Taxes – What Happened to the Refund Check?

By Cindy Phillips updated Wed, Apr 18, 2012 08:17 AM

I can recall my parents, and their friends, using the expression “the only thing certain in life is paying taxes and dying.” I thought this was not only a curious view on life, but certainly a maudlin one as well. I vowed never to become so sardonic and crotchety. Well, I’m older and wiser now, so welcome to my Boomer World. Those words have become a reality.

Apparently the originator of the phrase was Benjamin Franklin and what he actually said was, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes.” Of course these profound words came from a man who went out and flew a kite during a lightning storm, an act my mother would have equated in stupidity with running while holding a stick.

I remember my first job. I was fourteen years old and I went to work at the local dry cleaners. It wasn’t hard work, but it got very warm in there, especially during the summer months. I took in people’s dirty clothes, gave them little claim checks for pickup, told them when it would be ready and asked if they wanted starch in their shirt collars. And then before I packed their clothes into their own personal laundry bag, I got to search all the pockets to be sure there was nothing that might clog up the cleaning machines if it became dislodged. A good day was finding money in the pockets. If it was simply spare change, we were allowed to transfer it to our own pocket. If it was a sizable sum, it went into an envelope with the customer’s name and was returned to them with their clean laundry. The deciding factor was paper tender versus coins.

Once I entered the workforce, my mom started filing an income tax return for me each year. I had no idea what it was or how it was processed. I just learned quickly that a few weeks after my mother dropped that return at the post office, a check came in the mail made out to me. Her mandate was always the same, “You can take a little, but the rest goes into the savings account.” I whined at this edict, but oh how I wish I had known back then what I know now. Especially the part about sometimes when you file that tax return, you don’t get a check in the mail a few weeks later. In fact, sometimes you have to send a check with the tax return.

This was one of those years for me. I signed up for the free version of Turbo Tax back in February. After answering all the questions and entering all the numbers, it turned out I owed both the state and the federal government some moolah. I knew that money was better off in my bank account until the last minute, so I hit the “save and sign out” button. What I failed to realize was that the price goes up after March 24th. So my “free” tax return filing somehow morphed into a payment of almost a hundred smackers. I guess that dollar or so of interest I earned the past two months wasn’t really worth it after all.

When I look back on my work history I realize two things – I am getting old and I have performed a very wide variety of jobs. The dry cleaning gig was the launching pad for a slew of career moves. During college, I waitressed at a local Italian restaurant and spent my summers working at Masters Department Store, first as a cashier and then in the front office. After graduation, I made the move to the big city for a secretarial stint. Thirty years later, I can add computer programmer, corporate travel supervisor, teacher, support analyst and project coordinator to the resume. I have worked for small, privately-owned businesses as well as large corporations including a couple of Fortune 100s. And through them all, I paid my taxes. There were big chunks taken out of pay, and big checks written when that didn’t cover it. There were years I still got that check in the mail, but not until the government determined it had received its fair share.

And now I am inching toward that big payoff – Social Security. All these years of paying in, and in less than ten years I can choose to start taking out. Of course the nay-sayers will tell you Social Security will be broke by then, but I am taking the glass-half-full approach. If not, someone is going to get hurt.

Ben Franklin was a smart man with a string of famous quotes to his credit. Some others included the death theme, my favorite being “Three may keep a secret if two of them are dead”. But based on the concept of taxes and death being the only two certainties in life, I am choosing to live by the words of another famous historian, General John Stark. He is the author of the famous words, “Live free or die,” which was adopted as the state motto of New Hampshire. I think it has something to do with the absence of a state income tax or sales tax. Whatever it means, I am on a quest to figure out how to live for free. At our age, it sure beats the alternative.

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