Confession: I am not a tax attorney. Nor am I an accountant. Nor am I even a particularly sophisticated taxpayer. Every time I’ve filled out a W-4, I’ve scratched my head and hemmed and hawed over it. And while I was able to Turbo-Tax/slog my way through preparing my return for a number of years, as soon as I became a landlord and had rental income and expenses to itemize, I waved the white flag and secured the services of a tax accountant. (She’s awesome – more on her in just a moment.)
Most years, I’d wind up with a refund and enjoy the thrill of that extra cash infusion in the midst of the post-Christmas/late winter doldrums. (I’ve always done my taxes around Super Bowl time. Don’t know why, really, except that when I was a single mom with a young daughter, I wasn’t attending many Super Bowl parties and that Sunday afternoon/evening seemed as good a time as any to tackle the unpleasant task of sorting through it all while I distracted myself somewhat with the game.) On some level, I did understand that, much as receiving a check for a thousand dollars (or two, or three) was nice, that probably meant I wasn’t quite doing something right. But I was too lazy to really dig into the why of that.
This year, I’ve seen and heard no shortage of gripes from friends and acquaintances about receiving a smaller refund or — gasp! — owing money to the IRS. I had already figured I would owe this year. I sold my house last summer (at a small but nevertheless appreciated profit) so assumed that would likely put me into the owing category and, contrary to my tendency to not plan well, had socked some dough away just in case. But seeing/hearing the multiple cries of unfairness and damning of Trump, Republicans, and anyone who happened to support the Tax Cut and Jobs Act (which would include me), it got me to wondering. Was I actually paying more in taxes this year despite the touted “tax cuts”? Was I, a decidedly middle-class person, along with my peers, getting the short end of the stick here as many were contending?
I was pretty sure not. I vaguely recalled discussions at the time the Act was passed about withholdings changing and people retaining more of their earnings on the front end. I liked that. I liked it a lot. Frankly, I think I’d rather keep more of my paycheck and have the money at my disposal throughout the year than having the government hold onto it for me all year (*pat-pat*) and then give it back. Which is a concept that, I think, people often lose sight of. Your refund, if you get one is a refund. It’s not a gift from benevolent Uncle Sam. It’s your money — money you earned and were entitled to have and to hold and make use of all along. But, instead, you handed it over to the government to hang onto — interest-free — and then pay you back what it owes you.
Out of curiosity, I ran a little experiment on that notion last week on Facebook. I posted a poll asking friends if they’d rather give the government an interest-free loan all year or vice-versa? 86% of the respondents voted for the latter. Good. I’m with them on that. Not sure if my overall point sunk in, though.
When I entered my accountant’s office last month, she greeted me warmly and one of the first things she asked is if I’d heard a lot of grumbling about refunds. I told her that, indeed, I had but she oughtn’t worry – I wasn’t expecting one this year; knew I would owe. She smiled at that. I think it must have been a relief. She shared a story of a (nameless) couple who’d been in recently and been sorely disappointed at the size of their refund. Mrs. Couple had been counting on it to fund their family vacation and was adamant something must have been calculated wrong. The accountant assured her it wasn’t and explained that she’d been receiving a bigger net paycheck all along last year but Mrs. Couple would have none of it. (Mr. Couple eventually understood.) I’m certain she’s out there somewhere now cursing Donald Trump and the Republican Congress for ruining her vacation plans to line the pockets of the rich.
I don’t know how sophisticated Mrs. Couple was. But, as noted earlier, my own law degree notwithstanding, I’d probably have had a similar reaction several years ago. I just didn’t understand how taxes and withholdings work. I still don’t completely. But I do know this: my tax liability in a given year is a fixed amount contingent on my income, my exemptions/deductions, and the current tax rate. It’s going to be the same amount when it’s tallied whether I over-withhold and get a refund or under-withhold and write the IRS a check. As my accountant very succinctly put it: “Your tax is your tax.”
And it was. I was right – I owed. Thankfully, I owed less than I’d assumed I might so writing that check out in April isn’t going to pain me all that much. Just to be certain I wasn’t missing something, though, I went back and compared 2017 to 2018. My overall tax liability in 2018 was about 6% less than it was in 2017. This, despite the fact that my income/earnings increased over 20%. Not only that, but, as a percentage of Adjusted Gross Income, it was also lower. For 2017, my tax was 14% of my AGI; for 2018, it was 11%. (Yes, I’ve checked my math. Twice.) So, yes, my tax is my tax and my tax in 2018 was less than it was in 2017, even though I “owe.”
To that, I say, “Thanks for the interest-free loan, Uncle Sam.”
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