When I was a senior in high school, I took an economics course, which focused mostly on big-picture principles: supply and demand, opportunity costs, the law of diminishing returns. Most of those concepts seemed hopelessly abstract to a group of 17- and 18-year-olds. We were more worried about homework, college applications, the always-shifting social politics of high school, and where to go for lunch that day. The economics we understood were the practice of stretching our lunch money as far as it would go and juggling our packed schedules to fit in as many activities as possible.
But one day toward the end of the school year, we sat down for a totally different lesson.
“This is a Form 1040,” Mr. Franks told us, handing us each an official-looking paper booklet covered in fine print. “Probably none of you have had to fill these out yet, but you all will someday. You need to know how to do it, and you need to know that you can do it.”
There’s nothing wrong with hiring a good accountant, he explained. But for our first few years as income earners – in college and beyond – we could get by with a Form 1040 or 1040EZ. Armed with a calculator and a bit of know-how, we should be able to fill the form out ourselves. And we should understand how the system worked before handing over our financial information to anyone else.
People don’t do their own taxes because they’re intimidated, Mr. Franks explained. They’re terrified of making a mistake and getting audited by the IRS. Everyone wants to make sure they receive the biggest refund possible. And many people have multiple jobs and other situations that make their taxes complicated. The tax code in this country is absurdly long and confusing. But the basics are just that: basic.
The first section was easy: name, address, filing status. Then Mr. Franks explained about exemptions and withholding, and talked us through taxable income and a few common deductions. The room grew quiet as our pencils scratched on the forms. I had always thought of taxes as a vague, far-off thing to be dealt with one day when I was an adult, but Mr. Franks’ lesson made them accessible, clear, even simple.
At the end of class, I stuffed the Form 1040 in my notebook and forgot about it. I didn’t fill out a tax form until several years later, when I received a W-2 from my first “real” post-college, full-time job. I am a bookworm who feels more comfortable with novels and poetry than financial statements, but that W-2 triggered a long-ago memory and a flicker of confidence. I picked up a Form 1040EZ, got out a pencil and a calculator, and set to work. I double-checked my calculations, made a copy of the form for my records, and sent the original off to the IRS. Several weeks later, I received my first tax refund check in the mail.
These days, my husband and I have multiple jobs, freelance income, student loan interest and other circumstances that justify our annual investment in TurboTax. We’ve recently started paying estimated quarterly taxes, as my husband’s work situation has changed. But we always sit down together to work through the forms and make sure we know exactly how our finances break down. When I click the e-file button to send our return to the IRS, I feel a surge of satisfaction.
The forms are longer and the calculations more complicated now, but that long-ago session in Mr. Franks’ room continues to empower me, all these years later. I am grateful for the guidance of TurboTax and the “help” pages on the IRS website. But I still believe in doing my own taxes – because Mr. Franks told me I could.