How many idiots does it take to fill out a 1040?

“Oh crud, we need to do our taxes,” I recently told my husband as I do every year around this time.

After exhausting every reason to procrastinate – cleaning out the vegetable drawer, perusing old Hickory Farms catalogues left over from Christmas, clipping toenails, surfing E-bay for vintage bar signs, napping – we finally had to face the music.

Coffee and a folder haphazardly filled with paperwork in hand, my husband and I reluctantly plopped down in front of our computer to complete the dreaded annual tax forms.

We haven’t had the best luck preparing our tax forms over the years, and are conditioned to avoid the experience. Despite my law degree and my husband’s master’s degree in financial management, neither of us ever grasped the simple concepts relevant to our personal income tax forms.

In law school, I took a Tax Law course and could write a scholarly paper on whether the federal income tax is a direct tax or an excise tax based on the Sixteenth Amendment and the Supreme Court’s opinion in the Pollock case, but I struggled with my 1040EZ.

My husband’s master’s thesis was entitled “Congress, Defense, and the Deficit: An Analysis of the FY 1996 Budget Process in the 1O4th Congress,” but he couldn’t tell the difference between short and long term capital gains if his retirement depended on it.

But every year, we begrudgingly spread out our paperwork and somehow fulfill our obligations as taxpayers.

One year, we wanted to act like grown ups, so we hired an accountant while living in Virginia Beach. He was a charming southern gentleman with blue eyes, silver white hair and a matching tidy moustache. He called me “ma’am” and politely sat with us one balmy evening in the early days of spring. Over the season’s first lemonades, we casually chatted about our finances, and he gathered all the information he needed to prepare and file our returns. It was so easy, we wondered why we hadn’t been doing it this way all along.

The next year, we tried to contact our charming accountant to do our taxes again, but strangely, he never returned our calls.

We soon found out that he couldn’t call us back because he was locked up in the big house. Turns out, our southern gentleman was politely holding himself out as a CPA without a license, embezzling from clients, and obtaining money under false pretenses. Oops. Back to the drawing board.

Since then, we have been using Turbo Tax, a seemingly idiot-proof program which leads the user through a simplified series of questions designed to accurately calculate all income and deductions.  Somehow, my husband and I still have no idea what is going on.

“Do we qualify for the child tax credit?” I asked, as my husband slurped his coffee. “Hell if I know . . . just do whatever we did last year, that seemed to work,” he said nonchalantly.

“I forget, do we have Roth IRAs or regular IRAs?” I said a few minutes later. Riffling through a pile of papers, my husband found our statements, which might as well have been written in Chinese. “Roth, but what the heck is a recharacterized contribution?”

My eyes started to cross as I tried to decipher our mutual fund papers. “Is cost basis the same as purchase price?” I said, searching my faded memory bank. “I don’t know, just punch in $200 and see what happens,” my husband suggested.

After four hours, two pots of coffee, three calls to our financial manager, and at least a dozen choice expletives, we finally got it all figured out and dutifully sent our forms off to Uncle Sam.

We won’t get our return check for several weeks, but rest assured, we’ve already spent it, and lost the receipt. When our bank statements arrive, we won’t know how to balance the checkbook. And next spring, we’ll be back in front of our computer, dazed and confused all over again.  Apparently, a few more things in life are certain aside from death and taxes.

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Comments: 115

  1. Melissa April 18, 2014 at 9:18 pm Reply

    Fresh pressed! Woo hoo! Way to go, Lisa. Good to know I’m not alone in my tax hell.

  2. energywriter March 4, 2014 at 6:11 pm Reply

    Great essay, Lisa, funny and too true.Hint: next year take your receipts to the library where AARP accountants will do your taxes for free. You don’t need to be a senior to use their services. I’ve seen many younger people who appear as confused as I.

    I wish we would have had more time together at EBWW. After our first hello, I didn’t see you again the entire weekend.

