That thing about death and taxes

Wise Ben Franklin’s remarks don’t really cover the situation where doing the tax return might actually be the thing that kills you.

You don’t need to hear about the troubles with our tax system from me — everyone agrees it’s too complicated, has too many loopholes, requires too many people to administer, is subject to fraud, and on and on. (My two cents? Two words: Flat. Tax.) But all the reasons to rail on the tax system took on a new dimension yesterday when I found myself feeling physically ill about having to open up the tax organizer from my mother’s CPA so that I could work on my mother’s taxes, even though she passed away more than a year and a half ago.

OK, technically, it’s “the estate” taxes I have to work on — estate being a relative term when you consider my parents’ modest income and lifestyle and “holdings” over their life (my mother’s hoarding tendencies notwithstanding). That I still have to stress about the taxes resulting from the death of a 93-year-old woman of humble means — and that I’ll have to do it again next year because of a few measly shares of stock that remain to be sold because the process for selling a deceased person’s decades-old shares of stock is a cluster f**k — is something I can’t believe more people don’t specifically call out as a big problem with the tax system.

Oh, and can I also mention that “settling the estate” also required the services of an attorney (at quite a cost, even though ours kindly gave us a break) as well as a CPA? And that the process and hoop-jumping flummoxed (and continues to flummox) otherwise intelligent, educated professionals (i.e., my sister and me)? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wondered how poor or uneducated people manage all this, and how greatly they must be taken advantage of along the way.

I also wonder what the heck is going to happen when Mike and I pass on with no direct heirs. No doubt we’ll have to appoint someone as executor/executrix (or maybe we did? — we have wills but I honestly don’t remember anything about this). I’m already sorry to burden that person with this baloney, having gone through it myself. It’s appalling that the government profits from someone’s death, after having already profited during that person’s entire life. And it’s appalling that the survivors, above having to deal with the grief of a loved one’s passing, are also burdened with making sure the government gets its cut before the rightful heirs get anything.

But I digress. I swallowed my nausea yesterday and spent a couple hours cobbling together the information for my mom’s accountant as best I can. Once I get a few remaining bank statements, I’ll send the whole mess to her and let her tell me what’s missing. And then — oh boy! — I get to start on Mike’s and my taxes — complicated, as always, by the fact that I’m self-employed, and requiring the services of yet another CPA to figure them all out.

I’m feeling a little sick again. And I notice I’m clenching my jaw. Time to go think happy thoughts…maybe over a glass of happy wine (subject to federal excise tax ranging from $1.07 to $3.40 per gallon, additional complicated state excise tax, and PA state tax averaging 6.4%).

Our new Constitution is now established, everything seems
to promise it will be durable; but, in this world,
nothing is certain 
except death and taxes.
~ Benjamin Franklin
letter to Jean-Baptiste Leroy, 13 November 1789

translated from French

If I had a dollar…

…apparently I’d spend most of it.

Our helpful credit card company compiled an annual rundown of our spending in 2013 — all neatly categorized. It was eye-opening and more than a little scary. We use this card as much as possible to get the points, which we cash in to add to our vacation fund. The total was scary, the individual category amounts were scary, the idea that we spend so much money was scary, and understanding that this spending does not include mortgage, property taxes, insurance, or utilities was — is — terrifying.

Of course it all makes sense — it stands to reason if we earn X and save Y there’s a Z in there (for zpending) that’s big scary number. But I never really considered us to be zpendy people. We’re careful to not build up debt. I’m not one to buy pricey shoes or clothes or makeup or manicures (Mike isn’t either). We have gadgets (PCs, laptops, tablet, Kindle), but only got smartphones in the last year and older-generation, used ones to boot, and our carrier is a no-name, cheap one. We’ve taken 4 (maybe 5) non-lavish vacations in 8 years (and that wasn’t nearly enough). I can be a little crunchy/thrifty — I make my own laundry detergent and shower cleaner, wash and reuse plastic bags, avoid toll roads….little things.

And yet…numbers don’t lie. Some spending we can’t do anything about — gas is what it is (and it’s a lot, due to Mike’s long commute every day). Fixer-upperhood is expensive — home improvements/maintenance are never-ending, and copious amounts (Lowe’s & HD cards, paying the occasional contractor) aren’t even on the card.

But on the “maybe we can economize” side, we do give Walmart a lot of money — mostly for food, because Giant Eagle is too dang expensive. Plus we eat out on top of that (and it doesn’t include fast food or coffees that we pay cash for). Should it really cost $6K a year for two people to eat? And yeah, we have a lot of vehicles — not my preference — so there’s car maintenance (not to mention insurance; not on the card). There’s Target and Big Lots (and Sam’s doesn’t take the card, so that’s extra, too.). And geez, I just realized for some reason the PetSmart spending isn’t even on here — that’s odd, considering we almost always buy cat food and litter there. It would have been interesting to see what that amounted to.

