting our California house sold. Then of course, there’s the nearly overwhelming job of getting my wife to downsize so that she could squeeze into our AZ home. Always being a meticulous planner, I had been planning this transition for a couple of years. California is a beautiful place, but unless you’re born wealthy, wanting to work all your life or wanting to join the millions there living off of the social welfare systems, it’s not a very good place for retirees. Like many retirees, I took on my very first part time, (seasonal in my case), job. I just finished up my very first season as a tax preparer.
I have another story about half written, but while it’s fresh in my mind, I thought I’d share with you recollections from this job which ran from late February to the last day of the regular tax season – April 18th, 2017.
I have been doing my own taxes and those for family members for 40 years. I had my personal taxes done for me as a 16 and 17 year old, same place my parents went to, but when I looked at the forms, I thought – ‘hmm, looks like something I could do on my own’. And so I did. I did my own first tax return as an 18 year old. I know this next sentence will sound perhaps masochistic to most, but I LOVED doing it! I think what I liked was that it was rule-based. As a kid, math was what I excelled in. All you ‘right brainers’ out there are going to think I need to be committed for loving mathematics, but I did. I loved how every math problem was a puzzle and that there was only one right answer. Learn the rules, follow the rules, solve the puzzle.
Our tax code is just like that – learn the rules, follow the rules and solve the puzzle. In my undergraduate study, I had a professor of taxation say that he never memorized the tax code. What he memorized was “where to get the answers”. This was an extremely helpful approach that I applied in a couple of my roles at P&G where I was expected to be the owner of rules. Another useful quote I remember from this same class went something like this:
Taxes cannot be both simple and fair – they are either simple or they are fair.
This is why I laugh to myself anytime I hear a politician talk about a “simple” income tax for us – it will never happen. That same quote also helped to guide me in decision making and areas where I wrote policy and procedure. I shared that approach in appropriate situations with many people over the years.
Doing taxes this past season professionally offered me the opportunity not only to do something ‘fun’, (I know many of you cringed just now), but it allowed me the opportunity to teach, as I’ve always enjoyed teaching.
I won’t share the name of my employer but let’s just say I was one step away from being a greeter at Walmart. One of the ‘edicts’ in my district was to never let a customer walk away without doing their tax returns and getting paid. For me, this is a short term approach and does not necessarily put the tax payers’ best interests in front. If I had a young person walk in, one who was still a dependent of Mom and Dad and had only a simple W2 in hand, I would ask them why they stopped in to see me and do they want to learn how to file their own taxes for free? They were extremely grateful and the only thing I made them promise me was to come back and see me when their situation was a little more complex. I had one young lady reach out to shake my hand with both of hers. She held onto my hand, looked me in the eye and very sincerely thanked me “for being so honest and helpful”. That moment pretty much made my sitting there, (for only $13 per hour), all worthwhile.
Those that really needed my expertise got it. If they came unprepared, I sent them home on an errand. Such as it was with the self employed contract plumber who showed up on the very last day of the season with nothing but his 1099-MISC. No Federal or State taxes had been withheld and he had made no estimated payments. I looked at his form and asked:
Me – do you realize how large of a tax bill you are going to have if I sit here and prepare your return with just this? Do you not know that you can deduct various expenses from this money and that you also have to pay social security against this?
He did not. I explained to him his situation, made a list of various expenses he could deduct, told him he needs to ensure they are reasonable and to be prepared to justify them. His mileage alone would be worth thousands of dollars in savings. I showed him how to file for an extension and sent him on his way. He was very, very appreciative and swore he was “coming back to us forever” in the future. I believe I made a lifelong client for my employer with that one.
And then there was Miss Hattie, a 70 year old African-American lady who made me blush when she blurted out of the clear blue – “you are a handsome man, Robert”. Ok, so I thought maybe she was looking for an angle to a cheaper tax return fee, that is until the next day when a younger Miss Sylvia started flirting with me. Apparently I am attractive to African-American ladies or else the word has gotten around the community that they can sweet talk the tax man into a cheaper rate.