    • Lisa Smith Molinari March 3, 2014 at 10:13 pm Reply

      Thanks for the hint, Sharon. Yes, I walked around Erma in a half-panicked, half-guilty state because either I felt I needed to meet more people, or I wasn’t talking more to the people I’d already met. It was a catch 22.

  3. DENYdesigns March 2, 2014 at 12:16 pm Reply

    This is hilarious! Thanks For Sharing!

  4. tryingtoknowthyself March 2, 2014 at 12:15 pm Reply

    Hahaha this was very interesting! I personally I no yet at the crossroads of filling out tax forms, but I already am starting to dread it lol
    My parents actually go to H and R Block to do the taxes and it seems to work out for them…

  5. notsowitty March 2, 2014 at 12:45 am Reply

    I’m one of those odd people that loves doing their taxes. I actually look forward to it every year. I know, I know. I’m also the kid who played with the box instead of the gift at Christmas. ;)

  6. Pleun March 1, 2014 at 10:58 pm Reply

    Extremely funny and I remember I used to file taxes too. Then I started my own business and everyone told me it would make absolute sense to hire an accountant; he/she would pay for him/herself….. Not sure about that last statement, but I did enjoy my extra free time and only felt a little bad handing over my shoebox (literally) with all my papers. Those were the days…
    And now? I recently moved to Mexico, and just realized I’ll be in tax-hell again coming April 2013 (I think?). OMG, and I don’t even speak Spanish yet…
    Congrats on the freshly pressed.

  7. adamredsox24 March 1, 2014 at 1:25 am Reply

    I let Hr Block do my taxes

  8. Sarah Harris March 1, 2014 at 12:33 am Reply

    Well now I feel better that you both with all your degrees still find the forms mind-boggling. I think I do great but always get hung up on something. This year it was W-2s. At some point I stop thinking and just say, it’s good enough, I don’t care about searching for any more deductions, I just want it done. Maybe that’s a ploy to frustrate people so we give up our additional $5 return from deductions or something but multiply that $5 by millions of people and the government has a great racket! I’m just still stinging from doing my taxes as you can tell! After this post I refuse to talk taxes for 295 more days. Love the post despite my griping!! :)

    • Lisa Smith Molinari March 1, 2014 at 9:04 am Reply

      I totally agree with your theory that the government wants to keep us all (degrees or not) confused enough to give in and stop haggling for the deductions/credits we deserve. Grrr….

  9. kizzyinchainz April 17, 2012 at 10:31 pm Reply

    One of the biggest reasons I’m in no rush to become a “adult”. I never understood why something so important has to be so difficult, even filling out a fafsa is a headache in and of itself.

  10. Marcia Clarke April 17, 2012 at 9:24 pm Reply

    Very funny and shall I say …timely? Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

  11. trokspot April 17, 2012 at 9:04 pm Reply

    i feel the same way. you would think that as an intelligent and educated person (masters degree, currently pursuing a phd) that i would be able to manage taxes at a basic level (my income is incredibly modest and should be “simple”). just never seems to work out that way.

    further evidence that a simpler, fairer tax code is needed…?

  12. dossenoritasymas April 17, 2012 at 8:40 pm Reply

    haha this is great! taxes are ridiculously confusing – on purpose, i’m convinced.

  13. Ruth Rutherford April 17, 2012 at 6:44 pm Reply

    “…rest assured, we’ve already spent it, and lost the receipt.” Love that! Hilarious…

  14. Lance Wilkins April 17, 2012 at 6:01 pm Reply

    “neither of us ever grasped the simple concepts relevant to our personal income tax forms.” Umm. What simple concepts would those be?

    Enjoyed the read!

  15. Bridget April 17, 2012 at 5:09 pm Reply

    This is why I’m glad my mother is an accountant :) fantastic post!

    • Lisa Smith Molinari April 17, 2012 at 5:58 pm Reply

      Wow, my mom can’t do my taxes but she was a first grade teacher for 30 years, so she can make a darned good construction paper pumpkin AND sing all the words to Frere Jacques. So there.

