(This encore column was originally published Oct. 18, 2018. Because of the COVID-19 crisis, the IRS extended the tax filing date to July 15. )
Of all the things I do in life, few things stress me out as much as my annual tax-preparation process. It’s a perfect, sickening storm that combines my disdain for and fear of three things: dealing with the IRS, doing math and wading through paperwork.
It’s weird, because with some aspects of my life, such as cooking, I’m highly organized. I have all my pots and pans and measuring cups and piping tips and utensils in their special places, just so.
Conversely, when it comes to paperwork, I’m a train wreck. I tend to hang onto too much paper and too many records in boxes and file cabinets in a system that would stump most people, to the point where sometimes my own system stumps me, too. I’m a paper-stacker, until I need to tidy up my work area – such as if company’s coming – and then I become a stacker/stasher. Later, when it’s time to find a particular paper, I have to search through those combined stacks and stashes, and they’re all mixed up; receipts and invoices and bills and whatnot. So maddening!
I work at my dining room table. Yes, I have a desk/bookshelf combo in my bedroom, but I would lose my mind if I had to sit at that small desk with its small surface, facing a wall, writing or dealing with paperwork. On the other hand, my view from my dining room extends into the living room and out the front windows where I can see sky. So nice.
And there’s a window to the left of my table, which is important because I need windows and light when I work.
I don’t know how I justify that when I work at night.
Either way, if you’re going to suggest I keep all my crap with my bedroom desk and work there, I just can’t do it. I’ve tried to have a real office, such as in my previous home. I never used it as an office. It became a room in which I stored office supplies, and Christmas decorations and odds and ends that didn’t really have their own space.
I spend a lot of time on the computer, and for whatever reason, I like my computer smack in the center of my home’s universe, which is usually in or near my kitchen. Someday a therapist will help me figure out why this is so.
No segue, but it’s probably telling that the night the Carr Fire forced me to evacuate my home, I failed to bring any of the important tax preparation papers with me.
Despite my aversion to taxes and bookkeeping, each year I manage by some miracle to screech into my appointment with my accountant in the 11th hour and we get through it. A few days later, I get word that my taxes are done. I pay my accountant, and pay the IRS (I ALWAYS have to pay, because I’m self-employed) and then skip out of the accountant’s office with a happy spring in my step and a pair of pocket calendars to record mileage; one for the current year and one for the next year. I get to my car and nearly weep with joy. Yes, I feel joy, even though I’ve had to pay state and federal taxes. The joy comes from having this horrible task behind me until next year.
One thing I’ll say about my accountant; although I like her very much, the truth is, I didn’t choose her. She inherited me a few years ago from one of her colleagues who passed away after having me as a client for a few years. And it so happens that the very nice, very capable accountant who passed away inherited me from another accountant, a top-notch Cottonwood accountant who retired and closed up shop the year after I went to her solo for the first time after my divorce. I tell myself that my accountant’s retirement had nothing to do with taking me on as a client.
When it comes to me and accountants, I feel like Bob, played by Bill Murray in “What About Bob” – who keeps getting dumped by his psychiatrists.
I’m trying not to take it personally.
Anyway, 2017 taxes were especially worrisome, because when the time came to start working on them, I was in the middle of a major life distraction that required my undivided attention. I just didn’t have one spare brain cell or extra ounce of energy to deal with taxes.
So, when April came, I decided for the first time in my life to file for an extension. Yes, I was well aware the extension simply postponed the inevitable. It was like one of those nightmare fairy tales where the witch spares your life for stealing a cabbage from her garden but you have to promise to give her your first-born child; something that sounds so improbable and far in the future that you say yes, yes, yes!
Oh, the sweet relief. I told myself I’d chip away at my taxes a little each week, and no way would I wait until that October deadline. October! Come on! That’s practically Christmas!
Did I chip away at it? No, I did not.
It’s not that I didn’t have time, because I had plenty of time. The issue is that when it comes to something I don’t like to do, I procrastinate so badly that I can relate to something I read on Facebook recently: If there were a pill for procrastination, I’d take it tomorrow.
That’s me when faced with something unpleasant.
When I finally called my accountant’s office in August (prompted by my accountant’s reminder card) to make my appointment to beat the Oct. 15 tax-extension deadline, I repeated the conversation I have every year with the receptionist.
As an aside, I have no doubt that my file is stamped in red letters: WARNING: TAX APPOINTMENT PROCRASTINATOR. DO NOT LET HER TALK YOU INTO GETTING THE LATEST APPOINTMENT!
Doni: Hi! I need a tax appointment with Darla, but, uh, could I please have her absolute last possible appointment?
Receptionist: How about October 1?
Doni: Oh gosh, I’m super busy. Don’t you have anything later, something more toward the middle of the month?
Receptionist: Taxes are due the middle of the month.
Doni: OK. what’s the last day and last hour Darla will be seeing clients?
So it was I got my appointment for 4 p.m. on Oct. 4, but not before calling the day before and asking for a one-day extension … and being told no. One hour before my appointment son Joe was preparing bank statement spreadsheets for me. (I’m sorry, Joe!)
In the month leading up to my appointment I turned into a hermit, surrounded by stacks of paper and an adding machine and yellow legal pads upon which I’d listed every dime spent in every category.
I went through every calendar page and figured out mileage for the entire year. Financially speaking, 2017 was especially hairy because I sold one house and bought another within a week of each other, and I sold my dead Prius and bought another car.
When I arrived at my appointment at 4:01 p.m. on Oct. 4, my accountant was her usual self: cool, calm and collected; totally laid back. I was a stressed-out, fast-talking. perspiring mess who hauled with me a shopping bag full of receipts and stapled papers and folders covered in Post-it notes.
And a sour cream coffee cake in a white box tied with a bow.
She looked at me across her tidy desk and asked if it was a bribe. I said, yes, it was. I laughed, probably a little too hard. She smiled, just a little.
She calmly asked questions and I responded by frantically rummaging through my shopping bag for the answers.
She’s so powerful, so knowledgeable, so unflappable. She can maintain eye contact and carry on a conversation while simultaneously operating her adding machine. Besides, not only does she do MY taxes, but she prepares others’ taxes, too. How does she do that? To me, accountants, astronauts and brain surgeons are in the same category. I want her to like me, to respect me, to not think I’m a loser when it comes to taxes. I stammer. I apologize. I make excuses. I vow to do better next year, to record my mileage in those little complimentary calendars as the events happen, because I will keep those calendars in my car at all times. I will stay on top of the paperwork each month. I will be so ready for the next tax season. Just wait. You’ll see.
I’ve never made good on that promise, but because of this extension, this might be the year I pull it off, since 2018’s end looms large and oh so close. By God, come 2019, I will make my appointment at the earliest possible moment for my 2018 tax appointment with Darla. She will be so proud of me.
While I await the news that my taxes are ready – and orders to bring my checkbook – I’ve reorganized my work space, and have made folders for everything.
I’m using my friend’s touch-it-once philosophy, and when I get a piece of mail, I deal with it, either by paying the bill or filing it immediately.
So far, so good. I really think I’ve got this.
Seven days down; 185 to go.
If I could just find my little pocket calendar to write it all down …