There were many needy, sad cases I saw there this season too. Invariably, the most common question asked was – how much do you charge? Unlike one or two other preparers I listened to who were focused only on not letting the client walk away, I was more focused against giving them a straight answer. I’d quote them a range, (which I know likely sounded high to them), but then I’d follow it up with something like – if you go somewhere else, make sure they know as much as I do about our income tax laws. You might feel that dollar amount is high, but if you go to someone who doesn’t know which questions to ask you or what credits you might be eligible for, you might accidentally cost yourself hundreds of dollars. If you leave, make sure that wherever you go, the person who you go to needs to have been doing this for a long time and they should feel trustworthy.
A few still walked away, but most stayed. If they stayed, they not only got their taxes done, but they got exposed to a few lessons. I explained why they were getting the refund they did or why they owed money and what they could do in order to change things for next year.
The most fun returns I did would have to be a couple who worked together at Wells Fargo. He was a Led Zeppelin nut and she had a great sense of humor. He was envious of my story of attending a Zeppelin concert in the 70’s. I must have been in a goofy mood that night because we three laughed for an hour as they let me entertain them with my one liners. (Damn, why do we get to do this only once a year?)
Lots of time was spent just handing out free advice. I always relish the opportunity to look smart so if you stop in just to ask a question or two, I’ll let you sit there for as long as it takes to make me look smart….(and no smart-ass comments on that point from my wife). Like, for instance, the 75 year old lady who was receiving an alimony from her ex-husband who had been sharing with her that he’s losing his shirt in the stock market. Really, I Asked? Well, I’m a trader and I have to tell you that for the past 6-7 years you could pretty much have a blindfolded monkey pick stocks and be a big winner!
But the winner of the season for the most interesting ‘free advice’ session had to go to a young man I’d estimate to be late 20’s or very early 30’s. The conversation went something like this:
He – I’ll be right back, I have a very unique situation.
Me – ok……(waits for man to return)
He – ok if I sit down?
Me – sure, that’s why I’m here. What have you got for me, what is so unique?
He – well, I was incarcerated up until a year ago.
Me – I don’t flinch, I just stare.
He – ok, maybe that’s not unique, you’ve probably heard that one before, haven’t you?
Me – actually, yes (and I had).
He – ok, so what can you do for me?
Me – I can do your taxes. Do you have any documents for me?
He – not really, I sort of been moving around to different states, doing work under the table.
Me – you didn’t just tell your tax preparer you make money without paying taxes, did you?
He – what about people who like get social security numbers and get money?
Me – you mean like identity theft?
He – is that what it’s called? What about trust funds? I think I have a trust fund, how do I get at that?
Me – you hire a lawyer.
He – you can’t do anything, you can’t get that for me?
Me – if you really think you have money somewhere, locked up like in a trust fund, I’m pretty sure you would want the help of a lawyer.
He – hmmm.
He sits there for a few minutes, surfing the free Walmart Wi-Fi. I let him. I don’t mind as there isn’t another customer yet.
He – what about this ADP? Can’t I get W2’s from there?
Me – yes, if you worked somewhere that used ADP to process their payroll, you would be able to get your W2 online from them.
He – I think I might have some from 2015.
Me – maybe, I just read this morning that there’s over $1B in unclaimed refunds from 2013, just waiting for the owners to file for it.
He – I was incarcerated that year so I doubt any of it is mine.
Me – (being polite, but getting tired of this), anything else? Is there anything I can do for you?
He – do you do any of this on the side, on your own?
Me – nope, (thank God), only here.
And so he left, although I did see him later in the day, hanging around the Walmart Customer Service area, probably now bothering them (instead of me). Definitely, the most interesting conversation I’ve had in a long time.
Empathy – it’s a key trait in this business (my opinion). For many people, the tax return represents the single largest paycheck they will receive for the entire year. Those of us lucky enough to never qualify for things like the earned income tax credit should be very thankful. Yes, it is a “redistribution of wealth“, but it is one that is greatly needed by those who truly qualify for it. If you came to me and qualified for this, you got the maximum benefit you were entitled to. If your story or credentials were questionable, you had better be prepared to answer a lot of questions. Forget that I can be fined for not performing due diligence – I take my role very seriously and for the hour we sit together, you and I venture forth on a crusade to save you money!
Come on in and see me next year. Maybe I’ll be next door to the Walmart greeter or maybe I’ll just be around the ‘Block’ but either way, I’ll do my best to make this painless and not a ‘1 for you, 19 for me’ experience.
Yeah, yeah I’m the taxman.