      • Bridget April 18, 2012 at 7:48 am Reply

        Alright, I think you’ve got me beat there!

  16. d_vaz April 17, 2012 at 4:55 pm Reply

    I have no idea how to do my taxes. Last year I just gave all the proper forms to my dad and he figured it out for me.

  17. Pat Bean April 17, 2012 at 2:33 pm Reply

    I gave you a Bean’s Pat on my blog today, which I wrote right after i did my taxes.

  18. Baruch Avendaño April 17, 2012 at 2:17 pm Reply

    Even so, I still think that you’re blessed; down here in Mexico we’re still depending in -at least- one accountant to decently fill out our tax forms. The SAT (mexican IRS) is making some changes to allow us to fill the tax forms by ourselves, but as you said, it’s still written in Chinese and, being positive, a nightmare.

    Good luck with your forms this year!

  19. Sania Lali April 17, 2012 at 2:02 pm Reply

    i liked the title.. and the rest too, of course.. :p

  20. thefunnyishere April 17, 2012 at 1:22 pm Reply

    Great read!! Haha.give these a try if you’ve got time :)
    http://thefunnyishere.wordpress.com/

  21. whitofthepen April 17, 2012 at 1:05 pm Reply

    Well said. It’s comforting to know I’m not the only one who feels stupid while filling these out.

  22. dmaportland April 17, 2012 at 11:56 am Reply

    Reblogged this on dmaportland and commented:
    Happy Tax Day!

  23. From The Pews April 17, 2012 at 11:27 am Reply

    A Laugh amidst the torture that is Tax Season!

    Much Obliged!!!

  24. beyondanomie April 17, 2012 at 11:17 am Reply

    US taxes are a nightmare. The actual amount collected as a percentage is not all that bad, in the final analysis, but the process is just insanely irritating. Much more so than UK taxes for instance. Honestly, the US has one of the most complicated tax codes, with the most frustrating forms and byzantine bureaucracy driving it. Next year will be my very last filing with the IRS (I’ve renounced citizenship) and I will be delighted not have to pay an accountant to sort it all out any more.

    • Lisa Smith Molinari April 17, 2012 at 12:03 pm Reply

      Whoa there nellie, we’re getting serious now — renouncing your citizenship?

  25. plumplyhonest April 17, 2012 at 9:55 am Reply

    And here I thought I was only puzzled about doing my taxes because I’m 21! What’s even more confusing than filing your taxes is having to file an amended return – doh! You actually have to print it out, stick it in an envelope, put postage on it, put it in your mail box, and hope to God you put the correct IRS mailing address on there!

    I thoroughly enjoyed your post. Thanks for the laugh! :-)

  26. tarotworldtour April 17, 2012 at 8:39 am Reply

    I am very happy to pay taxes and would even be willing to pay more for more services but in exchange for not having to go through this process! It has too much of a punitive quality to it. In China, for instance, they do not file income taxes because the government sees no point, given that, like the US, all the money is created by the monetary agency and they know all that goes in and out anyway. I say do not tax advances on the value of property but consider all financial instruments regular income and abolish the concept of capital gains. The coffers of the state would be loaded and people could file taxes in just a couple of pages. -”tarotworldtour”

    • Lisa Smith Molinari April 17, 2012 at 10:59 am Reply

      Uh, hello! I just wrote about being an idiot, and you expect me to process that???

  27. ahrcanum April 17, 2012 at 7:59 am Reply

    Reblogged this on Ahrcanum.

  28. lostnchina April 17, 2012 at 5:08 am Reply

    You’re a brave woman to do your own taxes! I’ve used the same accountant for the last 10 years and she seems legit enough (doesn’t meet me on street corners in a trenchcoat, hat and sunglasses).

    Hilarious post- I’m following now!

