Sunday, March 25, 2012

Taxes Done!

My husband's missing W-2 form showed up in the mail yesterday, so we did our taxes last night. We sat  squashed together on the sofa so we could both see TurboTax on the laptop. I held our messy pile of records as my husband typed and dealt with Snicky, who kept jumping up in hopes of walking on the keyboard. Possum and Snalbert made cameo appearances. Wendy watched from a distance.

As usual, there were several questions that made absolutely no sense to us. After trying to unravel each of these, we'd inevitably answer "No." TurboTax sometimes gives tiny hints, usually by putting the "No" button ahead of the "Yes" button. Sometimes it will tell you that the more nightmarish questions are only relevant to a small percentage of taxpayers, so you can be almost certain they aren't meant for you. 

In spite of all the blank staring and head-scratching, a call to Fidelity, Googling, and repeated requests for more online information from TurboTax, which was never enlightening — plus a certain amount of yelling — we finished both the federal and state forms in about two hours.

Thank you, TurboTax. That sure beats doing it by hand or paying a few hundred bucks to an accountant. Plus it's exciting to watch the red "Tax You Owe" amount, in the upper right corner of the screen, turn to a happy green "Refund Amount." This happens as we enter the quarterly self-employment and estimated income taxes I pay. (After years of screwing up, I finally remembered this year that these two amounts get added up and entered as a lump sum for each quarter.) Watching that big red number change to a green one as the dollars are scrolling by gives me the kind of rush that I imagine slot-machine gamblers get. I can't help squealing, "Wheeeeee!" — as if quarters are spilling out of the laptop.

You see, there are far more boring things one can to do on a Saturday night than figuring the taxes. And if you want to find out what those things are, stick with me. We'll be doing some of them next weekend.

I believe we could have completed the tax forms in under an hour if TurboTax was less secretive. For example, towards the end of the state tax form, it tells you to list "all" of your out-of-state purchases, with dates and amounts, to calculate your in-state sales tax for out-of-state purchases. (This seems like a total scam, doesn't it? Like one of those unfair British import taxes that the Boston Tea Party and ensuing Revolution should have addressed.) Anyway, the page TurboTax provides for listing your purchases has four measly rows — for four items.

Now, come ON. Four rows might be enough for a couple of hours of Christmas shopping around here. Remember, my nerdy compulsive-shopper academic husband spent a fat sum on a ridiculous considerable number of online book orders last year. Listing his and my out-of-state purchases would take days, assuming we kept all the receipts, which we certainly did not.

Fortunately, for people like us, Massachusetts has calculated a "safe harbor" amount of sales tax that's based on annual income, not spending. But on TurboTax, there's nowhere to enter that amount. Instead, there's a trick you have to know. We figured it out last year, by accident, after a lot of puzzlement and screeching. This question messed us up so badly last year that we actually remembered the trick this year — after only about 15 minutes of mild hysteria. Here it is: On that little form, you need to pretend to add one token purchase, say, "books" and then put down any old date. If you provide those two made-up bits of info, but leave the amount blank, TurboTax will calculate the "safe harbor" amount that will keep you honest, and put it in the third box for you. And you're done.

We were relieved to be finished so soon. We thought it might take days, given our ineptitude. I hope I'll remember to revisit this post at tax time next year so we can get through at least one confusing question with less suffering.

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