The Unemployed Guide to Taxes
I like doing my own taxes. And, no, I’m not insane, at least not like the drunk guy dressed as a female clown who rides his three-wheel bike around my neighborhood with a live parrot on his shoulder. My insanity – since that’s what it probably is – is more pedestrian and middle class. There’s something satisfying about sitting down with a pile of forms, statements and receipts, and ending up with a single number. This is what I owe the federal government or, preferably, this is what the federal government owes me.
Another number tells me a lot more about my life this past year. It sits near the bottom of page one of the 1040 – line 22 to be exact – after the words, “This is your total income.” That number sums up an entire year of working. It’s not a perfect measure. It lacks detail and nuance. It glosses over the personal and societal value of my accomplishments. It entirely ignores what I’ve learned and experienced. It does tell me one thing – how much money I earned. And that number was pretty damn small in 2009.
I’ve been doing my own taxes since the ripe old age of 15. That’s when I had my first real job – pumping gas at the local Amoco – and drew my first paycheck. Like many a suburban teenager, I’d mowed lawns, shoveled driveways and babysat kids. But people paid cash for those services. And as any waiter, bookie or financially savvy homeless person will tell you, cash is much harder for the tax people to track.
My taxes were much simpler then. There wasn’t much to report. All I had was a whopping $3.60/hour income, a bank account with a few hundred bucks and a mutual fund with another few hundred more. As a teenager, I rarely earned more than the standard deduction. So most of the taxes withheld the previous year came back to me. That day in May when the government sent me a nice fat check ranked right up there with my birthday and Christmas and the last day of school and, of course, Arbor Day, the granddaddy of all holidays. Tax refunds sure can buy lots of CDs and prepackaged Donettes from 7-Eleven.
Life is a little more complicated 8 (by which I mean 20+) years later. My expenses include more than music and convenience store food. I do my taxes on a computer using advanced (and awesome) tax software rather than on paper forms using No. 2 pencils with dried-out erasers. And if 2009 is any indication, my earning power has decreased.
If we ignore government unemployment insurance payouts, that total income number – line 22 – has decreased since 1987. I earned less as an experienced worker, with undergraduate and graduate degrees, than I did as a high school sophomore. The government paid my way this past year. And while I was entitled to the money, having been previously employed full-time, I didn’t earn it in 2009. I earned it in 2008 and 2007 and every other year I held down a staff position at a company that paid into the system. We can quibble over the meaning of “earn.” After all, I did spend hundreds, maybe thousands, of hours looking for work; and looking for work is most definitely work. But I wasn’t paid directly for it.
The realization of how little I earned didn’t sink in right away. Maybe I just didn’t want to think about it. And maybe I was too busy rushing to finish my taxes by the April 15 deadline. I always plan to do my taxes in March, and always fail. There’s always something more pressing to get done. This time the culprit was a freelance project that was and continues to sap all my time. Don’t read this as a complaint. I’m happy for the paying work, as is my bank account. It just leaves precious little time for everything else, like blogging, sleeping and filing taxes.
The bright side of all this is that 2010 won’t be a repeat of 2009. I will once again earn more money this year than I did as a high school sophomore. There are many parts of my youth that I’d like back. My income bracket isn’t one of them.