  29. sungame April 17, 2012 at 4:25 am Reply

    A clever person once said that the only two certainties in life are death and taxes. And where there are taxes, there are 1040s – or, as it is known in my little corner of the world – RF1030.

    Until now, I have found filling in my tax forms a rather straightforward procedure. However, being a freelance writer complicates things. In 2011, for the first time, I have not only several employers, but several different types of incomes. I do not even know the relevant terms in my native Norwegian, so I won’t try figuring out what they are called in English. Alas, all these income sources still don’t pay nearly enough to hire an accountant.

    Well, I guess reading and commenting on this blog entry was my last attempt at procrastination. I’ll better get started on that RF1030 and its even more annoying relative, the RF1224. Wish me luck, I certainly need it…

    • Lisa Smith Molinari April 17, 2012 at 6:19 am Reply

      How do I say “Good Luck” in Norwegian?

      • sungame April 17, 2012 at 6:31 am Reply

        Lykke til! :)

        • Lisa Smith Molinari April 17, 2012 at 7:27 am Reply

          Of course! Why didn’t I think of that on my own? I should have known it would have four consonants in a row, including a double K. Whatever the case, a hearty lykke til to you!

  30. Go Scuba Dive April 17, 2012 at 2:42 am Reply

    Ugh. It’s that time of the year again. Taxes. The Bane of my existence save for when I qualify for a return. :(

  31. Rufus April 17, 2012 at 12:49 am Reply

    Re: The subject of filing tax returns

    “This is too difficult for a mathematician. It takes a philosopher.”

    Albert Einstein

    • Rufus April 17, 2012 at 8:07 am Reply

      1994, March 11, Los Angeles Times

      “Einstein Admits He Had To Call in Income Tax Expert”, Page 1

      Los Angeles, California (Pro Quest)

      :-)

  32. AnzieRose April 16, 2012 at 10:28 pm Reply

    This is so very very true…. I did my first tax return this year past, and I’m still in a slight daze about it all. They even have a simple downloadable program here in Aus that does a good deal of it for you, but they really need to dumb the terms down to : Money spent on work clothes, money paid in rent, la di da simple man speak! All I know is that we earnt a load of money and then spent it all >.<

  33. DTH-LTJK April 16, 2012 at 10:08 pm Reply

    I had the highest grade in my Taxation & Finance class at a Top Ten university, and it stunned me, because I had no idea what was going on in that class. I actually did a little better with my tax forms — UNTIL I started using TurboTax. It leaves me unnerved every year, even more than my own unaided mistakes. (But it just seems easier than actually reading the instructions anymore.)

    • Lisa Smith Molinari April 16, 2012 at 10:52 pm Reply

      Having a law background, I live in fear that someone will ask me a tax related question and I will have to stare at them like a deer in the headlights.

  34. podnumber2 April 16, 2012 at 9:51 pm Reply

    Woohooo! Freshly Pressed! Well-deserved! :-)

  35. Shannon M. Howell April 16, 2012 at 9:15 pm Reply

    Don’t feel bad. I recently read that the tax code is now four (I think it was four) times the length of the COMBINED works of Shakespeare. Add to this that Congress gets a “bad report” if it doesn’t enact enough laws in a given year and no wonder we spend most of our GDP on filing our tax returns!

    Think of the stimulus we’d have if Congress said, just for one year, we’re taking a flat 10%. Some would pay more, some less, but the stock in aspirin, ibuprofen, and other headache medicines would plummet.

    • Lisa Smith Molinari April 16, 2012 at 10:51 pm Reply

      Woah! Mind boggling . … I think I need some ibuprofen.

      • Shannon M. Howell April 17, 2012 at 4:09 pm Reply

        Oh, I just read this:(http://cnsnews.com/news/article/americans-making-over-50000-year-paid-933-percent-all-taxes-2010)

        It states that the tax code is 3.8 million words long. That is about 3.5 times longer than the ENTIRE Harry Potter series (which clocks in at 1,083,594 words according to Scholastic).