So, what’s the lesson here?

Do I need to make a budget? We don’t have a budget for anything, especially not food. We talk about eating out less, and I push for it, but since I’m the one who does all the shopping and cooking, I’m also the one who’s happy to eat out to give myself a break. Frankly, I’m not sure how I’d even stick to a food budget — I’ve never done that (and obviously it shows). We could live off our pantry for quite a while — do I stockpile too much for just the two of us?

And then, on the other hand, I vacillate on the whole saving vs. spending thing. We’re beyond middle age these days, we don’t have kids, we both work, and will likely be working for many years yet. Sure, it’s important to save for old age, and no, we don’t have a huge retirement fund, but what if we don’t make it that far? Should we be so very careful now, foregoing those weekend Egg McMuffins, the pricier organic Greek yogurt, and those flats of summer annuals to save for a future that might never come?

Could we save more? Surely. Should we save more? Absolutely. Will we save more? Probably not, unless one of us loses our job or some other catastrophe befalls us. And you know what? If we do or it does, will I regret the money spent and not saved? Maybe. But it might just as well be that I look back on those less-than-frugal days, those “let’s get 2 of the bottles of on-sale wine” or “let’s stop for Chinese takeout” with fondness.

And who knows, now that I have a baseline “target,” maybe I’ll be inspired to try to make the next year-end summary a bit less scary. But then, that would mean fewer points and less cash back. Which means less for the vacation fund (and more pulled from savings). How’s that adage go again? A dollar spent is 1% (sometimes 5%!) cash-back earned?

We are not to judge thrift solely by the test of saving or spending.
If one spends what he should prudently save, that certainly is to be deplored. 
But if one saves what he should prudently spend, that is not necessarily
to be commended. 

A wise balance between the two is the desired end. 
~Owen Young

eMail as (lazy) memoir

I mentioned on Facebook the other day that I had nearly 4,000 emails in my Sent folder that I needed to clean out — a chore I detest and obviously hadn’t done in a long time. I spent all day today, many hours of my last day off, going through and deleting around 3,200 of them, so far. Three thousand two hundred interactions with clients, colleagues, friends, family wiped away one by one.

It made me wonder how these interactions would have happened in the olden days — like 25 years ago. We didn’t use email then (did it even exist?). When colleagues and I needed to exchange information, we talked to each other, or called, or left notes on each other’s desks. We didn’t have voicemail; if you called someone who wasn’t at their desk, you called back later or left a message with an actual person. We all had little, check-the-box “While you were out” pads that made it easy to communicate — let someone else know that someone had come by to see them or that they had had a phone call from X about Y. We relied a lot on our memories of what was said in conversation or notes that we, you know, wrote by hand — no CYA email trail in those days.

And friends, family? We didn’t have instant access to share a funny picture or interesting article — except by fax, and no one did that. We talked by phone (but not when we were anywhere but at home or work, where the phone was) or sent cards and letters. Sharing a picture was a big deal — you had to send your only print from the roll you had to get developed or have copies made. A lot of people sent their film away by mail for processing because it was cheaper. You’d wait anxiously to see how the pictures turned out. A lot of them didn’t turn out so well — you might look silly, eyes closed or mouth open or hair askew, and you’d have to rip it up or hope no one would show anyone. If a card or letter someone sent you made you LOL, you might call them to say that, but more likely you’d have to write them back — and an LOL several days later just isn’t the same.

It’s a wonder we could function at all. What with having to walk uphill both ways to work in blizzards and all, too.

It’s also weird to think that what in days of yore would have been simple, easily forgotten conversations or phone calls or notes are today all countable and “rememberable.” Four thousand interactions over the course of several years recallable in an instant.

Imagine if you never deleted any. Ever. If all the email exchanges you ever had were there for the perusing. Of course, not the boring work ones you’d never want to see again. But the others — the chats with friends, the shared jokes and memes, the advice given and received. A little like a living journal. In my case, I had a lot of emails pertaining to my mom’s care, illness, and death. About our work to clean out the house, settle the estate, sell the house. I have some giving or getting advice from friends. I even have a few about 9/11 — written on or in the days following the massacre. Some of them, though painful to remember, I still couldn’t delete. Not yet; maybe not ever.

I don’t plan to let my emails pile up that high ever again. Not that many years ago, I was vigilant about keeping my Inbox and Sent mail to 400 emails each. That’s probably not feasible anymore given all the projects I need to track over time. But I won’t let it reach 10x that number again. It may be an easy way to document slices of life — an unconscious journal — but I don’t think it’s worth a day of my current life to relive them.

What you need to know about the past is that
no matter what has happened, it has all worked together
to bring you to this very moment. And this is the moment you can
choose to make everything new. Right now.

~ Author Unknown

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