        Now, how long did it take me to read that series? probably a few weeks all put together… and that was INTERESTING and well written. Now, how long would it take for me to die of boredom reading the tax code? Probably 2.5 minutes.

        So, you know who to blame for this, right???

        • Lisa Smith Molinari April 17, 2012 at 5:55 pm Reply

          RIGHT. But you know what’s really pathetic? Not only have I not attempted to read the tax code, I’ve only experienced Harry Potter on DVD.

  36. Scott April 16, 2012 at 7:13 pm Reply

    “How many idiots does it take to fill out a 1040?”

    Far fewer than it took to develop the damned thing!

  37. Vanessa Joy April 16, 2012 at 6:57 pm Reply

    Such a funny post. I sit down with the old-fashioned 1040 in print form and grind my teeth as I try to ascertain if we should take the standard deduction or itemize. Blar. I’m glad its all over for one more year.

  38. jamielynne82 April 16, 2012 at 5:57 pm Reply

    Yep, my eyes start to twitch when I get the reminder emails from Turbo Tax in January all the way through April.

  39. fireandair April 16, 2012 at 5:02 pm Reply

    Approximately 300 million. Next question?

  40. natasiarose April 16, 2012 at 4:17 pm Reply

    Haha! I’ve never done my own taxes, luckily, I married a woman who’s dad and sister are both accountants. I really don’t know what I’d do without them!

    • Lisa Smith Molinari April 16, 2012 at 4:23 pm Reply

      You married wisely. Unfortunately, our families have no practical skills to offer, unless you need someone to fly your Boeing 737 (my brother) or you need a lawyer to handle your multi-million dollar business merger (my husband’s brother). Between the two families, we’re lucky if we can all tie our own shoes.

  41. jensine April 16, 2012 at 3:55 pm Reply

    We don’t have 1040 here in DUblin but somehow what ever i did this year I got a 500 Euro refund in taxes … yeah me and hello new shoes

  42. In My Garden (country edition) April 16, 2012 at 3:55 pm Reply

    After a mistake in our seemingly idiot proof turbo tax return last year (also something related to the purchase price/cost basis thing) we finally hired an accountant this year. After signing the forms and dropping in the mail all I could think of is, why are we so stupid that it took us 17 years to figure this out!

    • Lisa Smith Molinari April 16, 2012 at 4:02 pm Reply

      YES! If we could ever get our act together and find a reliable accountant, we will do the same next year.

  43. whatidesiredtosay1 April 16, 2012 at 3:49 pm Reply

    HATE doing taxes, I always pay a REGISTERED CPA. Congrats on FP!

  44. becomingcliche April 16, 2012 at 3:35 pm Reply

    Man, why do the good ones always end up in prison?

    We tried to use a free on-line program put out by one of the big tax firms a few years ago, and it refused to let us claim our third kid as a deduction. So we did our taxes three times that year. Bourbon anyone?

  45. The Lu Life April 16, 2012 at 3:32 pm Reply

    I totally understand what you mean – I did my taxes for the first time and was at a complete loss as to what was going on!

  46. Cleverreality April 16, 2012 at 3:31 pm Reply

    what a wretched event. I do think people over think the tax forms.

  47. rich April 16, 2012 at 3:19 pm Reply

    it’s not difficult. i use average1040.com. cost about $9 to file online, refund directly sent to your bank account. they will also file certain state returns at no extra charge. piece of cake.

  48. 3 pups in a pop-up April 16, 2012 at 3:11 pm Reply

    Great column, so timely! Looking forward to meeting you at EBWW! (can I take that off my taxes>>)

    • Lisa Smith Molinari April 16, 2012 at 3:43 pm Reply

      Yes – isn’t there a starving freelance writer’s tax deduction for writer’s workshops? There certainly should be. I’d write my congressperson if I knew who it was, dag nabbit!

  49. List of X April 16, 2012 at 2:55 pm Reply

    Sounds scary as it is. Let’s just hope that at least TurboTax is not in jail by next year.

    • Lisa Smith Molinari April 16, 2012 at 3:39 pm Reply

      Ha! But no, then I’d really be at a loss. Let’s hope I have enough tax return money left to pay bail…

      • List of X April 16, 2012 at 3:51 pm Reply

        I am sure you can think of a much better use of your money than bailing out TurboTax :)

  50. Eagle-Eyed Editor April 16, 2012 at 2:43 pm Reply

    I make it easy. I just send them almost everything I’ve got. *sigh*

  51. williamw60640 April 16, 2012 at 2:40 pm Reply

    Wish me luck as I file online this evening. Congrats on being FP! Hilarious post.

  52. The Hook April 16, 2012 at 2:18 pm Reply

    Very timely question! Nice work!

    • Lisa Smith Molinari April 16, 2012 at 2:25 pm Reply

      Ah, yes, timely indeed! If my post helps another idiot get their tax forms in on time, then I have done my part to contribute to the greater good!

  53. Samantha April 16, 2012 at 2:16 pm Reply

    Hahaha, this is fantastic. Glad you got it figured out, TurboTax does make it a lot easier. And I think if there’s unfamiliar terms it might define them for you, but I’m not entirely sure on that one. Congrats on Freshly Pressed!

    • Lisa Smith Molinari April 16, 2012 at 2:24 pm Reply

      Oh yea, it defines them, but hell if I know what the definitions mean . . .I don’t think the Turbo Tax folks exactly how stupid we can be!

  54. “We won’t get our return check for several weeks, but rest assured, we’ve already spent it,” — yep!

  55. dogsinchests April 16, 2012 at 2:11 pm Reply

    Ah yes, tax season. Glad that people smarter than me can’t figure it out, either!

    Also, couldn’t help but notice you write for the Indiana Gazette. I go to IUP (I’m actually writing this from a computer in Sutton…) so it was weird to see that connection on WordPress! :)

    • Lisa Smith Molinari April 16, 2012 at 2:22 pm Reply

      WOOT! Shout out to IUP! Although you might hate me because I am just a lousy townie in Indiana – I grew up there but went off to college in OH, in an even smaller town if you can believe it!

      • dogsinchests April 16, 2012 at 2:57 pm Reply

        I’m from a small town, too, so I get the “townie” mentality. I’m having a great time at IUP, though. :)

        • Lisa Smith Molinari April 16, 2012 at 3:41 pm Reply

          Stay out of those Frat houses – I remember being at one of those IUP frat parties and the house was so grungy — my big hair got stuck in fly paper they had hanging from the ceiling in their party room!!

  56. sportsjim81 April 16, 2012 at 1:57 pm Reply

    Haha, this was really funny. Like REALLY funny. Mainly because it’s a startling similar situation as my wife and I find ourselves in year in and year out. Never got involved with a shady accountant however. That one is all you! Congrats on FP by the way. Really good piece.

  57. Mikalee Byerman April 16, 2012 at 1:57 pm Reply

    Oh wow, this sounds familiar. But I have a secret weapon. She is also my hero. Her name is Star, and just as her name implies, she shines endless light along my personal tax pilgrimage path. She is amazing — and somehow, even as a full-time freelance writer, I am getting a (small) refund.

    I do SO love my Star…

    And I wish you luck on your journey — though it sounds like you accomplished it without a secret weapon!

    :)

    • Lisa Smith Molinari April 16, 2012 at 2:21 pm Reply

      Wow, I’m just impressed you, as a freelance writer, have enough income to claim on your tax forms!

  58. aFrankAngle April 16, 2012 at 1:55 pm Reply

    Three cheers for my CPA who does forms!

  59. Richard McCargar March 2, 2012 at 1:48 pm Reply

    Great post, and congratulations on your “fresh-pressed” accomplishment! That isn’t likely to happen for me, as I post video guitar licks/solos and songs with tablature. Once again, congrats!

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